What is green hydrogen, and how can it help tackle the climate crisis?

A hydrogen tank in front of solar panels and wind turbines.

It creates paper and batteries. It churns rocks and sand into cement, the building block of modern society. And it melts plastic into the semiconductors that run our phones and computers. What is this powerful force?

Industrial heat is the power that transforms raw materials into items we use every day. As you can imagine, creating that heat takes a massive amount of energy.

You probably know that power plants and gasoline-powered cars contribute a lot of the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis. Following electricity generation and transportation, the next-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US is the industrial sector. Currently powered by fossil fuels, it’s responsible for spewing millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere each year, which in turn accelerates the climate crisis.

Here’s the good news: green hydrogen can produce high-temperature heat to power enormous industrial processes—all while emitting zero greenhouse gases. Unlike other types of hydrogen, which are made with coal and conventional natural gas, green hydrogen is produced using renewable electricity.

But how exactly does that work? Here’s the gist: wind or solar power drives water electrolysis, which is the process of breaking down water—made up of hydrogen and oxygen—into those two separate elements. All that is produced during this reaction is water vapor and heat, which means the process creates zero emissions. And the temperature of that heat can be up to a scorching 3812 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to power the most intense industrial processes!

We can unlock the potential of green hydrogen

Green hydrogen is not yet widely available, and significant advancements are still required for it to be deployed on a large scale.

Technological innovation: To deploy green hydrogen at a large scale, innovation to lower costs and increase efficiencies across combustion, storage, and transportation will be critical.

Market development: It is important for large corporate energy users, especially in heavier industrial sectors, to signal stronger demand for green hydrogen. Developing new business models will be necessary to drive investment in this fledgling market. In the long run, standardized contracting practices will also make it easier for more energy users to buy green hydrogen.

Better environmental, health, and safety standards: Hydrogen is the smallest molecule. It can easily pass through materials, creating leakage issues. And while hydrogen production does not generate greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen combustion, like any combustion reaction that heats air to high temperatures, creates harmful pollutants called nitrogen oxides. These are linked to smog, acid rain, and damaging health impacts such as asthma and respiratory infections. To address these issues, more stringent environmental, health, and safety standards need to be implemented throughout green hydrogen production, storage, transportation, and use.

Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change and air pollution. To ensure that the hydrogen market is growing in a just and equitable way, local communities and affected workforces should be meaningfully engaged and included in the design and development of hydrogen projects.

Policy support: There’s a big reason to expect rapid advances in the coming years. Last year’s landmark federal climate legislation, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, will make green hydrogen a lot less expensive over the course of the decade. Its cost is similar to that of conventional natural gas and fossil fuel-based hydrogen and is expected to continue to fall. Numerous legislative proposals to advance the use of hydrogen were introduced during the last Congress. We anticipate seeing similar proposals introduced during the 118th Congress.

As the world struggles to address the worsening climate crisis, we need to think big. Green hydrogen has the potential to decarbonize heavy industry, a sector whose emissions have proved to be some of the most difficult to tackle. Equitable development and deployment of hydrogen energy could make a real impact toward combating the climate crisis while supporting a just energy transition for communities.