Press "Enter" to skip to content

After protests, SoCalGas scales back plans to test hydrogen energy at UC Irvine

Nearly 15 months after protestors chalked “students aren’t lab rats” and similar messages on a UC Irvine sidewalk, Southern California Gas Co. has scaled back and revised plans for a test that would have used hydrogen to replace up to 20% of the natural gas now running through the university’s pipelines.

SoCalGas first asked state regulators in fall of 2022 for permission to use electricity from the state’s grid to make a lower-carbon fuel blend that included hydrogen and to pipe that new blend into university dorms, offices and restaurants. But that plan sparked pushback from student, faculty and environmental groups, and on March 1 the investor-owned utility changed its request, asking for permission to use solar power to make hydrogen that would be tested in a closed system and only at UC Irvine’s Anteater Recreation Center.

The utility also asked to move a portion of the testing to a new location.

Now, if the Public Utilities Commission approves the amended application from SoCalGas, the first hydrogen testing in an open system in California could be centered on homes and businesses in Orange Cove — a small, low-income and largely Latino citrus farming town near Fresno.

The tests are supposed to demonstrate how gas pipelines and the appliances (such as ovens and furnaces) they fuel will hold up once different amounts of hydrogen are introduced to the system.

Displacing any amount of natural gas in our statewide energy portfolio could help with climate change, since burning hydrogen doesn’t emit the same planet-warming carbon dioxide as burning natural gas, which is up to 90% methane. That’s why hydrogen has become a key focus in recent years for some researchers and regulators seeking cleaner substitutes for fossil fuels, with the gas included in decarbonization plans from multiple state and federal agencies.

But hydrogen also can make pipelines get brittle and potentially fail faster than systems carrying natural gas alone. And most appliances in the United States weren’t designed to run on hydrogen blends.

Studies in labs and limited projects in places such as Hawaii, Canada and Europe suggest that as much as 30% hydrogen can be blended into natural gas systems without triggering significant problems, though no such tests have happened yet in California.

Read more: Plan to test hydrogen energy at UC Irvine, other spots, stirs controversy

So if these SoCalGas tests at UC Irvine and Orange Cove — which are being pitched along with similar projects by the state’s three other investor-owned gas utilities — can help establish a safe threshold for hydrogen blending, it could pave the way for a new statewide policy on the future use of hydrogen. That, in turn, could allow utilities to start injecting some level of hydrogen into more than 100,000 miles of natural gas pipelines throughout California by the end of the decade.

“We’re going to need all the tools in the toolbox to get to greenhouse gas neutrality,” said Neil Navin, chief clean fuels officer for SoCalGas.

Many climate and public health advocates strongly oppose this concept. They argue we can already decarbonize buildings by swapping, say, gas-powered water heaters for electric heat pump versions. So, beyond limited uses for hard-to-decarbonize sectors, they call hydrogen a risky and costly distraction that simply lets fossil fuel companies extend demand for their products amid heightened pressure to clean up their acts.



The risk comes because hydrogen leaks more easily than natural gas alone, since it’s smaller and lighter. Hydrogen leaks also are harder to detect. And if hydrogen does leak, prior to being burned as an energy source, it too becomes a greenhouse gas — one that’s also roughly five times more likely than natural gas to ignite.

Costs associated with these tests and transitions can get passed on to residents and other ratepayers. And the price tag for SoCalGas’ planned hydrogen blending tests is now more than six times higher than it was before, with the prior proposal at UC Irvine projected to cost $13 million while the updated project is pegged at $26.8 million in Irvine and $53.6 million in Orange Cove.

For all of these reasons, some students, faculty members and climate advocates still aren’t sold on the scaled-back hydrogen testing plan at UC Irvine.

“Once again this appears to be a project that is completely unnecessary, is dangerous for students and is just designed to make money for the gas company at the expense of ratepayers,” said Ayn Craciun, who oversees Orange County issues for Climate Action Campaign, a coalition of environment and public health groups.

UC Irvine ended up on the front line of this debate because it is home to the National Fuel Cell Research Center, which has been testing hydrogen for years.

