June 2023, Vol. 250, No. 6


Hydrogen’s Importance in Looking Beyond Climate Change

By Richard Nemec, P&GJ Contributing Editor, North America                

(P&GJ) — Looking back two decades when actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, stakeholders in the nation’s most populous state were talking about creating a “Hydrogen Highway” for alternative fueled transportation.

Green Hydrogen renewable energy production pipeline.

However, in 2023 the focus has switched to electrification as a buffer against climate change, although state lawmakers this year have been proposing more support for hydrogen as an alternative to over-reliance on the power grid as a low-carbon energy solution. California, the Gulf Coast, and other areas continue to see a future for a U.S. hydrogen energy economy, but the naysayers are growing in response to these latest prospects. 

A national researcher-advocate for hydrogen, University of California, Irvine (UCI) engineering professor Jack Brouwer was disturbed by campus anti-hydrogen protests and e-mail-driven campaigns experienced in late 2022 toward a state regulatory-approved proposal to test the use of blended natural gas/hydrogen supplies at his campus and two other UC campuses.  

In early March, Brouwer indicated that “nothing much has changed” at the state level for hydrogen. “California supports hydrogen, but at a much, much smaller scale than alternatives like battery electric vehicles [EV],” he said.  

“A zero-emissions world desperately needs hydrogen’s features to be able to convince the public, and especially convince environmental groups that we need to invest a lot in this space,” said Brouwer, who is director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine. “It is very frustrating and tiring to see environmental groups opposing hydrogen, which is the only way we have to achieve zero-emission policy goals. It doesn’t make sense.” 

While the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has asked Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) and its partners to modify plans for testing hydrogen and natural gas blending, elsewhere nationally and internationally the interest in hydrogen is moving ahead rapidly, and Brouwer cites ambitious projects now ongoing in New Jersey, Canada, the United Kingdom, and “several other places around the world.”  

Hydrogen is increasingly recognized as a critically important tool necessary for the full decarbonization of the energy economy. 

Hydrogen Breakout 

Early in 2023, hydrogen projects were sprouting up across the globe from the Patagonian region of Chile to South Australia where plans were being formed to export green hydrogen to natural gas-rich Indonesia. 

In Canada, South Africa and across the U.S. and European Union the race is on to harness hydrogen for transportation and large industrial energy loads as a carbon-free alternative. This year researchers are primed to see more advances in sustainability through a combination of advances in wind, solar, and hydrogen. 

Hopscotching around the United States to New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Texas, Utah, South Carolina and Virginia, there are projects to mix hydrogen and natural gas in existing systems or create hydrogen-only pipeline and storage systems. There are projects, such as: Florida Power & Light Co. completing a 20 MW green hydrogen plant this year; NRG Energy Inc. has filed for a repowering of its Astoria, Queens, New York, peaking power plant by converting it to hydrogen by 2040. 

In the Texas Gulf region Entergy plans to use existing oil industry hydrogen pipeline networks and underground salt caverns to ship and store hydrogen to replace natural gas fired power; and in South Carolina, Duke Energy Carolinas, Siemens Energy, and Clemson University have partnered to create a hydrogen and combined-heat-and-power project that will electrify and heat the university’s campus. 

In a 2022 global review, the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that the pipeline and new projects for producing low-emission hydrogen were growing rapidly. IEA emphasized hydrogen’s growing potential and future prospects in helping address climate change. The review cites progress in infrastructure development, trade, policies, regulation, and investment. 

‘Planning Ahead’ 

Jeffrey Martin, the CEO at multi-billion-dollar natural gas infrastructure and utility holding company, San Diego-based Sempra, and other senior executives at its operating units, such as SoCalGas, have regularly outlined a vision for hydrogen during quarterly earnings conference calls and other presentations.  

“We think hydrogen certainly will have a big role to play as the liquefied natural gas [LNG] space evolves,” Martin said last October at an energy forum. “As we build new export facilities, we are planning ahead with a view toward leveraging common areas in development to allow us to more cost-effectively bring hydrogen into the mix further down the line.” 

