Southern Company has joined with the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) and six of the Department of Energy's national laboratories to form a two-year, $15 million research consortium tasked with examining the impact of blending hydrogen in natural gas on existing gas infrastructure.
The research partners will explore the performance of existing natural gas assets such as pipelines, storage, compressors and even household appliances when hydrogen is added to the fuel mix, allowing utilities to "find optimal portfolio solutions" in the future, according to Zachary Lowe, director at Southern Company Gas.
Research will enable utilities to transition to hydrogen fuel while leveraging existing infrastructure, according to Brian Weeks, senior director of businesses development at GTI. However, an analyst watching the hydrogen industry questions whether existing gas infrastructure is in fact the cheapest option for deploying hydrogen.
Some proponents of hydrogen have argued that mixing the world's still-limited supplies of "green" hydrogen — created by using renewable energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen — with natural gas will enable a more economic transition to renewable fuel sources. With a new research consortium behind it, Southern Company plans to put that theory to the test.
The consortium will combine the national labs' experience in basic science and materials with industry knowledge of existing natural gas systems to research the compatibility of common system components with hydrogen-blended fuel, Lowe said.
It's not just a question of whether existing pipelines could carry a hydrogen-gas blend without compromising the pipes, GTI's Weeks said.
"In addition to that, you have compressor stations, and you have underground storage. We have very little information, hard data, looking at gas and hydrogen blends in different storage configurations," he said. Then there's end use appliances. "Heating, stoves, vehicles. These are all questions we don't have answers to — certainly not enough that we're ready to inject blends of hydrogen through the entire pipeline system."
Answering these questions, Lowe said, represents an opportunity for Southern Company to take a proactive approach to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. But others watching the hydrogen research and development scene, including Nick Heymann, an analyst at wealth management firm William Blair question whether gas-hydrogen blending is the most economic path forward.
"If you can create, if you can capture, all this very low cost solar and wind, you're not going to store it with hydrogen you're going to localize it," Heymann said. "You're going to produce [hydrogen] at a rail yard, truck stop, air port or gas station.... If you localize the production, you get rid of one third of the cost."
While major players in the hydrogen space are increasingly looking at smaller-scale models that put production and use on the same site to capitalize on those cost savings, Heymann said, utilities with conventional fossil fuel assets are driving the conversation around blending. And that conversation, he said, seems increasingly motivated by the utilities' desire to maintain a sense of relevance and avoid sunk costs in a rapidly changing economy.
"I'm not sure they're spending money [on research and development] because they want hydrogen running through those assets, but because natural gas may go away," Heymann said. "That's why they're spending the money, because they sank all that money into pipelines."
But to Southern Company, determining the feasibility of injecting hydrogen into the natural gas system is critical to knowing, for certain, which path forward has the greatest economic — and environmental — benefits.
"The goal here is to truly understand...a broader picture of what those impacts are, so we can make more informed decisions down the road and find optimal portfolio solutions," he said.