Federal hydrogen hub program could give fuel a boost — or the boot

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Quick: What was the biggest failure of the clean tech bubble that burst over a decade ago? Was it Solyndra, the innovative solar panel company that went belly-up in the face of cheap competitors? A123 Systems, the pioneering lithium-ion startup that was eventually sold for pennies on the dollar to a Chinese auto parts manufacturer?

Arguably, neither.

No, the real failure was biofuels, which today still burn in the engines of cars and trucks across the U.S. Corn ethanol, in particular, was touted as a way to create jobs and support American farmers while reducing the carbon emissions of the transportation sector. It accomplished the first two action items, but rigorous research has shown that corn ethanol produces as much or more climate-warming emissions than just burning gasoline.

Hydrogen risks repeating the same mistakes, and the Biden administration’s plan for regional hubs isn’t helping.

That’s not to say that the universe’s lightest element doesn’t have a potentially bright future. Difficult-to-decarbonize industries like ammonia and steel are obvious targets, and producing enough hydrogen to satiate those sectors could bring the price down to the point where it makes sense to use it elsewhere.

But until that happens, there’s little chance of hydrogen becoming as common as gasoline. Electric vehicles’ head start is almost certainly too much to overcome.

Solution in search of a problem?

Transportation is a key part to the $7 billion hydrogen hub program, but it’s not the sole focus. In that way, the federal government seems to have learned from the biofuels era. It’s still present, with all but the Heartland hub investigating the matter, but the emphasis is on trucking, shipping and aviation, not commuting. Various hubs are going to investigate hydrogen’s application to steel and glass production, oil refining, cold-climate space heating, and fertilizer production.

That’s a lot of shots, and one or more of them may hit the back of the net. But it also might be too many, making hydrogen look like a solution in search of a problem.

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