The Electrical Worker online
January 2024

index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

Hydrogen, the fuel that can burn in turbines and emit only water vapor, was given a $7 billion push from fantasy to reality, and IBEW members are already at work.

The federal government awarded seven regional hydrogen hubs about $1 billion each, grants that will spur more than $40 billion in private and state funding, according to the White House.

"The clean energy transition is not pie in the sky. It is happening right now, and it is being built the right way, with union trades workers getting the lion's share of the work," said International President Kenneth W. Cooper.

Hydrogen is transformational because it can take much of the role of natural gas in the energy ecosystem. It can be distributed by pipelines and burned when needed, but nothing but water vapor comes out of the "smoke" stacks. It also can work in tandem with massive nuclear plants, using excess power during periods of low demand.

For the IBEW, old hands and new members alike, it means tens of thousands of jobs and millions of hours of work, including at former fossil fuel powerhouses.

The hydrogen hub grants were funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden in 2022, the largest U.S. infrastructure bill ever with the strongest prevailing wage and labor standards of any law to come out of Washington.

The seven projects are in California, the Mid-Atlantic, Appalachia, the Midwest, the Gulf Coast, the northern Plains and the Pacific Northwest. Together, they will eliminate 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from end uses each year — an amount roughly equivalent to the emissions of 5.5 million gasoline-powered cars.

Most projects are in early stages, but commitments to use labor agreements are in place for at least four — California, Northwest, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic — and IBEW members are already at work on the project in Illinois.

"The IBEW made a commitment that the transition to a clean energy economy would be good for today's working families as well as future generations," Cooper said. "What could be bolder or more optimistic than creating a new industry from whole cloth?"

Why Hydrogen

Hydrogen is special because it has the potential to solve some of the most difficult problems of the clean energy transition: How do we rapidly grow power generation while keeping it reliable and carbon-free?

Renewable sources like solar and wind are intermittent and require transmission infrastructure that is costly and slow to get approved. Meanwhile, traditional baseload power generation from coal or natural gas, while reliable, contributes to climate change and is increasingly being challenged by regulation. In the case of nuclear, it is clean and highly reliable but exceedingly difficult to build quickly at the scale needed.

Hydrogen has the potential to solve those problems and many others. Its greatest strength is that the only byproduct of combusting hydrogen is water vapor.

Almost as important, unlike oil, coal and natural gas, hydrogen is straightforward to make and nearly universally available. It requires no deepwater drilling rigs, fracking or mines.

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, and with a supply of clean electricity and access to water, it can be made in concentrations and at scale for industrial use.

"We believe the future is our members building hydrolyzers — machines that convert water into hydrogen and oxygen — inside the fence of nuclear plants and shuttered coal powerhouses, vastly expanding the opportunities for working men and women at utilities coast to coast," said Austin Keyser, assistant to the international president for government affairs.

Hydrogen can even offer a clean option for sectors of the economy that are hardest to decarbonize, including chemical, steel and concrete manufacturing; long-haul and heavy-duty trucking; and, potentially, air travel.

The problems are that, as of January 2024, no one makes hydrogen as a fuel at an industrial scale, existing natural gas pipeline systems can't carry it at concentrations higher than about 20%, and only a few power generators can use it as fuel.

But like most seemingly intractable challenges of the clean energy transition, a good plan, leadership and funding can solve a lot of problems, Cooper said.

"We used to be the envy of the world for our brains and our brawn," he said. "What was invented here was made here, and we changed the world for the better. It's about time we got back to what actually made this country great."

Midwest Hydrogen Hub

Of the seven projects, four are far enough in planning to have labor agreements in place, and just weeks after the government announcement, one is already providing paychecks to IBEW members.

Behind the fence of the LaSalle nuclear generating station, members of Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Local 601 are already at work on the MachH2 project.

One part of the three-state project is a hydrolyzer planned for the banks of the Illinois River. It will run on clean power generated by LaSalle when demand for power is lowest.

"There's no dimmer on a nuke plant. They go full bore 24/7 until they need to refuel," said Local 601 Business Manager Jarret Clem.

Unfortunately for nuclear plant operators, many of them IBEW partner utilities, the paucity of customers during periods of low demand drives the value of that energy dramatically down. One option is massively increasing the stock of batteries and storing that energy.

But batteries have limitations as a storage technology. They require lithium mines, and many of those mines are not in North America. And batteries are not a great solution for high-temperature, energy-intensive industries like concrete, steel and chemical manufacturing.

Hydrogen could be the answer to each of those limitations, and a nuclear power plant running a hydrolyzer through the night would be a significant victory and a jobs bonanza.

"Nuclear and hydrogen are made for each other, and Illinois is a huge nuclear state," Clem said.

The hydrolyzer itself is still in the planning stage, but the cable raceway inside the plant that will run to a new dedicated substation is already coming together through the hands of IBEW members in Local 601.

"We're booking hours on this project right now," Clem said.

Signatory contractors are bidding the pipe and cable tray from the plant to the new substation, and bidding may start as early as next year for the substation, buildings and overhead powerlines.

Everything inside the utility fence lines is covered by IBEW contracts, and the project has committed to operating under a Building Trades labor agreement for all the other work, Clem said.

In total, the project sponsors expect MachH2 to generate more than 12,000 construction jobs and 1,500 permanent jobs just on projects directly connected to the hub. It remains to be seen what industries will rise when the hydrogen is plentiful. It's what makes the hub idea so powerful: If you create a density of generators, storage, distribution and customers, new ideas and work are bound to come along.