The center is led by Jack Brouwer, an engineering professor at UCI who has studied hydrogen for 25 years. Brouwer’s team has worked with SoCalGas on other projects. So he said previously that this next test seemed a natural fit after the CPUC asked gas companies back in 2019 to help develop standards for safely injecting hydrogen into the statewide natural gas system.



A three-person committee at UC Irvine, made up of engineering and chemistry professors, reviewed the latest proposal from SoCalGas. They called it “a necessary first step” to establishing a statewide standard for safely blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines. So the committee recommends that UC Irvine allow the test to move forward if certain safety protocols are in place, including continuous leak monitoring, monthly surveys of the system and installation of remote methane and hydrogen monitoring systems.

Navin said SoCalGas is “committed” to looking at all of those recommendations and to working with the university to move the project forward.

After facing complaints for not notifying the community about the project as it was originally planned, UC Irvine has now launched a website with frequently asked questions and updates. University officials said they’re also forming student and administrative groups to discuss the project before it might go up for final review.

Read more: UCI leaders to SoCalGas: don’t test hydrogen blend in dining areas and freshman dorms

SoCalGas hopes to install an electrolyzer at UC Irvine, a device that would make hydrogen by shooting an electrical current through water and splitting hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms. That hydrogen would be stored in tanks until being injected into a skid, where it would blend with natural gas. The mix then would be delivered to the recreation center.

Originally, that hydrogen would have been made using an electrical current powered by the state grid. But much of the state grid still relies on fossil fuels, so that project wouldn’t have met many climate group’s definition of “green hydrogen.”

SoCalGas’ new plans call for installing new solar panels at UC Irvine and in Orange Cove, so they could make hydrogen using entirely renewable energy.

The mix at UC Irvine would start at just 5% hydrogen. Under that level, a study out of UC Riverside said there are few concerns about how the pipeline system and appliances fueled by it would perform. But after three months, the blend would be bumped up to 10% hydrogen. And at six months, it would hit 20% and stay there for one year.

If green hydrogen displaced 20% of all natural gas used in California today, Navin said it would be equal to taking more than 1.5 million gas-powered cars off the road.

Open system tests planned in Orange Cove pipelines, which serve nearly 10,000 residents and businesses, would involve much lower amounts of hydrogen. SoCalGas wants to start by mixing in just 0.1% hydrogen, then gradually move up to 5%.

Asked how SoCalGas chose Orange Cove for this project, Navin said work around the clean energy transition often gets “concentrated in urban environments and academic environments.” So he said, “This was an opportunity to work with a smaller community that wanted to engage in the energy transition and look at developing tools like hydrogen blending as a part of the solution for getting to greenhouse gas neutrality.”

Orange Grove city officials didn’t respond to requests for comment by deadline.

More than 96% of Orange Cove’s residents are Latino and nearly half live in poverty, per the latest U.S. Census data. The region surrounding Orange Cove also regularly experiences some of the worst air quality in the nation thanks to dust and emissions from nearby dairy and agricultural farms, trucking routes between warehouses, oil and gas operations, and wildfires that plague the region’s mountains. So while Katherine Ramsey, a senior attorney with Sierra Club, called the original UC Irvine project “an expensive, poorly thought out proposal,” she said, “this new iteration is even worse.”

“It’s unconscionable that SoCalGas now wants to use the residents of a Latino farming community as guinea pigs for this pilot,” Ramsey said. “Hydrogen blending is too nascent to be tested in people’s homes.”

Sara Gersen, an attorney on Earthjustice’s Right To Zero campaign, also raised concerns about risks to Orange Cove residents, who she said “deserve a swift transition to electric appliances that won’t pollute their homes and neighborhoods.” Instead, she said, “SoCalGas’ hydrogen project threatens to increase lung-searing pollution in a community already breathing some of the most polluted air in the country.”

The CPUC will conference with the gas utilities in a meeting May 13 but extended a deadline to weigh in on the test projects until fall of 2025.

In the meantime, anyone can sign up to be notified when the utility commission considers the project. They can also send comments of support, opposition or questions to the commission, to UC Irvine and to SoCalGas.

Source: Orange County Register

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *