Hydrogen watchers weigh priorities given infrastructure gaps

Sen. John Barrasso, left, a member of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, greets the chairman, Sen. Joe Manchin, during a July 19 hearing on the federal government’s power to regulate utility infrastructure. ‘hydrogen.
Source: Anna Moneymaker/Staff/Getty Images North America via Getty Images

The hydrogen industry is bracing for bottlenecks on an already strained U.S. energy infrastructure, from the availability of renewable energy used to power green hydrogen production to modernized district heating networks to deliver the gas .

Hydrogen is touted for its versatility, but some experts advocate more targeted use as infrastructure could become a limiting factor. Meanwhile, questions remain about the safety of the gas and its environmental impacts, Steven Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, said during a Sept. 27 panel.

“The challenge we have is to determine where we really need hydrogen to achieve decarbonization where it is really optimal and in what environments hydrogen will slow us down,” Hamburg said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies event.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, with applications in energy storage, power generation, transportation and heavy industry. When produced without greenhouse gas emissions, hydrogen can be used as a low-carbon substitute for natural gas.

The Biden administration has encouraged the growth of a national hydrogen economy, offering up to $7 billion for the development of regional hydrogen hubs. The Reducing Inflation Act, signed in August, provided additional incentives for low-carbon fuels through tax credits for investment and hydrogen production.

Earlier this year, National Grid USA outlined its strategy to transition to fossil-free heating in the Northeastern United States by blending increasing amounts of hydrogen with renewable natural gas.

“If we plan ahead, we can make this relatively seamless,” Ben Wilson, National Grid PLC director of strategy and external affairs, said during the roundtable. Wilson said National Grid’s schedule would give the utility time to update its customers’ heaters.

Hamburg, however, criticized the pace of the public service, saying the plan would not be implemented quickly enough to meet the state’s climate goals. Instead, Hamburg advocated heating homes with electric heat pumps while reserving hydrogen for hard-to-decarbonise industries.

“What are the sectors where we don’t have good alternatives – things like steel and cement production?” said Hamburg. “Hydrogen allows us to meet the energy needs of these sectors.”

Regulatory reform

When it comes to federal regulations, the hydrogen industry faces additional uncertainty after proposed reforms were not voted on Sept. 27.

Sen. Joe Manchin, DW.Va., in a licensing reform bill introduced in September, had sought to clarify the powers of the federal government to regulate hydrogen pipelines. But Manchin withdrew the bill authorizing a continuing resolution after failing to rally support.

The bill, among other energy reforms, proposed to amend the Natural Gas Act to give the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the same jurisdiction over hydrogen as it does over natural gas infrastructure.

The amendment went against recent advice from lawyers, who said the Interstate Commerce Act is the best regulatory framework for hydrogen. September 23 blog post by law firm Venable LLP said Manchin’s bill could impose a “significant burden” on hydrogen infrastructure owners, undermining development incentives allowed in the Inflation Reduction Act. The message was co-written by Richard Powers, who testified in July at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Hearing on Federal Hydrogen Regulation.

Republican lawmakers, critical of FERC’s scrutiny of gas pipelines, have also been reluctant to give the commission the same scrutiny over new hydrogen builds. The Natural Gas Act authorizes FERC to oversee a wide range of operations, from locating to storage to pricing.

Wilson, however, said National Grid supports permit reform to put hydrogen on a par with natural gas.

“We want to see all the tools in the toolbox,” Wilson said. “We believe in choice. And we believe that ultimately the best way to achieve decarbonization is to set targets that allow the market to decide.”

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