The cost of generating hydrogen via electrolysis is driven primarily by a single variable: the cost of electricity. Because electricity costs have the biggest impact on the financial viability of clean hydrogen, researchers like Brouwer stress that it is imperative that electrolyzers consume as little electricity as possible.  

In other words, efficiency is key, they say. Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory (INL), for example, have been conducting a variety of tests on Bloom Energy’s solid oxide electrolyzer at the Dynamic Energy Testing and Integration Laboratory. 

As several national research laboratories have confirmed, gaseous hydrogen can be transported through pipelines much the way natural gas is today. Approximately 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines are currently operating in the United States owned by merchant hydrogen producers. These pipelines are located where large hydrogen users, such as petroleum refineries and chemical plants, are concentrated, primarily in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico Coast region. 

The general consensus is that transporting gaseous hydrogen via existing pipelines is potentially a low-cost option for delivering large volumes of the less dense fuel. Conversely, the high initial capital costs of new pipeline construction remain a major barrier to expanding hydrogen pipeline delivery infrastructure.  

Research today therefore focuses on overcoming technical concerns related to pipeline transmission, including potential embrittlement of existing legacy pipe from hydrogen flows; hydrogen permeation and leaks; and the need for lower cost, more reliable, and more durable hydrogen compression technology. 

Gearing Up 

In California, Sempra’s two gas distribution utilities are gearing up for a future hydrogen energy economy that supports the state’s goal for eliminating carbon emissions by the mid-21st Century.  

Last year, Sempra’s SoCalGas gained regulatory support to pursue feasibility planning this year to create a hydrogen pipeline system from the Arizona-California border to the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, including the largest U.S. port facilities at the adjacent Long Beach-Los Angeles harbors. 

Dubbed Angeles Link, the green hydrogen project has the backing of state regulators at the CPUC and a state-backed alliance that is pursuing a large chunk of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) $8 billion program for creating regional hydrogen hubs throughout the nation.  

SoCalGas CEO Scott Drury said the proposed Angeles Link is part of bold climate and clean air goals that combine the nation’s largest gas distributor’s “scale with 150 years of service, highly skilled workers, and clean energy/environmental policies.” Drury said the massive hydrogen transportation proposal has the potential to decarbonize what he calls “hard-to-electrify” sectors of the economy while helping improve air quality, particularly in the region’s emissions-shrouded ports. He notes that the project has regulatory, political, and environmental support throughout the state. 

At Illinois-based GTI Energy, a self-described research and training organization that is developing, scaling, and deploying technologies for low-carbon, low-cost energy systems, a series of research projects on hydrogen has been ongoing for more than a decade with a focus on how U.S. gas operators can ultimately integrate hydrogen into their operations. (It historically was known as the Gas Technology Institute, or GTI.)  

Some of this research is on blending various proportions of hydrogen with natural gas in existing infrastructure. Other projects examine how to operate parallel pure hydrogen systems adjacent to the legacy gas infrastructure. 

According to GTI Energy’s Tony Lindsay, managing director for energy systems at the research organization’s hydrogen technology center, there are few easy answers as both the remaining challenges and potential solutions are complex. 

Greater Compression  

“A weakness of hydrogen as an energy carrier is low volumetric energy density so the conventional [operating] approach to deal with this is to raise [pipeline] compression to higher pressures and try to store it or put energy into liquefying it. Thus, a more cost-effective way to liquefy it could be a big help,” Lindsay said. 

Lindsay calls this a “tricky” option that is “fighting the physics of the fuel.”  

Liquefying hydrogen for large utility-scale storage is problematic. 

“It has all the challenges that the natural gas industry has dealt with in terms of LNG,” Lindsay said. “Challenges are amplified because hydrogen requires lower temperatures and it has different impacts on different materials.” 

Nevertheless, in 2023, Lindsay thinks the U.S. is “on the doorstep” of some significant developments that should answer some of the questions surrounding hydrogen’s future economic viability as a large-scale energy source. In March, he cited the fact that up to 30 proposals were expected to be submitted in April to the federal DOE under the multi-billion-dollar hydrogen hub program. They are expected to outline various regional efforts for bringing demand, production and movement of hydrogen into balance under a government-supported economically viable structure, according to Lindsay. 

