Green Hydrogen Opportunities for the Midwest

To avert a climate crisis, the Midwest, like the rest of the country, will need to fully decarbonize its economy by 2050. This includes decarbonizing the power sector as soon as possible and working at more emissions-heavy sectors like steelmaking and long-distance trucking, which are prominent in the Midwest but challenging to electrify and clean up.

Essar Steel Plant in Michigan, one of many steel plants in the Midwest.

Billy Wilson via Flickr, CC BY-NC 4.0

Electrification should be the first and foremost priority, as it is already cost-effective and technologically feasible to power our communities with clean electricity, instead of polluting and carbon intensive fuels. Case in point, studies have shown that electrification alone (via wind and solar) can eliminate 70-80 percent of US emissions by 2035. However, there are some sectors that may be tough to electrify—those are the uses that could potentially benefit from green hydrogen.

Green hydrogen, produced by splitting water molecules using wind and solar electricity, offers a promising alternative to electrification for these hard-to-abate sectors by substituting for fossil fuels like fossil gas and oil. Hydrogen is currently used in the U.S. industrial sector and is mainly produced from fossil gas in a polluting process known as steam methane reformation. Hydrogen’s use as a decarbonization tool is therefore premised on cleaning up its own production process, and, green hydrogen provides a promising clean alternative. While today, green hydrogen costs are a key barrier to deployment, costs are poised to drop significantly thanks to projected cost reductions in electrolyzer technology, increasingly cheap and abundant wind and solar electricity, and burgeoning regional and federal efforts targeting rapid cost reductions by 2030.

Given the Midwest’s abundant wind and solar resources and significant manufacturing base, green hydrogen offers unique potential for the region to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across multiple sectors, create jobs for Midwesterners, and build cleaner communities that have been disproportionately impacted by air pollution.

NREL study demonstrates that the Midwest houses some of the best green hydrogen production potential.

NREL

We highlight four ways green hydrogen can benefit communities across the Midwest.

1. Green hydrogen can better utilize solar and wind energy when its supply is high and reduce electricity costs for Midwesterners.

Renewable energy deployment is surging in the Midwest and moving to a decarbonized economy will require the continuous large-scale deployment of wind and solar projects. In a recent report, the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) concluded that it could handle over 50% renewable generation in its service territories with careful coordination. As the share of renewables grows substantially to achieve a net-zero economy, solar and wind energy supply will likely sometimes exceed energy demand (think strong Midwest winds blowing at night when demand for electricity is low). Utilities and independent producers can make use of this excess renewable energy on the grid by using it to produce green hydrogen. This creates an extra revenue stream for wind and solar projects and lowers costs for Midwest customers given that projects would need to recoup less of their investment from electricity customers. When produced, green hydrogen can also be stored for long durations—weeks and months—and then be burned in turbines or run through fuel cells to generate electricity when wind and solar output is less strong in the dead of winter. Green hydrogen can therefore bolster the reliability of a highly renewable grid by helping it ride through the seasonal difference in renewable performance.

2. Green hydrogen can decarbonize steel mills in the Great Lakes region.

Iron and steel production is the most emissions-heavy industrial sector within U.S. industry, accounting for 25 percent of all carbon emissions from industrial processes. The highest geographic concentration of steel mills is in the Great Lakes region, including Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania alone accounted for 48% of total domestic raw steel production in 2020. Midwest steel plants can replace coke—a carbon-based and highly polluting reactant used to convert iron oxide into crude iron—with green hydrogen to decarbonize steelmaking. Coke production releases multiple highly toxic air pollutants, posing a major risk to the health of workers and nearby communities; this is in addition to the climate-warming CO2 it releases during steel production. In contrast, the substitution of coke with green hydrogen emits no carbon with only water as a byproduct, cleaning up a pollution-heavy process.

3. Green hydrogen can decarbonize trucking along the Midwest corridor and markedly improve air quality for Midwesterners. 

Commercial and freight trucks account for almost 23 percent of transportation greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S and contribute to toxic air pollution that disproportionately impacts Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income communities. Given its central location within the country, the Midwest is a hub for freight corridors (like I-55 and I-90) that provide service to thousands of pollutant-heavy trucks powered by gasoline. Green hydrogen-powered fuel cell trucks are a zero-emission alternative, along with battery electric trucks, to polluting diesel trucks that can help significantly improve air quality in Midwestern communities living in heavy truck traffic areas. It is important to recognize that freight truck decarbonization won’t solve the underlying systemic racism and exploitation inherent in harmful projects like major roadways or warehouses being built in communities of color in the first place. Instead, zero-emission trucks are one solution in a broader package of policies needed to stop the toxic toll that trucking takes on communities.

4. Green hydrogen can create thousands of Midwestern jobs.

Green hydrogen’s complex infrastructure will require concentrated buildout of renewables to feed electrolyzers, and the construction/deployment of electrolyzers and storage facilities. Supporting the above applications can spur economic development by creating sustainable jobs for Midwesterners. In particular, considering the region’s strong steelmaking legacy, hydrogen could help make this sector and the jobs and economic activity associated with it a long-term, sustainable and climate-compatible economic engine. As with all parts of the transition to the clean energy economy, new employment opportunities must be prioritized in communities harmed by the transition away from fossil fuels and historically denied equal economic opportunity.

From Opportunity to Reality:

The Midwest has a unique opportunity to make use of its generous renewable potential to become a national climate leader, improve air quality and create good paying jobs for Midwesterners.

There are a host of near-term steps that Midwest policymakers could take to help prepare for a zero-carbon future, including the potential to leverage green hydrogen to reach harder-to-electrify sectors. First, electrification should be the leading strategy in the vast majority of fossil fuel end uses. Where electrification is not an option, such as with heavy industrial processes, the Midwest will need bold renewable energy and power sector decarbonization policies as the development of green hydrogen hinges foremost on the widespread availability of wind and solar electricity. A regional hydrogen roadmap identifying and quantifying the highest value applications for green hydrogen is also critical for policymakers and investors to prioritize hydrogen investments and policies where it offers the most compelling case relative to other climate solutions, as opposed to deploying it indiscriminately and inefficiently. The Midwest stands to become a national leader in tying public health and economic opportunity to the decarbonization of what are considered intractable sectors: the region should press on with its record-breaking deployments of renewable energy and unlock the green hydrogen opportunity.

About the Authors

Christian Tae

Policy Analyst, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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