NWGA Guest Blog:  Renewable Hydrogen Helps Natural Gas Advance Clean Energy in the Pacific Northwest

From the Partnership for Energy Progress (PEP)

Please enjoy the following article from PEP that can also be found at https://www.pepnw.org/renewable-hydrogen-helps-natural-gas-advance-clean-energy-in-the-pacific-northwest/.

How will natural gas infrastructure advance the goal of clean energy in the Pacific Northwest? One of the most promising new technologies is called Renewable Hydrogen.

Renewable Hydrogen – or “green” hydrogen – is created by utilizing excess wind, solar or hydroelectric power to separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. This process, called electrolysis, then delivers hydrogen into natural gas pipelines and releases the oxygen into the air. Renewable Hydrogen acts just like battery storage for excess renewable electricity. It captures the excess power so we can use it when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, and it helps balance energy need with energy supply.

Europe has embraced Renewable Hydrogen as a key component to advancing its goal of eliminating carbon emissions, but it has been slow to catch on in the U.S. Until now. The Biden Administration has committed billions in new Research & Development funds to advance Renewable Hydrogen and projects are starting to be developed right here in our own backyard.

In Washington, Douglas County PUD broke ground on March 8, 2021, on a new Renewable Hydrogen pilot project near Baker Flats, East Wenatchee, that will support their Wells Hydroelectric Project. This project was made possible through SB 5588, bipartisan legislation that passed the Washington State Legislature in 2019 and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. Also in Washington, Puget Sound Energy will be conducting a series of pilot projects at their Georgetown Training Facility. Teams will perform a series of tests using different hydrogen/natural gas blends and test the system for leaks, air quality after combustion, gas quality, and impact on the appliances used.

In Oregon, NW Natural, Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB), and Bonneville Environmental Foundation signed an agreement in October of 2020 to collaborate on a proposed Renewable Hydrogen plant in Eugene. With the growth of wind and solar generation, along with existing hydroelectric generation, EWEB says it periodically has an abundance of renewable electricity available that can be used to produce hydrogen that can be stored for months or even years in existing natural gas infrastructure. Last year, NW Natural began testing a 5% hydrogen blend of natural gas to evaluate impacts on the system and end-use equipment performance at its Sherwood Operations and Training Center. In 2021, they are expanding blend testing to include additional end-use equipment performance on furnaces, fireplaces, and water heaters.

The 75,000 miles of existing natural gas infrastructure is a vital component to delivering clean energy in the future. As we’ve learned in the Pacific Northwest recently, having the electricity go out in a storm can be made more bearable with a reliable natural gas system that allows us to continue to heat our homes and cook for our families.

Countries around the world are embracing Renewable Hydrogen as a key component of their carbon emissions goals. By preserving and expanding our own natural gas infrastructure here in the Pacific Northwest, we can ensure we have clean, reliable power in the future.

The Natural Gas System is Inherently Resilient

The natural gas system is structurally and empirically resilient, which was graphically demonstrated in Oregon’s February Ice Storm 2021, showing that while even as tens of thousands of homes lost electricity, homes with natural gas continued to have heat, cooking, and hot water.

The inherent resiliency of the natural gas system can be attributed to several factors:

  • Planning and preparation: in combination with the physical properties of natural gas results in few operational issues that threatened supply or capacity.
  • Underground Facilities: the extensive underground location of facilities protects them from weather impacts.
  • Line Pack: transmission pipelines incidentally store gas at pressure (called “line pack”) which provides a buffer that can mitigate the effects of abnormal operating conditions.
  • Network Reliability: the network configuration of the pipeline industry means that, in the event of an outage, there is usually a “work-around” that allows continued service to LDCs and directly connected consumers.
  • Confined Impact: the physical configuration of gas pipelines limits the impact of a disruption; not susceptible to “cascading events” such as those on electric transmission systems.

The resiliency of the natural gas system was especially important during the Oregon Ice Storm. Natural gas is the workhorse fuel for homes in Oregon. For example, NWGA member company NW Natural serves 2.5 million people in 140 communities while delivering more energy than any other utility in Oregon. NW Natural also heats 74 percent of the residential square footage in its service area and provides 90 percent of the energy needs for residential space and water heat on the coldest winter days. It should also be mentioned that it does all of this at great savings to Oregon families: for the typical residence in Oregon, natural gas can be 50+ percent cheaper than electricity to heat both their home and water.

Ice Storm 2021 that electricity and natural gas are not either-or, but both-and. The resiliency of the natural gas system and its broad distribution system (in addition to natural gas inherently being a low-carbon, low-emission clean fuel) make it an essential, unavoidably necessary part of a low-carbon energy future in the Pacific Northwest.

Surviving Ice Storms with Natural Gas

Just three weeks ago in February, Oregon’s Willamette Valley was pummeled by a 50-year ice storm.  Hundreds of thousands of homes lost electricity, as well as phone, cable, and cell service – and many neighborhoods went 10 days or more without electric service. It is important to remember what an electrified home loses without electricity: heat (no baseboard heat, no heat pump), no stove or oven for cooking, no appliances (most importantly, no coffeemaker), no lights, and no hot water. But there were no natural gas interruptions during this time. Homes with natural gas could still use their gas fireplaces for heat, their gas stoves to cook, and had hot water from their gas water heaters (think hot showers in a cold house). Why is this? The natural gas system is inherently reliable AND resilient.

It’s important to understand the difference between resilience and reliability. The terms are often referenced together or even used interchangeably, but they are very different. As described in a recent report by the American Gas Foundation, “resilience is defined as a system’s ability to prevent, withstand, adapt to, and quickly recover from a high-impact, low-likelihood event such as a major disruption in a transmission pipeline. In comparison, reliability refers to a systems’ ability to maintain energy delivery under standard operating conditions, such as the standard fluctuations in demand and supply.” So, when we are discussing how the natural gas system performs during a severe ice storm, we are discussing resilience.

The natural gas industry’s resilience can be tested by its ability to prepare for and adapt to changing conditions and withstand and recover rapidly from disruptions, as well as withstand and recover from deliberate attacks, accidents, or naturally occurring threats or incidents.

Ultimately, the greatest test of resilience is whether a utility’s commitments to customers can be met regardless of the degree of stress that is caused by a weather event.

Despite some of nature’s harshest conditions, during the Oregon Ice Storm of 2021, the natural gas industry passed this test with flying colors, proving both exceedingly reliable and resilient.

Resilience was demonstrated through the continued service and availability of natural gas despite threatening weather and outages on the electric grid.

It is exactly this resilience that makes natural gas the perfect complement to electricity in providing warmth and light to homes and businesses in the Pacific Northwest.  And gas is a natural part of the region’s move to decarbonize, providing stability, reliability, and resilience.