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Another Voice: Hydrogen, natural gas make a dynamic energy duo

Another Voice: Hydrogen, natural gas make a dynamic energy duo

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By Phil Wilcox

Buffalo, the City of Light, has another opportunity to impact energy development of the future as much as the transformational electricity development that occurred here in 1895 with Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse, who developed hydropower and began the electrification of the world.

The electrical phase of the Industrial Revolution created enormous demand for power, and abundant coal fueled huge increases in demand for electricity. Most recently, coal use is on the decline; among the factors are the connection to carbon emissions and climate change; but even more so, the massive supplies of natural gas at low prices has put competitive pressure on coal and hastened its demise.

Natural gas supply also has only half the carbon emissions of coal, and none of the nitrous and sulfur dioxide, acid rain and respiratory issues. In the last two decades, natural gas replacing coal has reduced carbon emissions in the U.S. more than nearly 20 years of wind and solar power construction.

Wind, solar and DC storage are the core of the current plan, but renewable energy only makes up about 4% of U.S. energy supply. The intermittent nature of both raises concerns about system reliability with the added need of huge storage systems for times when the sun isn’t out and the wind isn’t blowing, and over-relying on only two fuel two sources brings major fuel-diversity/cost concerns.

Recent heat and western wildfires, and a sitting president that denies the avalanche of science regarding climate change, raises urgency to take action while keeping the lights on and prices stable.

Duke Energy recently completed a study that concluded that a sudden removal of natural gas from the U.S. energy supply will raise electric bills $60 a month and strongly questions reliability.

Other nations are investing heavily in fuel diversity, with hydrogen among the latest receiving attention. Hydrogen can be blended immediately in small ratios with natural gas in existing pipelines, and anywhere from 5% to 95% can be used to fuel existing GE and other combined cycle electricity generators.

With 3 million miles of existing natural gas pipelines alone in the U.S., some extreme groups suggest abandoning them in place with a radical reduction of natural gas use. The impact of that on energy costs would be staggering. Blending in larger ratios of hydrogen directly reduces gas use and carbon.

These pipelines are extremely valuable and existing gas infrastructure with some retrofits should be looked at as a delivery system for expanded development of hydrogen fuel that leaves behind only pure water after energy use. It is true that the cleanest way to make hydrogen is with electricity – seemingly counter-intuitive when energy efficiency is part of the carbon reduction solution.

With the increased development of wind and solar – where it is overdeveloped, as well as deliberate designs into a hydrogen manufacturing complex – it makes abundant sense to make hydrogen, blend into existing pipelines and combined cycle plants, and store for periods of peak demand. This would bring immediate carbon reductions that will only grow.

Western New York should become a Center for Excellence in commercializing hydrogen use, including transportation applications. With companies like Praxair, and their national R&D facility near the old Huntley Power Plant, our marvelous institutions of learning, and strong state agencies like NYSERDA and the New York Power Authority, natural gas should be seen as an ideal partner into the expansion and use of hydrogen, and there is no better place for this to occur than Western New York.

Phil Wilcox of Pendleton is a former business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 97.

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