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Colorado pushes ahead in green hydrogen — a new technology to curb global warming

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The federal government is betting on a new technology to curb global warming. It's called green hydrogen. So what is that? Colorado Public Radio's Sam Brasch went to find out.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: If you want to understand hydrogen, head to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. It's raining on the day I visit. For Keith Wipke, who leads the lab's hydrogen research, that rain looks a lot like a future energy source.

KEITH WIPKE: So lots of fuel from the sky coming down in the form of water.

BRASCH: (Laughter).

WIPKE: We just need some wind and solar to split it into hydrogen.

BRASCH: This is the alchemy Wipke wants to perfect, using clean energy to draw hydrogen out of plain old water. Inside the lab, we see a device called an electrolyzer. Water is piped in. Wires add power. Then it splits the H2O into oxygen and hydrogen, which bubbles out the other end.

WIPKE: The unique thing about hydrogen is it's a molecule. And so you can move it around physically. You can store it. It just stays there. And you can use it later.

BRASCH: That's why hydrogen could someday replace fossil fuels, like jet fuel in aircraft or diesel in long haul trucks. And using it doesn't release any climate-warming pollution. But here's the tricky part. To make this kind of hydrogen, you need electricity. And to make truly green hydrogen, you need clean electricity, like wind and solar. And now the federal government is set to spend billions on credits for hydrogen production. That's thanks to President Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, a massive climate bill passed last year. Environmental advocates are worried. Rachel Fakhry is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. She says there's a real risk the credits lead power plants to burn more fossil fuels.

RACHEL FAKHRY: So unless we have very strong guardrails around how this electricity is being sourced, we may end up with very high emissions.

BRASCH: That's why Fakhry says companies should be required to build new wind and solar to power their operations, or at least only run their systems when lots of clean energy is on the grid. But early hydrogen investors say that could kneecap their industry.

FRANK WOLAK: They've kind of lost the big picture of decarbonization by focusing on these narrow items.

BRASCH: Frank Wolak leads the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association. It represents hydrogen backers like carmakers and tech companies. And Wolak says the real issue isn't all the electricity his industry needs, it's all the coal and gas currently powering the grid.

WOLAK: The larger picture is we need more renewable resources, more clean energy in the U.S. as fast as possible if we're going to achieve our decarbonization goals.

BRASCH: And in this super technical debate, Colorado might have an answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The exciting HB23-1281 up next.

BRASCH: Earlier this year, state lawmakers proposed state-level hydrogen subsidies, funding to complement the coming flood of federal tax credits. State representative Brianna Titone, a Democratic sponsor, said the plan strikes a balance between protecting the climate and the flexibility needed to build an industry almost from scratch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIANNA TITONE: We are on the right track. It's going to bring a lot of money to Colorado, a lot of jobs. And we're going to help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

BRASCH: Here's the final deal. To get public money, hydrogen producers must eventually rely on renewable power sources. But the most rigid rules won't kick in until 2028. Will Toor leads the Colorado Energy Office and oversees state climate efforts. He says that should give companies some room to grow.

WILL TOOR: It will take a while for economies of scale and innovation and learning by doing to help drive down costs and allow you to deploy at a really large scale.

BRASCH: And Toor says that could be essential to confront human-caused climate change. And it's why he thinks Colorado and the rest of the country needs to get hydrogen policy right from the start.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "AWAKENINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.