Opinion: Hydrogen High Risk, Low Reward with Current Tech

April 5, 2022

Hadley Tallackson in Utility Dive:

Gas and electric utilities’ interest in hydrogen is growing as a potential pathway to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen, like natural gas, is flammable and can be burned for energy, but it doesn’t release carbon dioxide during combustion. This makes hydrogen seem like a compelling alternative for gas utilities looking to continue business-as-usual while meeting decarbonization goals or requirements. Since 2020, utilities have submitted at least 26 hydrogen pilot projects for regulatory approval across 15 states.

But new Energy Innovation research demonstrates these proposals carry high risks with little reward. Hydrogen blending would likely raise consumer costs, increase dangerous pollution, and risk public safety, all while minimally reducing emissions. Regulators must proceed with caution when considering hydrogen proposals and weigh them against more viable decarbonization strategies, particularly electrification.

Most hydrogen produced today is derived from an emissions-intensive process using natural gas, nicknamed “gray hydrogen,” and is largely used in oil refining and fertilizer production. But a decarbonized economy requires hydrogen to be made through zero-carbon processes. This “green hydrogen” is electrolyzed from water using renewable electricity, with oxygen as the only byproduct. While the process is carbon-free, the fuel still poses significant challenges for cutting emissions.

Hydrogen’s different chemical properties compared to natural gas makes complete fuel substitution unrealistic using current natural gas infrastructure and appliances. A 20% hydrogen/80% natural gas mix is the known blending limit before more substantial upgrades are needed, and even that is optimistic absent further research. That blend results in just a 7% cut in emissions compared to 100% natural gas — still at major cost for infrastructure retrofits or replacements.

Given these roadblocks, regulators should exercise skepticism when considering ratepayer-funded proposals to blend hydrogen with natural gas and should place a high burden of proof on utilities to demonstrate how these investments support a safe, viable and cost-effective long-term decarbonization strategy relative to alternatives.

Hydrogen is an expensive fuel to consider for large-scale use in buildings. Costs in the United States range widely, but green hydrogen is currently six to 14 times more expensive than natural gas. Even a 20% blend of green hydrogen with natural gas could raise the fuel price two to four times compared to 100% natural gas. On top of the initial high cost, utilities would need to upgrade their existing natural gas infrastructure — right down to the pipes in our homes.

Utilities hope to limit upgrade costs based on the premise that much of their existing natural gas infrastructure would need only slight modifications to support the new fuel. Pilot projects therefore aim to understand how much hydrogen can safely be blended with natural gas in existing distribution systems and for use in today’s household appliances. However, the extent of upgrades and investments needed to support integration of this fuel is still uncertain.

Depending on each pipeline’s age, material and operating pressure, hydrogen can make steel pipes brittle — exacerbating cracks — and leak at much higher volumes than natural gas through plastic pipes. Utilities must test each section of their gas infrastructure to determine the upgrades needed to support even low levels of hydrogen blending, and then go through additional testing and upgrades to accommodate higher blends.

Higher blends or 100% hydrogen fuel would also require swapping all natural gas appliances in homes and buildings to appliances that are compatible with either all or high-blend hydrogen. Such appliances are in early stages of development — the most advanced are only now being prototyped in the United Kingdom.

If they did become broadly available, they would still have efficiency penalties compared to their electric counterparts — directly powering a heat pump for indoor heating would use renewable electricity three to six times more efficiently than using it to electrolyze green hydrogen that is then distributed and burned in a furnace. Even compared with low blends, direct electrification for heating would still be at least two to four times more efficient.

These efficiency losses would translate to higher fuel demand, meaning higher capital expenses for building out renewables and electrolyzers — and all of these costs could show up on ratepayer bills.

In addition to cost questions, hydrogen’s safety challenges have yet to be resolved.

Hydrogen’s much greater propensity to ignite poses safety concerns to those working near transmission pipelines that move gas at high pressures, or to households with low ventilation. Compared to natural gas, hydrogen is more prone to leakage due to its small molecular size, and there are currently no known compatible odorants so it’s not possible to smell a leak.

Hadley Tallackson is a Policy Analyst at Energy Innovation, focusing on electrification of buildings, transportation, and industry to reach decarbonization. Her work also supports the power sector transformation program.

4 Responses to “Opinion: Hydrogen High Risk, Low Reward with Current Tech”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    Agree. Electrify everything. Get fossil fuels.

  2. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Higher blends or 100% hydrogen fuel would also require swapping all natural gas appliances in homes and buildings to appliances that are compatible with either all or high-blend hydrogen.

    If you’re in a position to change your gas appliances, you’re in a position to get rid of them completely.

    I can see green hydrogen being used to fill various industrial applications, but using it as fuel for consumers or the grid is a non-starter.

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