Texas water fight shows pushback on ‘clean’ hydrogen

By Christian Robles | 06/17/2024 06:36 AM EDT

The emerging industry is facing “not in my backyard” opposition as projects move forward.

Rendering of blue hydrogen tanks

A rendering of hydrogen tanks. iStock

A Texas hydrogen project is facing criticism over whether it will have adequate water supplies, illustrating how local disputes on everything from pipelines to air pollution threaten the industry’s build-out.

Near Corpus Christi, environmentalists and some city government officials are protesting a $2.5 billion proposal from Avina Clean Hydrogen Inc. that they say could pollute the environment in a region prone to drought. The project envisions using a machine known as an electrolyzer to split millions of gallons of water from the Nueces River daily to form zero-carbon hydrogen, a key ingredient for ammonia. The produced ammonia would then be exported.

“The city is concerned that increased water drawn solely from the Nueces River system could dramatically increase the potential for scarcity,” wrote Ryan Skrobarczyk, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, in a March memo to state lawmakers.


The fight underscores how some proposed hydrogen projects face state- and city-level obstacles that could slow down an industry central to President Joe Biden’s climate goals. Biden has called for the production of 10 million metric tons of “clean” hydrogen annually by 2030. Currently, the U.S. produces little clean hydrogen, which is made from renewables or natural gas tied to carbon capture.

The Texas debate also comes as the energy sector is facing increased scrutiny for its water needs, particularly as climate change worsens and electricity demand grows. Widespread adoption of carbon capture and storage, for example, could double humanity’s water footprint, according to a 2021 study in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.

With hydrogen, the International Renewable Energy Agency said in a December 2023 report that a majority of operational and planned U.S. clean hydrogen production capacity in 2040 is likely to be located in “medium to extremely high” water-stressed areas.

“There is a local issue around water use by hydrogen … especially in dry areas,” said Lorenzo Rosa, a principal investigator at the Carnegie Institution for Science, in an interview. “I believe that is going to be an issue and it has to be considered.”

When [companies] decide to construct new facilities, they “should account for the water needed and the availability of this water to make the hydrogen,” he added.

Local environmental and advocacy groups in Arizona and the Navajo Nation have also raised concerns that new hydrogen production facilities could siphon their communities’ water supplies.

‘Complete misinformation?’

In an interview, Avina CEO Vishal Shah denied that the project would harm or strain local water resources. There is “zero water or air pollution risk associated with a [green ammonia] plant,” said Shah.

But the company’s views have not swayed environmentalists in Corpus Christi, who have organized on Facebook and circulated a petition garnering over 1,100 signatures against the project.

According to retired engineer Encarnacion “Chon” Serna, Avina needs at least 9.5 million gallons of water, or 4 million gallons more than a contract the company signed with the Nueces County Water Control and Improvement District 3. The estimated amount is also close to the district’s total water rights of roughly 10.5 million gallons.

Serna — who is working with environmentalists opposing the plant — said he calculated the 9.5 million number by considering the 3.2 billion gallons of ammonia a year the plant would produce, according to a preconstruction permit application with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. On its website, Avina says it will produce less than half that — 800,000 metric tons of ammonia annually.

Another issue is that “no one has discussed where their wastewater will be going,” said Myra Alaniz of the environmental group CHISPA Texas in an interview about the project.

The green ammonia plant will be located next to an open canal, which could become polluted by plant water discharge and emissions, Alaniz said.

Skrobarczyk is warning the plant could threaten the region’s water supplies, even though Corpus Christi does not own the rights to the Nueces River water.

“A new large-volume user of the Nueces River will require extensive and exact monitoring to avoid increased drought restrictions on the entire Coastal Bend,” he wrote in the memo to state lawmakers.

The city of Corpus Christi did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The Corpus Christi Caller-Times first reported on the March memo.

Avina’s Shah called the 9.5 million estimate “complete misinformation,” adding that the company’s water needs are confidential information. The company plans to allocate $30 million to $40 million for Water District 3 to upgrade its water treatment facilities, which would provide fresh water for the green ammonia plant and residents.

The company is looking to recycle water used during production back to Water District 3, he said. Shah added that the company has to secure state and local permits before discharging water into the nearby canal.

In an email, Marcos Alaniz, manager of Water District 3, said it has not discussed giving Avina more water than what is allocated in its contract. Alaniz added that it’s not necessary for the district to add more water capacity to meet Avina’s needs, but it “will continue to seek ways to expand our water resources to meet our community’s and customers’ needs as they change.”

Water solutions

Green hydrogen projects that rely on renewables need pure water because other types of water can damage electrolyzers, the machines used to make clean fuel, explained Jack Brouwer, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of California Irvine, in an email.

Some hydrogen companies are looking to build wastewater treatment or desalination plants to make usable pure water for fuel production. Plug Power, for instance, has incorporated a wastewater treatment plant into one of its hydrogen production projects, although it is giving plant ownership to the city of Mendota, California, for local officials to use.

