In summary

Hydrogen is touted as a solution for helping address California’s energy and climate crises. However, a hydrogen economy would involve serious risks, and may not actually help the climate.

Guest Commentary written by

Amanda McKay

Amanda McKay

Amanda McKay is the policy manager for Pipeline Safety Trust.

From major blockbusters like the movie “Glass Onion” to actual hydrogen blending projects being proposed in several parts of California, hydrogen is on everyone’s minds.

Hydrogen is touted as a panacea for meeting increasing energy demand and fixing the climate crisis. However, a hydrogen economy would involve serious risks, especially when transporting hydrogen through pipelines in close proximity to people. And it may not actually help improve the climate crisis it’s been tapped to solve.

The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act set aside $9.5 billion for clean hydrogen, and the Inflation Reduction Act signed last year provided additional beneficial policies and incentives for the U.S. hydrogen industry. Pressure to replace or blend natural gas with hydrogen is being felt in many states, however it seems California may be feeling it the most.

Over the last few years, utilities in California have proposed numerous projects to move hydrogen through different types of pipelines for a variety of uses. These include blending hydrogen into natural gas distribution systems (the pipes that deliver natural gas into homes and businesses) and building new pipeline systems intended to carry pure hydrogen over longer distances at higher pressure. 

Several reports, including from the Pipeline Safety Trust and UC Riverside for the California Public Utilities Commission, have identified key problems with blending and transporting hydrogen through pipelines.

These projects are seriously concerning. Hydrogen is not natural gas. There are numerous physical and behavioral differences when comparing methane (the primary component in natural gas) to hydrogen. This is an important point to take home as states begin to toy with the idea of blending the two gases into notoriously leak-prone pipelines

Hydrogen poses serious explosion risks due to its high flammability range, likeliness to leak, and ability to cause embrittlement and cracking within the pipeline. Hydrogen is the smallest and lightest molecule in the universe, making leakage from already leak-prone pipeline infrastructure potentially more likely. 

Aside from safety issues, leakage is also an important consideration when thinking about this issue from a climate perspective. Hydrogen by itself is a potent indirect greenhouse gas estimated to have 30 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years. Hydrogen’s energy density by volume is also much lower than methane, meaning that more hydrogen must be delivered to receive the same energy output if hydrogen is blended into natural gas.

For example, even blending 10% green hydrogen into natural gas pipelines would only reduce emissions by about 3%. Accounting for leaks would further diminish these already slim climate benefits. 

Before California proceeds with these new hydrogen pipeline projects, policymakers need to do their homework. Any use of hydrogen in gas distribution systems poses a risk to California communities that is too great to justify with limited and questionable climate benefits. 

State leaders are divided over the role hydrogen will play in the energy transition over the next two decades. California’s lack of hydrogen fuel infrastructure is restricting its ability to become a legitimate alternative, argues a fuel cell electric vehicle owner.

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