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Advocates call a proposed hydrogen facility in Hillsborough County a misleading climate solution

Hydrogen facility
Food and Water Watch
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Courtesy
Hydrogen is made by using steam and pressure to split the element from natural gas, and carbon dioxide, or CO2, is emitted as a byproduct of that process.

Advocates are sounding the alarm on a hydrogen energy plant that is being proposed in Hillsbroough County, saying it's not really a form of clean energy and that claims of "carbon capture" are misleading.

Hillsborough County commissioners are considering whether to fund a hydrogen energy plant. Some see it as a climate change solution, but clean energy advocates disagree.

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan brought up the project, which claims to capture carbon, during a recent meeting.

Although he said “if this was merely an environmental issue,” he “may not have brought this forward,” he pointed to the federal government's climate goals of 100% clean electricity by 2035 and net zero greenhouse gases by 2050.

"It's been stated that hydrogen can serve as a key enabler of these goals," Hagan said. “But there are potentially significant economic and financial benefits that compelled me to look into and to be open-minded.”

Brooke Ward, the Florida senior organizer of Food and Water Watch, said hydrogen plants have to capture carbon because they burn fossil fuels.

“Anytime we're capturing carbon, which is an unproven, unsuccessful technology, it typically results in burning 40% more fossil fuels in the process,” Ward said.

“So, we've been talking a lot over the last year about addressing affordable energy. And at the end of the day, burning more fossil fuels is not going to result in more affordable energy.”

“If hydrogen is blended into the current natural gas infrastructure, especially if it's delivered to people's homes, that poses very serious risks, and people should be worried about that.”
Oakley Shelton-Thomas, a senior researcher at Food and Water Watch.

Ward also pointed out that hydrogen energy is created through "a very water intensive process," requiring as much as 25 gallons of freshwater to produce one kilogram of hydrogen. Hillsborough has been on a drought alert since late last year.

Ward, who’s part of the Hillsborough Rate Hikes Coalition, was surprised, as she was expecting commissioners to discuss whether to move forward on an affordable energy public workshop.

“That vote has been delayed indefinitely. And so, the coalition was very disappointed that the commission has delayed a vote on the public workshop, and that instead chose to talk about unsustainable and dangerous projects as part of a greenwashed clean energy conversation,” Ward said.

Hydrogen is made by using steam and pressure to split the element from natural gas, and carbon dioxide, or CO2, is emitted as a byproduct of that process.

"The natural gas that's burned to capture that CO2 is responsible for more than one quarter of the greenhouse gas impact of the captured CO2. So, just running the equipment involves the production and burning of additional fossil fuels," said Oakley Shelton-Thomas, a senior researcher at Food and Water Watch.

Plus, he said transporting hydrogen is risky.

“If hydrogen is blended into the current natural gas infrastructure, especially if it's delivered to people's homes, that poses very serious risks, and people should be worried about that,” he said.

Hydrogen is a much smaller molecule than natural gas, so existing natural gas infrastructure, which he said is already known to be very leaky, is not set up to handle it.

Hydrogen is 3-5 times more prone to leak as natural gas, he said, and more flammable.

A South Korea-based company called LowCarbon suggested Hillsborough as “a site for a pilot project to demonstrate its carbon capture technology,” Hagan said.

LowCarbon funded the hydrogen hub in Polk County that broke ground last summer. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a memorandum of understanding with the company during a visit to Seoul in April.

The Hillsborough project would initially cost $2.5 million, but Hagan said the county would only pay out if the company demonstrates it can remove a minimum of one ton of carbon dioxide per day.

Hagan's motion to get more information on the project passed 5-2, with Commissioners Pat Kemp and Harry Cohen dissenting.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.