American and French Investment in Hydrogen Energy is a Step Forward to Achieving 2050 Net-Zero Emission Goals

By: John Dennis

On October 13, 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a seven-billion-dollar investment in the United States’ first clean hydrogen hubs, claiming that these projects will provide new career opportunities and abide by President Biden’s climate change goals. This investment comes after the Department of Energy committed to establishing a twenty-million-dollar fund to help companies and researchers discover low-cost, sustainable methods for extracting underground hydrogen. In France, which has been a leading European country in hydrogen energy development, French energy and petroleum company TotalEnergies recently supported its emissions reduction plan by calling for annual production of 500,000 tonnes for “green” hydrogen to decarbonize its European refineries. This action came a few weeks before city of Belfort, France, hosted the Forum Hydrogen Business for Climate on October 3-4, 2023, an international forum where businesses and hydrogen energy experts within the industry, academia, and government collaborate, debate, and explore ways to develop hydrogen energy in Europe. The United States and France’s financial and political investments in developing hydrogen energy is a signal of their commitment to create net-zero emissions economies by 2050 through diverse energy sources.

In addition to being the most common chemical element in the universe, hydrogen is also a clean fuel, emitting only water after being used to create energy. Most hydrogen produced in the United States is done through steam reforming, which involves combining high temperature steam with natural gas. However, hydrogen fuel can also be generated through a process called electrolysis, which involves using an electrical current to separate hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water. Green hydrogen, also known as clean hydrogen, is hydrogen produced using electricity generated from the electrolysis process, normally powered by renewable energy sources like solar and wind power, or nuclear energy. However, the electrolysis process is energy intensive and thus, less efficient compared to nonrenewable energy sources. Geologic hydrogen represents another source of hydrogen fuel separate from the electrolysis process, where natural processes related to continuous chemical reactions of heat and water mixing with oxidized iron. These natural processes can be found near fault lines in Earth’s crust. Because hydrogen can be produced from various resources, it is an attractive option for transportation and electricity generation applications.

Although hydrogen fuel may currently be less efficient than other energy sources and its application as a transportation fuel for vehicles is still in its infancy, the push for hydrogen fuel research and development is a step forward to achieving both nation’s net zero emissions goals.

The United States has not enacted law calling for the country to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Instead, the United States has promoted climate change policy through executive action. On December 8, 2021 President Biden signed Executive Order 14057, “Executive Order on Federal Sustainability.” Among its various goals, the Executive Order focuses on achieving net-zero emissions from overall federal operations by 2050, including a sixty-five percent decrease in emissions by 2030.

The Biden-Harris Administration’s seven-billion-dollar project will help achieve this goal through its Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs (H2Hubs). There are seven planned H2Hubs, focused on accelerating the deployment of low-cost, clean hydrogen. These H2Hubs will be located in (1) the Appalachian Region (West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania); (2) California; (3) the Gulf Coast (Houston, Texas, and the surrounding Gulf Coast area); (4) the Heartland (Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota); (5) the Mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey); (6) the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan); and (7) the Pacific Northwest (Washington, Oregon, Montana). Collectively, these H2Hubs are expected to produce three million metric tons of hydrogen annually and reduce twenty-five million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Just as important is the idea that this investment will promote private sector investment in clean hydrogen. For example, Koloma, a startup geologic hydrogen company funded by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, has begun drilling test wells in Kansas and Nebraska using mastered drilling techniques from the oil and gas industry. Thus, although the Executive Branch’s actions and President Biden’s Executive Order only directly affect emission reductions at the federal level, these actions are projected to stimulate effective emission reduction actions throughout the American economy.

In comparison, France has enacted law to meet their 2050 net-zero emissions goal. On November 8, 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron signed Law No. 2019-1147 of 8 November 2019 Regarding Energy and Climate. “The law amend[ed] the French Energy Code to include the goal of attaining carbon neutrality by 2050, through a more than sixfold reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.” In conjunction with this objective, this law aims to reduce 60% of 2012 fossil fuel consumption levels by 2030.

In abiding with these goals, France has a robust hydrogen energy policy that is focused on industrial decarbonization and transportation applications for hydrogen. This policy was enacted in September 2020, and has prompted partly state-owned companies and private companies to invest in hydrogen fuel research and implementation (Ex. Air Liquide, a French multinational company, is the world’s second largest producer of hydrogen). President Macron has also highlighted the country’s dedication to hydrogen fuel as a method for continued energy independence. Given this policy approach, it is not surprising that France hosted the Forum Hydrogen Business for Climate on October 3-4, 2023. This event symbolizes France’s dedication to advancing clean energy and meeting its 2050 net-zero emissions goal.

Hydrogen has a promising future as a clean energy. Both the United States and France realize its potential, which is signified by recent actions from both governments and associated private entities. Although there are areas for improvement regarding energy efficiency, viable transportation application, and potential environmental impacts related to drilling operations, the United States and France’s investment in this technology is a sign of progress in combating climate change.

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