Supporters view a pilot project in the works at UC Irvine as a crucial step in helping California hit its clean energy goals.
Opponents, who protested the project on campus Friday, say it’s a distraction from more viable climate solutions, and that it will “use college students as guinea pigs in a dangerous experiment.”
And while many of those students remain oblivious to the brewing controversy, others are struggling to decide if they should feel pride or fear over being at ground zero as it all unfolds.
UC Irvine could be among the first places in the country, and one of a small number worldwide, where cleaner-burning hydrogen is blended with natural gas and injected into existing pipelines that directly fuel furnaces, water heaters and other gas-powered appliances.
The university signed a memorandum of understanding this summer with Sempra-owned Southern California Gas Co., which is the largest gas company in the country, to possibly work together on the pilot project. At the same time, San Diego Gas & Electric partnered with UC San Diego in hopes of blending hydrogen into pipelines there, while Southwest Gas wants to use hydrogen to help supply energy to commercial buildings in Truckee. If the California Public Utility Commission approves a joint application for the three hydrogen projects, and final deals are inked, blended fuel could start flowing to buildings as soon as 2024.
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If the projects are approved, the commission could use the results to develop standards for safely blending hydrogen into more than 100,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that snake across the state.
Unlike natural gas, burning hydrogen does not produce planet-warming carbon. And, for now, the future use of hydrogen is part of state and federal plans to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
The California Air Resource Board’s updated plan for the state to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, approved Thursday, Dec. 15, mentions hydrogen 88 times and calls for a massive boost in hydrogen production. And the federal infrastructure bill, approved last year, dedicates $9.5 billion to develop clean hydrogen, with $750 million of that funding made available Friday, Dec. 16, for projects aimed at lowering the cost of hydrogen power.
That’s welcome news to people like Jack Brouwer, an engineering professor at UCI who’s studied hydrogen for 25 years and heads up the National Fuel Cell Research Center, which is located on the Irvine campus.
“I am certain that if we don’t invest in hydrogen as part of our zero-emission future, we will never achieve it,” Brouwer said.
Some environmental activists aren’t so certain.
They say there’s a place for “green hydrogen,” but that none of the three proposed pilot projects fit the bill. They also raise safety concerns, since hydrogen leaks and combusts easier than methane. And they cite emerging research that suggests hydrogen is a so-called secondary greenhouse gas that still contributes to global warming.
Arguments about hydrogen energy run similar to arguments over carbon capture systems. While even some ardent activists say such options must be part of the toolkit to reach carbon neutrality goals, some climate organizers, such as Adam Cooper, a PhD candidate in Atmospheric Chemistry at UC San Diego, oppose their widespread use. They cite safety risks and inefficiencies, and they worry that a focus on hydrogen might delay the necessary pivot away from dirty energy.
“We’re trying to build a better future through climate policy in California,” Cooper said. “A lot of these programs are just trying to extend the lifetime of the old fossil fuel reality.”
Push to make clean hydrogen energy
Hydrogen is the smallest and most abundant element on Earth. When burned, it can deliver large quantities of power without emitting carbon. So the invisible, odorless gas has become a key focus in recent years for researchers, regulators and everyone else seeking cleaner substitutes for fossil fuels.
Pure hydrogen doesn’t typically exist by itself in nature. Instead, it occurs in compounds such as water and methane. So to use hydrogen as a source of energy it first must be separated from other molecules. Currently that process almost always means burning some fossil fuels.
Roughly 98% of the hydrogen used commercially for things like refining oil or producing ammonia and fertilizer is made using natural gas or coal to separate out the molecule. That process, in turn, typically generates more carbon than it saves, making so-called “gray hydrogen” a no-go from the perspective of climate advocates.
But if the carbon emissions generated during traditional hydrogen production are captured, that’s known as “blue hydrogen.” Some environmentalists support that process, while others cite concerns with the effectiveness and efficiency of carbon capture systems.
Instead, many only support “green hydrogen.” That’s where an electrical current is shot through water, splitting hydrogen from oxygen, a process known as electrolysis. Just 2% of hydrogen used today is made that way.