Similarly, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, announced a $500 million plan last year to use underground brackish water and produced water from oil and gas production for hydrogen and other industries.

“Investments in processing brackish or produced water or in desalination are well worth the sustainable water use benefits,” said Brouwer.

However, many of the solutions to supply hydrogen and other energy industries with more water face challenges.

Brouwer said in an email that desalination plants, for example, are energy intensive and produce “a concentrated brine solution that must be managed and/or returned to the ocean in a manner that does not harm sea life or the sea environment.”

The potential for desalination plant brine to pollute local water was a key reason that the Coastal Alliance to Protect Our Environment asked Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last year to reject the Port of Corpus Christi’s application to build a hydrogen hub. With $7 billion from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, DOE is supporting the buildout of seven such hubs. They were chosen in October.

The alliance’s letter said the port’s hydrogen hub could be realized only if it finalized permits for two desalination plants — proposed facilities that are sparking disputes in the region. The port says desalination plants are necessary for the city’s water supply, but environmentalists say the facilities could harm the bay of Corpus Christi.

“It makes no sense to create a purported clean energy source that in turn destroys an entire ecosystem, threatens other economies reliant upon a healthy bay system, and usurps the water supply for residents throughout the region,” the letter said.

DOE ultimately did not name the port as one of the seven clean hydrogen hubs but did designate it as one of three “alternate hubs” that could negotiate for federal funding if other projects are canceled.

Jeff Pollack, chief strategy and sustainability officer for the port, said in an interview that the Corpus Christi region will need desalination plants to accommodate industries and residential needs. Hydrogen facilities, for their part, will need fewer gallons of water than other industries in Corpus Christi but are “not insignificant” water consumers, he said.

When asked about the environmental impact of desalination plants, Pollack explained that it depends on the size and location of a facility.

For a desalination “facility that can grow indefinitely without ecological impact,” water intake and discharge need to be connected to the Gulf of Mexico, he said. That is the situation with one proposed desalination plant that the port is seeking a permit for.

From pollution to pipelines

Supporters of hydrogen say that local growing pains are common for other energy industries, ranging from natural gas to solar power. With any energy project, there’s the potential for “not in my backyard” pushback and concerns from environmental groups — it’s not unique to hydrogen, they say.

Frank Wolak, president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association, said in an interview that hydrogen companies should work to build trust with communities by first acknowledging any questions and answering them. For example, in communities where water stress is an issue, hydrogen companies should outline how water is going to be used, and explain hydrogen’s potential to save water resources, he said.

“The [hydrogen] industry itself has an obligation to instill throughout the entire development process and operation the sense of this was a trustworthy endeavor,” said Wolak.

According to the think tank Rocky Mountain Institute, water fights over hydrogen are likely to be more local than national. Green hydrogen consumes less than half as much water as typical coal or nuclear electricity production to produce the same amount of energy, for example.

A peer-reviewed study in Nature Communications similarly concluded that “the water demand for hydrogen production is negligible compared to the 10,560 billion m^3 of water globally available.”

Even so, the Corpus Christi water fight echoes other local challenges to hydrogen projects.

DOE’s hydrogen hubs, for example, have faced local opposition on issues such as potential air pollution and a strain on the grid.

In late May, a coalition of 54 Appalachian organizations and community groups called for DOE to suspend negotiations with the ARCH2 hydrogen hub — which is proposed for Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The group cited a lack of transparency and inadequate community engagement.

“Federal officials have consigned Appalachia to its fossil fuel present by withholding critical details from the public and foreclosing on all opportunities for communities to shape the most significant decisions regarding” ARCH2, said Tom Torres, author of the letter and a hydrogen campaign coordinator with the Ohio River Valley Institute.

In a statement, ARCH2 spokesperson Kyle McColgan said, “We appreciate the Ohio River Valley Institute’s concerns and are dedicated to addressing them through ongoing engagement, transparency, and proactive information sharing.”

McColgan said that much of the information that the institute requested from ARCH2, such as a list of planned hydrogen production sites with detailed operations, is “part of preliminary planning and analysis for ARCH2’s projects. Those projects will begin during phase [one]” at a later date, McColgan added.

Environmentalists have raised similar concerns about community engagement with other hydrogen hubs such as the California ARCHES hub and the mid-Atlantic Mach2 hub.

According to a recent analysis from the EFI Foundation, a think tank led by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, less than 10 percent of environmental justice groups support the idea of clean hydrogen made with fossil fuels and carbon capture. An additional 30 percent do not support hydrogen production of any kind.

About 64 percent of environmental justice groups that have engaged with DOE’s seven hydrogen hubs also say the initiative will “probably not” help their communities, EFI said. The foundation released a separate report in February with recommendations to improve community engagement efforts.

At a webinar unveiling that report, Madeline Schomburg, EFI’s director of research, said the hub public engagement process “may be effectively including more people in the conversation, but perhaps there’s another step that needs to be done to take that inclusion and turn it into real, tangible outcomes.”