HUDSON, Colo. (CN) — Bordered by river rockscapes and decorative wagon wheels, any house in the Box Elder Creek Ranch neighborhood could fill the pages of Home and Garden magazine.
Located in the town of Hudson thirty miles northeast of Denver, the community sits amid a rural landscape of cornfields, horse corrals and scripture-quoting billboards. Inside the development, playscapes tower over white farm fences. Residents fly flags pledging support for the nation, the U.S. Navy and their dogs.
It’s an unlikely scene for an energy revolution — and yet that’s just what’s playing out at Box Elder Creek Ranch.
In an April announcement, Xcel Energy, a national gas and electric company, chose this place as the first Colorado community to receive hydrogen blended into its natural gas lines. If successful, it will provide a blueprint for serving the fuel cocktail to more of Xcel’s 1.5 million gas customers statewide.
Over the next five years, the utility company hopes to demonstrate the safety of using hydrogen blends to cheaply lower carbon emissions without the need for completely new infrastructure. The developments come as officials eye hydrogen as a potentially cleaner power source for an increasingly warming planet — and as environmentalists raise the alarm about what they call a false solution to the climate crisis.
In August, Xcel submitted its Clean Heat Plan to the Colorado Public Utilities Commission. It outlined its plans and asked for a variance to raise rates to pay for upgrades, including for the $6.5 million hydrogen-blending pilot.
In testimony, Xcel estimated it would cost $20,000 per home to do a full electrification retrofit — adding up to a whopping $3.5 billion by 2030. A portfolio that includes hydrogen and recovered methane (also known as natural gas) would cost consumers much less, the company argued, at about $2,000 per home.
The energy industry already looms large throughout the American West, with oil-and-gas infrastructure, fracking walls and pumpjacks all frequent sights. Hudson is no exception: Just a few miles up the road in Keenesburg, Xcel operates a 580 megawatt natural-gas facility.
Infrastructure like this has long prompted debate over how to protect the environment (and people’s livelihoods) while still keeping the lights on. New investments in hydrogen power are changing the terms of the conversation, raising fresh questions about what it really means to build a “green” future.
As the debate unfolds, oil and gas remains king in places like Hudson. While Xcel has invested in building solar and wind farms, 27% of Colorado’s power still comes from coal and 31% from natural gas.
Among those opposed to the Box Elder Creek Ranch blending project is Brett Anton, a safe buildings organizer for the Sierra Club. In an interview, he disputed Xcel’s main financial argument for hydrogen, saying the company could fully electrify every house in the neighborhood for less than the cost of the pilot.
Anton worries hydrogen is being used to greenwash natural gas, allowing companies “to talk about natural gas as a clean future when that's absolutely untrue.” He isn’t alone in these concerns: Both the Sierra Club and Physicians for Social Responsibility have launched petitions asking local officials to block the project.
With only one atom, hydrogen is the simplest element in the known universe. Commercially produced as a biproduct in the petroleum refining process, it’s long been eyed as a clean fuel alternative.
Government grants and tax credits aimed at lowering the cost to produce hydrogen are sparking fresh interest in the technology. Still, environmental groups warn that not all hydrogen is created equally. While hydrogen can provide power without generating end-use atmosphere-warming carbon-dioxide, the full production line is neither free of risk nor pollution.