June 2021, Vol. 248, No. 6


Gas Industry Responds to Climate Change, Readies Transition

By Richard Nemec, Contributing Editor  

In the midst of winter this year, a panel of academics and energy industry experts gathered online with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy to map out pathways for making and using hydrogen.   

They carried on a wide-ranging internet discussion on the role that natural gas transportation and distribution systems could play in the early phases of the hydrogen economy.  

The discussion was led by the center’s senior research scholar Erin Blanton, who moderated a panel of university and industry experts.   

They outlined how hydrogen can be made and used today to spur economic growth and rapid decarbonization. During a month-long series of webinars and other forums in April, the scholars at Columbia’s center reiterated that hydrogen is a “hot topic.”   

The evidence for that can be seen in the Chinese government’s state-owned China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec) setting a goal of being carbon-free by 2050. If the Chinese are moving in the same long-term direction as the West, the trend has to be considered global in scope.  

Columbia’s online discussion took place as the focus in the North American energy sector shifted to more emphasis on decarbonization, and the fossil fuels space was contemplating an inevitable transition driven by the relentless reality of climate change gripping the globe, impacting commerce, politics, economics and everything in between.   

Research centers like the Illinois-based Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have completed in-depth hydrogen blend studies for a consortium of natural gas operators. These projects focused on the life-cycle assessment of hydrogen blending as well as the safety, leakage, durability, integrity, end-use and environmental impacts.  

Coincidentally, seven utility-backed projects are ongoing across the United States, from NW Natural Holding Co.’s project with the Eugene, Ore., local government to produce hydrogen and capture carbon dioxide (CO2) to New Jersey Resources Corp.’s project to test blending hydrogen with natural gas in Howell, N.J. Sempra Energy’s Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) is busy in California with ongoing natural gas-hydrogen blending demonstrations and in Austin, Texas, with the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) innovative H2@Scale project.   

GTI is leveraging its seasoned expertise in the DOE project, partnering with Frontier Energy, SoCal Gas and the University of Texas at Austin, along with several commercial companies, to design, build and operate the first dedicated renewable hydrogen infrastructure network in Texas.   

The three-year project seeks to demonstrate the safety and reliability of a natural gas/hydrogen network and deliver a very practical, real-world result, according to its backers. It will integrate a wide variety of new and existing technologies, including electrolysis powered by renewable electricity, infrastructure development, hydrogen storage, vehicle fueling and a fuel cell to provide electricity to an energy-intense data center.  

In late April, President Joe Biden announced a new, nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, setting a goal for the United States to reduce economywide net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030.  

As coordinated with the White House, the heads of the Business Council for Sustainable Energy (BCSE) and Clean Energy Business Network (CEBN) offered their enthusiastic support. They see it as a boost to the clean energy market and a prod in accelerating the transformation to a low-carbon economy.  

At a global climate conference around the same time in Europe, the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) launched a United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDG) roadmap for the oil and natural gas industry.  

It was developed in conjunction with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD). The roadmap was developed in response to “the critical need for concerted action and coordinated solutions as the world approaches the 2030 deadline to achieve the UN goals for SDG, [despite] the global COVID-19 pandemic reversing progress on many of the SDGs,” according to IPIECA Executive Director Brian Sullivan.  

In a refreshed statement on climate change, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) notes it is focusing on innovative policies and research/development (R&D) projects dealing with transportation and storage of low-carbon products, such as hydrogen, carbon capture and renewable natural gas (RNG).  

GTI's Hydrogen Technology Center. (Photo: GTI)
GTI's Hydrogen Technology Center. (Photo: GTI)

“Several of INGAA’s members are already initiating hydrogen blending pilot programs, and we are encouraged by the results of R&D initiatives that are exploring the potential to deliver new lower-carbon fuels through existing, repurposed, or new transportation and storage systems,” said INGAA spokesperson Amy Conway.   

Among the growing optimism for a decarbonized world, fossil fuel operators have to maintain a skeptical eye that looks at the real challenges of transitioning energy infrastructure around the world that is designed, operated and maintained to carry carbon-laden energy. A savvy U.S. consultant points out that for pipeline owners an important consideration is that storage costs are likely going to be more costly than transportation costs in a decarbonized world.  

Experts at Columbia University’s center warn that infrastructure presents a huge challenge for creating a full-blown hydrogen energy economy.  

“Just the transmission lines will cost on the order of $2.5 trillion,” said Columbia’s senior scholar Julio Friedmann. “To build the electrolyzers will cost on the order of $5-$6 trillion, and another $5-$6 trillion to build the added renewable-based power supplies, so you’re talking on the order of $14 trillion just for the infrastructure,” Friedmann said.   

He notes several trillion dollars can be shaved off these estimates by blending blue and green hydrogen rather than relying simply on green.  

“In our Mitsubishi work [a study on hydrogen opportunities for Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas Inc. and Magnum Development LLC], we found that underground geologic storage was a much lower cost than compressed or liquefied hydrogen, even with the incremental costs of transporting that hydrogen via pipeline,” says Dan Aas, a director with 3E Consulting.   

