An April 2021 study by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy reported natural gas would be in “continuous use for at least the next 30 years, even in scenarios where the country achieves net-zero targets by mid-century.”
Unlike the significant investment in locating, permitting, and building both the massive generation and transmission infrastructure (from a cost and timing perspective) to electrify the grid and meet aggressive carbon reduction goals, America’s natural gas system is already permitted and built, providing ample opportunity to retrofit, adapt and transform to new technologies.
They argue that greater investment in our natural gas pipeline system can better prepare us to store and deliver the fuels of the future, such as zero-carbon green hydrogen or renewable natural gas (RNG).
There is no more abundant element in the universe than hydrogen, but today it is largely used in chemical, agricultural and industrial processing – not as a primary fuel source. Using an electrolyser powered by wind, solar or hydro, “green” hydrogen is produced from splitting hydrogen and oxygen molecules from water – a process that if brought to commercial scale at an affordable rate – could power our future energy needs from home heating to transportation.
A recent Bank of America Securities report found hydrogen could provide up to 24% of America’s energy needs by 2050, and cut emissions by one-third. With those net zero emission goals in mind, new capital is pouring into advancing the technology further. The Biden’s Administration’s Department of Energy is aiming to reduce the cost of green hydrogen by 80% in the next decade, something they called a “game changer” to achieve its decarbonization goals.
In addition to blending green hydrogen to reduce the carbon content of the existing natural gas system, it could provide a realistic alternative to power major industry with zero-carbon fuels, which electrification-only through solar and wind power is unable to support.
Until then, other clean hydrogen technologies exist today that require natural gas as the foundational resource. In fact, 95% of hydrogen produced in the U.S. is derived from natural gas, by splitting hydrogen from methane and capturing the remaining carbon to deliver clean, or “blue” hydrogen, with low carbon intensity.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that freely escapes into the atmosphere from water treatment plants, landfills, and other sites including farms. Capturing these gases, processing them and blending it with our existing natural gas system can actually have a net positive impact on climate change while continuing to meet our residential and business energy needs with the existing gas system.