Authors of a white paper focused on blending hydrogen made using renewable electricity with natural gas suggest wholesale backing by utilities and policymakers could sidetrack U.S. climate progress, but industry advocates see it as part of an arsenal of solutions.
Researchers with Energy Innovation Policy and Technology LLC posited that large-scale plans to blend green hydrogen with natural gas in existing infrastructure are at best a “highly inefficient” solution for power generation and heating. In the worst case scenario, relying on green hydrogen could lead to dead-end investments that raise greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over time, while inflating energy costs for consumers.
“Theoretically, hydrogen offers an appealing path for gas utilities to continue business-as-usual without major disruption to their financial models in the face of the decarbonization imperative,” the authors wrote.
In general, hydrogen is referred to as green when it is generated by splitting water with an electric current in a process called electrolysis, eliminating air emissions from the process. Green hydrogen can reduce the GHG emissions of fuels it’s mixed with when it is made with renewable electricity. Blue hydrogen is manufactured from natural gas, with emissions reduced through carbon capture and sequestration.
San Francisco-based Energy Innovation provides climate-focused research for clients using modeling and open-sourced data. It currently lists helping utilities trade fossil fuels for greater shares of renewable energy and building electrification on its lists of projects. Hal Harvey, the firm’s CEO, previously served on executive energy panels under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Clinton.
The authors focused only on green hydrogen instead of other production methods because they said it is the “only scalable source of GHG emissions-free hydrogen available today.”
Using about 26 pilot projects across more than 12 states and predictions about the current direction of federal policy on green hydrogen, the paper painted a picture of the possible issues with integrating blended hydrogen into homes and power systems.
The hydrogen molecule could increase safety issues and GHG emissions from leaks, according to the research. Since hydrogen is the smallest molecule in the known universe, its use “creates pipeline integrity and leakage challenges throughout the existing U.S. natural gas infrastructure system.” Issues with leaks would require more upgrades and infrastructure investment than most utilities have bargained for, the authors wrote.
Researchers also questioned the efficacy of blended hydrogen, arguing that its “lower energy content” compared to methane-rich natural gas makes it a poor substitute. They estimated that current natural gas pipeline infrastructure could possibly handle only a 20% hydrogen mix without safety issues, which could potentially reduce GHG emission by 6-7%.
Industry advocates including the American Gas Association (AGA), which represents more than 200 utilities across the country, have supported the research and implementation of hydrogen for utilities as part of a broad strategy of energy transition options.
The AGA published a study in February focused on combining natural gas infrastructure with solutions like renewable natural gas and hydrogen technologies to put utilities on a faster and less expensive route to GHG reduction.
AGA’s Emily O’Connell, senior director of policy and analysis, told NGI that individual utilities have to meet the energy needs of their service areas and customers with unique challenges that might not be suited for a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why it advocates for studying solutions like green hydrogen with an emphasis on “regional and local assessment.”
“Decarbonization pathways that leverage both the gas and electric systems have a greater potential to help minimize negative customer impacts, maintain high reliability, accelerate carbon reductions, improve overall energy system resiliency and create opportunities for emerging technologies (such as power-to-gas and hydrogen) to support the needs of both systems in a net-zero future,” O’Connell said.
Outside of the debate over whether to invest in large-scale green hydrogen blending, energy market experts have found gaps in data on hydrogen in general that needs to be improved before policymakers can make well-informed decisions.
Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a researcher with the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, wrote in a commentary that researchers currently lack basic data to properly track demand or current production for hydrogen like with other energy commodities.
As governments and utilities seek to increasingly use solutions like green hydrogen, Corbeau wrote there will have to be a collaborative effort to gather statistics and set uniform units of measurement to make sure the hydrogen economy “is speaking the same language.”
“As hydrogen’s potential is still emerging, there is a chance at this early stage to build an approach to data gathering that brings transparency to a key sector in decarbonizing the energy system,” Corbeau said.
The Department of Energy has also been trying to gradually incentivize construction of infrastructure to store and transport hydrogen in the United States. Late last month, it announced $2.4 million in funding for three hydrogen storage projects it said would have long-term potential to “support the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal of a fully decarbonized electricity grid by 2035.”
Both utilities and traditional hydrocarbon companies have been steadily exploring and investing in hydrogen to reduce their future GHG emissions. Several large energy companies including Chevron Corp. have opted for varying combinations of renewable energy and alternative fuels instead of focusing on one technology.
The International Renewable Energy Agency, a research collective tasked by more than 165 member nations to study climate policies, reported at the end of March that production of green hydrogen would need to grow to 614 million tons/year by 2050 ito meet the 1.5 C degree global warming goal outlined in climate models by the United Nations.
The current energy crisis in Europe, increasingly heightened by conflict in Ukraine, has also given hydrogen more attention. In a partnership between U.S. and European leaders announced last month, a task force was established to expedite liquefied natural gas export projects that could be used for hydrogen in the future.
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