Hydrogen is supplementing natural gas, but critics remain wary

A Minnesota energy provider is successfully injecting hydrogen into natural gas lines, but scalability remains a major concern.
Black gas stove and two burning flames close-up
Hydrogen can comprise up to five percent of a home's natural gas. Deposit Photos

A public utility is experimenting with blending small amounts of carbon-free hydrogen into natural gas lines in some Minnesota homes, but critics argue the procedure remains largely an exercise in hot air.

As first reported last week by Energy News Network, the Midwest’s CenterPoint Energy company began injecting as much as five percent hydrogen gas into downtown Minneapolis residents’ methane supplies for their homes’ stoves and heaters last summer. After various small modifications at the $2.5 million hydrogen pilot production facility (which was built on a former coal gasification plant), the utility provider is now claiming success. But the lengthy list of overall remaining concerns still makes it unlikely to see green hydrogen mixing compose a large portion of future infrastructures.

[Related: A beginner’s guide to the ‘hydrogen rainbow’]

“Green” hydrogen involves utilizing renewable energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen in a facility, which is how we get hydrogen energy that can then be used to heat homes or fuel industrial production.  Nevertheless, the process remains cost-ineffective when compared to other low- and zero-emission energy sources such as wind and solar. In particular, green hydrogen production operates at between a 30 and 35 percent energy loss, and often requires expensive new plant updates and maintenance.

According to Energy News Networks, CenterPoint’s green hydrogen plant relies in part on wind energy renewable carbon credits, casting doubt on its true “clean” status. Carbon offset credits are a controversial, yet popular, tactic used by a large number of major corporations and industries, but critics are increasingly casting doubt about the strategy’s viability, efficacy, and even trustworthiness.

[Related: Many popular carbon offsets don’t actually counteract emissions, study says]

Despite the drawbacks, the hydrogen production industry is a rapidly growing sector with bipartisan blessing. Last year, the Biden Administration announced $8 billion in funding for states’ developing their hydrogen production, processing, and storage infrastructures, with an aim to lower its cost down to one dollar per kilogram within a decade. Much of this energy isn’t meant for green projects, however, but for petroleum processing and ammonia fertilizer production.

Last year, a report released by San Francisco-based think tank Energy Innovation cast extreme doubt on the alternative’s viability, citing exorbitant costs and society’s extremely limited timeframe for effectively tackling climate change. Further industry advancements and refining may one day result in viable large scale uses for green hydrogen, but funding for those projects will need to be balanced with efficient, realistic, and safe renewable energy sources.