Hydrogen blending project puts spotlight on Orange Cove

The Southern California Gas Company invests in Orange Cove community as partnership on carbon-reduction project comes to fruition

Welcome to Orange Cove sign as seen from the south sidewalk along Park Blvd. (Kenny Goodman)
Welcome to Orange Cove sign as seen from the south sidewalk along Park Blvd. (Kenny Goodman)
Serena Bettis
Published April 2, 2024  • 
10:00 am

ORANGE COVE – For the Orange Cove community, being the chosen city for Southern California Gas Company’s hydrogen blending demonstration project means much more than complying with a state carbon reduction mandate.

It’s putting the small city with a population of less than 10,000 on the map and in the minds of other Californians, energy industry professionals and even the world, SoCalGas Public Affairs Manager Miguel Ramirez said. In the eyes of residents, it’s getting the recognition they deserve; for once not being overshadowed by other cities simply because of size or location. 

“People just said, ‘finally, somebody takes a look at Orange Cove; we deserve this project,’” Ramirez said. “Orange Cove is so far away from the 99 that a lot of the traditional big businesses don’t come here, so residents are just happy that somebody was looking at Orange Cove, giving them this opportunity and just putting them on the map.”

By partnering with SoCalGas on this demonstration project, the city is opening itself up to increased attention and economic opportunity beyond what it currently sees as a small city in rural Fresno County. 

When Ramirez announced to the city council that Orange Cove had been officially selected for the project, Mayor Diana Guerra Silva had remarked that, “it’s coming to Orange Cove.” Beyond the project itself, Guerra Silva was referencing the recognition and economic benefits that this project could generate for the city.

City Manager Daniel Parra said that the fact that SoCalGas is coming in and bringing positive attention to Orange Cove is important to the community in and of itself. Additionally, this demonstration project could make Orange Cove “the face of hydrogen blending.”

Ramirez said SoCalGas has people from all over the world visit its hydrogen gas “innovation experience” in Southern California to simply marvel at what they’re doing, and that includes local, state and federal officials, industry professionals and tourists. He and Parra anticipate the same thing will happen in Orange Cove. 

After about a year of searching for cities that would be the right fit for the demonstration project, Ramirez announced to the Orange Cove City Council on Feb. 28, 2024 that Orange Cove was it. Through a unanimously passed resolution, the city council made the partnership official at its March 27 meeting.

Visible movement on the project will not happen until it receives approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), however; the joint investor-owned utilities (IOUs) submitted an application with proposed projects to the CPUC on March 1, and a decision is expected in late 2024 or early 2025.

In the meantime, SoCalGas is embracing the community and continuing to push out information about what exactly hydrogen blending is and what it means for residents. 

Developing the partnership

The origin of this collaboration starts back in December 2022, when the CPUC gave SoCalGas — among other IOUs — a sizable task: determine through a demonstration project how much hydrogen gas would be feasible to blend into the state’s natural gas infrastructure. 

Blaine Waymire, a project manager on the hydrogen blending team, said that to follow this task, SoCalGas determined it would need to find a city that was suitable to partner with on the project. 

Waymire said that suitability essentially “came down to two key aspects: one being the technical feasibility, and one being working with the community and the desire for the community to be a part of the demonstration.”

While Waymire analyzed the technical feasibility — eventually determining Orange Cove was a great fit — Ramirez focused on engaging with the community.

A key component to being a suitable project partner was how invested in the idea the community would be. Ramirez said they did not want to go into a city where the project was not wanted; in Orange Cove, the feeling was that the community was all-in on the proposal.

In November 2023, SoCalGas presented their hydrogen blending proposal to the Orange Cove City Council and community through engagement workshops. The focus of that was to see how the community felt about hydrogen blending and SoCalGas in general and answer questions or concerns residents held about having the project in their city.

During the engagement workshops, City Manager Parra said residents asked really good questions to get a feel for how the demonstration project would impact them.

“They had one gentleman that worked at a dairy, so they use methane gas, and he says, ‘That’s not reliable; how is this going to be?’” Parra said. “We tell them it’s going to be reliable. … And in the end, they were like, ‘Why don’t we get this? We want this.’”

A carbon-neutral energy source

Hydrogen blending is the process of adding a certain percentage of electrolytic hydrogen into the natural gas already in use. Electrolytic hydrogen, a form of hydrogen gas, is a clean fuel that does not produce carbon when it is combusted, and it can be generated in a renewable, carbon-neutral manner as well. 

