The Biden administration’s ambitious climate agenda faces an unexpected hurdle in Corpus Christi, Texas, where a proposed clean hydrogen hub is in jeopardy due to water scarcity and the installation of energy-intensive and potentially damaging seawater desalination plants.
Corpus Christi is vying for up to $1 billion in funding from President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to establish a regional hydrogen production hub, aiming to decarbonize heavy-emitting industries and transportation.
However, the creation of a hydrogen hub necessitates access to millions of liters of water, presenting a significant challenge in Corpus Christi, which is grappling with a multiyear drought. Local officials propose addressing this issue by constructing seawater desalination plants, but their plans face opposition from environmental groups, concerned residents, and legislators.
The Coastal Alliance to Protect the Environment, an activist group in Corpus Christi, voiced their opposition in a letter to US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, stating that it is illogical to create a clean energy source that destroys ecosystems, jeopardizes other economies dependent on a healthy bay system, and usurps the water supply for residents.
Reuters conducted interviews with six hydrogen researchers and obtained an exclusive analysis from Rystad Energy consultancy, revealing that the Biden administration’s vision of low-carbon hydrogen may clash with the challenge of water scarcity exacerbated by climate change. The production of hydrogen requires vast amounts of fresh water, which is increasingly scarce in a world affected by climate-driven droughts.
Rystad data indicates that nine out of the 33 projects shortlisted by the Department of Energy for hydrogen hubs are located in water-stressed regions, including Southern California, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas. Globally, over 70% of proposed green hydrogen projects are situated in water-stressed regions such as the Middle East, intensifying the demand for desalination plants.
To incentivize hydrogen hub development, the Biden administration offers companies up to $100 billion in tax credits and regions up to $7 billion in grants. However, the environmental impact of increased water consumption remains a concern. The US Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that water consumption for hydrogen hubs could strain regional water resources.
Corpus Christi’s city manager, Peter Zanoni, emphasizes that the hydrogen project would require the adoption of seawater desalination. Despite having access to approximately 378 million liters of groundwater supply per day, the city is grappling with drought conditions and has implemented water restrictions. The proposed seawater desalination plant, which would add at least 110 million liters of water per day, is seen as a drought-proof solution.
While the Biden administration aims to push forward with hydrogen hub plans, the challenge of water scarcity and potential environmental consequences associated with desalination plants must be addressed. Striking a balance between clean energy ambitions and the preservation of water resources remains crucial for the success of the clean hydrogen agenda.