January 2023, Vol. 250, No. 1


Pipelines Gearing Up for Hydrogen-Powered Economy

By Carol Johnston, VP Industries, Energy, Utilities and Resources, IFS  

(P&GJ) — From growing concerns for climate change and net-zero carbon emission commitments, to a focus on greenhouse gas reduction – hydrogen’s potential to help solve crucial energy issues, has gained plenty attention.

Demand for hydrogen has soared, and there’s no signs it will slow down soon – ensuring pipelines and infrastructure is up to the challenge will need to be a top priority, sooner rather than later.   

Integrating a hydrogen powered energy economy is no easy feat, and it will require reliance on modern technology to support how we store, transport and generate power in the future.  

From its energy efficiency, lack of emissions and access readiness to representing the most plentiful energy source on earth, hydrogen has the greatest potential to transform energy, utilities and resources. So much so, that demand is expected to grow by 44% by 2030.  

Currently, Canada leads the production charge in North America and worldwide, as a global producer of hydrogen production, with many other countries set to follow suit as they look to advanced technology that can assist in making the transformation possible. 

Of course, to make hydrogen a success, transportation and storage facilities including pipelines, must have the grid capacity to safely manage these new levels of hydrogen, whether this means updating existing pipelines with hydrogen-safe coatings or components, or building a new network.  

As with any major transformation, the transition won’t be quick, but it will be those that embrace the shift early that will keep pace with changes in regulations and consumer preferences.  

Promise of Hydrogen 

Specifically, there is now a lot of focus on green hydrogen, an incredibly significant development for the renewable energy space and a huge step toward a decarbonized economy.  

Its importance comes down to how it is produced: Green hydrogen is derived from water and renewable energies, such as solar or wind, and is the only type of hydrogen produced in a carbon-neutral manner, an invaluable trait for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. 

If we take the bigger picture and the use of hydrogen in general, there is more to it than sustainability benefits. In the long-term, hydrogen has the potential to reduce the cost of energy production and the challenges of transportation and storage.  

Across the whole value chain, hydrogen presents an abundance of business opportunities – from power generation, energy efficiency, and improvement to the environment, to industrial feedstock, an increased number of high-paid jobs and benefits in transportation.  

Pressure’s On 

For many sustainability initiatives, consumers sit in the driving seat for change; in the case for hydrogen, the story is no different. But the pressure doesn’t all come from changing consumer preferences. Changes in regulation surrounding hydrogen will be inevitable as governments and countries begin to set out their own hydrogen roadmaps for the future.  

We’ve already seen infrastructure bills in the U.S. to support wide-scale hydrogen deployment, while in Canada, Japan, and several countries within Europe, the drawings of their own roadmaps have commenced.  

Additional costs for transmission infrastructure includes the undergrounding of vulnerable pipelines and equipment. In the U.S., the need to go underground takes on greater urgency in light of catastrophic wildfires caused by extreme weather events and the sparking of flames by fallen transmission lines. 

In the United States, there are 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines already in operation supplying hydrogen to high-usage companies such as petroleum refineries and chemical plants, predominantly on the Gulf Coast. But it doesn’t stop there – an additional three million miles of natural gas pipelines are also in use.  

Hydrogen produced through a natural, clean pathway can be injected into these natural gas pipelines to create an energy blend capable of generating heat and power with lower carbon emissions. Of course, this energy blend will be dependent on the design and condition of current pipelines and infrastructure, that in the U.S. are most made up of steel.  

The growth in understanding of the benefits of hydrogen usage has spurred organizations to think more about repurposing existing natural gas pipelines and infrastructure to support transmission and storage, as opposed to building new. The advantages of doing so are clear to see. Firstly, existing pipeline networks are readily available, regulatory approved and routes are socially accepted.  

Secondly, building new hydrogen-dedicated pipelines would not only be extremely expensive but also a time-consuming task. Converting current infrastructure would mitigate some of these costs, and dependent on geographies and demand, can be converted gradually.  

Finally, the technology needed for transforming these pipelines is ready, tested, and available to use. As with many major transformation, costs are a hurdle but PwC research suggests that hydrogen production costs will reduce over time due to economies of scale, technological advances, and renewable energy costs. PwC predicts that hydrogen costs will decrease by 50% by 2030. 

Hot Potato  

There are three major constraints holding back the transition to hydrogen pipelines. First, there is cost and in today’s market, not only is the price of hydrogen high, but its extreme flammability makes the initial cost of new, specialized pipelines and carriers incredibly expensive. Secondly, concerns over whether there is enough infrastructure in place to turn hydrogen into a global consumable product have rippled throughout.  

Currently, enough pipelines remain in place in North America to support local needs, but with many organizations looking to capitalize on the higher selling price of exporting to other countries, focus will need to rest on building new pipelines that can support hydrogen transportation to other markets.  

And finally, the authorization of new pipelines, a difficult ask for residents that see no benefit of a new facility being built in their area for a product being shipped abroad.  

Moving an entire gird to renewable energies is no job for the faint-hearted and will require serious investment into the repurposing or further construction of electricity transmission, distribution, and storage networks. By 2050, demand for energy is set to increase by at least 50% and future success will hinge on the right infrastructure being in place to keep pace with these unprecedented levels of demand.  

As we look at moving the grid, another infrastructure challenge revolves around the positioning of wind and solar farms that are heavily relied upon for green hydrogen. The options are limited, take North America as an example. The optimal locations for solar farms in North America are in the Midwest, where access to solar energy is consistent, but major consumers reside in the east and west coast.  

The disconnect lies in interconnection proximity, and it is up to energy, utilities and resources organizations as well as governments to configure a suitable distribution network of pipelines that can transfer energy from the generator straight through to the end consumer. 

While green hydrogen offers a decarbonized solution, it cannot be achieved without the digital helping hand of technology. For traditional technology companies, a deep understanding of both software and the science behind it will be essential to create a hydrogen generation facility.  

Technology can support organizations transition into a new and emerging line of business. Implementing smart IT support that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is vital.  

As energy, utilities and resources organizations diversify, their energy mix will create increasingly complex organizations that require agile and flexible solutions to manage a wide variety of production facilities. 

As the need for more energy rises, more organizations will turn to green hydrogen as a power facilitator. With increased efficiency gains, carbon-neutral features, and transferable capabilities, hydrogen will undeniably be a huge part of the energy equation of the future and infrastructure – especially pipelines – needs to be ready.  

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