ORANGE COVE – Residents could have a hand in helping California’s public utilities work toward reducing the state’s carbon emissions through participation in a potential future demonstration project.
Although the project is not official and Orange Cove’s involvement is not guaranteed, the city could be a candidate for a project that would look at how public utilities can integrate clean fuel into the state’s natural gas infrastructure through a process called hydrogen blending.
To introduce the topic and get a preliminary understanding of how residents feel about the possibility of the project, representatives from the Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas) presented on hydrogen blending to the Orange Cove City Council at its meeting on Nov. 8 and held a community engagement meeting Nov. 9.
“There’s a few different key reasons we look at hydrogen blending,” Blaine Waymire, a project manager for the hydrogen blending group with SoCalGas, said at the council meeting. “One is to enhance California’s clean energy economy and resiliency.”
Waymire said the company is also looking at hydrogen blending in order to reduce hydrogen costs, demonstrate the safety of hydrogen blending, meet the state’s climate goals and maintain and grow the skilled workforce involved in natural gas.
Multiple city council members said they had the chance to visit a house powered by renewable energy including hydrogen blending at the SoCalGas Innovation Experience Microgrid, located in Downey, a city southeast of Los Angeles, and were impressed by what they saw.
“It was really neat, how that project is, how it works,” Mayor pro tem Gilbert Garcia said. “I’m excited about that; that they want to do something here in our city.”
The term hydrogen blending refers to the process of adding electrolytic hydrogen to natural gas. As a clean fuel that does not produce carbon emissions, hydrogen gas formed through a process known as electrolysis could help reduce the carbon content of the natural gas infrastructure, Waymire said.
Electrolytic hydrogen is considered a “clean molecule,” meaning that it does not produce carbon when it is combusted. The gas can be created as a renewable energy, but is only carbon-neutral if other clean energy sources are used to create it.
In order to achieve this, Waymire said SoCalGas takes solar power and water to create the electrolytic hydrogen. Solar panels are used to generate electricity that powers a device known as an electrolyzer, which splits water molecules into separate hydrogen and oxygen molecules.
“That oxygen molecule is used elsewhere, and then you can take that pure hydrogen stream and put it in storage, and that can act as a long-term energy storage device or a fuel to be used for energy,” Waymire said.
Then, a device called a “blending skid” is used to add the hydrogen to the existing natural gas system at whatever percentage is desired; SoCalGas would gradually work up to a 5% hydrogen blend in its demonstration project with a possible end goal of having a 20% blend used throughout its infrastructure.
As a natural gas provider that serves more than 21 million customers, Waymire said a 20% hydrogen blend used by SoCalGas would have a carbon-reduction equivalent of removing one million passenger vehicles from the roads for a year.
SoCalGas also hopes that the increased use of hydrogen blending will help reduce the cost of production.
“Much like when you start to produce solar at a more rapid rate, the price of the solar panels start to come down,” Waymire said. “So, as you have a place to put that hydrogen, as you have more people producing hydrogen, the cost of that fuel starts to come down and be more feasible for people to use.”
Clean energy goals
With a state goal to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, SoCalGas is part of the drive to find ways to integrate clean fuel into the natural gas infrastructure in a manner that is reliable, resilient and affordable.
At the council meeting, Waymire said one of the main reasons SoCalGas was presenting to the community about hydrogen blending was to talk about the company’s application with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). He said that in 2019, the CPUC was looking into establishing a statewide hydrogen injection standard — it wanted to know what the safest level of blending hydrogen into the state’s natural gas infrastructure would be.
Waymire said that after several “rounds of events,” what came about was a report done by the University of California Riverside, commissioned by the CPUC, that said in order to find a statewide injection standard, there would need to be real-life demonstrations in the natural gas infrastructure.
“We can do all the testing we have in the lab, … but what hasn’t happened is to do blending in real-world conditions,” Waymire said. “That’s what we look to achieve through our applications: to actually do demonstrations that will inform the creation of a statewide hydrogen blending standard for all of California.”
In order to do so, SoCalGas is working on proposing a project in what Waymire said is called an open system, where they would blend hydrogen into the infrastructure of a community similar to the size of Orange Cove to demonstrate the feasibility of hydrogen blending.
Waymire said they are working on gathering stakeholder input that will inform the pilot project design, and the plan is to submit the application to the CPUC by the end of the year. The CPUC’s decision on that project would likely not come until late 2024 and then once that is finalized, SoCalGas would be looking at a timeline between 2025 and 2028 for construction and the duration of the project.
According to a fact sheet provided at the community engagement meeting, the project would begin with small concentrations of 0.1% of hydrogen blended into the area’s natural gas infrastructure, working its way to 5%, and would last around 18 months.
A media representative from SoCalGas said the company is still in the early stages of the entire process, and at this point they are simply working to get an understanding of what the Orange Cove community thinks about a hydrogen blending project.