Even then there’s debate over whether electrolysis should be considered “green” if the necessary electricity comes from the standard grid, which is still primarily powered by fossil fuels. Many activists argue that hydrogen is only truly clean if it’s made entirely with renewables, such as wind or solar power.
That’s one reason the planned pilot projects at UCI, UCSD and Truckee have drawn opposition from environmental groups. All three would use electricity from the state grid to power electrolyzers that would create hydrogen. The UCI project, for example, is estimated to use nearly 4,200 kilowatt hours of power each day — as much as used by 140 typical households.
Making hydrogen entirely from renewable energy, for now, is very expensive. The Department of Energy says renewable-generated hydrogen currently costs about $5 per kilogram, and that it needs to be about $1 per kilogram to be commercially viable. So it is funding projects aimed at driving down costs.
There also are questions to resolve around water use, since electrolysis now used to make hydrogen requires clean, potable water.
The UCI project would use about 170 gallons of water each day, or about half as much as one average household. That’s not much for one pilot project, but if taken to scale, that use would add up. And with the West in the middle of a record-setting drought, it’s not clear where that water would come from.
Testing hydrogen to power buildings
The other big debate in the push for hydrogen power is where the energy should be used.
There’s solid support for hydrogen fuel cells, which are battery-like devices that can power vehicles, provide backup power and more. Since pure hydrogen is less dense than other gases, it’s also being eyed for uses where weight is key, such as fuel for aviation.
And, since it burns hot, hydrogen is potentially attractive for industries, such as steel and cement, that require consistently extreme temperatures to make their products. Those industries aren’t good candidates for electrification, so environmental groups generally support the idea of exploring green hydrogen alternatives there.
The controversy primarily kicks in when plans call for using hydrogen to power buildings. That’s what the gas companies plan to test in the projects at UCI, UCSD and in Truckee — at a total cost of more than $35 million, to be recouped from ratepayers.
In a protest to the pilot projects that the Sierra Club filed with the commission in October, the group argues that the focus for building should remain on electrification rather than letting fossil fuel companies find ways to keep their infrastructure relevant.
“We already have decarbonization strategies for residential and commercial buildings that can fully decarbonize these buildings, that are cost effective, where the technology is already established,” said Rebecca Barker, an attorney with Earthjustice, the group representing the Sierra Club in the case.
With cities like Los Angeles passing laws that prohibit gas-powered appliances in new buildings as soon as next year, and with standards for blending hydrogen into gas lines still at least a few years off, Cooper said the regional pilot programs seem like a dead end.
“I’m not sure where they plan to actually use this technology, at least not in California. And as the saying goes, ‘As California goes, so does the nation.’”
But Michael Colvin, a director with the Environmental Defense Fund and former CPUC staffer, sees value in gathering research on potentially blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines. Even though the push in California is to make future appliances and new construction all electric, Colvin noted that existing appliances and buildings will be using natural gas for some time. If there’s a chance to reduce the carbon footprint of those systems soon, without big capital investments, he’s open to that conversation.
The Public Utilities Commission, so far, agrees.
In 2019, the commission asked gas companies to help develop standards for safely injecting hydrogen into the statewide natural gas system, including older steel and plastic distribution systems that fuel gas-powered appliances found in homes and smaller commercial facilities. The goal was to see how much, if any, hydrogen could be used without causing problems for the pipeline system or appliances. That way, the state could reduce carbon emissions without having to develop a new, dedicated hydrogen gas infrastructure system.
SoCalGas, SDG&E and Southwest Gas said they’d need to do research before making any recommendations. They pitched the hydrogen blending projects in 2020, but the commission shot that proposal down a year later, calling it “incomplete.”
Meanwhile, the commission had asked a team at UC Riverside to do its own research and come up with recommendations for how to blend hydrogen into existing natural gas pipelines. That report, released in July, gave both proponents and opponents of using hydrogen in buildings more fuel for their arguments.