From a basic research perspective for answering fundamental technical questions, Lindsay said, the current investment levels are considered to be adequate. But there is also the economic and sustainability perspective, raising the question: Can there be an affordable transition to a carbon-free world? Skeptics may view all of this as problematic.  

“I think there is still a need for some ongoing R&D, for sure, in the space, more so in regard to using our existing pipeline infrastructure than in new construction,” Lindsay said. “Building new infrastructure for either natural gas or a pure hydrogen pipeline we know how to do safely.” 

The challenge, Lindsay said, is adapting the existing legacy systems to handle hydrogen while not knowing precisely what the condition of the existing infrastructure materials is. “This is where we spend our time at GTI Energy,” he said. GTI operates a hydrogen technology center that has recently expanded with added facilities. The center has attempted to put all the skill-sets needed to address hydrogen in one business unit with a focused effort. 

HyBlend Project 

The Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has an ongoing HyBlend project, focusing on material compatibility – both steels and nonmetallic materials. NREL has reportedly obtained some good data that is helping answer questions that the oil and gas industry has about the impacts of increased amounts of hydrogen on pipeline infrastructure, according to Lindsay.  

“We’re working closely with them, although we’re not receiving any funding through that program,” she said. 

GTI is examining the NREL project data and trying to determine its relevance for gas system operators. “It is one thing to see changes in resistance to cracking for a material from hydrogen, for example, but a natural follow-up to that is what does it mean to an operator,” said Lindsay, noting that GTI is looking at the predicted-life models [for materials] and the engineering guidance that the natural gas industry has relied on historically, along with various safety factors and integrity tests.  

“Things certainly may be different in the future if we see percentages of hydrogen being used in appreciable amounts. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but only that we have to be assured we have the same levels of safety factors,” she added. 

In Europe over the past two years, the European Clean Hydrogen Alliance has established a portfolio of up to 840 separate hydrogen projects, reportedly covering all part of the value chain, including three broad categories of production, transmission/distribution, and end-use segment applications for hydrogen, including industrial, transportation, energy systems, and buildings. 

Since late 2022, alliance officials have touted many projects covering hydrogen production and its use in industries such as chemicals, refining, steel, or transport, particularly heavy-duty road and maritime transport. They note that the projects are located across Europe, with many scheduled to enter into operation by the end of 2025.  

Russian Dependence 

The intention is to have the deployment of these clean hydrogen projects play a significant role in helping the E.U. reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas and meet ambitious decarbonization targets. 

Also developed late last year, San Diego-based Sempra Infrastructure has inked a preliminary deal with a unit of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, Avangrid, for the potential joint development of U.S. green hydrogen and ammonia projects powered by renewable sources in the Gulf Coast region.  

Under heads of agreement (HOA) signed in October 2022, a potential framework has been created for the companies to “identify, appraise, and potentially develop large-scale green hydrogen projects to help meet the energy and decarbonization needs of both U.S. and international customers.” 

“The U.S. is facing unprecedented challenges and opportunities to develop competitive solutions that meet its growing energy needs, while also aiming to transition to a cleaner and more sustainable energy future,” said Pedro Azagra, CEO of Avangrid, calling these type projects critical for industry decarbonization efforts.   

Similarly, Sempra Infrastructure CEO Justin Bird considers hydrogen and ammonia to be “effective decarbonization solutions” for various sectors of the U.S. and global markets. Bird sees the anticipated large-scale green projects as advancing hydrogen as a key part of the global energy transition. 

“Significant infrastructure will be needed for hydrogen's potential to become a reality and Sempra Infrastructure's combined platform is well-positioned to support the deployment of these new energy solutions.”

On the market development side, the Sempra utility SoCalGas is working with regional members of the HyDeal commercialization platform to create what the partners are calling the “first high-volume supply chain” to deliver green hydrogen in the Southern California region for $1.50/kilogram in 2030.  

