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Issues of the Environment: The potential for hydrogen in moving away from fossil fuels

Gregory Keoleian
University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability
Gregory Keoleian


  • Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless, flammable gas that already powers some cars, trucks, buses, and trains. Hydrogen fuel produces no vehicle emissions other than water vapor. And fuel economy is almost double that of gasoline. Hydrogen can be a renewable source of energy and is one of the most abundant elements, with a nearly unlimited supply available. 
  • As Washtenaw County and the cities within, including Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, aim to achieve aggressive timelines toward net zero emissions, hydrogen as a sustainable replacement fuel for the transportation sector, private vehicles, and even home heating is being considered. This month, the AAATAsought public input on the best choice for converting the bus fleet from diesel, and hydrogen fuel-cell buses are being weighed against battery-electric technology. 
  • Researchers at the University of Michigan studied hydrogen’s potential role in the clean-energy transition away from fossil fuels, exploring ways the planet’s lightest element could power heavy-duty trucking and shipping. The best hydrogen-fuel potential in Michigan’s future is in the transportation sector, specifically medium- and heavy-duty trucks on interstate highways, the study found.
  • Hydrogen could be critical fuel for trucks, ferries and freighters in Michigan. Hydrogen produced from clean energy might become the best future fuel for various types of trucks, long-range ferries, and even freighters on the Great Lakes. But a shortage of fueling stations limits hydrogen’s appeal. 
  • Is hydrogen a “green” fuel? It can be, depending on the method used to produce the fuel. Currently, 96% of hydrogen produced worldwide is made using natural gas or coal, resulting in relatively high greenhouse gas emissions. The lowest greenhouse gas emissions result from production of hydrogen via electrolysis using renewable energy. (Source: *portions directly quoted* https://www.michiganbusiness.org/press-releases/2022/09/hydrogen-roadmap-new-report-details-how-lightest-element-can-play-a-heavy-role-in-michigans-clean-energy-transition/)
  • The U.S. Department of Energy just announced a $7 billion program to fund regional clean hydrogen hubs – called “H2 hubs” – across the country as part of the federal bipartisan infrastructure law. The hubs would expectedly ramp up clean hydrogen production and distribution. The Michigan hydrogen roadmap is meant to help guide the state’s response to the federal funding opportunity as part of the state’s new climate action plan, said the study’s lead author, Greg Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability. (Source: *portions directly quoted* https://hydrogen-central.com/hydrogen-could-critical-fuel-trucks-ferries-freighters-michigan/)


David Fair: In constructing a new transportation future, a number of energy sources are being studied and utilized--among them, hydrogen. This is 89 one WEMU. And I'm David Fair with another edition of Issues of the Environment. Michigan stands to benefit from federal money that is being made available for the creation of "hydrogen hubs." And the University of Michigan has worked to create an avenue to secure some of those funds by creating a hydrogen roadmap. Our guest today is Greg Keoleian, and he serves as director of the Center for Sustainable Systems in the School for Environment and Sustainability. And thank you for making the time, and good to have you back on WEMU.

Greg Keoleian: Well, I look forward to our conversation, David.

David Fair: The U.S. Department of Energy this month announced $7 billion of investment to fund regional hydrogen hubs. These so-called "H2 hubs," at some point in the future, will dot the landscape across the country. For someone dedicating their professional life to sustainability, what was your reaction to that announcement?

Greg Keoleian: Well, this is a very important investment because hydrogen can play an important role in helping accelerate the clean energy transition and bring about climate solutions.

David Fair: So, at the Center for Sustainable Systems, you've been studying hydrogen as part of the shift away from fossil fuels. Where do you see the greatest potential for impact in our transportation sector with use of hydrogen?

Greg Keoleian: Well, hydrogen can play an important role in decarbonizing vehicles, particularly those that are difficult to convert to battery electric vehicles because of batteries, weight, payload and range. And refueling time constraints. So, there is really an opportunity with regard to medium and heavy-duty vehicles to deploy hydrogen for transportation. Light-duty vehicles, for example, are more efficient to use clean electricity from renewables and nuclear to decarbonize, whereas with heavy-duty vehicles, you have these constraints where hydrogen can be deployed both either through combustion or with fuel cells.