For the near-term, Aas thinks this probably means that blending hydrogen into existing gas pipelines will be the favored option. He thinks pipe owners have “some work to assess the technical feasibility” on their systems.   

A NREL paper concluded that relatively high blends may be possible in cathodic-protected steel pipes, but industry analysts have picked up concerns among the pipeline companies about impacts of hydrogen on their compressors.   

“Eventually, there may be sufficient demand for hydrogen that dedicated pipelines could make sense, but there is definitely a chicken-and-egg issue there,” Aas says. In contrast, European gas network companies have been scoping out a “hydrogen backbone” concept that would try to achieve economies of scale by linking discreet industrial clusters to the network, Aas points out.  

“I haven’t seen anything so specific in the U.S.,” he said.  

Through two major gas and electric technology organizations, a five-year, $100 million effort is underway to do a panoramic review of decarbonization efforts in the United States and parts of North America. It is called the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI) and began as a joint effort between the GTI and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).   

The effort, in less than a year, has attracted a consortium of dozens of energy utilities and stakeholders. For several days at the end of April, GTI and EPRI hosted consecutive 90-minute online workshop sessions with experts from supportive organizations, drilling down on projects now ongoing that are ready for existing infrastructure or identifying new pieces of the energy delivery network.  

In one of the sessions, experts from SoCalGas, Duke Energy, New York Power Authority (NYPA) and Black & Veatch (B&V) consulting engineers outlined various research areas that are needed to drive “deep, economywide decarbonization,” including the importance of demonstrations-to-scale projects.   

SoCalGas Senior Director for Business Development Yuri Freedman emphasizes that integration of energy choices is increasingly critical, and this is why his Sempra Energy gas-only utility is focused on developing all types of clean hydrogen, along with expanding the applications for carbon capture and storage (CCS) and RNG.  

In the first four months of this year, GTI conducted three virtual sessions that are still available on its website in recorded form on the subjects of “Low-Carbon Energy Systems; Carbon Capture and Utilization in Decarbonization; and Safer, Smarter, Sustainable Gas Distribution.”  

They examine many of the ongoing research and demonstration projects in which GTI is involved, focusing on the infrastructure for energy delivery and storage that will be needed in the decarbonized world.  

“We’re emphasizing the synergies among carbon-neutral energy production, storage and infrastructure compatibility needed to deliver clean energy across all business sectors,” said GTI’s James Seaba, senior director for technology development. The goal is to create safer, smarter and sustainable systems for various gas operators, Seaba said.  

In assessing various demonstration projects aimed at bolstering the U.S. energy delivery system, GTI engineers recognize the North American natural gas pipeline and storage infrastructure has the capability to move massive amounts of energy and react to changes. “Inherently, chemical delivery systems such as natural gas and liquid pipelines have much greater energy delivery capacity than electric power lines,” said Tony Lindsay, GTI’s energy delivery director.  

“A typical interstate gas pipeline can have 10 to 50 times greater energy delivery capability than an electric transmission line of various common sizes.” Typically, pipelines are buried and less vulnerable to extreme weather impacts, he added.  

GTI stresses that as decarbonization policies increase and spread laterally, the importance of the U.S. gas network has become more apparent, said Lindsay, ticking off the statistics of 2.2 million miles (3.5 million km) of gas distribution pipelines, and more than 300,000 miles (480,000 km) of transmission pipelines, that can serve as the foundation of an infrastructure moving hydrogen, CO2 and RNG. “A strong infrastructure is vital to our energy future,” Lindsay emphasizes. He thinks innovation is how the nation can assure that all the tools are in place.  

After the Biden administration announced its Paris Agreement-related 50% GHG emissions reduction goal for 2030, the nonpartisan Carbon Capture Coalition’s Director Brad Crabtree outlined a wide-open lane for elevating CO2 capture and storage. It is now squarely part of the White House’s initiative on climate change.  

“Eventual net-zero emissions by 2050 is a goal requiring economywide deployment of the full suite of carbon management tools, including carbon capture, removal, transport, utilization and storage,” Crabtree said last April.  

Core carbon management priorities are part of the administration’s American Jobs Plan, and they are all included in bipartisan legislation introduced this year in the U.S. House and Senate.   

These priorities enjoy support across the political spectrum, Crabtree said. “They include direct pay and a 10-year extension of the federal 45Q tax credit; increased 45Q credit values for carbon capture from industrial facilities, power plants and direct air capture plants; passage of the Storing CO2 And Lowering Emissions (SCALE) Act to support the buildout of CO2 transport and storage infrastructure; and stepped-up federal investment in commercial-scale demonstration of industrial carbon capture and hydrogen production,” he said.  

While the vision of a hydrogen economy has been around for decades and organizations like GTI have been involved on an industrywide basis over all the years, the vision has not materialized. Skeptics may find solace in the past expectations falling short, but the current dynamics are not like the past.   

“This time is different,” said Kristine Wiley, director of GTI’s Hydrogen Technology Center. “The key drivers are different now and much more urgent. The increased global attention on climate change and the need to curb GHG emissions have really been driving the need to develop and deploy low-carbon technology and do it at a rapid pace.”  

