The US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act making its way through Congress includes the sort of comprehensive hydrogen policy that advocates say has been lacking in the country.

But the $550 billion bill has stalled in the House of Representatives, with much of the Democratic Party majority hesitant to pass it without an accompanying budget reconciliation bill that focuses on social infrastructure.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed back a vote on the infrastructure bill by nearly a month to 31 October, which, if passed, will allocate $9.5 billion to clean hydrogen strategy and development.

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Although previous bills have focused on green hydrogen production incentives, most of the language in the infrastructure bill is technology neutral, meaning it does not distinguish between green, blue, pink, or other types of hydrogen production.

Instead, the bill typically refers to "clean" hydrogen, which it defines as a carbon intensity of less than 2 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilogramme of hydrogen produced.

National strategy

The bill also develops a national hydrogen strategy, which focuses on creating pathways and defining barriers to the hydrogen economy, as well as determining policy that may be needed to support the economy.

In efforts to give green hydrogen a competitive advantage, $1 billion would be put to reducing the cost of hydrogen produced by electrolysis to $2 per kg by 2026, in line with the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Earthshot Initiative, which aims to reduce the cost to $1 per kg by the end of the decade.

The largest allocation, $8 billion, would go to the development of four regional hydrogen hubs around the country.

Each would hone in on a specific end use for hydrogen: power generation, industrial applications, heating, and transportation.

At least three of the four hubs would have different energy sources in production, including fossil fuels with carbon capture, electrolysis from renewables, and pink hydrogen, which uses nuclear energy in hydrogen production.

No official plans have emerged for the hubs, but some experts say locating them at ports would be a quick way to scale up hydrogen.

Kenneth Medlock, senior director of the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University, says there is already a significant amount of hydrogen produced and used at port facilities, which can quickly be replaced with blue hydrogen when CCS is implemented.

Using a hub approach for hydrogen in ports can utilise existing infrastructure and foster collaboration between companies, as ExxonMobil plans for the Houston Ship Channel for carbon capture and storage.

“I think the place where you could see probably the most aggressive growth is in consuming sectors that can create a lot of demand quickly," Medlock says. "That’s going to be the heavy industrial sector.”

Compared to the transportation sector, which will involve intricate developments in many technologies, Medlock says, focusing on heavy industry involves “one major investment at one major facility, and it creates demand that wasn’t there before”.

Traci Kraus, director of government relations for engine manufacturer Cummins, says ports are well-suited to invest in the infrastructure to both produce and transport hydrogen, including shipping, drayage trucks, backup power generators, rail and more.

She adds that hydrogen can be used to improve air quality in ports, where pollution is often rampant due to the saturation of high-emitting facilities.

Incentives

Current and pending US policy is weighted to incentives for producing hydrogen, but growing a hydrogen economy also requires an increase in product demand.

“There’s a lot of policy emphasis on reducing cost and scaling up low-carbon hydrogen supply, but much less emphasis on creating demand for such a fuel in various sectors,” says Dharik Mallapragada, a research scientist at MIT Energy Initiative.

“We’re sort of leaving ourselves at the mercy of the market.”

“We’re sort of leaving ourselves at the mercy of the market.”

Dharik Mallapragada, research scientist at MIT Energy Initiative

Neil Beup, head of global government affairs at Linde, is encouraged by the progress the US has made with its hydrogen policy, but says scaling up demand will be crucial for a viable clean hydrogen industry.

“If we can start to decarbonise as the demand for hydrogen grows, you’re getting a cleaner and cleaner molecule to the point where, ultimately, if you have enough demand in place, you can achieve economies of scale and drive down the cost of that emissions-free hydrogen,” Beup says.

The US is hardly alone in lacking a comprehensive policy framework for developing a hydrogen economy but it lags behind several other developed nations.

The European Union has pushed strong regional policies, while countries such as Germany, South Korea, Japan and China have clear national strategies.

South Korea's strategy, for example, emphasises first growing demand and infrastructure, then working on the decarbonisation of hydrogen.

The US has the capacity for a range of hydrogen production techniques due to its size and abundance of resources, as Medlock points out.

The infrastructure bill, if passed with the hydrogen portion intact, could go a long way to seeing that this capacity is matched with the policy to bring the sector to scale.