Why Dirty Energy Companies Want Hydrogen in Our Homes

Published Apr 18, 2023


Climate and Energy

In a new greenwashing scheme, gas companies want to add hydrogen to their gas supply. Not only is this bad for the climate — it poses huge risks to health and safety.

In a new greenwashing scheme, gas companies want to add hydrogen to their gas supply. Not only is this bad for the climate — it poses huge risks to health and safety.

The natural gas industry has cooked up an even more dangerous product to push into our homes. Several utilities, from SoCalGas in Los Angeles to National Grid in Massachusetts, have announced plans to blend hydrogen with their natural gas supply. Some even claim they can convert gas-powered power plants to burn hydrogen.

However, Food & Water Watch’s recent research shows how introducing hydrogen to the notoriously leaky natural gas system would be disastrous. Not only would it pose major health and safety risks, but it would also cost ratepayers dearly to adapt gas infrastructure for hydrogen.

Despite gas company claims that hydrogen is “clean,” almost all the hydrogen we use actually comes from natural gas. What’s more, hydrogen production methods are worse for the climate than burning gas alone. 

These hydrogen schemes only distract from a simple reality: we don’t need the natural gas industry (with or without hydrogen) because renewable electricity has made the industry obsolete.

Learn more in the full report, “Hydrogen in Our Homes: A Dangerous Pipe Dream.”

Hydrogen Is the Perfect Excuse for More Natural Gas

Over the past few years, the hype over hydrogen has grown. In 2020 and 2021, utilities announced more than 26 pilot projects to add hydrogen to their natural gas systems. Plans range from selling a scant 5% hydrogen mixture to completely replacing gas with pure hydrogen.

Many proponents claim that hydrogen made with renewable energy will make their projects clean. But as of 2020, 99% of the hydrogen produced in the U.S. came from fossil fuels

What’s worse, burning hydrogen produced from fossil fuels — even when paired with carbon capture and storageemits more than just burning natural gas.

Blending small amounts of hydrogen into the gas supply, even if it were produced with renewable electricity, would do little to slow climate change. A 5% blend of hydrogen reduces gas use by only 2%, as burning hydrogen produces less energy than burning methane.

So why replace gas with hydrogen at all? By claiming that they will eventually switch to hydrogen, utilities can square new natural gas plants with emissions targets.

For example, Duke Energy plans to build 2,000 megawatts-worth of new gas-fired plants, despite its pledge to reach “carbon neutrality” by 2050. Duke claims that the switch to hydrogen will help it achieve those goals.

The Rickety Gas Grid Can’t Handle Hydrogen

The gas industry promotes hydrogen to preserve its gas infrastructure, but little of that infrastructure is worth saving. This is particularly true of the distribution pipelines that bring gas into homes.

Most U.S. gas distribution mains are decades old and prone to leaking. Local distribution pipes in large metropolitan areas leak as much as 6% of the gas they carry. 

Home appliances, like water heaters and gas stoves, also leak. Gas stoves emit unburned methane even when they’re turned off. In fact, about 0.8 to 1.3% of the gas piped into a stove escapes.

This doesn’t bode well for introducing hydrogen into the mix. Small hydrogen molecules leak at about three to five times the rate of methane. Moreover, piping hydrogen requires more pressure, which may worsen leakage. Hydrogen can also damage pipelines, increasing the risk of cracks and ruptures.

Leakage can undermine hydrogen’s claimed climate benefits, as it’s a potent greenhouse gas in its own right. Emitted hydrogen has 33 times the climate impact of CO2 over 20 years.

Hydrogen Is Too Dangerous for Home Use

On top of its bogus climate claims, hydrogen also poses health and safety risks. Hydrogen is 14 times as flammable as natural gas. Static electricity, friction, heat, and electrical fields can all ignite it. Moreover, hydrogen can burn backward into pipes, creating high-pressure explosions that can throw shrapnel and even destroy buildings.

Like natural gas, hydrogen is colorless and odorless — but unlike gas, we don’t have any odorants that can travel with hydrogen to warn us of leaks. 

Hydrogen may be particularly risky in aging appliances, which are less likely to work with a hydrogen blend. One study found that household appliances would need “significant modifications” to be compatible with hydrogen blends like those planned by utilities. Poorly adjusted and maintained appliances cannot handle any level of hydrogen mixing.

Burning “Clean Hydrogen” Has Serious Flaws

Instead of hydrogen blending, some companies propose burning pure hydrogen for energy. While fuel cells can convert hydrogen to electricity, these companies would rather use turbines. But turbines running on pure hydrogen are in the earliest stages of development. They are far from ready to power our energy grid.

Nevertheless, corporations are gunning for turbines because they want “fuel flexibility”— in other words, they want to keep using natural gas. 

Even if they did stick to hydrogen, turbines bleed energy. Gas turbines powered by renewables-based hydrogen lose more than 71% of the energy that goes into them. Compare that to mechanical and battery storage systems, which typically lose only 15-25% of the energy they store.

Burning “clean” hydrogen also poses dire health risks, such as nitrogen oxide (NOX) emissions. These harmful pollutants, precursors to particulate matter and ozone, are also emitted by burning gas. But burning pure hydrogen and hydrogen blends will raise NOx emissions above those of gas alone.  

Hydrogen Is an Expensive Distraction

If utility monopolies get their way, we’ll pay a high price for these climate, health, and safety problems. For one, building the infrastructure to support proposed hydrogen power would come at an exorbitant cost.

Take pipelines. Right now, the U.S. has just 1,500 miles of hydrogen pipelines, compared to the millions of miles of natural gas pipelines. But even narrow hydrogen pipelines cost more than $1 million per mile.

In addition to pipeline costs, adapting power plants for hydrogen will likely be hugely expensive. Using just 30% hydrogen could raise costs for power plants by $6.89 to 11.62 per megawatt hour, but it would only reduce CO2 emissions by 4.8 to 11%. This makes renewable solar power anywhere from 1.7 to 6.7 times more cost-effective than hydrogen at reducing emissions.

To make matters worse, utilities plan for these costs to fall on us ratepayers. They can only afford these costs by passing the price (plus profit) on to energy bills. 

Thankfully, there’s no need for new hydrogen or gas infrastructure. We can easily replace natural gas with electrification in our buildings. Moreover, commercially available renewable and storage technology can provide 100% renewable, 24/7 reliable electricity to homes. 

We can’t let gas companies take the wheel on our energy transition. If they’re allowed to move forward with hydrogen plans, they will cost us our health, our wallets, and our climate. We need to demand an end to gas and a transition to renewable electricity.

Our friends and family need to know this: Don’t fall for the hydrogen hype!

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