Utilities offering us a Trojan horse

Hydrogen-blending is dirty, dangerous, and costly

When the residents of the ancient city of Troy found the giant horse outside their city gates, they were told it was an offering to the gods that would save their city. When they pulled it through the gates, they never suspected that welcoming such a gift would lead to the destruction of their city by the Greek soldiers hidden inside.

Some offerings are not what they seem. Gas companies’ proposals to blend hydrogen into our existing gas pipelines to fuel gas stoves, furnaces, and water heaters are a Trojan horse.

Because it is not a carbon compound like natural gas or methane, hydrogen may sound like a solution, but burning it in our homes will bring pollution, high costs, and increased safety and health risks to the people of Massachusetts. We have better ways to cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions from buildings—through renewable clean electricity powering highly efficient electric appliances like heat pumps for heating and cooling.

Currently 99 percent of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels, in processes that themselves generate considerable volumes of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Manufacturing hydrogen in large volumes without fossil fuels—known as “green hydrogen”—would require daunting amounts of energy.

Massachusetts’ plans for offshore wind will deliver an estimated 14.5 TWh (terawatt hours) of clean, renewable energy each year. This clean energy will help decarbonize our power grid and run electric cars and appliances on renewable energy, unless we pursue hydrogen blending for homes. Creating green hydrogen is so energy intensive that a 20 percent blend of green hydrogen for residential and commercial use in the Commonwealth would require more renewable energy than would be produced by the planned offshore wind turbines. That means no renewable electricity would remain to decarbonize the electric grid. Fossil fuel plants could not be replaced, and the transition to all electric homes, businesses, and transportation would hit a roadblock. And when compared to electrification, transitioning to efficient electric systems like heat pumps requires one-third the energy of manufacturing hydrogen and burning it.

Our current gas system was not built for hydrogen, the smallest of gas molecules, and leaks at about twice the rate of methane. Hydrogen can also “embrittle” pipes, increasing the risk of leaks. Hydrogen is flammable at almost any air-to-fuel ratio. More leaks are the last thing we want in addition to Massachusetts’ already leaky gas system – especially when the gas is highly flammable. An analysis from the United Kingdom found that hydrogen blending would increase risks of explosions by 400 percent.

The hydrogen proposal is a stupefying and irresponsible waste of both renewable energy and green hydrogen, which is so rare its use must be reserved for hard-to-electrify sectors. Waste is not the only issue. The hydrogen solution that gas companies have offered to the state’s Department of Public Utilities is a Trojan horse with unacceptable risks to public health and safety.

A new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility raises serious concerns about the risks of hydrogen explosions in homes. It finds that hydrogen blending in the gas system could be dangerous for public health and safety. In addition, the American Medical Association just passed a resolution warning about the health, safety, and climate risks of current methods of producing hydrogen and the dangers of blending hydrogen into our gas system. The resolution calls for not only educating its members and the public but also emphasizing to government agencies and federal legislative bodies the risks of hydrogen blending in homes.

A growing body of evidence finds that burning gas in homes produces health-harming levels of indoor and outdoor air pollution – including NOx, which is particularly damaging to the developing lungs of children and linked to an increased risk of asthma symptoms. Burning methane blended with hydrogen would still emit NOx, and potentially even more than natural gas alone – as burning hydrogen also emits NOx pollutants.

If the risks of explosions and toxic air quality concerns are not reasons enough, there are costs. To make blending in our gas system work at increasing proportions of hydrogen would not only require upgrades to the existing gas system, but gas appliances in each and every home would also need to be replaced. The costs to residents of these upgrades would be catastrophic at a time when we’re already struggling with increasing bills driven by high fossil fuel costs.

So why is our state discussing hydrogen blending in homes at all?

Pipelines are a source of substantial guaranteed profitable revenues for gas utilities. Gas companies’ interests lie in extending this business model by repurposing pipelines for fossil gas alternatives. By contrast, the public interest and the task of policymakers lie in finding the most cost-effective path to lowering climate warming emissions, air pollution, and risks to the public. Electrification to power systems like heat pumps for individual buildings and where appropriate networked geothermal installations is the best solution.

The only things that burning hydrogen in our homes is guaranteed to sustain are comfortable monopoly gas industry profits, pollution, and risks to our safety and health. It’s time for the DPU to embrace proven climate solutions based on the efficient use of clean electricity. A plan is required to phase out our dependence on unsafe, polluting, combustible gases. The Trojan gift of hydrogen offered by the gas companies must be rejected.

Martyn Roetter is a Boston-based consultant to governments, regulators, business executives, and investors on public policy, markets, competition, distribution. and technology.