Opinion: SoCalGas Planning to Experiment with Hydrogen Gas at UCI Mesa Court Housing and Arts Buildings

Hydrogen blend pipeline

Hydrogen blend pipelineSouthern California Gas Company plans to use the University of California Irvine Campus- including freshman residential housing areas- as a testing ground for their potentially dangerous hydrogen blend fuel.  SoCalGas claims that the “electrolytic hydrogen can be safely blended into existing natural gas infrastructure on the university’s campus.” If approved, SoCalGas could begin testing hydrogen blending at UCI as soon as 2024

There are several problems with this plan:

  1. Students applying now for the upcoming term have not been made aware that this testing will happen under their residences.
  2. The approval of the students is not required for this plan to go forward.
  3. The blending is considered by many environmentalists to be greenwashing since it is blended with gasses such as methane that often come from fracking.
  4. California has sunshine and windmills that power our electric grid allowing for the electrification of buildings that is far superior to gas in reducing climate impacts.
  5. The safety risk for hydrogen blending that can cause illness from hydrogen leaks and increased chances of explosions should not be shouldered by our local college freshmen.

This is a relatively new field of research that has not been sufficiently tested for safety. There is no reason to expose students to the risks when safer and cheaper options are readily available. According to Energy Innovation Policy and Technology.

Natural gas and electric utilities across the United States are increasingly pursuing pilot projects to blend Opinion hydrogen with natural gas for various end-uses, including as a heating fuel in buildings or for power generation. However, research shows these projects would increase consumer costs, exacerbate air pollution, and cause safety risks while minimally reducing greenhouse gasses. By comparison, electrification is a proven, low-cost alternative that poses no safety or health risks and can rapidly cut building emissions. And in the power sector, increasing renewable electricity is a much more efficient clean energy pathway. State utility regulators and policymakers should require a high burden of proof from utilities to demonstrate any hydrogen proposal’s scalability, cost-effectiveness, and environmental justice impacts.

Dangers of Hydrogen Blending

Fossil fuel companies such as SoCal gas like to extol the virtues of hydrogen blending as a way to reduce carbon emissions.  In fact, the use of hydrogen increases the risk of explosions while increasing our reliance on methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that retains heat in the atmosphere over 20 times MORE than the notorious greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Hydrogen, as many may remember from basic science classes, is the smallest element (#1 on the periodic table) and is therefore difficult to contain and has been shown to leak, according to experts with more than 50 years in the field of engineering, scientific, environmental, and health services:  …“there is no quick test to determine whether a pipe might become compromised because hydrogen damage mechanisms can take a long time to manifest….a high-severity incident may involve a large-diameter pipe with high gas flow and pressure in an urban environment near an ignition source, such as an electric transmission line. A failure in this line may cause a catastrophic explosion that harms people and the environment.”

Even without explosions, the leaks, which may take time to locate and stop, can cause serious health effects to those exposed: “Inhalation: High concentrations of this gas can cause an oxygen-deficient environment. Individuals breathing in such an atmosphere may experience symptoms that include headaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness, drowsiness, unconsciousness, nausea, vomiting, and depression of all the senses…High concentrations in the air cause a deficiency of oxygen with the risk of unconsciousness or death. Check oxygen content before entering the area. No odor warning if toxic concentrations are present.”

With propane, it is possible to add an odor so that people can become aware of a leak and flee to a location where the air is not contaminated. However, according to the United States Occupational Health and Safety Administration,  there is no known odor that can be added to hydrogen because of the tiny nature of hydrogen, which allows it to diffuse very quickly- well before any odorant might be added.

So, it is NOT better for the environment than the electrification of the University of California Irvine Arts Building, has many significant dangers, and our students and their families are not required to agree before it is implemented because it is not, technically, categorized as a science experiment.

Why is this being considered by UCI faculty?

Here is an excerpt from the proposal:

“SoCalGas is pleased to work with UCI, a leading research university in the sustainable energy and environmental space and home to the renowned Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) to conduct a hydrogen blending demonstration project on the UCI campus. A Director’s Message from APEP states, “The campus and surrounding area act as a living laboratory, [emphasis aded] where APEP practices the development and deployment of efficient, environmentally sensitive, and sustainable power generation and energy conversion.”

“The Project will provide validation on a local system of a strong base of previous analysis, testing, and field demonstrations, including comparable field testing performed in the United Kingdom. The Project will be located on UCI’s campus and will begin with an initial hydrogen blend level of 5% and up to 20% over time. The blend volume will gradually increase based on safety and technical feasibility validated with testing throughout the project duration. This demonstration will provide valuable operational data that will support the development of a hydrogen injection standard for older gas distribution systems and potentially for transmission systems.

Read the full SoCalGas project perspective here.

Additional Resources

  1. Hydrogen blends can cause pipes’ embrittlement, leading to leaks and possible explanations.
  2. Another source about the dangers: “With the increase in hydrogen blending ratio, the higher content of H and OH in the gas mixture significantly increases the premixed burning rate, the maximum overpressure rises rapidly when the hydrogen blend level increases beyond 40%. The results can provide a basis for construction safety design, risk assessment of leakage and explosion hazards, and emergency response in hydrogen blended natural gas distribution systems.”
  3. A hydrogen pipeline explosion.

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