David Fair: So, one of the great things about hydrogen is that its availability is almost limitless, but it is also highly flammable. Is it any more or less dangerous than using oil or gasoline for use in personal or public transportation vehicles?

Greg Keoleian: So, there needs to be caution in terms of the system for transporting it or storing it. But gasoline, as you know, is very flammable and combustible.

David Fair: And we see that all too often. Yeah.

Greg Keoleian: Right.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment continues with Greg Keoleian. He is director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. Even though hydrogen produces no vehicle emissions other than water vapor, 96% of the hydrogen produced around the world does use coal and natural gas in the process. So, that being the case, can we really call hydrogen green?

Greg Keoleian: So, you've identified a key issue. It's really about how is the hydrogen produced. And a majority of the hydrogen is produced using a process called steam methane reforming of natural gas, which generates greenhouse gas emissions or CO2. So, the process to make hydrogen from a low-carbon source is to electrolize water. Basically, we split water with electricity to make hydrogen, and we need to do this using a renewable electricity source or nuclear power.

David Fair: We keep talking about transforming our infrastructure to accommodate a move away from fossil fuels. So, does the infrastructure with water electrification exist to supply all we need in terms of hydrogen?

Greg Keoleian: So, we need to invest in this infrastructure, and that's part of the DOE program. The funding opportunity that they're providing is to start to demonstrate and commercialize the infrastructure that's going to be needed. Now, currently, we have an infrastructure with hydrogen, but it's really dedicated to the chemical industry and refining. But, again, it uses natural gas mainly as a source. But we need to invest and demonstrate the end use applications for transportation, as well as the industrial sectors and put in place an infrastructure to produce the hydrogen.

David Fair: So, as part of the ongoing research that you and your department are doing, you've created a hydrogen roadmap. What exactly does that look like?

Greg Keoleian: So, what we did is we focused on the industries and the applications in the state of Michigan that could be transitioned to hydrogen. And we looked at the incumbent technologies for providing energy for those applications and then what role hydrogen can play. We looked at their carbon reduction potential. We looked at the economics. We looked at co-benefits, for example, with heavy-duty vehicles--diesel vehicles. There are opportunities with, if we move to hydrogen, to reduce emissions of particulate and other pollutants that affect health. And we move trucks, for example, through corridors near the bridge, where there are a lot of communities--low-income communities--that are exposed to these emissions, and there are opportunities to transition to hydrogen and eliminate those risks.

David Fair: So, it is also an equity issue.

Greg Keoleian: Correct. Yeah, that's a very important part of this transition. It's not just clean, but also look at equity and justice. So, we did develop this map looking at the different applications in the state and made some recommendations. And, as I indicated, we emphasized the application for hydrogen in the medium and heavy-duty space, as opposed to light-duty vehicles for electrification that, really, we find to be the best solution.

David Fair: So, as we look at Governor Whitmer's Climate Action Plan for Michigan and more localized efforts like A2Zero in Ann Arbor and the Resilient Washtenaw Climate Plan for the rest of the county, how vital is it that we move quickly towards this transition that includes hydrogen in order to reach the goals set forth?

Greg Keoleian: We are in a climate emergency. So, we really need to accelerate the whole range of solutions here. And one of the motivations for our roadmap was to identify strategies that contribute to the Michigan Healthy Climate Plan. And, clearly, we all need to address industry, government, consumers need to all come together to address the threat that we face and the need to really reduce our emissions by cutting them in half by 2030 for example, hitting net zero by 2050. This is a huge problem that we're facing as a global community, and all of these programs are really critical to start to address the problem here.

