This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

Post

Hydrogen Distribution: 20% Blend Today, 100% Pure Tomorrow?

image credit: Prospero

85% of hydrogen doesn't move at all in Europe. It's consumed right where it's made. So why so little part of the produced hydrogen is being transported?

Hydrogen Value Chain

Keep in mind that hydrogen itself is not the energy source, but rather an energy carrier. The energy itself must be generated by other means like natural gas, petroleum, coal, or renewable energy.

Your access to Member Features is limited.

Please or apply for membership to continue reading this post.

There are 3 key stages of the hydrogen value chain:

  • production;
  • storage, transportation & distribution;
  • utilization/usage.

The progress in the hydrogen value chain will enable wide ranges of application of this gas.

The utilization can be grouped to:

  • transport;
  • heat;
  • power.

Industrial consumers are interested in hydrogen due to decarbonization pleas. Steelworks, glassworks, chemical plants, power stations will lead to initial adoption. Then hydrogen will go to housing.

Public Acceptance

So how people feel about Hydrogen coming to their homes?

For instance, the HyDeploy project aims to show hydrogen deployment in UK homes. Despite the pandemic, the goal has been to deliver hydrogen in 20% blend with natural gas for 700 houses by Q1 2021.

Looks like people tend to trust an established DSO will deliver new fuel safely. An established DSO has the trust but new entrants might face resistance especially on the safety side.

Still, consumers don't like disruption and don't like extra costs. Meanwhile, people are fine to small cost spike to save the planet by decarbonizing.

The final Phase 3 of the project starts with putting 100% hydrogen into around 50 homes. Then slowly increase to more 100% hydrogen homes. End of Phase 3 aims to make thousands of homes across the UK fully energized by the new fuel.

Storage, transportation & distribution

Common ways of transporting hydrogen today:

  • Compressed gas cylinders or cryogenic liquid tankers.
  • Pipelines build for pure hydrogen.
  • Blending with natural gas through the existing natural gas grid.

In Europe distribution is more blending and still on small scale. UK, Germany, Netherlands, France are leaders in distributing it that way.

Pure hydrogen networks are rarer in Europe. Few small live projects are happening in Netherlands, Germany, and UK. But there are firm plans for purpose building with 100% hydrogen networks to new areas and existing homes.

Key challenges to achieving cost-competitiveness of hydrogen distribution and storing:

  • Hazards - compressed hydrogen can be explosive.
  • Regulations are various and sometimes not established in different parts of the world.
  • Blending hydrogen and natural gas is challenging.
  • Hydrogen can damage existing pipelines and storage materials.

So, what's next in hydrogen distribution? Blending with natural gas as a steppingstone or purpose building for pure distribution?

Blend

Net Zero means no to natural gas. So, incumbent natural gas grid operators want to remain relevant in the Net Zero World. Hydrogen is a key way for decarbonization. Thus, they are trying their best to fit into the hydrogen value chain.

The key question: can we use existing pipes to distribute hydrogen to end-users safely and economically?

A 20% degree of blending is optimal from an engineering point of view today where there is no material impact. Some say 30% is also valid - you can find some cases of that in Germany today. 

Blending serves two purposes:

  • reducing emissions.
  • stimulating the production of hydrogen.

The gas grid is there so let's use it. Correct? Well, some say it is sunk cost fallacy of gas DSO. The problem is you can't use the existing infrastructure to distribute a bigger blend of hydrogen because you need to replace a lot of it. Thus, the effect of diminishing return gets into play.

Another camp of industry observers claims that gas DSOs are simply trying to find a way to adjust their current business model to the hydrogen hype.

Besides that, is 20% blend decarbonization at all? While blending 20% hydrogen consumers ought to burn 14% more fuel to get the energy content of 100% gas. There is a drop in the energy content in the volume of fuel. Isn't the net improvement in greenhouse emissions negligible?

At the same time, few countries are studying hydrogen mass deployment as part of decarbonization. An example of state sponsorship is the H21 project in the UK. It is a suite of projects to support UK gas networks to carry 100% hydrogen.

But then, of course, there is a bigger obstacle of compression in the long-distance transport of hydrogen.

To switch to 100% hydrogen, you need to change compressors, high-pressure piping for low-temperature heating. Hydrogen has extremely low volumetric density - 3.2 times lower than natural gas, and 2700 times lower than gasoline. Hence, you need to compress or liquify hydrogen to make it economic. Compressors are too small because hydrogen volume is higher. 

You know that the steel industry needs high-temperature heating. Despite the steel industry's curiosity, the real application of hydrogen for the steel industry is as reductant not as heat. Because heat from hydrogen is too expensive for steel makers who run very cost-driven businesses.

Further technical and operational challenges of blending:

  • For blending you need a blending station and inject it assuming you have the security of supply (reliable production and delivery when you need it). So, you need to have an active Hydrogen Backbone.
  • As a DSO you must make sure that the grid components are intact so it can take whatever blend you want to inject. It is easier when you have a polyethylene grid because it can go up to 100% hydrogen comparing to steel, cast wrought, or ductile pipes. Around half portion of pipes are steel, third polyethylene, the rest cast wrought or ductile pipes. Anything less than 20% blend - keep an eye on metering. Anything goes beyond 20% blend - keep an eye furthermore for smaller components made of steel joints.
  • End-users should have boilers & heat pumps, and hydrogen-ready appliances.
  • Metering. While blending different gas in natural gas mix how to maintain accurate billing? A new billing method needed to continue mixing.
  • Regulatory & market challenges. Customers pay for a certain type of gas composition/content and the quality they are receiving. Safety is key here also.

Pure

At some point, the diminishing returns due to technical challenges, additional materials, components, appliances costs will force us to ask ourselves if it's worth blending or we better purpose build a 100% hydrogen grid.

