Hydrogen in our energy pipeline

With increasingly dire reports about the acceleration of climate change and its consequences, calls to address the existential issue have become more urgent. Per state law, Massachusetts has an ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% from 1990 levels before 2030. The figure rises to a 75% reduction by 2040 and to 85% by 2050. Among the ways that Massachusetts could help hit the targets is by incorporating hydrogen into the energy mix.

The gas contains the highest energy content fuel by weight and only emits water vapor when burned, which makes tapping its potential appealing. Is hydrogen viable as an alternate fuel source? The jury is still out, and there are some hurdles to overcome. But it seems to hold a great deal of promise.

“As far as we’re concerned, we are for an all-of-the-above approach” when it comes to planning our energy future, says Wendell Hibdon, director of energy and infrastructure for the United Association, the parent organization of Local 12. “Let’s consider everything.” Everything, he says, should include hydrogen.

The gas has many potential uses, including fueling cars, trucks, and other vehicles, generating electricity, heating homes, and powering appliances. It’s those last two applications in which plumbers and gasfitters would get involved. PCA contractors and the Local 12 members they employ could play a significant role in bringing hydrogen to the state’s homes and businesses.

“The beauty of using hydrogen for heating and to operate appliances is that the piping infrastructure to deliver it already exists,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “It’s installed and maintained by plumbers and gasfitters.”

More than 50% of Massachusetts homeowners have natural gas piped into their houses. Approximately 60% of homes in the U.S. rely on gas heating. It’s not as simple as converting those systems to pure hydrogen, however.

Blending hydrogen and natural gas

While more research needs to be done, it appears that existing heating systems and appliances such as gas ranges and clothes dryers would likely have to be retrofitted or redesigned to accommodate 100% hydrogen. In its pure form, the gas can also cause embrittlement of cast iron pipes. Of the 21,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in Massachusetts, about 2,800 miles is made of cast iron. (The remaining infrastructure, which is made of steel and polyethylene plastic, is compatible with hydrogen.)

A blend of hydrogen and conventional natural gas, however, has been shown to work with both the existing distribution piping system and end-user appliances. Hydrogen hybrid fuel is being used in Asia and Europe. For example, a hydrogen pilot project in Scotland, which has been in operation since last May, is being conducted by National Grid U.K.

The utility’s American counterpart, National Grid, announced a similar program in December for the Long Island town of Hempstead in New York. Dubbed the “HyGrid Project,” it is delivering hydrogen-blended gas to about 800 homes in the community. Hydrogen is also being used to fuel at least 10 municipal vehicles there.

“We believe that hydrogen can transform the energy industry, and we are on the forefront,” says Rudolph Wynter, president of National Grid New York. “This exciting project show that hydrogen blending can be used to decarbonize the existing networks.”

The ratio of hydrogen being used in the Hempstead program is currently 5%. According to the utility, it will slowly increase the amount of hydrogen in the blend with methane to 20% over a three-year period. Initial research indicates that residential appliances can operate without issue up to a 28% blend of hydrogen. The more hydrogen that is blended into the mix, the more carbon emissions can be reduced per unit of energy produced.

National Grid, which also operates in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, has stated that it wants to expand the use of the hybrid fuel and is considering other pilot programs. That is precisely what a recent UMass Lowell report calls for.

Study urges development of hydrogen policy in Mass.

In conjunction with Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), a multidisciplinary panel of experts convened by UMass Lowell studied the opportunities and challenges of developing a hydrogen-based economy in the state and throughout the Northeast. In a report published by the university’s Rist Institute for Sustainability & Energy in November, the organization concluded that hydrogen utilization could provide both economic benefits and help Massachusetts reach its greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

Some critics argue that hydrogen would prolong reliance on natural gas and that they would rather see gas pipeline networks phased out. In its place, they call for switching over to electric heat pumps and appliances. As the UMass Lowell report points out, however, such a large-scale conversion would be costly and would impose a burden on those least able to afford it. In contrast, by displacing natural gas with hydrogen, end users could keep their existing heating systems and appliances, and there would be no extra cost to them. The transition would be virtually seamless.

Also, making the switch to electricity for heating and appliances would place more of a demand on the state’s electrical grid, most of which relies on natural gas-fueled power plants. The state is years, and possibly decades away from generating enough electricity through offshore wind and other green sources to meet its needs.

“There’s a long haul to electrify every home in Massachusetts as well as to electrify every business,” says Bob Rio, a senior vice president at AIM. “We think there’s an opportunity here to use hydrogen to reduce greenhouse gases.”

The UA’s Hibdon agrees. “We can get started blending hydrogen with natural gas, and it will reduce carbon emissions right off the bat. To me, that’s a win-win.”

Another benefit to a pipeline system that would incorporate hydrogen, according to the UMass Lowell report, is that it would be more reliable in storms. Most heat pumps rely on above-ground power lines, which can be vulnerable during adverse weather conditions.

Although hydrogen is a common and readily available element, it can be challenging to produce it as a fuel source. Most hydrogen today is produced through a process known as steam methane reforming, or SMR, and is considered “grey.” The process itself yields carbon. “Blue” hydrogen couples SMR with carbon capture to reduce emissions, but that process is costly. The preferred color for hydrogen is “green,” which refers to hydrogen generated by using renewable power sources like wind or solar energy. “Green” hydrogen is being used on Long Island for the HyGrid Project.

The UMass Lowell study recommends that Massachusetts develop a comprehensive hydrogen policy that would integrate the use of hydrogen to reduce or eliminate carbon for heating homes and other buildings. It also calls for utilities to establish optional pilot programs that would blend hydrogen with natural gas. And it advocates for the creation of a renewable procurement standard for natural gas utilities and suppliers that would allow hydrogen to qualify for renewable energy credits in the state.

“We want to be involved and help make hydrogen a viable option,” says Hibdon. “We want to help lower carbon emissions.”