A YEAR AGO, President Biden signed into law the single most sweeping climate bill in American history. Supported by virtually the entire Democratic Party and environmental leaders like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club and 350.org, the Inflation Reduction Act will lower carbon emissions and help us get closer to “net zero” by 2050. It will create millions of jobs in the clean energy sector and included incentives for renewable energy sources like wind and solar power.
This law also created historic incentives for green hydrogen – zero emissions energy produced cleanly from water. Unfortunately, some are trying to narrow the tools we have to reduce emissions to pursue a risky and emotionally driven path to net zero that relies entirely on our shaky electric grid and leaves us vulnerable to skyrocketing energy costs and, ironically, increasing carbon emissions.
In their recent piece in Commonwealth, Gordon Richardson and Ben Butterworth argue that we should ignore federal incentives to use green hydrogen because it would require renewable energy to produce. They also suggest that green hydrogen is a vast conspiracy by utilities to hijack our efforts to achieve net neutrality by mid-century.
What they don’t discuss is why we need a diverse renewable energy portfolio – and how, unlike electrification alone, it will support progress not only on emissions but also our economy.
Specifically, the authors ignore simple arithmetic, the reality of which every ratepayer in Massachusetts is grappling with now as they pay $500 a month for electricity due to a shortage of supply. And to be sure, we need wind power—lots of it—along with more solar and storage production. But in a world where electrical load capacity is expected to double in the near term as EVs and heat pumps come online, these sources can’t do the job alone – a point the authors implicitly acknowledge when they voice concerns over “deplet[ing] limited renewable energy.”
Green hydrogen will also support tens of thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth. Indeed, the authors fail to mention the men and women who build, maintain, and repair our energy infrastructure today – and will continue to do so in a net zero world that utilizes technologies like green hydrogen. Little wonder that constituencies that support it include large elements of the organized labor community such as every plumber, pipefitter and sprinkler-fitter local union in the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Laborers District Council, the United Steelworkers District 4 and the New England Gas Workers Alliance, among others.
That large utilities are embracing green hydrogen as one of several solutions to meet our renewable energy needs isn’t something they should be castigated for – but seen as a victory for the environmental community.
Lost in this debate is how expensive it is to build new energy delivery infrastructure such as substations which would be necessary to deliver increased electrical load. Not only have ratepayers already paid billions of dollars to construct and maintain our gas delivery system—which we could repurpose to deliver green hydrogen—they are also permitted and in place with no need for complex new rights of way or intrusive land disruptions.
It’s time we face facts. Climate change is real – but so is the math behind our energy constraints today. Multiple solutions are better than one. The Biden Administration understands that, Massachusetts policymakers and regulators should, too.
Harry Brett is the international representative for the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinkler-fitters of Massachusetts representing Plumbers Local 12, Pipefitters Local 537, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 51, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 4, Sprinkler-fitters Local 550 and Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 104.