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Tina Casey headshot

Hydrogen to the Rescue: U.S. Manufacturing Jobs are Already Coming Back

By Tina Casey

When Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., he probably did not have hydrogen in mind. However, this "clean" fuel is already generating new manufacturing jobs in the U.S., and it is positioned to play an important role in job-creation moving forward.

Before we dig into the details, one important caveat: Hydrogen is now sourced primarily from natural gas. Until renewable sources edge out the fossil version, a hydrogen economy is not necessarily a clean power economy.

Three key states for hydrogen

Hydrogen is alluring as a future energy source because it produces zero airborne emissions when used to generate electricity in a fuel cell. Hydrogen fuel cells work by creating a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, so the only byproduct is water.

The U.S. hydrogen and fuel cell picture is laid out in a new report from the U.S. Department of Energy. The DOE spotlights three states leading in the field: California, Connecticut and New York.

Here's the rundown on the latter two states:

"The northeast hydrogen and fuel cell supply chain contributed nearly $1.4 billion in revenue and investment, supported more than 6,550 direct and indirect jobs, and industry labor reported income of approximately $620 million just in 2015 alone," the Department of Energy concluded.

With one of the world's largest economies, California also plays an outsized role in job creation related to fuel cells:
"California's advanced energy economy is growing six times faster than the overall economy and represents 3 percent (500,000) of workers across the state."

Hydrogen = New jobs

The Energy Department hopes to leverage the new report to accelerate job creation by pushing for streamlining and standardization in the hydrogen and fuel cell manufacturing sectors.

In conjunction with the report, the agency also issued a formal Request for Information which invites industry stakeholders to help develop manufacturing pathways leading to the rapid adoption of hydrogen and fuel cell technology:

"While not all components can or should be standardized, the cooperative development of certain components with universal sizes, functions, and materials will encourage competition and advanced manufacturing to drive down costs and increase product durability," the agency insisted.
"Standardization can also help to maximize compatibility, interoperability, safety, repeatability and quality."

The numbers are already adding up nationally. To date, the Energy Department tallied more than 235 megawatts of large stationary fuel cells in operation across the U.S.

Furniture giant Ikea is one important corporate driver behind the fuel cell trend. Though not all of its fuel cell installations are powered by renewable hydrogen, Ikea is moving in that direction. In the latest development, the company will install biogas-powered fuel cells two California stores. It also has plans for fuel cells at three more stores, two in California and one in Connecticut.

Other key markets include the telecom and rail industries, which use fuel cells for off-grid backup power.  According to the new report, there are now hundreds of such installations operating in more than 40 states

Fuel cell electric vehicles have been slow to hit the open road, but they are surging in off-road sectors. The new report notes that more than 11,000 fuel cell forklifts are already operating in the logistics sector, in at least 26 states.

A monkey wrench in the hydrogen economy ... or not

The incoming Trump administration could very well throw a wrench into the hydrogen economy works. But the new DOE report strongly suggests that state-level, bipartisan support for hydrogen and fuel cell initiatives will continue to drive progress, regardless of federal policies.

That's especially true in the three states where the hydrogen economy is most advanced. Not coincidentally, California and New York are two states where Democratic voters wield a strong influence. That's also true of Connecticut, though to a slightly lesser extent.

Another interesting factor will be the influence of ExxonMobil on Trump and his policymakers. The company doubled down on shale gas in recent years and dropped hints that it will work aggressively to push coal out.

That puts ExxonMobil in a good position to keep its hand in the growing hydrogen and fuel cell sector. In one interesting development, it has piggybacked on a federally-funded carbon and methane capture project involving the company FuelCell Energy.

What may be at risk under the Trump administration are the federal renewable energy research programs aimed at pushing natural gas out of the hydrogen market, so stay tuned for that.

Image: via U.S. Department of Energy.




Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey