As part of its ongoing effort to combat climate change, the state of California is on track to make massive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. The plans to reach net-zero emissions will rely heavily on increasing solar and wind power, but they also present exciting opportunities to harness existing energy infrastructure, including gas pipelines.
As the largest natural gas distribution utility in the country, serving 22 million people in Southern California, SoCalGas is in a prime position to face today’s energy challenges head on. Following the state’s lead, the company has also committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. It is seeking to decarbonize its pipeline by replacing fossil fuels with increasingly higher amounts of renewable natural gas and low-carbon hydrogen.
NEIL NAVIN, SOCALGAS
HYDROGEN CAN NOT ONLY HELP PROVIDE RENEWABLE ENERGY, BUT IT CAN ALSO HELP SOLVE THE CHALLENGE OF STORING ENERGY PRODUCED BY WIND AND SOLAR”
Moving toward this goal, SoCalGas has taken on an ambitious project: the [H2] Hydrogen Home powered solely by clean electricity and hydrogen. The demonstration home is the first project of its kind in the U.S. and is currently under construction in the city of Downey, Calif., just southeast of Los Angeles. The company’s goal for the home, which is slated to be finished later this year, is to show visitors the role carbon-free gas made from renewable electricity can play in a carbon-neutral future. It’s this kind of creative thinking that earned SoCalGas’ [H2] Hydrogen Home project a spot on Fast Company‘s list of World Changing Ideas.
THE THIRD LEG OF THE STOOL
According to Robert Armstrong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative, researchers have been exploring hydrogen’s potential as a clean fuel and as a means of storing energy. Hydrogen is particularly notable, he points out, because of its potential use across the energy sector, including power, industry, transportation, and buildings. “All of us—business, industry, academia, government, utilities, nonprofits—must be looking for creative ways to push the energy transition forward,” he says. “And hydrogen should be part of those efforts.”
Neil Navin, vice president of Clean Energy Innovations at SoCalGas, likens hydrogen as “the third leg of the renewable energy stool,” along with wind and solar. “That’s because hydrogen can not only help provide renewable energy but also can help solve the thorny challenge of storing energy produced by wind and solar,” he says.
While energy from solar power and wind can be stored for several hours in grid-scale batteries, converting that energy into hydrogen means those electrons can be stored for weeks, months, or even years. Stored hydrogen can be tapped as needed using turbine generators or fuel cells to supplement the wind and solar energy stored in batteries. The system is more cost-effective than batteries alone.
“You really can’t get to 100% decarbonization without a solid, long-term storage capability like hydrogen,” Navin says. “It’s there when you need it, even when the sun is down or the wind is not blowing.”
THE HYDROGEN HOME
To bring the [H2] Hydrogen Home online, SoCalGas partnered with ATCO Australia, which spearheaded a similar project in Western Australia. The home is designed with photovoltaic panels, which will provide electricity on sunny days. At night and during cloudy days, some of the home’s power will come from energy stored in a home battery. The rest will come from hydrogen: Excess solar power will be used to power an electrolyzer, a device that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be stored in a 10-kilogram storage tank until it is needed. It can be converted back to electricity using an on-site fuel cell. The hydrogen will also be blended with renewable natural gas to power the home’s stove, water heater, clothes dryer, and HVAC unit.
Aside from the renewable energy technology, the home shouldn’t feel any different to visitors. Lights will still turn on with a flick of a switch, and there’s no special caretaking required to make sure the energy system is working correctly. “The technology behind producing and storing the hydrogen will be novel to many people, but we want to make the experience of visiting the home and using the appliances feel as normal and natural as possible,” Navin says.
THE FUTURE OF HYDROGEN
With one of the largest networks of gas distribution and storage infrastructures, SoCalGas can play a central role in the decarbonizing of the energy industry in California and beyond. In many ways, those efforts start with the [H2] Hydrogen Home project. “We see the Hydrogen Home as the energy system in a microcosm,” Navin says. “It’s this concept of how the electric and gas systems can work together in a single home.”
As the hydrogen economy gains momentum, Maryam Brown, president of SoCalGas, hopes the [H2] Hydrogen Home project will help illustrate the important role hydrogen can play not only for homeowners, but also for industrial and commercial uses. For example, fuel cells could help move heavy-duty trucks away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources such as hydrogen. “There is a lot of applicability of the technology in the [H2] Hydrogen Home,” Brown says. “I think it will be an inspiration for other sectors of the economy.”