Hydrogen on the Horizon: Repurposing Natural Gas Pipelines for a Sustainable Future

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Energy Capital Ventures

In a huge advancement supporting the Green Molecules revolution, the federal government unveiled plans for a $7 billion investment in the establishment of America's first Clean Hydrogen Hubs. These hubs will play a pivotal role in advancing the nation's hydrogen economy, with a strong focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting clean energy solutions. The funding will support research, development, and deployment of hydrogen production, storage, transportation, and utilization technologies, thereby fostering the growth of clean hydrogen as an essential element in the transition to a more sustainable and low-carbon energy future.

Hydrogen Hubs Announced

  • The Appalachian Hydrogen Hub, based in West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, will use low-cost natural gas to produce clean hydrogen and store associated carbon emissions. It aims to create over 21,000 jobs, with a significant focus on benefiting coal communities. (Amount: up to $925 million)
  • The California Hydrogen Hub, located in California, will produce hydrogen exclusively from renewable energy and biomass, contributing to decarbonizing public transportation and port operations, with an expected 220,000 jobs created. (Amount: up to $1.2 billion)  
  • The Gulf Coast Hydrogen Hub in Texas will focus on large-scale hydrogen production using natural gas with carbon capture and renewables-powered electrolysis, potentially creating 45,000 jobs. (Amount: up to $1.2 billion)
  • The Heartland Hydrogen Hub in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota aims to leverage energy resources for agricultural decarbonization, clean hydrogen use, and local ownership opportunities, potentially creating 3,880 jobs. (Amount: up to $925 million)
  • The Mid-Atlantic Hydrogen Hub (Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey) plans to repurpose oil infrastructure, develop renewable hydrogen production facilities, and create 20,800 jobs. (Amount: up to $750 million)
  • The Midwest Hydrogen Hub (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan) will enable decarbonization across various industries and transportation, potentially creating 13,600 jobs. (Amount: up to $1 billion)
  • The Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub (Washington, Oregon, Montana) will use renewable resources to produce hydrogen via electrolysis, driving down costs and creating more than 10,000 jobs.(Amount: up to $1 billion)

By investing in these hydrogen hubs, the U.S. aims to position itself at the forefront of clean energy innovation and help tackle climate change by reducing the carbon footprint of various sectors such as industry, transportation, and power generation. In envisioning the future of energy, hydrogen emerges as a compelling frontrunner. With the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) setting ambitious targets to cut the cost of clean hydrogen by 80%—bringing it down to a mere $1 per kilogram within a decade—a surge in job opportunities across the hydrogen sector is imminent.

From production to transportation and storage, the stage is set for a transformative shift. The substantial investment validates hydrogen as a real, decarbonization solution. Yet, a pivotal question arises as we shift towards the realm of transportation: can hydrogen seamlessly integrate into existing natural gas pipelines?

Hydrogen Network Today

Currently, the hydrogen pipeline network constitutes a relatively modest segment of the overall pipeline infrastructure, spanning approximately 1,600 miles. These pipelines are primarily situated in extensive refineries and chemical plants, particularly in regions like the Gulf Coast. In stark contrast, natural gas pipelines extend over 3 million miles of mains and ancillary conduits.

In the pursuit of a sustainable energy future, two primary approaches stand out for addressing hydrogen pipeline infrastructure. The first involves a dual strategy of converting existing pipelines for hydrogen use while simultaneously constructing new ones. The second approach focuses on blending hydrogen with other gases. In this discussion, our emphasis will be on the intricacies and challenges associated with converting existing pipelines to accommodate hydrogen services. Undoubtedly, this transition presents a range of formidable engineering hurdles.

Challenges of Converting Natural Gas Pipelines

One of the pivotal considerations in this transition is the choice of materials for the pipeline, whether it be steel or polyethylene. Both options, while viable, carry the potential risk of embrittlement when employed for hydrogen transport. Embrittlement signifies a loss of ductility, a phenomenon that typically arises with hydrogen absorption in metals like steel, copper, and iron. This effect raises concerns about potential reductions in durability if we were to repurpose natural gas pipelines for hydrogen, potentially necessitating their replacement. Addressing and mitigating hydrogen embrittlement requires a meticulous approach to material selection, thoughtful design considerations, and the application of protective coatings or treatments to reduce the likelihood of hydrogen absorption.