“The idea behind hydrogen blending in general would be that, hopefully, the residents, the community would not even notice the difference in their service,” Waymire said. “They would essentially receive natural gas service as it is today.” 

Hydrogen gas is created through a process known as electrolysis, which takes water molecules and splits up the hydrogen and oxygen into separate molecules. The oxygen molecule gets used elsewhere, and the hydrogen molecule is used as an energy source. 

To make this a renewable, clean energy source, solar energy is used to provide electricity to the electrolyzer that conducts the process, and reclaimed water is used for the electrolysis process. 

The electrolytic hydrogen is then added, or blended, into the existing natural gas system at a specified percentage, thereby reducing the total amount of natural gas used and the total amount of carbon emissions that result from that use.

Hydrogen blending is not a new concept; in the United States, Hawai’i Gas has been blending hydrogen gas into its infrastructure since 1974 and currently uses a hydrogen blend of up to 15%. 

This process has been heavily researched and proven safe, and SoCalGas has set up a demonstration facility in Downey, a city southeast of Los Angeles, to show how household appliances function normally when using natural gas blended with hydrogen.

Building a standard 

Although the concept and production of hydrogen blending is in place elsewhere, the CPUC still needs to create its own standard, which is where the demonstration project comes in. The demonstration project in Orange Cove will not only give an injection standard, it will show how hydrogen blending can be added to a city safely and feasibly.

To do that in Orange Cove, SoCalGas will first need to set up hydrogen production and blending facilities, Waymire said. This is going to happen on a 10-acre parcel of land, sold to the city by Orange Cove Fire Protection District Chief Tom Greenwood, located in the southwest corner of Jacobs Avenue and South Avenue.

There, SoCalGas will build a solar panel array on nine acres to generate the electricity needed to power the electrolysis process. The remaining acre will contain the hydrogen blending facility, which would include an electrolyzer, a blending skid and hydrogen storage.

Waymire said they will also install a small amount of pipe to route the gas to where it will come into the community at what’s called a regulator station. At that point, SoCalGas will reduce the pressure of the gas down to its distribution level pressure and then feed it into the community.

From an engineering standpoint, Waymire said Orange Cove was the best place to do this because it has a variety of pipeline materials in the community.

One element of the CPUC directive was to gather operational data on the use of hydrogen blending with a variety of pipelines, such as plastic and steel pipes, Waymire said. This way they can ensure hydrogen blending will work for communities regardless of what their current infrastructure looks like.

“The other key factor was that the community has one natural gas feed coming into it rather than multiple feeds of natural gas to the community,” Waymire said. “So this will allow us to have one injection point of hydrogen, and that would control the hydrogen blend or make a uniform hydrogen blend that the customers are receiving across the community.”

The amount of hydrogen blended into the Orange Cove community will begin at 0.1% and be slowly increased to eventually achieve a 5% blend. 

The demonstration project is outlined to last for 18 months, and SoCalGas has proposed a few different options to the CPUC for what will happen after. Either the hydrogen production and blending facility could be shut off but remain standing, ready for potential future use, or it could be decommissioned entirely.

Oriented in community

The estimated project schedule provided by SoCalGas to the CPUC in the project application has SoCalGas working with Orange Cove for about the next five years. This would include design and building of the blending facility, the duration of blending hydrogen into the gas infrastructure itself and a material removal and data-gathering period.

With that much time working closely with Orange Cove, SoCalGas has already begun to engage with the community in any way it can, beyond its previous involvement. Ramirez said that SoCalGas loves what the city is doing in the community, and SoCalGas employees live and work in the community, so they want to support those efforts.

SoCalGas has helped support the city’s last few community service efforts both monetarily and through volunteer work, but the company has focused on highlighting the services provided by the city as opposed to touting its own involvement, Ramirez said.

For example, Orange Cove hosts an annual Thanksgiving dinner for residents where they can enjoy a free meal all together, and at Christmastime, the city provides free presents to the city’s children; this year, SoCalGas helped pay for those efforts. On March 29, SoCalGas partnered with the Central California Food Bank to provide 1,000 free meal boxes and produce bags to residents. 

“We don’t put our logo on anything, because it’s not really us, it’s the community of Orange Cove; we’re here to just amplify what they’re already doing,” Ramirez said.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter