With the increasing importance of the energy industry’s carbon emissions targets, the opportunity to deploy new technology in the decarbonization effort has never been greater. Amid the shifting landscape, hydrogen is becoming a real player in the energy portfolio mix. Some companies and utilities are exploring how to incorporate it as a larger portion of their fuel source, which leads to a natural early question for those unable to produce hydrogen on-site:
How can the supply of hydrogen get to where the demand is?
In a somewhat analogous situation, one of the early obstacles to electric vehicle adoption was the lack of charging infrastructure to support EV-powered mobility. Reaching critical mass for EV adoption requires significant electrical infrastructure development to balance customers’ range anxiety and grid stability. While the foundation of the electrical grid was already there, new upgrades and operational considerations are being made by utilities and developers to bring about the grid of the future and accommodate a whole new type of load.
While the adoption of hydrogen into energy portfolios will not necessarily depend on the transportation of the fuel from point A to point B across the nation’s pipeline network, the value of a blended fuel is multiplied when it becomes a commodity that can be transported to customers nationwide. With the foundational strength of 2.5 million miles of natural gas transmission and distribution pipelines in the United States, one must ask another question: Can the existing system adapt and accommodate a greener fuel like hydrogen?
With new research and pilot projects being executed nationwide, many operators can lean into the prevailing optimism that existing natural gas pipelines can also be used for some blended hydrogen fuels. Natural gas is an established part of America’s energy portfolio and will likely continue to be for many years as power reliability and resiliency is prioritized. With a mature natural gas pipeline network nationwide, it makes sense to leverage existing assets to meet carbon reduction objectives.
Research of the past 10 years has found that a 5% to 15% blend of hydrogen in the natural gas system would not cause significant disruption to existing distribution infrastructure and operations. However, with each region’s gas composition being unique depending on the source of its gas, it is important that each operator evaluate its system to critically consider pipeline and facility condition and operations.
Gas transmission companies and distribution utilities are looking for decarbonization opportunities, and hydrogen applications could help move the needle as one strategy in a broader approach. By using a blended hydrogen fuel mix in natural gas pipelines, gas transmission and distribution operators can continue to leverage mature, existing infrastructure to make blended fuels available for end users to reduce carbon emissions by burning a cleaner fuel. This creative repurposing of pipelines would help operators continue to deliver energy throughout the full useful life span of these customer-financed assets.
Showing Their Mettle
In many instances, gas transmission and distribution companies have already begun or executed long-term pipe replacement programs with upgraded steel and plastic materials that can safely transport blended natural gas and hydrogen fuel.
According to the Gas Technology Institute, metallic pipes in U.S. distribution systems are primarily made of low-strength steel, typically API 5L A, B, X42 and X46, and these are generally not susceptible to hydrogen-induced embrittlement under normal operating conditions. While the pipelines hold promise, research and industry code development and standardization still needs to focus on connections and facilities to maintain safe operations. With appropriate upgrades to seals, valves, regulators and metering stations, existing distribution pipelines have the potential to transport a blended hydrogen fuel. Meanwhile, gas transmission systems still must address some important engineering design and safety considerations when evaluating the impacts on compressor stations, underground storage and LNG facilities.
For many utilities, exploring a blended hydrogen and natural gas fuel represents an important opportunity to prepare pipeline networks for flexibility in the future. For many organizations considering use of that fuel, the promise of leveraging existing pipeline infrastructure should reassure them that hydrogen can become a meaningful component in meeting their customers’ sustainable energy goals.
Interest has reemerged in hydrogen as a potentially key technology in the evolution of the power industry. Our recent webinar discussed the many facets of hydrogen, as well as prospective end uses, market opportunities and technical considerations.