Wiley cites market changes that signify a transition to low-cost, low-carbon energy systems. She said one example is the global competition now ongoing in which nations around the world are mapping national hydrogen plans as part of decarbonization strategies. This includes global corporations that are committing more and more to carbon neutrality as new sources of capital are emerging for investment in clean fuels. For GTI and Wiley, now is “an extraordinary opportunity” to integrate hydrogen into the existing comprehensive energy delivery system.  

From a chemical viewpoint, hydrogen is the lightest, smallest, simplest and most abundant of the elements, but it is not readily available for harnessing, since it has to be separated from other sources, such as water or fossil fuels.   

“One of its advantages is that it has the highest energy content of any fuel by weight, three times that of gasoline,” Wiley said. “However, it also has the lowest energy content by volume, about four times less than gasoline and a third of the heat content of natural gas.”  

“Anything you burn natural gas for, you can burn hydrogen,” said Columbia’s Friedmann, another senior scholar at the energy center and a recognized expert on hydrogen and carbon capture. Friedmann notes that it burns hot (3,812 degrees F [2,100 degrees C]), compared to methane’s 3,632 degrees F (2000 degrees C). “If you burn it in a pure oxygen environment, it reaches 2800 degrees C [5,072 degrees F], enough heat to melt tungsten, so it is pretty good stuff for the industry.”  

Most U.S. hydrogen today is “gray,” extracted from fossil fuels, but there is also “blue” hydrogen that come from fossil fuels and CCS.   

“Today we’re doing with 60%-95% carbon capture, and you can, of course, make it from water with non-carbon electricity (renewables, hydro and nuclear) and produce zero emission, or green hydrogen,” Freedman said.   

There is also bio-hydrogen from various waste products and the production of other fuels from hydrogen such as ammonia, which accounts for half the use of hydrogen globally today, according to Friedmann, who thinks hydrogen should be thought of as a refined product.  

Faster Escape 

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and elsewhere have confirmed that hydrogen escapes at the same rate as methane in existing low-pressure infrastructure, but hydrogen may escape faster in cases where there is a large leak. Low-cost solutions like hydrogen leak detectors are already under commercial development. Another area requiring more attention is hydrogen storage, GTI’s Wiley said.   

While hydrogen leakage from salt caverns is negligible, other underground storage types – such as depleted oil and gas wells – have not yet been studied adequately, according to UCI’s Jack Brouwer. Salt cavern storage capacity is plentiful in many parts of the nation.   

To offer a sense of the potential benefit to the energy system, experts note that a single salt dome storage facility linked to a Utah green hydrogen project has an energy capacity of 150 times that of all the batteries in the country.  

In recent years, GTI has completed numerous studies looking at the material integrity and operational compatibility of a bounded natural gas pipeline system and its components with a 5% hydrogen-blended fuel, to help determine if any system upgrades might be necessary to reduce risk and support gas interchangeability. This work is headed toward future phases involving testing of metallic materials and subsequently developing engineering tools to allow an integrity assessment and a safety margin determination of hydrogen-blended gas use.  

On an international level, IPIECA outlined various actions for the oil and gas operators to take, including scaling innovation and venture business models; increasing commercial viability of existing low-carbon products, such as sustainable biofuels, hydrogen and other solutions like CCs; increasing investment in innovation and collaboration; deploying and advocating for gas infrastructure that is compatible with decarbonized gas; and investing in the CCS industry and large-scale natural climate solutions.   

“We hope that this important roadmap can help to establish a standard for global best practices with regard to how the oil and gas sector and its value chain can drive the transformations that are urgently needed to realize the ambitions of the SDGs on the road to 2030,” said WBCSD President and CEO Peter Bakker. “While the oil and gas industry has the potential to contribute to all 17 SDGs, the roadmap highlights 10 where the industry can have the biggest impact by driving innovations in its own operations and across the supply chain.”   

Amid growing hope and hype, researchers like Columbia’s Friedmann recommends keeping an eye on the challenges between new and existing energy infrastructure in addressing climate change.   

“You can put hydrogen into natural gas infrastructure today at low limits,” he notes. “They’re doing it in Los Angeles at 4%, moving up to maybe 10%, and that is going to be the limit in most of the United States. Beyond that, we really don’t know yet.”  

Given the mindset in most of America, no one is sanguine about building a lot of new infrastructure. While most Americans want low-carbon fuels to enter the market, they do not want overhead transmission lines, CO2 pipelines and ammonia storage tanks. Ultimately, major global ports such as Los Angeles/Long Beach and Houston are going to be important in a green energy economy.   

Freedman predicts the pathways to decarbonization are going to be a bumpy ride. He suggests the energy sector folks buckle up.   

Richard Nemec is a P&GJ contributing editor based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at rnemec@ca.rr.com. 


Related Articles


{{ error }}
{{ comment.comment.Name }} • {{ comment.timeAgo }}
{{ comment.comment.Text }}