Until now, the United States has been trailing other countries when it comes to plans for a post-COVID clean energy push. As countries around the world have rushed to put together green stimulus packages for a post-pandemic economic recovery, the U.S. has been slow to adopt a similar policy. The private sector, too, has taken a drastically different approach in the U.S. when compared to energy companies in Europe.
In a New York Times report last month headlined “U.S. and European Oil Giants Go Different Ways on Climate Change,” reporter Clifford Krauss wrote that “while BP and other European companies invest billions in renewable energy, Exxon and Chevron are committed to fossil fuels and betting on moonshots.” In fact, the United States has been so comparatively slow to work clean energy into their stimulus packages that even a surprising number of blue-chip companies including the likes of McDonalds and Pepsico have directly petitioned congress for more green energy spending.
However, this month, in a surprising twist, the U.S. Department of Energy unveiled a brand new five-year $100 million plan to start phasing diesel out of the market for long-haul transportation, with a strategy based on the implementation of hydrogen fuel cells. The long-haul sector is a rapidly growing one (all those Amazon orders have to come from somewhere – and until those notorious drones are ready it’s truckers across the nation who are stepping up to fill orders) and the sector’s fuel demand and carbon footprint are growing rapidly along with it.
While this is excellent news for climate advocates and, indeed, the planet, it’s decidedly bad news for the already struggling oil industry. The U.S. Department of Energy has put together two different consortiums working to “significantly cut the cost and improve the performance of electrolyzers and heavy-duty fuel cells” in order to “accelerate large-scale deployments across the country,” according to a quote by the DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Daniel R Simmons included in the project’s press release.
A CleanTechnica article that takes an extremely critical approach to this announcement by the DOE points out that the announcement came just a day after a group called The National Zero-Emission Truck Coalition sent an open letter to Congress advocating for “a new $2 billion+, five-year incentive for ZET acquisition that accelerates the production and deployment of tens of thousands of zero-emission vehicles in U.S.truck fleets within five years.”
If hydrogen fuel cells are to be the future of the long-haul trucking industry, however, we would do well to remember that not all hydrogen is created equal, and it’s certainly not all green. In fact, despite the fact that hydrogen itself is heralded as a clean fuel source as it leaves behind nothing but water vapor when it’s combusted, hydrogen is only as green as whatever was used to produce it. Truly green hydrogen is made using renewable and clean energies. Hydrogen made from natural gas, which is a bit more climate-friendly than other fossil fuels, is known as blue hydrogen. The vast majority of hydrogen used in industrial applications today is gray hydrogen, which is made using fossil fuels like oil and coal, and is therefore no better for the environment, but enjoys a certain degree of greenwashing nonetheless.
One of the two new DOE consortiums, called “H2NEW,” is responsible for “making large-scale electrolyzers, which produce hydrogen from electricity and water, more durable, efficient, and affordable.” The electricity for this electrolysis is source neutral, meaning we don’t know whether the hydrogen in question will be green or not. As CleanTechnica points out, however, “the idea of using fossil fuels or nuclear energy to power the process is fading away as the cost of renewable energy continues to drop. The green supply chain trend will also make renewable electricity a more attractive selling point for purveyors of green hydrogen.”
Despite this assertion, it will likely require diligence on the part of organizations like The National Zero-Emission Truck Coalition and concerned citizens to make sure that an initiative so easily greenwashed actually does work to bring down the industry’s carbon footprint and does not become co-opted as another market for U.S. natural gas, which would serve the shale sector well, now more than ever.