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.”

Climate policy legislation would have unintended consequences

In theory, a “net-zero” building code–that is, a code designed to develop new buildings that would generate no carbon emissions–sounds like a no-brainer. 

Energy efficiency, after all, is something we need to achieve. But whenever theory meets reality, the devil is in the details. And the details of the state’s proposed net-zero building code raise some troubling concerns.

That’s why this past January, Governor Charlie Baker vetoed the part of a sweeping climate policy bill that targets building codes. He instead sent it back with recommendations that a coalition of industry stakeholders as well as the general public be given the opportunity to weigh in on the provision.

Zero-energy buildings either produce no emissions or generate sufficient renewable energy to offset their carbon footprints. The original bill included a net-zero “stretch” or “flex” code that would allow communities in the Commonwealth to opt into higher energy efficiency requirements for new buildings.

If enacted, the provision would have created a patchwork of building codes across the state. That would have caused uncertainty and a lack of continuity in the construction industry. The provision would also open the door to communities such as Brookline, which attempted to ban the installation of gas and oil pipes in new and renovated buildings. Stating that it would undermine the state’s building and gas codes along with the authority of the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters, Attorney General Maura Healey disapproved the town’s bylaw.

The Brookline example highlights other potential problems with the proposed net-zero flex code. By uniformly banning gas, the town’s restrictions would have imposed a financial burden on homeowners, businesses, and organizations. They would have had to rely on electricity, which costs considerably more than gas, to heat their homes and buildings. It would have also increased the construction costs of new buildings in Brookline.

Higher construction costs are one of the primary objections to the net-zero code. For example, it is estimated that a typical two-story home would cost as much as $83,500 more to build. That would have a chilling effect on the development of affordable housing and other types of construction. It’s challenging enough for working families seeking housing in the Boston area; adoption of the code would make it that much more difficult. Also, it would discourage development of new projects, thereby taking jobs away from working men and women in the construction industry.

“This is a well-intended law,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of public affairs for the GBPCA. “But it has unintended negative consequences.”

Despite its informal characterization as a “flex” code, another problem with the legislation is its inflexibility. Should a community choose to outright ban all gas piping in new buildings for example, it would mandate a hatchet, rather than a scalpel, be used to help control carbon emissions. Rigid regulations may impose unnecessarily expensive technology that would make it prohibitive for developers and owners to proceed with projects. Some may not have the ability to scale up. Given some latitude, developers may be able to find ways to decarbonize faster and less expensively.

“I understand the desire to move away from gas,” says Tim Fandel, Local 12’s business manager. “We share the goal of addressing climate change and reducing carbon. But we differ on the pathway to getting there.”

Massachusetts, which is already recognized as a leader in climate issues, may need to move away from gas and other fossil fuels as energy sources. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that its cities and towns should ban all piping. DeAngelo points out that much progress is being made on zero-carbon-emission fuel resources such as renewable natural gas, methane, and hydrogen.

“We wouldn’t want to eliminate the pipe infrastructure,” he says, noting that Denmark and Australia have major projects that are powered by hydrogen. “We need a diverse energy portfolio, especially here in New England,” DeAngelo adds. “We need to take a broad view.”

By first vetoing and eventually reaching a compromise with the Legislature to allow for an industry stakeholder input process, a window has been provided for organizations such as the GBPCA and Local 12 to share their views about the law’s impact and to discuss issues such as the adoption of hydrogen as a fuel alternative.

“We are happy for the opportunity to have our voices heard as legislation and regulations are crafted,” says Local 12’s Fandel.

Natural gas ban rejected

In response to a bylaw passed by the town of Brookline seeking to ban the installation of gas and oil pipes in new and renovated buildings, Attorney General Maura Healey disapproved it because it is inconsistent with state law.

Her office said that the bylaw would undermine the state’s building and gas codes along with the authority of the Board of State Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters. Essentially, the codes are standard across the state and don’t allow for the kind of exception that Brookline was seeking. Further, the bylaw would violate a law that gives the public uniform access to utility services.

The issue is of importance to the GBPCA and Local 12. “It’s in our name,” says Tim Fandel, the union’s business manager. “We are Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 12. It’s no small part of what we do.” Gasfitting provides a lot of work for the union’s members and its affiliated GBPCA contractors.

That doesn’t mean the organizations are opposed to combating climate change—quite the opposite. In fact, they believe that gas provides a cleaner, more realistic, and more affordable pathway to renewable energy than imposing an outright ban of it.

The Brookline bylaw would have required developers and homeowners to install heating and hot water systems as well as appliances that exclusively use electricity. Other communities, including Cambridge, Newton, Lexington, and Somerville have considered similar measures.

“While it’s well-intentioned, trying to implement a fossil fuel ban in 2020 without an existing renewable energy infrastructure is misguided,” says Andrew DeAngelo, director of public affairs for the GBPCA.

He explains that by putting more of a burden on the electrical grid now, utilities would need to burn more fossil fuels thereby releasing more carbon emissions and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. When demand spikes during the winter, Massachusetts relies on oil- and coal-fired facilities for up to 40% of its electricity. Ironically therefore, should a community ban gas pipes, heat that could have been supplied by cleaner, gas-fired heating systems in homes and businesses would instead be generated by burning coal and oil. “If cities and towns attack this with a broad blade, there would be unintended consequences,” DeAngelo says.

“It’s impractical, and in some ways, irresponsible, to abruptly ban gas now,” Fandel adds. “It doesn’t make sense.”

It also would place an undue financial burden on homeowners, businesses, and organizations. The cost to heat using electricity compared to gas is more—in most cases, considerably more. In fact, Massachusetts has the highest electricity rates in the lower 48 states.

According to the commercial real estate development association, NAIOP Massachusetts, it is more cost-effective to build projects using gas systems. The proposed Brookline bylaw and similar measures would therefore hike the construction costs of new buildings. “At this stage of technology, natural gas bans would block important affordable housing and economic development projects from advancing and would be extremely detrimental to the commonwealth’s economy,” the NAIOP says.

Banning gas and requiring electric appliances and heating systems would also reduce consumer choice. Many homeowners as well as restaurants prefer gas ranges, stoves, and grills to prepare food.

Along with chambers of commerce and other organizations, the GBPCA and Local 12 are members of the Mass Coalition for Sustainable Energy [massforenergy.org]. The group supports a responsible transition to a renewable energy future that ensures reliability and affordability, strengthens the state’s economy, and enhances Massachusetts’ position as a leader on climate change. It advocates for expanding our access to natural gas.

“We all share the same goal of having cleaner energy sources like wind and solar in the long term,” Fandel says. “I think natural gas acts as a bridge to get us there eventually.”

Clear drain

Legislative update: Medical gas and drain cleaning bills

There are two pieces of legislation winding their ways through the State House that are of interest to the industry. One would establish licensing standards for medical gas piping systems, while the other would do the same for drain cleaners. Both of the bills were introduced early in 2019, both have been referred to the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and both have had public hearings conducted.

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