David Fair: We're talking with Greg Keoleian from the University of Michigan's Center for Sustainable Systems on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. The passenger car and truck industry, as you mentioned, is clearly moving toward the electric vehicle path. Hydrogen looks to be a part of the solution in the commercial transportation sector. How quickly do you anticipate these alternative fuel vehicles will potentially supersede the number of fossil fuel cars on the roads, rails, and waterways?

Greg Keoleian: So, if we look at at hydrogen in terms of heavy-duty applications, there are already fuel cell busses. For example, Flint is operating a fuel cell bus, and they've been doing that for many years. And what we need to do is more investment. There are delivery trucks and garbage trucks that are being demonstrated and also prototypes in terms of semis and construction vehicles. So, you know, we already have some of these vehicles in place, forklifts, for example. There's over 20,000 forklifts that are powered by hydrogen. But I could see, with regard to heavy duty trucks within the next five years, we should be seeing more of those on the road. When we look broadly at the clean energy transition, we are really accelerating the sales and deployment of electrified vehicle--battery electric. So, this transition is well underway. But we're actually filing a little bit short in terms of leading the International Panel on Climate Change stabilization target or for reduction. So, we need all of these efforts that will move us forward.

David Fair: And, right now, virtually all alternative fuel vehicles are, in one way or another, government subsidized. That's not a sustainable model. When might the industry become self-sustaining?

Greg Keoleian: Well, you know, the cost of electrified vehicles is coming down. For example, the batteries are about a third of the cost of the vehicle. Those are coming down and, they are becoming competitive. And with regard to operating vehicles, there are cheaper to operate than gasoline-powered vehicles. So, we're in this transition, but we could expect within the next few years electrified vehicles to be competitive over the total cost of ownership--clearly, even without the subsidies. And the thing to recognize here is that our use of fossil fuels is an naturality. We have the damages from CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases leading to drought, leading to problems with food production, wildfires, an invasion of coke. These are all damaged costs that that we incur due to the use of the fossil fuels, which aren't priced into our economy. But, even without that, these alternatives--and we look more broadly, for example, at electricity production--they are competitive today with regard to electricity production from fossil fuels.

David Fair: So, I assume with all of the research that you've been doing in hydrogen, in specific, that you've also looked forward in trying to figure out where we need to be to best address the climate crisis. Paint me a word picture on perhaps what the modeling shows of what the transportation sector will look like in a decade.

Greg Keoleian: So, we are going to see a majority of the vehicles in a decade. The sales of vehicles will be electric in terms of light-duty. And we'll be really phasing out the gas-powered vehicles. And then, we're going to be, in a decade, we are going to see in the heavy-duty vehicles--semis--powered by hydrogen. We'll see if it's going to be combustion or fuel cells, but we're going to see alternative fuels there. And, you know, shipping has shifted away from the diesel, which is contributing to greenhouse gases. And then, you know, going beyond ground-based, we're also going to be seeing, in terms of shipping, a transition taking place in the Great Lakes. We'll see ferries, for example, that are either powered...depends on the distance. If it's long distance ferries, they're going to be powered probably by hydrogen. So, we're going to see across the transportation sector a move away from fossil fuels, which are the fuels that's currently dominating transportation and responsible for 33% or about a third of our greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

David Fair: There is a lot to look forward to and a lot of work to be done and a lot of barriers to overcome. But we seem to be on the right trajectory. Fair assessment?

Greg Keoleian: Yes, I'm optimistic in terms of transportation. Michigan is the leader in the transportation sector, and our industry is really moving with the clean energy transition, and the state is investing as well in infrastructure to make us a leader in this area.

David Fair: Well, thank you so much for the time today, Greg. I really appreciate it.

Greg Keoleian: Well, thank you, David. Again, I really appreciate your covering this clean energy transition and solutions to address our climate emergency.

David Fair: And we will have plenty of occasion for more conversations on exactly those topics. Thanks again, Greg.

Greg Keoleian: Thank you.

David Fair: Greg Keoleian is the director of the Center for Sustainable Systems in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. For more information on the hydrogen roadmap and more, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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