Additionally, it's important to note that hydrogen has the potential to leak as quickly, if not faster, than methane. Some companies are currently exploring the use of hydrogen blends, and there is a hypothesis that when hydrogen is mixed with other gases, it may become more prone to leakage due to increased "slipperiness." Given that hydrogen itself is a greenhouse gas, any leaks would contribute to further environmental contamination, heightening climate concerns. Therefore, any conversion of existing pipelines must carefully consider and address the issue of potential leaks.

Furthermore, a substantial number of existing natural gas pipelines may not be adequately equipped to supply hydrogen to specific factories that require it. This underscores the need for further research on compatibility. It's important to highlight that companies currently equipped for hydrogen delivery represent only a fraction of the entire pipeline network. This highlights the pressing need for infrastructure upgrades and modifications to ensure a seamless transition to hydrogen.

Converting pipelines for hydrogen transport is a pivotal step towards a greener future, but it comes with its share of challenges. Safety concerns related to flammability and potential explosions, along with compatibility issues for specific industries, demand careful consideration and strategic planning. By prioritizing safety measures, conducting thorough compatibility assessments, and investing in infrastructure upgrades, we can pave the way for a successful transition to hydrogen, ultimately contributing to a more sustainable and resilient energy landscape.

The Case for Leveraging Natural Gas Infrastructure

While the transition to hydrogen presents its fair share of challenges, there are already discernible opportunities on the horizon. Initiatives worldwide are embarking on experiments to test the feasibility of converting natural gas pipelines for hydrogen use, marking a significant step forward in our pursuit of a sustainable energy future.

To support the vision of scaling hydrogen, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has launched the HyBlend project. This endeavor aims to test pipeline materials under varying concentrations of hydrogen, at pressures up to 100 abr, in order to assess their susceptibility to hydrogen effects. The HyBlend team, comprising over 20 participants from around the globe, is at the forefront of these groundbreaking experiments. While projects worldwide have demonstrated blends with hydrogen concentrations as high as 20%, the long-term impact on materials and equipment remains a critical unknown, posing challenges for utilities and industries planning large-scale blending.

The deliverables published in 2022 shed light on an important aspect: if constant energy transmission capacity is to be maintained, hydrogen blending capacity may face constraints. These could range from reduced compression station capacity to excessive pressure drop or maximum pressure constraints in specific sections of the transmission pipeline. It's crucial to note that a substantial portion of the U.S. natural gas pipeline system is composed of pre-1970s steel, potentially carrying higher quantities of defects due to initial manufacturing quality and wear over years of operation.

To safeguard against steel fatigue and cracks, repair procedures may be necessary for natural gas pipelines. Currently, there is limited published research recommending changes to transmission pipeline maintenance programs for hydrogen blending. Experts suggest that more frequent pipeline inspections may be required to minimize the likelihood of failures. The frequency of these inspections will hinge on critical factors such as hydrogen composition, pipe loading, and pre-existing defects.

Early Progress

A recent hydrogen blending impact study released by the California Public Utility Commission provides valuable insights. It concluded that blending up to 5 percent hydrogen with natural gas is considered safe. However, caution is advised, as higher percentages may potentially lead to issues such as embrittlement and an elevated risk of pipeline leaks, as mentioned earlier.

In the face of these challenges, there are promising initiatives and research projects actively working to address these concerns and test the feasibility of transitioning natural gas pipelines for hydrogen use. The HyBlend project, for instance, is diligently evaluating the effects of hydrogen on pipeline materials. Concurrent research endeavors aim to understand the impact of blending hydrogen with older pipeline materials.

Green Molecules Outlook

The road ahead calls for a balanced approach—one that maximizes the benefits of Green Molecules while prudently minimizing associated risks. The Hydrogen Hub announcements awarded corporates, governments, and technologists with funding to work towards mitigating these risks outlined above. With the addition of emerging Green Molecules technology, hydrogen will play a critical role in our energy landscape. Energy Capital Ventures is actively looking for entrepreneurs addressing the challenges of leveraging existing natural gas infrastructure for the hydrogen economy. If you or someone you know is also thinking about or working on Green Molecules innovation, let’s talk!