By 2050, hydrogen could meet 18% of the world’s global energy demands, provide 30 million jobs globally, prevent 6 billion tons of CO₂ emissions and create a $2.5 trillion market for hydrogen and fuel cell equipment, according to the Hydrogen Council. As a part of our ongoing commitment to help achieve Southern Company’s enterprise-wide goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Southern Company Gas is exploring the possibility of introducing hydrogen in our natural gas infrastructure.
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is the simplest and most abundant element on earth. It consists of only one proton and one electron. It does not typically exist by itself in nature and must be produced from compounds that contain it. This is done by splitting water molecules with renewable energy, nuclear energy or other sources of energy. Hydrogen can also be produced by splitting natural gas molecules through a process called “reforming.”
Like natural gas, hydrogen can store and deliver usable energy, but it is unique because it has zero carbon emissions when used. Hydrogen gas can be transported via pipelines to end-users, which today are typically industrial and chemical users. However, in the future, hydrogen could potentially be blended with natural gas to reduce its emissions footprint or injected independently into existing natural gas infrastructure. This would minimize both our emissions and our customer’s emissions.
Why use hydrogen?
Achieving net-zero carbon emissions across the energy industry and economy-wide will require the low- to no-carbon energy that hydrogen can provide. We know that our nation’s energy systems require storage to ensure operational resiliency, and today, the bulk of this storage is in carbon fuels. As we move towards net-zero, the storage needs remain. Hydrogen and its derivatives, such as ammonia, provide opportunities to store energy in clean molecules.
The natural gas industry already provides the low-cost, long-term energy storage associated with hydrocarbon fuel and has an opportunity to support decarbonization efforts that will leverage this key asset for energy delivery and resilience. Exploring incorporating hydrogen into our existing natural gas infrastructure has national and regional benefits, including emissions reductions. As we progress toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, new forms of energy that can support this are essential.
Hydrogen’s potential in the future is promising, and we are working hard to explore the possibilities for our companies now. Southern Company and Southern Company Gas are part of several industry consortiums:
• Low Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI), an international collaboration spanning the electric and gas sectors working to advance global, economywide deep decarbonization.
• HyBlend, an R&D initiative with industry partners and national laboratories addressing the technical challenges to blending hydrogen in natural gas infrastructure and studying life-cycle emissions of hydrogen blends.
• A collaborative project with Electro-Active Technologies and T2M Global to advance technology to produce clean hydrogen from waste, divert large volumes of food waste from landfills.
Although the ability of natural gas distribution companies to incorporate hydrogen is currently limited to long-range supply planning models, ongoing research into any potential application of hydrogen is promising, and we are encouraged by the initial research and development programs. If hydrogen can be safely and affordably added to our inventories, there is potential for natural gas companies to produce or deliver this low-carbon fuel through existing, repurposed or new infrastructure to help us reach our long-range climate goals.