Hydrogen pipeline

Can hydrogen be the US net-zero hero?

Hydrogen is gaining attention as a fuel alternative because of its potential energy applications while helping to drive decarbonization.

In brief

  • Recent US legislation aims to change the country’s standing as the world’s second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter by incentivizing clean fuel alternatives.
  • Hydrogen could be key to a net-zero-emissions future because it has potential to decarbonize electricity generation, transportation and end-use heating.

This article is co-authored by: Sean Heinroth, Partner, EY-Parthenon; Mark Scherluebbe, Managing Director, EY-Parthenon; Charles Scott, Director, EY-Parthenon; and Tyler Brake, Consultant, EY-Parthenon.

Since late 2021, the United States has enacted two major pieces of legislation — the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) introduced in November 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) introduced in August 2022 — aimed at accelerating clean energy investments and technologies. Combined, the IIJA and IRA will infuse $479 billion in climate and new energy investments through various federal incentives and programs.

Hydrogen is one promising alternative energy source gaining attention in conjunction with the new legislation, especially the IRA. Hydrogen has the potential for numerous energy-intensive applications, while emitting only water and oxygen as by-products when burned.

Together, the IIJA and IRA lay a foundation for hydrogen as an alternative energy source in the United States and encourage domestic hydrogen production. The IRA incentivizes the production of clean hydrogen through a tax credit ranging from 60 cents to $3 per kilogram of hydrogen produced (depending on associated emissions). The recent legislation also earmarks $8 billion to establish hydrogen hubs. As a result of both acts, there are strong drivers and incentives behind the development of a hydrogen value chain.


Chapter 1

Setting the stage: hydrogen supply and demand

As the second-largest contributor of GHG emissions, the US has opportunities for hydrogen adoption.

Since hydrogen does not exist freely in nature, it must be produced from other sources. There are many sources of hydrogen and many methods to produce hydrogen based on these sources, and a spectrum of colors has been adopted to classify hydrogen fuel based on source. 

Currently the most widely used, gray hydrogen is produced through natural-gas-fueled steam and stream-methane reforming. Unfortunately, these processes produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, when gray hydrogen is combined with carbon capture use and sequestration technologies, the carbon footprint is vastly reduced and the resulting hydrogen is considered blue hydrogen. Separately, there are promising opportunities around green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind) in the electrolysis of water (H20) (i.e.., separating hydrogen (H2) from oxygen (O)). Additionally, there are encouraging opportunities from pink, red and purple hydrogen production processes, which leverage nuclear energy (electrical and thermal) to produce hydrogen by incorporating the hydrogen production processes into the existing energy facilities and thus generating net-zero GHG emissions in the production processes. The energy industry continues to explore and innovate to produce hydrogen at scale while producing net-zero emissions.

There are currently approximately 70 hydrogen production facilities in the US. These facilities are in and around industrial hubs and offer great opportunity for new hydrogen investments to leverage existing infrastructure. Most hydrogen production in the US occurs in California, Texas and Louisiana. Several states across the Midwest, the Illinois Basin and the Rocky Mountains are emerging as hydrogen hub key players, with strong demand across several industries.

Of the approximately 11.4 million metric tons (MMT) of hydrogen produced annually in the US, 95% of it serves as feedstock and heating in industrial-intensive activities, such as refining, petrochemicals, ammonia, iron and steel, cement, and oil and gas. It is also used in the transportation sector, primarily in California where its use can be attributed to policy and financial incentives cultivating demand for fuel cell vehicles.

With the planned shift toward a low-carbon economy by 2030, the demand for hydrogen is expected to reach 14 MMT annually.² It is further expected that hydrogen demand will be driven by anchor industries, such as refining and chemical or industrial manufacturing, followed by the transportation sector. To a smaller extend, hydrogen also has an opportunity in the electricity and power sector. 

Use of hydrogen in these sectors is notable and extends the opportunities because more than 75% of the total US GHG emissions come from the country’s transportation, electricity production and industrials (e.g., energy, production of goods from raw materials) sectors (EIA source; 2020). Clearly, hydrogen can be leveraged to accelerate the emissions-reduction agenda in these sectors.


Chapter 2

Unlocking the hydrogen opportunity

With increased opportunity, which hydrogen players will emerge?

While it’s clear that the recent legislation has the potential to change the economics of hydrogen production and that the need for reducing GHG emissions creates an increasing opportunity and need for hydrogen use, which companies will be most likely to shepherd the revolution?

Three classifications of hydrogen players will progress this technology in the next six to 18 months. First are the relatively small companies, especially those that have already identified technologies and plans, or have firm offtake agreements in place. These companies are often dedicated to niche areas, with a singular focus, agile governance and a desire to reach final investment destination (FID) quickly. Second are the larger companies that can scale the hydrogen economy, such as the largest oil and gas companies. While these companies may take longer to sanction their own projects (and may be eventual buyers of the first movers), it presents an opportunity and time to reflect the need for greater diligence in establishing new low-carbon business units.

Finally, the eventual hydrogen market leaders will be those that can pounce on the opportunities and sew together multiple value pools, either through competitive advantages in technology or differentiated elements in the supply chain. These companies will be able to capture additional margin through maximization of credits and incentives — and likely also extend the life of legacy assets and infrastructure.


Chapter 3

Shaping the hydrogen sector

Three key questions shape the hydrogen opportunity from both an upstream and downstream perspective.

It’s clear that economic and regulatory incentives have unlocked an opportunity for hydrogen, particularly around the blue and green hydrogen pathways. However, there are three essential considerations for any company exploring hydrogen investments:

  1. Define the commercial model. The IRA positions enough projects to have potential economic impact that a natural experiment to test the merits and concerns with various competing commercial and financing approaches will be tested. Similar to the US liquified natural gas (LNG) sector, differentiated commercial models reflect the other assets of project owners, access to feedstocks and preferences of buyers. Hydrogen can follow a similar model.

  2. Develop additional downstream markets. It is expected that the initial hydrogen projects will be aimed at helping current consumers of the gas decarbonize their supply chain. But the real work — and opportunities — will come in developing new applications and opening new markets. These include transportation, utilities and hard-to-abate industrial segments.

  3. Build out the enabling infrastructure. The IRA focuses US federal income credits and incentives in the hydrogen space toward production to spur initial investments more quickly, and so much on the infrastructure and midstream portion of the supply chain. In theory this should lead to further demand, but the infrastructure to connect supplies with these consumers will need to be defined and built. Most critically, having a full-lifecycle end-to-end view of the value stream can help companies design projects, including midstream elements, that can further accelerate the development of new hydrogen value pools.  

Because of its potential to decarbonize electricity generation, transportation and end-use heating, hydrogen is critical to the future energy system. And because of the vast opportunities and government-based incentives, the first-movers will gain advantage.


To fully leverage hydrogen and realize its contributions in a net-zero-emission economy, the US must shape the hydrogen market in a sustainable and competitive manner. This approach includes addressing economic, regulatory and financial gaps through more investment, research, regulatory policy and development to bring the US to the forefront of the energy transition. How effective the US is at bridging these gaps will determine the pace by which the benefits of hydrogen will be realized in the coming years across the states and sectors.

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15 Nov 2022 Greg Matlock + 1