Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) recently revealed separate field test and demonstration programs to clear the way for commercial-scale blending of hydrogen into its gas distribution system.

The Sempra Energy subsidiary plans to begin a two-year field test in March at its engineering facility east of downtown Los Angeles, examining a new technology that can simultaneously separate and compress hydrogen from a natural gas-hydrogen blend.

Developed by Netherlands-based HyET Hydrogen, the technology to be tested is designed to provide pure highly compressed hydrogen wherever a natural gas distribution system exists.

“At scale, it would allow hydrogen to be easily and affordably transported via the existing pipeline system, and then extracted and compressed at fueling stations for fuel cell electric vehicles,” said SoCalGas spokesperson Melissa Bailey.

Called electrochemical hydrogen purification and compression (EHPC), the technology applies an electrical current across a hydrogen-selective membrane to allow only hydrogen to permeate it while blocking natural gas components. Continual electrical current applications pressurize the hydrogen.

SoCalGas has a pending study of blending hydrogen into its natural gas system awaiting approval from state regulators. “If approved, the study would be the first step toward establishing a statewide standard for injecting hydrogen into the natural gas grid,” Bailey said.

Last week, SoCalGas also announced plans to develop the nation’s first carbon-neutral home using green hydrogen as its principal energy source, along with solar energy and blended natural gas. The gas-only utility is collaborating with Canadian-based ATCO, using a design it applied in Australia in 2019.

Dubbed the H2 Hydrogen Home, the SoCalGas demonstration is aimed at showing the role hydrogen produced from solar energy can play in reaching California’s goal of carbon neutrality. It is expected to be operable by the end of 2021. 

The program includes solar panels, a home storage battery, an electrolyzer to convert the solar into green hydrogen and a fuel cell to convert the hydrogen into electricity. Some of the hydrogen also would be blended with natural gas for use in household appliances.

SoCalGas President Maryam Brown and Green Hydrogen Coalition President Janice Lin said the demonstration should further support California’s leadership and hydrogen’s role in storing renewable power and reconverting it back to electricity. “It will help guide decision-making that ultimately creates a 21st century energy system,” Brown noted.

SoCalGas officials said that on a macro basis “hydrogen provides an ideal solution for long-term storage of renewable energy” on the regional grid. Stored hydrogen later can be converted back to carbon-free electricity.

ATCO developed the Clean Energy Innovation Hub in Perth, Australia, funded in part by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Based in Calgary, Alberta and the holding company for Canadian Utilities, ATCO is an example of the gas sector’s growing interest in hydrogen.

Recent business publication reports profile seven of the world’s biggest companies as focusing on the production of hydrogen from excess renewable power sources, which some areas of the United States are starting to develop with growing excess capacities.

“Demand aggregation is important for signaling investment and development,” said Laura Nelson, executive director of the year-old Green Hydrogen Coalition and a former energy advisor to the governor of Utah. “As demand and supply develop more scale, costs are projected to decline.”

International players such as Spain’s Iberdrola SA, Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power, and Norway’s Yara International ASA, have joined a “green catapult” initiative to increase hydrogen’s current scale by 50 times in the next six years.

Nelson agrees that a $2/kilogram price “will make green hydrogen (GH2) a more competitive commodity to displace fossil-based hydrogen” and further expand the global market. In less than a decade, GH2 can be competitive with fossil hydrogen as solar and wind costs continue to decline and production technology for GH2 continues to advance.

Sempra CEO Jeff Martin has said that the utility companies will be pushing hard for the development of hydrogen as a means of decarbonizing their gas systems. “It is still a little bit early, but it is time now for us to establish a leadership position.”