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Why Hydrogen in Natural Gas Pipelines Makes No Sense, Particularly in Delaware

By: Lindsay Leveen

Okay, you are going to need to recall a little science for this one! Remember electrons? They are the little electrified bits of energy that circle the nucleus (center) of an atom. Atoms make up the elements of gas, liquid, and solids (for real geeks, the Periodic Chart may come to mind!)

Why do we need to revisit science class? Well, there is an effort to retrieve electrons from atoms of Hydrogen gas and add them to natural gas to make a “greener” supply of energy.  Delaware is among the seven states in the US which were awarded federal support to develop a “hydrogen hub”, which Delaware will share with New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  Several companies with ties to Delaware, including Bloom Energy and Air Liquide are involved in the effort.

The project has identified three classifications of hydrogen electrons they will seek to isolate: pink, which will be sourced from the nuclear power plant in New Jersey; green, which will use wind and solar sources from the three states; and orange, which will be retrieved by injecting water into deep hot iron formations in the earth.

There are significant issues that prevent this from making any practical sense at all. First, the plan is to use the existing pipelines for natural gas. The existing metal composition of the steel natural gas pipelines is incompatible with hydrogen, which will permeate the metal and cause the steel to become brittle, and which will, ultimately, cause the pipelines to rupture.  Replacing the pipelines has been deemed to be too expensive and, therefore, to preserve the pipes for use, only a small fraction of hydrogen will be added to the natural gas. That could be as little as only 1%.

And the use of the “clean” electrons is somewhat limited.  Using electrons in water electrolyzers loses half of the energy within the incoming electrons.  While some companies, including Bloom, claim 85% efficiency, they do not account for the energy lost in the steam nor the energy needed to compress and dry the hydrogen to make it useful.  Wet electrolyzers, such as those utilized by Bloom, produce wet hydrogen, at low pressure. This hydrogen is useless in that state. Any value in hydrogen is after it has been dried and compressed.

In this area of the country, the best return is to use these electrons for two things.  The first is for heat pumps.  Electric heat pumps gain energy from the surroundings and multiply the kilowatt hours of useful warming heat delivered.  This area of the country is ideal for heat pumps as the winters are not too severe.

The second, although not ideal, is electric vehicles.  The compressed hydrogen in the proposed hub will be used in part to power buses in Philadelphia.  However, these expensive hydrogen fuel cell buses are only 50% efficient.  Using renewable clean electrons for hydrogen manufacture, and then to fuel buses, yields only 25% of the electrons giving a return on the effort, that is, actually propelling the wheels.  It is less expensive to buy battery powered electric buses, as the return on those yields 90% of the electrons propelling the wheels.

But none of this really makes practical sense. Hydrogen only has a third of the energy per unit volume as natural gas, based on the higher heating value of natural gas.  Clients in the US who use natural gas are already overpaying by some 10%, since the real heating value of natural gas is approximately 90% of the higher heating value used to bill customers.  Hydrogen billing will be even more unfair to gas consumers, as the lower heating value of hydrogen is only 80% of the higher heating value that consumers will be charged.

The cost to provide a minuscule amount of hydrogen into natural gas to, in effect, pretend is it “greener” than simply using natural gas, is not justified.  The increased costs to customers are not providing a better service or product. The federal government’s support of this project will cease, and it will not be cost-effective for private industry to continue to provide hydrogen injected gas.  Consumers should object to these projects now, before we spend more money on a useless effort with no return to the consumer.

Lindsay Leveen has more than 40 years of experience in chemical engineering and executive management in high value-added process industries that extract value out of processes that transform chemicals, energy, labor, and capital into products that society needs and consumers will buy. He has consulted and worked in the areas of energy deregulation, alternative energy generation, traditional energy generation, power transmission and distribution, power quality and reliability systems, and on hydrogen and sustainability Lindsay received a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and an MBA from University of Witwatersrand, S. Africa and a M.S. in Chemical Engineering from Iowa State .His book on the hope and hype of hydrogen is translated into Japanese and is used in Japan as a university text for students of energy policy and sustainability. In 2011, the Northern California Chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) gave Mr. Leveen their Professional Development award for his lifetime of work in the field of chemical engineering.