Plans by Massachusetts utilities to blend low-carbon hydrogen into natural gas distribution networks to feed homes and other buildings has sparked a national debate over “green” hydrogen’s reliance on renewables and what that might mean for the electric grid.
What happens in the Bay State could provide a model for the rest of New England, which is heavily reliant on natural gas.
The debate came to the forefront this month when Gas Transition Allies — a coalition of environmental nonprofits — released a report slamming the utility plans in Massachusetts. Making green hydrogen from renewable electricity and water, the groups argue, is an energy-intensive process that would divert other clean electricity from the grid.
Green, or renewable, hydrogen is expected by analysts to become the central way of producing a low-carbon version of the fuel in the coming years. In Massachusetts, the process could conceivably be driven by offshore wind turbines, although the Gas Transition Allies argue that the turbines’ power would be more efficiently used directly for power generation.
“By not being able to decarbonize the grid, you would in fact completely sabotage climate action plans,” said Martyn Roetter, a technology consultant who is a member of Gas Transition Allies and one of the report’s co-authors.
The state’s utilities argue that hydrogen should be kept on the table as Massachusetts works to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Hydrogen is going to grow “much more affordable and more abundant in coming decades,” providing a clean energy option for residents unable to switch from gas to electric heat pumps, said Christine Milligan, a spokesperson for the utility National Grid.
“We know many customers will continue to rely on our existing network for years to come and that we must decarbonize it to reach net zero and ensure we don’t leave emissions reductions on the table,” she wrote in an email.
According to Jürgen Weiss, a former Brattle Group consultant and founder of clean energy research firm Dash2Zero, determining the future of natural gas systems is “one of the more complicated and controversial questions” for energy policymakers.
But new federal subsidies will ensure hydrogen remains part of the discussion as a gas substitute, he added. The bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act created billions of dollars in direct grants and tax credits to support low-carbon hydrogen production, including for green and “blue” hydrogen, which envisions combining production of the fuel from gas with carbon capture and storage.
“Hydrogen will be part of our future energy system,” Weiss said.
Does ‘green’ mean ‘clean’?
In an interview, Weiss took issue with one assumption in the report from Gas Transition Allies: that the Massachusetts gas utilities would use hydrogen that is made in-state, from electricity generated by offshore wind turbines and other renewables.
“It’s not clear that you’d have to produce the green hydrogen locally,” Weiss said. “You could probably make a lot of hydrogen much cheaper in Texas than in New England, for example.”
That might make a difference, he said. Companies in Texas or elsewhere might commission new wind or solar facilities solely for use in hydrogen production, rather than tapping existing renewable capacity.
National Grid has said a possible source for Massachusetts hydrogen is the Northeast Clean Hydrogen Hub, a seven-state coalition seeking to tap billions in federal funds for low-carbon hydrogen production and consumption (Energywire, Aug. 26, 2022).
Roetter of Gas Transition Allies said the group’s concerns apply whether the hydrogen is made in Massachusetts or in another state. If Massachusetts imports hydrogen, he said, then it would also be importing another state’s “cannibalization” of clean power.
“Then the other states would be in the same situation,” he said. “It seems to me that this is a national issue.”
The Treasury Department is examining a range of possible restrictions on “clean” hydrogen producers, as it develops guidance for companies seeking to claim the industry’s first-ever tax credits. The tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act could have deep implications for the fuel’s contributions to the grid and emission reductions (Energywire, Dec. 23, 2022).
Many prospective producers of green hydrogen say they should be eligible for those tax credits even if they use power from the grid, as long as they offset any associated emissions by financing new renewable facilities.
But grid modelers and environmental groups have warned that the practice might spike the lifecycle emissions of that so-called green hydrogen.
They are urging Treasury to establish restrictions: Green hydrogen producers should have to match their hourly power consumption to the hourly generation profiles of the new renewable installations, they say. That would encourage hydrogen projects that are truly low emission or zero emission, they say.
Renewable trade groups and hydrogen developers, however, argue that the hourly restriction would raise the price of hydrogen and erase interest in making the fuel.
Spokespeople for Treasury declined to comment on when its guidance would be published.
Hydrogen’s future in buildings
Hydrogen is firmly entrenched in the gas industry’s playbook for the future.
National gas industry trade groups have laid out “net-zero” road maps that envision a widespread role for hydrogen blends in buildings. Those plans have been replicated, with variations, by utilities spanning from Massachusetts to California.
Congress has also promoted hydrogen as an energy source for buildings, in line with utility plans. The 2021 infrastructure law included $8 billion to support hydrogen hubs, including at least one aimed at demonstrating the fuel’s use in residential and commercial heating.
But Gas Transition Allies is only the latest environmental group to say that policymakers should prevent gas utilities from using hydrogen as a substitute for natural gas heat. Some pipeline safety watchdogs have also raised concerns that hydrogen could be riskier to transport, particularly in the distribution lines that connect into buildings where people live or work (Energywire, Jan. 18).
The Biden administration has also appeared hesitant to promote hydrogen’s use in buildings.
One 2021 executive order from President Joe Biden directed agencies to focus on ditching natural gas equipment and adopting electric heat pumps, for instance (Energywire, Dec. 13, 2021). And in a Feb. 24 tweet, DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy noted that none of its road maps consider home heating to be a “viable use” for hydrogen.
DOE plans to begin doling out money for hydrogen hubs in the fall.
In an email to E&E News, DOE spokespeople noted that the sectors most difficult to electrify — like industries that make use of extremely high-temperature heat — might need hydrogen in order to slash emissions. But they said the viability of using hydrogen for building heat is “still being assessed.”
In Massachusetts, gas companies and utilities have included hydrogen as a transition fuel in their road maps, as utility regulators study how the state’s gas systems fit into the goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
As in much of New England, the state’s buildings are deeply dependent on natural gas and other fossil fuels. Over half of Massachusetts homes use natural gas for heat, and over a quarter use fuel oil or kerosene, according to state data.
But the state is also a hub of local anti-fossil-fuel activism.
The Boston suburb of Brookline was the first city on the East Coast to pass a gas ban for new buildings. Though it was later deemed incompatible with state law, it spurred the Massachusetts legislature to create a new statewide demonstration program under which 10 cities will be permitted to enact bans.
Gov. Maura Healey (D) has said her administration plans to install one million electric heat pumps by 2030. Healey also has a history of taking on Big Oil. As the state’s attorney general in 2019, she launched an ongoing lawsuit accusing Exxon Mobil Corp. of misleading the public about climate change (Climatewire, May 25, 2022).
But Healey has said little about gas utilities’ plans to blend hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels into their networks. Spokespeople for Healey declined to comment.
Some Massachusetts environmentalists say they plan to work with allies in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature to pass a law mandating all-electric heat for new buildings (Energywire, Oct. 31, 2022). It’s unclear whether the Legislature will take up the issue. State Sen. Michael Barrett (D), who chairs the chamber’s Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, did not respond to E&E News inquiries.
Roetter of Gas Transition Allies said he hoped the state’s Legislature would act. The coalition’s report also recommended that Massachusetts work with neighboring states to produce a joint action plan for hydrogen’s most suitable uses.
“We’re not opposed to green hydrogen. We believe it has some significant, valuable roles to play in the future,” such as in the fertilizer industry or others that already use high-emissions hydrogen, Roetter said.
Using it for homes and other buildings would only “frustrate those people looking for genuine opportunities to use green hydrogen,” he added. “That seems to be a bad way to proceed.”