The U.S. Department of Energy announced a new “Energy Earthshots” initiative on Monday, evoking the spirit of ambition that put astronauts on the moon in the 1960s. This time, the goal is to accelerate the development of clean energy solutions that will help tackle climate change.
The initiative will focus on bringing down the cost of technologies that will enable the U.S. to achieve a net-zero emissions energy system by 2050, a crucial benchmark for preventing runaway global warming. First up is the “Hydrogen Shot” — a goal to get the cost of clean hydrogen from $5 per kilogram down to $1 by 2030, or an 80 percent drop.
“Clean hydrogen is a game changer,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement. “It will help decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors, while delivering good-paying clean energy jobs and realizing a net-zero economy by 2050.”
Hydrogen is a flexible fuel that can be used in a range of applications and doesn’t release any greenhouse gases when it’s burned. Today the United States produces about a seventh of the world’s hydrogen, which is primarily used in oil refineries and to produce ammonia for fertilizer. But hydrogen could be key to cutting emissions from some of the hardest-to-decarbonize activities, such as industrial processes, steelmaking, storing clean energy for the power grid, and powering heavy-duty vehicles.
The problem is that today, about 95 percent of all hydrogen is made by reacting steam with natural gas in a process that releases carbon dioxide emissions. The Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Shot initiative aims to scale up methods of producing the fuel cleanly, using renewable electricity, nuclear power, or natural gas or biomass with carbon capture technology to prevent emissions from entering the atmosphere.
Clean hydrogen production does exist today at a small scale, and is mainly inhibited by cost. But larger projects are underway. A utility in Florida is building a pilot plant to produce hydrogen from excess solar power, and New York-based company Plug Power has announced plans for three new hydrogen production facilities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas that will produce the fuel using hydropower and wind energy.
In its recent roadmap for getting to net-zero by 2050, the International Energy Agency, or IEA, wrote that hydrogen electrolysers — the equipment used to turn renewable electricity into hydrogen — were one of three technologies that do not yet exist at scale that will be “vital” to reducing emissions between 2030 and 2050. The other two are advanced batteries and machines that can suck carbon directly from the air.
To kick off the Hydrogen Shot, the Department of Energy put out a request for information on Monday for “viable hydrogen demonstrations” that will help lower the cost of the fuel, reduce carbon emissions and local pollution, create good-paying jobs, and benefit disadvantaged communities.
The agency has not yet revealed what its other Earthshots will be, but Granholm offered some hints during remarks she made at President Joe Biden’s climate summit for world leaders in April.
“We will marshal our National Labs, our universities, and our private sector to unlock major breakthroughs,” she said. In addition to teasing the goal of lowering the cost of clean hydrogen by 80 percent, she mentioned cutting the price of solar energy in half by 2030, slashing battery cell prices in half and reducing the use of critical minerals in battery manufacturing, and reducing the cost of carbon capture technology.
“This is our generation’s Moonshot!” she said.