They have mutually created HyDeal Los Angeles to pursue this goal. The gas-only utility – the nation’s largest – has indicated that there are “numerous third parties” interested in the use of and production of green hydrogen. 

Utility officials see this project as timely and important because of the growing agreement among government officials and stakeholders that renewables such as solar, wind and batteries alone will not be enough to help California meet its goal of carbon neutrality by 2045. “Green hydrogen can play an indispensable role in providing dispatchable energy for hard-to-electrify sectors of the economy.”  

Hydrogen’s distinctly different composition from fossil fuels continues to provide challenges to increased reliance on it as a more widespread fuel, but industry research experts maintain that these differences can be effectively dealt with.  

At high-flow, Citygate areas metering and measurement definitely need to be addressed, the experts say. Other areas that need more work include: odorization and leak detection equipment. Technology providers are ahead of the curve for the most part in studying and determining modifications that will be required.  

“Different gas characteristics between natural gas and hydrogen means you have different performance factors for the meters,” GTI’s Lindsay said. “At the commercial/residential level, there is a positive displacement as the volumes of gas flowing can be accurately measured, but the amounts of energy flowing become an energy calculation issue, since the billing is based on heating value or energy content – not volumes of gas in cubic feet.” 

Less energy dense hydrogen might take up the same space as natural gas, but those same volumes would amount to considerably less heating value. And again because of the density differences, compression for hydrogen is different. 

“It is going to take more horsepower to move the same amounts of energy,” Lindsay said. “There are some good studies that have been done, so operators now have a pretty good understanding of what the impacts with hydrogen are going to be.” 

Within the hydrogen space there is a clear distinction between distribution and transmission infrastructure needs as the former is basically ready to use hydrogen in lieu of natural gas or blended because it consists almost entirely of plastic, polyvinyl pipe. Large diameter, high-pressure steel transmission pipeline systems are a different matter entirely, UCI’s Brouwer said. 

Hydrogen Diffusion 

“It is very likely that the plastic distribution system will need no modification for even running 100% hydrogen,” he said. “People are still studying the possible diffusion of hydrogen through plastic, but the findings I have seen so far indicate plastic pipe should have no [leakage] problem.”  

Given this finding, it means there is a certain portion of the existing gas systems that can be used immediately for hydrogen with no added investment, researchers like Brouwer indicate. In contrast, individual metering infrastructure will need replacement or retrofitting for hydrogen, which has a different volumetric energy content than natural gas.  

“I think that will be the most expensive thing that we would need to change for a hydrogen economy,” Brouwer said. “There will be many other things, such as compressor station changes, but that is not as big an asset.”  

Also, transmission pipes, themselves, may have to be replaced or treated with coatings to avoid hydrogen’s tendency to embrittle steel over long periods of time. In the overall energy context, however, Brouwer points out that less transmission piping will be needed for a hydrogen system because the fuel can be produced more widely geographically, eliminating the need for a lot of long-distance, interstate pipelines. 

Industry researchers are convinced that there has not been sufficient study of how best to transform traditional geologic natural gas storage to store hydrogen. Some groups are finally starting to look at this now; to look at depleted oil and gas fields, aquifers, and other places where massive amounts of hydrogen might be kept for future use. “We know that salt caverns work pretty well, but we have to spend time on some of these other options,” Brouwer said. 

GTI’s Lindsay agrees, noting that the challenge is adaptation of existing fossil fuel underground storage caverns, especially if it is linked to utility-scale storage for hydrogen. These involve aquifers and underground geological storage in depleted oil and gas fields.  

“We still need to better understand how increased levels of hydrogen in those environments may impact the geology and microorganisms that are present and the well structures themselves,” Lindsay said. “This is a tough one because it is quite an investment to have a test replicating this out in a safe manner at scale.” 

Existing gas storage facilities deal with sulfur compounds and fluids and liquids and the underground composition, and it is all pretty well understood with today’s composition of natural gas, but they are not well known in relationship to hydrogen.  

“There may be new sets of compounds that can form,” Lindsay said. “There are still some concerns about the worsening of the effects of microbiological organisms on steel and cement used in storage wells. We’re hoping to see research advances in these areas.” 

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

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