The gas companies cited the study when they came back to the commission in September with the three hydrogen blending project proposals now under consideration. Company officials noted in testimony and press releases that the UC Riverside study said there are key questions “that cannot be addressed through modeling or laboratory scale experimental work.” They added that, in their view, it is “critical to conduct real world demonstration of hydrogen blending under safe and controlled conditions.”
But the UCR report also raises concerns about safety, which organizers such as Cooper cite in speaking out against the gas companies’ planned demonstration projects.
Safety risks spark concern
At UC Irvine, SoCalGas hopes to install an electrolyzer to make hydrogen on the northwest edge of campus, along West Peltason Drive, according to the proposal now before the CPUC. Hydrogen would be stored in tanks until being injected into a skid, where it would blend with natural gas. The mix then would be delivered to buildings further north — including the Mesa Arts Building, a freshman dorm, offices and a food court — to fuel equipment “such as ovens, furnaces, water heaters, dryers and boilers.”
Initially, the mix would be just 5% hydrogen. Under that level, the UC Riverside study said there are few concerns about how the pipeline system and appliances fueled by it would perform. But after three months, the blend would be bumped up to 10% hydrogen. And at six months, it would hit 20% and stay there for one year.
Plans are similar at UC San Diego. But Cooper said university officials agreed to limit the project to nonresidential buildings after he led opposition to an original plan that called for sending the hydrogen blend to graduate student and family housing.
That plan, and the current plan at UC Irvine, has sparked a number of safety concerns.
First, hydrogen leaks more easily than natural gas alone, since it’s a smaller, lighter molecule, noted Arun Raju, a research engineer who headed up the UC Riverside study. Those leaks also are harder to detect, since current systems aren’t designed to catch hydrogen. Also, pure hydrogen is invisible and odorless, while Raju said the additive that gives natural gas its smell is not compatible with hydrogen.
Hydrogen also can make pipelines brittle. Brouwer said his research shows those risks are minimal, with pipelines perhaps needing to be replaced every 80 years instead of every 100 years. But Raju said more testing in real systems is needed before there can be certainty that adding hydrogen to the pipelines won’t make them more likely to fail.
If they do, hydrogen also is roughly five times more likely than natural gas to ignite if exposed to air, Kevin Lang, a director with Southwest Gas, told the CPUC in testimony. The explosion risk is highest if hydrogen leaks into an enclosed space, making safety policies and monitoring even more important, Lang said.
In Oregon, such concerns recently sparked protests over a similar proposal, leading the gas company there to cancel that project.
Anusha Ghildyal, a sophomore at UC Irvine who serves as environmental justice coordinator for the student government, said that after hearing from both sides she’s not completely opposed to the project on her campus. But she’d like to see some changes in the plan, such as taking student housing out of the mix and having the project start in summer, so there’d be time to monitor any changes before students, faculty and staff are on campus. She also wants to see much more public communication, so everyone can stay informed and weigh in on the project.
None of the students or faculty contacted by Climate Action Campaign knew about the project, according to Ayn Craciun, Orange County policy manager for the group. They have launched a call to action, with Brouwer reporting that as of Dec. 12, he and university leaders had received nearly 100 emails critical of the project. (SoCalGas canceled an interview for this story.)
Both Brouwer and Raju said they’re confident that, with safety protocols in place, the gas companies can safely manage these pilot projects and potential widespread use of hydrogen in their systems. They, along with SoCalGas, point to a more limited test project that already took place at UC Irvine, another in England and the existing use of hydrogen in a natural gas system on Oahu.
Asked if he’d be comfortable with his own kid living at UC Irvine, in housing where the blended hydrogen would be tested, Raju said, “Absolutely. I actually think it’s exciting.”
“These companies can’t even keep methane from leaking. And now they want to use something that’s more prone to leakage, that’s oftentimes harder to detect, and they just want us to trust them,” Cooper said.
“After 50 years of fossil fuel misinformation campaigns, I don’t think these fossil fuels companies make good partners.”
A minor CPUC hearing on the project is scheduled for Thursday, Dec. 22.
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