Dedicated hydrogen pipelines are the best way to deploy the new type of fuel on a mass scale in the long term.

Worldwide there are more than 4'500 km of hydrogen pipelines total. The longest pipelines are operated in the USA, while Germany and Belgium following next.

The majority of those pipelines are operated by hydrogen producers.

But building new pipeline infrastructure is a very expensive endeavor, which will pay off with large volumes of hydrogen. We are in the chicken and egg situation. Dedicated pure hydrogen grid infrastructure doesn't exist, and you lack an adequate supply of hydrogen to justify building the distribution infrastructure economically.

I suppose that the best way forward is the steady creation of pure distribution regional/local networks while gradually increasing hydrogen production.

Working Groups

Close cooperation, benchmarking best practices, and joint working groups between European DSOs, TSOs, and producers is the best way forward to tackle blending challenges today. At the same time, energy market stakeholders should prepare the conditions to purpose-build a pure hydrogen distribution network tomorrow.

P.S.:

When you move so little portion of produced hydrogen there is a reason behind it. And the reason is cost. You ought to stimulate hydrogen production to bring the cost down. This can't take off itself without the state stimulation to achieve economies of scale. Is there enough political will to impose the right balance of carrots and sticks today?

 

Rauf Fattakh's picture
Thank Rauf for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member

Discussions

Spell checking: Press the CTRL or COMMAND key then click on the underlined misspelled word.
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 1, 2021

So how people feel about Hydrogen coming to their homes?

Really important question to ask, even outside of pure economics. Fair or not, you can see 'opponents' of hydrogen trying to use images of the Hindenburg, for example, to make people feel uneasy about hydrogen's safety. 

Rauf Fattakh's picture
Rauf Fattakh on Mar 1, 2021

I understand that the new generation of hydrogen boilers might prove even safer than the natural gas appliances in homes today.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Mar 1, 2021

That's true-- I don't disagree! I'm just thinking about the perception of safety and how that often differs from actual safety. People need to be convinced of this fact and not scared off for the technology to be utilized in the marketplace. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 1, 2021

Rauf, there is no evidence hydrogen, as a fuel, is something more than a marketing deception by fossil fuel companies (Shell, BP, others), and plenty of evidence it's simply a re-packaging of dirty methane in a clean, green wrapper.  3 points to keep in mind:

  1. Hydrogen made from renewable or nuclear energy (aka, "green hydrogen") occupies a .2% share of the global market (300 tons/yr).
  2. The other 99.8% share is "black hydrogen" made from methane, a product that creates far more CO2 emissions than burning an energy-equivalent amount of the methane from which its made.
  3. Green hydrogen shows no promise it will ever be remotely as profitable as the black variety.

"Industrial consumers are interested in hydrogen due to decarbonization pleas. Steelworks, glassworks, chemical plants, power stations will lead to initial adoption."

Your "decarbonization pleas" is a charitable description of what might be more accurately termed "decarbonization lies." In the age of climate change there is no room for hydrogen, nor the lies being used to market it.

Rauf Fattakh's picture
Rauf Fattakh on Mar 2, 2021

Hi Bob, thanks for your detailed comment. In my article, I called attention to the challenge of repurposing existing natural gas infrastructure for the needs of hydrogen distribution. The debate about the viability of green hydrogen wasn't my focus. I tried to reflect on what is on the minds of the majority of gas European DSO leaders today.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 3, 2021

Rauf, if the green hydrogen business model doesn't make sense, then distribution isn't a concern.

Here is how Shell was going to fit into the hydrogen value chain: introduce a little hydrogen into the natural gas stream - 1%, or less - then gradually increase it. The announcement would be "Shell has taken a big step towards its goal of 100% green hydrogen!" But why would anyone believe Shell ever had a goal of 100% green hydrogen, or 50%, or 10%? It's not as profitable as gas, and never would be.

They realized keeping a tiny, 1% stream of hydrogen in the pipeline with natural gas was enough to buoy the hopes of renewables advocates, maintain a faux-green image, and continue to sell natural gas indefinitely. If knowing 1% of their gas was hydrogen made customers feel 50% better about natural gas extraction, that would be a pretty good investment. Wouldn't it?

I know mine probably seems like a pessimistic worldview, but that's reality. Climate change? Environmental protection? A greener tomorrow? No. For the last century and a half, the only thing that matters to oil companies is profit. They view the naïveté of renewables advocates as they view a huge, productive basin of oil - a treasure, to be mined for everything it's worth.

Rauf Fattakh's picture
Rauf Fattakh on Mar 4, 2021

Bob, do you think with an increase in green hydrogen supply/production the hydrogen business model will become sensible?

John Ward's picture
John Ward on Mar 1, 2021

Hydrogen has such a small molecule that it is harder to contain that natural gas, so electrical fittings designed to exclude hydrogen are rated separately from those designed for methane.  Also, the range of concentrations of hydrogen that are explosive are much wider than those for methane.  Since we have plenty of methane in the US, why would we even consider using hydrogen to replace natural gas?  A widespread Hydrogen distribution system would be the most dangerous application.  

Rauf Fattakh's picture
Rauf Fattakh on Mar 2, 2021

Hi John, thanks for your comment. I agree that the explosiveness of hydrogen is an area of concern. Green hydrogen is seen as the main way forward in decarbonization by politicians in the EU (it is part of pandemic relief stimuli ie ''build back better''). Part of the European Hydrogen Backbone is to build sufficient production volume of wind and solar energy to move economically green hydrogen through the existing natural gas system today and transport pure hydrogen through purpose-built pipelines tomorrow. Without sufficient supply, the distribution of hydrogen doesn't make sense economically.

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »