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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Can Hydrogen Energy Save Coal Country?

Four years after then-presidential candidate Donald Trump promised to bring jobs back to coal country, the coal sector is worse-off than ever. Those shrinking communities that still do depend on coal for their and their towns’ livelihoods are finding it harder and harder to scrape by, and the future looks grim. “A harsh reality in coal country - with or without Trump”, a BBC headline read this week--and it’s true: politics can’t save coal. Nothing can. The reality is that the world is moving more and more quickly away from fossil fuels. On the eve of catastrophic climate change, ESG investing trends are making more headway than ever. Oil industry magnates are scrambling to diversify their portfolios and global leaders are currently drafting and implementing “green” stimulus packages that hinge their nations’ post-pandemic economic recovery on clean energy--a sector that promises a whole lot of sorely needed jobs creation. 

Even leaving the environment out of the question, coal would still be deeply in the red thanks to the flood of cheap natural gas that is still abundant in the United States even as the shale sector is having its own post-pandemic struggles. Worldwide, coal is on its last legs. It’s simply no longer cheap or plentiful enough to make financial sense, and in part due to this harsh economic reality, the high-emissions fossil fuel’s serious contributions to climate change and air pollution can no longer be ignored for the sake of the bottom line. 

While data indicates that green energy will ultimately create far more jobs than it will take away in the coming post-pandemic period, this ultimately means little to those toiling away in coal mines or plants with little to no other economic opportunities in their area when--not if-- those coal operations shut down in the increasingly near future. 

There may be a solution to just this problem, however, which marries both the potential and imperative of cleaner energy production with former coal communities. In an op-ed penned for GreenBiz this week, Burbank Water & Power’s Lincoln Bleveans argues that coal communities and phased-out coal plants are actually the perfect setup for new green hydrogen production facilities.

Related: OPEC+ Expects Oil Market Deficit Next Year

Green hydrogen is an especially sexy form of clean fuel that’s been the source of a lot of buzz in recent years and months for its potential to power industries while leaving behind nothing but water vapor as a product of its combustion. Unlike gray hydrogen (the most common form of industrial hydrogen) which is made using high-emissions fossil fuels like oil and coal or blue hydrogen made from natural gas, green hydrogen is produced using renewable energy, making it extremely promising for decarbonization initiatives. Entire countries have already gotten behind the green hydrogen push, and lots of investors around the world are getting on board to scale up production capacity. But few locales are as perfect for green hydrogen production infrastructure as former coal plants, says Bleveans. 

There are a number of reasons for this. 

When he looks at an ailing coal plant, Bleavans sees “an industrial site and a community ready for redevelopment.” He goes on to enumerate the reasons that the transition might be a more natural one than you might think: “I see a skilled and experienced industrial workforce ready to build, operate and optimize complex systems. I see transmission lines to bring in the renewable energy needed for green hydrogen production. And I see the water rights, in mind-boggling amounts, that are a prerequisite for both today’s coal-fired power generation and tomorrow’s green hydrogen production.”

Water rights will only continue to become more precious and costly in a warming world, and a site that already has laid down the framework for access to the volumes of water needed for green hydrogen production is an advantage that is hard to overstate. And really, isn’t it just poetic and, indeed, appropriate to see the cutting edge of clean energy centered in former coal communities? Instead of being forgotten or left behind, coal country could be hydrogen country--the next biggest, greenest thing. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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