"When the internet was created, no one had data centers in mind. Now we have tens of thousands of members working on data centers every day of the year," Cooper said.

Clem said he heard people talking about the potential for hydrogen for years. But it was all talk until the Inflation Reduction Act hub program awarded $1 billion in federal money to MachH2, money that will be matched and eventually exceeded by state and local incentives and private investment.

"This project will mean hundreds and hundreds of jobs for us. I don't know anyone in their right mind who would think there aren't tons of hydrogen jobs for the IBEW," Clem said.

Mid-Atlantic Hydrogen Hub

When Biden announced the grants Oct. 13, he did it from a stage in Philadelphia, which is at the heart of the Mach2 regional hub.

"When I think climate, I think jobs — good-paying jobs, union jobs," Biden said. The seven hubs, including the one that will take shape along the Delaware Valley from Trenton, N.J., to Philadelphia to Wilmington, Del., will be "American projects, by American workers, with American products."

Biden was introduced by the business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, Ryan Boyer, and was surrounded by labor leaders from the trades, utilities, public employees, and professional and industrial unions.

"Against significant opposition, Joe Biden advanced and signed the biggest infrastructure package in our generation," Boyer said. "These jobs and opportunities they present will change the trajectory of many of our communities."

What makes the Mid-Atlantic project different, said Philadelphia Local 98 Business Manager Mark Lynch, is that multiple large employers have announced plans to switch from natural gas to hydrogen power.

"It won't be a single plant you can point to. It is a regional project, and while some of the work starts next year, the real work for Local 98 is when the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital switch to hydrogen," he said. "And then there will be all the work with (transportation authority) SEPTA, which has plans to use hydrogen in buses and maybe even trains."

Chester, Pa., Local 654; Folsom, N.J., Local 351; and Wilmington, Del., Local 313 will each get a share of the work, said Tom Lepera, political director for Local 98, and there is a project labor agreement on the whole thing.

Lepera said he expects that the extensive natural gas infrastructure along the length of the Delaware River will be repurposed, expanded and upgraded.

In the early stages, a mix of hydrogen and natural gas can run through existing pipelines and fuel existing turbines, lowering emissions. But as the concentration of hydrogen in pipelines exceeds 20%, new distribution systems will be needed, and that means even more jobs.

Lepera thinks at least 50% of the Mach2 work will be in Philadelphia and just south in Chester.

"I don't think a new office building is going up in Philadelphia for a decade, so we are always looking for what will put our members to work," he said. "We are in favor of infrastructure. Hydrogen means more buildings, more growth. Infrastructure always creates the opportunity — and a cleaner, greener version, all the better."

Like in Chicago, Lepera said hydrogen production and use has been a topic of conversation for years. He agreed that the IRA was what tipped it from what-if to right now.

"This is an idea that's been on our radar, but it was Biden's initiative that made it possible," he said.

'A Political Force'

Lepera said that Local 98's primary role in the application for the project wasn't in planning or coordinating partners but deploying the local's deep relationships with local, state and federal political leaders to make sure the application had 360-degree support and the muscle it needed to rise to the top of the stack in D.C.

"When we get behind something, it matters," he said. "We are a political force in Pennsylvania and nationally."

It's at the national level where the IBEW proved most influential, Keyser said.

"The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law isn't just the most important infrastructure bill in half a century. It is the most important union legislation in close to a century," he said.

Plenty of infrastructure spending in the past has overlooked improving the lives of working families. Plenty of laws gave lip service to prevailing wages, but in the details and execution created loopholes the size of train tunnels for businesses to short-change their workers.

Keyser said that didn't happen this time for two reasons.

First, he said, because the IBEW offered crucial support to elect the most pro-union president in this country's history, when the bill was written the union was in every room and at every table.

"And second, our members give us the strength and influence so as the law made its way through the bureaucracy and was transformed into a real-world grant program, union involvement was a key part of how the award decisions were actually made," he said.

Nevertheless, Keyser said, IBEW representatives at the national, regional and local levels are working closely with the Department of Energy to ensure that all of the hydrogen hubs commit to project labor agreements and union neutrality. For their part, DOE administrators have assured Keyser that they are committed to pushing projects in this direction.

Future Opportunities

While the involvement of the IBEW in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, California and Northwest hubs has been exactly as hoped when the union got involved in drafting the legislation, three of the projects — Appalachia, Gulf Coast and Heartland in the Northern Plains — do not have publicly announced labor agreements yet.

Appalachian hub developers did not reach out to the Fourth District before making their application. Locals were never approached to write letters of support, nor was the Building Trades, said Fourth District International Representative Steve Crum.

The good news, said John Epperly, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia Building Trades and a member of Charleston, W. Va., Local 466, is that the outlines of a project labor agreement are coming together.

"We are in a negotiations phase, and I think soon we will have appointments to the steering committee and the labor committee for the hub itself, and we will go from there," he said.

It will be harder where relationship building is only starting after the award, but that is no excuse to give up trying, Crum said.

"For the clean energy transition to be about jobs and justice, a hub always had to come to the Ohio Valley. We needed to restore a bunch of good-paying jobs that had disappeared since we lost steel, industry and coal mines. But we should never stop saying that the only reason those were ever good jobs was because they were union," he said. "We should not rest until we have PLAs coast to coast, border to border."


Linking the LaSalle nuclear generating station to a hydrogen production facility called a hydrolyzer is a key component of the Midwest Hydrogen Hub, one of seven that received billions in federal funding.