Hydrogen hub, what’s that?: Americans are being left out of the hydrogen conversation.

According to a recent survey conducted by Clean Hydrogen Partnership, of all the types of clean energy, people are least familiar with hydrogen. This poll, among others, has highlighted an important problem: despite hydrogen being a core tenant of the Biden administration’s clean energy plan, many people have no idea what it is. And, for those who have heard of it, hydrogen is commonly associated with explosions or the Hindenburg disaster.

This past summer, I worked alongside professors at Rice University and energy companies in Houston, Texas to better understand the perspectives of residents, NGOs, industries, and politicians toward hydrogen. While many individuals were aware of and understood how it worked, there was a surprising lack of knowledge regarding hydrogen, even among professionals and policymakers. While this may not seem like a big problem, it could have far- reaching consequences for the Biden administration and policymakers.

Recently, the Biden administration unveiled the location of seven hydrogen hubs. While no one is exactly sure what a hydrogen hub will look like, the government intends them to be areas (likely cities) of intense hydrogen production and usage that will lower the costs of making hydrogen gas and spur greater demand for hydrogen energy.

As with any type of energy, hydrogen hubs will require extensive amounts of infrastructure: new facilities, factories, trucks, hydrogen refueling stations, and so on. Of course, there are many potential benefits communities will reap from the hubs: greater economic investment and, hopefully, good paying jobs. However, the introduction of large amounts of infrastructure will also have adverse environmental impacts on urban communities, especially since hydrogen gas production still heavily relies on fossil fuels. During our research, Texas NGOs expressed a host of concerns, especially over the health impacts of air pollution and whether hydrogen facilities were safe to work in and place in communities.

Most notably, though, stakeholders in Texas and elsewhere have expressed frustration that the public was being left out of the conversation. This discontent was not only voiced by NGOs but by policymakers and industry leaders; there was an undeniable consensus that more needed to be done to educate the public. With President Biden’s recent announcement, we can expect companies and the government to begin making headway on hydrogen hubs and projects in the next few years. Yet many Americans have no idea what hydrogen even is or how it will impact their lives and communities.

It’s not only residents who have been left in the dark. State legislators remarked in our conversations that many of their colleagues were unfamiliar with hydrogen energy. How can our government successfully implement hydrogen hubs and delegate billions of dollars when even local politicians are unfamiliar with the issue?

I am not proposing the Biden administration alter its hydrogen hub plans. However, leaving communities and states in the dark is a recipe for disaster. In a time when trust in the government and institutions is at an all time low, it’s more important than ever that the government communicates with its citizens. The introduction of new sectors of energy like hydrogen is an opportunity to improve upon past mistakes. It’s an opportunity to foster trust and cooperation with communities who are often left out of the equation. It’s also a fantastic chance for the Biden administration to tout its ambitious achievements.

Before hydrogen projects start going up, the federal government should make a concerted effort to involve communities—understand what they want and how they envision a hydrogen hub.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Zach Yiannias – Rice University

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow Zach Yiannias is a junior at Rice University studying political science, environmental sciences, and history. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he is interested in local politics as well as environmental and energy policy. In addition to conducting political science research on school board elections, he has previously interned with the USDA Forest Service, writing articles for the agency’s southern region. He is currently researching hydrogen energy as a Gulf Scholar with the Carbon Hub and GTI Energy.