In summary

A growing body of research warns that hydrogen itself can be a powerful contributor to global warming but neither local agencies nor California regulators seem to be paying attention.

Guest Commentary written by

Josh Lappen

Josh Lappen

Josh Lappen is a doctoral candidate studying the development of California’s energy systems at Oxford University. He was born and raised in Los Angeles.

Last month, the Los Angeles City Council authorized the city’s Department of Water and Power, or DWP, to begin converting its 80-year-old Scattergood Generating Station from natural gas to hydrogen. The department argued that the new hydrogen plant will be a critical piece of their plan to go carbon-neutral by 2035.

While burning hydrogen is carbon-free, that doesn’t mean it’s safe for the climate. 

A growing body of research warns that hydrogen itself can be a powerful contributor to global warming – but neither DWP nor state climate agencies seem to be paying attention.

As DWP decarbonizes, it has decided to rely on hydrogen to fill in the dark, windless hours when renewable technologies can’t produce enough power – and to serve as a local counterbalance to the Los Angeles Basin’s overtaxed long-distance transmission lines. In 2019, it made a 50-year investment in blended natural gas and hydrogen combustion in Utah. After Scattergood, the department hopes to convert its Haynes, Harbor and Valley Generating Stations to a hydrogen blend as well.

DWP’s reasons for turning to hydrogen are very real. Many safer, more efficient or more proven solutions to the challenges of intermittent renewables and limited transmission simply can’t match the scale of DWP’s problem on their own. But DWP hasn’t done the groundwork to guarantee that hydrogen won’t perpetuate the climate damage that led them to it in the first place.

Around the rest of the state, other electric utilities are turning to increasingly sophisticated demand-response programs and new large-scale power storage technologies like flow batteries. DWP, though, has shown little interest in either.

Nor has DWP fully addressed community groups’ concerns that hydrogen combustion will continue to produce pollution. Thanks to opposition by the city’s tireless environmental justice advocates, the city council tasked DWP with considering some of these alternatives and addressing the unsolved threat of nitrogen oxide emissions. But the possibility that leaking hydrogen will make the project a climate threat hasn’t yet been confronted.

DWP is hardly the only Californian institution rushing to commit to hydrogen. SoCalGas, one of the state’s largest natural gas utilities, hopes to blend hydrogen into the gas network that supplies homes and businesses across Southern California. To do that, it has begun work on a massive hydrogen pipeline project called the Angeles Link, and is planning tests in campus buildings at UC Irvine. Meanwhile, a Bay Area transit agency is preparing to manufacture hydrogen to power a new train line linking Alameda and San Joaquin counties.

Each of these projects plans to use hydrogen in a different way, and each has its own risks and rewards. Hydrogen warms the climate when it leaks into the atmosphere while being transported or stored, so projects that aim to move hydrogen around or store large quantities of it for long periods of time present the greatest climate hazard. 

While DWP hasn’t publicly addressed the threat of hydrogen leakage, SoCalGas has claimed that its future hydrogen pipelines should be no leakier than its existing natural gas system. That’s extremely unlikely: Because hydrogen is the smallest molecule in existence, it’s also among the hardest to contain. Even taken at face value, though, SoCalGas’ claims are cold comfort considering their current system’s long history of leaks.

Luckily, California has already created a variety of world-class regulatory programs to monitor and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. By adding hydrogen to the list of regulated greenhouse gases, the state Legislature can immediately put regulators to work tracking hydrogen emissions and making sure SoCalGas, DWP and others only build new hydrogen projects when they’re both necessary and climate-safe. This approach will also focus researchers and entrepreneurs on improving our limited tools for preventing and detecting hydrogen leaks.

Now that Congress has approved generous new tax credits for hydrogen production in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, California should be bracing for a much larger avalanche of new hydrogen proposals – some well-planned and necessary, and some frivolous or downright dangerous.

Most, like DWP’s Scattergood pilot, will fall somewhere in the middle. The climate threat posed by these middle-ground projects will depend on the details of their design, so it’s critical that regulators start pushing to minimize the chance of hydrogen leakage.

To prevent a moment of climate opportunity from becoming a new climate disaster, California needs to regulate hydrogen.

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