North America’s largest natural gas transporters and distributors are advancing projects to produce clean hydrogen and blend it into their mix to help achieve decarbonization goals.

Managers from industry heavyweights including Enbridge Inc. and Williams gave updates on their progress at the LDC Gas Forums Northeast event this month in Boston.

Although hydrogen offers “great scale” and a “great opportunity” to help decarbonize the energy sector, “the economy doesn’t exist yet and the infrastructure doesn’t exist yet,” said Williams’ Brian Hlavinka, director of emerging opportunities.

“We think there’s a great opportunity to use our infrastructure to start blending hydrogen. But eventually if you want to move the needle and really get to scale, what has to happen?”

​​Williams has its sights on hydrogen development in Wyoming at upstream acreage acquired this year through a joint venture with Crowheart Energy. The Wyoming Energy Authority (WEA) earlier in July approved a grant for Williams “to evaluate water access and compatibility as well as asset integrity in support of green hydrogen production and transport” in the area.

“We’ve got almost 100,000 acres to play with in Wyoming,” Hlavinka told the gathering, with a “great wind resource” that would allow the Tulsa pipeline giant to create so-called green hydrogen molecules onsite.

Green hydrogen is produced by separating the hydrogen and oxygen molecules of water via electrolysis powered by renewable electricity. Blue hydrogen refers to splitting hydrogen from natural gas, then capturing and either storing or utilizing the carbon dioxide (CO2) left over as a byproduct. 

At the Wyoming site, Williams may use captured CO2 from its processing facilities to create synthetic natural gas through a methanation process, Hlavinka said.

In this scenario, “That natural gas goes in the pipeline” and it then would be available “anywhere in the Lower 48,” Hlavinka said. Buyers could then claim the synthetic gas to reduce the emissions footprint of their own consumption, he added.

Williams is a founding partner of the Clean Hydrogen Future Coalition, which was created this year “to promote clean hydrogen as a key pathway to achieve global decarbonization objectives while also increasing U.S. competitiveness.”

Hlavinka said the group is focused on clean hydrogen production, “not a color of hydrogen, not a blue or a green or a gray, but decarbonized hydrogen in general.”

Natural Gas Still Big

Williams would in all likelihood still be a natural gas infrastructure company in 2050, Hlavinka said, “but there’s going to be other players in that space. 

“And so what we’re trying to figure out is how can we leverage the footprint that we have today, how can we leverage the relationships we have with our customers, and really find solutions for the future around decarbonization.”

Williams is aiming for a 56% absolute reduction in companywide greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 versus 2005 levels, and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Hlavinka said that, “in order to get to a net-zero solution, all of those technologies don’t exist yet.”

For the 2030 goal, however, “we think there is definitely a way to do that with the technologies that already exist today.”

Achieving the net-zero target will require technological advancements, diversification of Williams’ business, and collaborating with partners that the company hasn’t worked with in the past, Hlavinka.

​​Enbridge Gas Inc.’s Jason Gillett, director of gas supply, told the audience his firm is studying how blending hydrogen into the gas stream will impact its customers.

Through a recently announced pilot project, the Calgary-based Enbridge Inc. subsidiary would experiment with an up to 2% hydrogen blend for 3,600 customers in Markham, Ontario.

The hydrogen would be produced from a facility powered by excess electricity from the grid, “much of which comes from renewable sources,” Gillett said.

He stressed the importance of learning how natural gas infrastructure reacts to hydrogen, citing that while renewable natural gas (RNG) has the same chemical composition as conventional, hydrogen does not.

Some of Enbridge’s industrial customers in particular are highly sensitive to any changes in the composition of gas used as a feedstock, Gillett said. 

10-15% Hydrogen Blend Likely Doable 

Hlavinka said it’s difficult to put a definitive number on how much hydrogen can be blended into the U.S. natural gas system, explaining that it depends on the asset.

Broadly though, he said a 10-15% hydrogen blend “probably is doable for most American assets.” For Enbridge, that figure is closer to 5% for now.

“But I would also say, think about the amount of hydrogen you would have to create to even get to 5% of the 30 Bcf/d or so that we touch,” he said. “It doesn’t exist today.”

Virtual pipeliners also are preparing to integrate hydrogen and renewable natural gas to their natural gas-by-truck operations, which serve consumers that cannot access actual pipelines.

Sapphire Gas Solutions CEO Sam Thigpen said he sees the virtual pipeline space “as a great opportunity” to advance the energy transition, and that the same principles that apply to conventional natural gas can be applied to hydrogen and RNG.