Thanks to strategic federal investments, rapid technological innovation and falling costs, hydrogen is poised to be significant to our state’s energy future and in the lives of today’s and the next generation of union energy workers.
By Maryam Brown
Maryam Brown is the president of Southern California Gas Company.
Jon Preciado, Special to CalMatters
Jon Preciado is the business manager of the Southern California District Council of Laborers.
A question we often are asked in our respective jobs is: What will happen to the thousands of union workers in California’s energy sector as the state pursues its clean air and climate goals? Some assume the men and women in traditional energy sectors will need to move to new lines of work in the future, without realizing that a “just transition” is possible, even as we pursue greener energy sources.
A just transition is grounded in respect for the rights of skilled workers and appreciation for the important role they play in building, operating and maintaining California’s energy infrastructure—past, present and future.
A just transition means pursuing our clean air and climate goals in a way that benefits today’s workforce and creates new opportunities for the next generation of union members.
There is growing consensus, including among experts at the local, state and federal levels of government, that a broad set of tools including electrification, hydrogen and carbon management will be needed to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.
Cutting-edge projects around the world demonstrate how California’s existing natural gas infrastructure—and the skilled workforce that builds, operates and maintains it—also can safely deliver fuels such as renewable hydrogen, which can be made using solar and wind electricity with water and emits no carbon. In Europe, for example, several countries collaborating on a regional hydrogen backbone initiative found that converting existing natural gas lines could provide 70% of the needed infrastructure.
For California’s energy workers, thanks to strategic federal investments, rapid technological innovation and falling costs, hydrogen is now poised to play a major role in shaping what a just transition can and should look like.
The California Air Resources Board sees hydrogen blended in existing natural gas lines ramping up between 2030 and 2040 to meet its emissions reduction and clean air goals. By 2035, for example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power estimates it will need a reliable supply of renewable hydrogen for four power-generating stations.
Labor leaders, policymakers and the private sector already are working together on the critical building blocks of a hydrogen economy in the Golden State. This has important implications for policymakers in Sacramento and Washington as they map out transformative investments, including $8 billion the U.S. Department of Energy is planning to award for regional hydrogen hubs, and new clean energy investments included in the historic Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
These investments could help make hydrogen cost-competitive with traditional fossil fuels such as diesel and natural gas and accelerate hydrogen’s adoption by hard-to-electrify industries, provided there is a reliable energy infrastructure to deliver it to customers who need it.
A hydrogen network here would support California’s decarbonization goals, promote electric grid reliability, and help eliminate emissions from power generation and other sectors of our economy that cannot be plugged in, such as cement production and heavy-duty transport.
For the more than 32,000 highly skilled individuals around the state who work in the gas distribution industry, hydrogen represents real and meaningful opportunities for participation in the clean economy that are hallmarks of a just transition.
Research underway today will inform how hydrogen fuel blends can safely and effectively be used in today’s appliances and ways that fuels such as hydrogen can support new, resilient, neighborhood microgrids that minimize power disruptions and promote grid reliability. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, recently recommended real-world blending demonstration projects in a study sponsored by the California Public Utilities Commission.
California has tackled major energy transitions before. These transitions have never been simple, nor have they traveled in a straight line. What makes this transition different is the amount of collaboration and collective energy among government, labor and the private sector to deliver a reliable and secure clean energy future.