There’s a lot of alarmism that surrounds the issue of climate change, and rightfully so. Often, the answers are more nuanced than they first appear.
A recent movement to ban natural gas in new homes is picking up speed in places like California to potentially help address climate change. But the policy is not a panacea and in fact, will have significant unintended consequences that won’t reduce emissions and yet still hurt consumers and grid reliability.
While all-electric homes may make a difference, they only significantly combat climate change if renewables alone are used to generate electricity. The time of day we use energy also matters. Home heating, hot water and cooking can be electrified, but people tend to use them when there is no renewable energy on the grid. This mismatch could lead to even greater use of natural gas and coal plants to produce the required electricity, while increasing costs and inconveniences for consumers.
Already, we know many consumers like gas-powered appliances, HVAC and water heaters because they perform better, but there must be a solution that could make a significant difference and still allow people to keep their gas stoves. Renewable gases can increase people’s use of renewable energy and combat climate change — and we can’t become carbon neutral without them. These renewable gases are easily stored in the pipelines and also provide a complementary way to deliver renewable energy that will be more reliable and resilient than using the electric grid alone.
More energy than we know what to do with
Here in California, we produce so much solar and wind energy at peak periods that our grid operators often stop putting this renewable power onto the grid — the system would overload if they didn’t.
Some of the excess electricity is beginning to be stored in batteries for later use. But batteries can never be the main solution for grid-scale renewable energy storage, and that’s where renewable gases come in.
There’s a simple technology called electrolysis that converts electricity — renewable electricity — to hydrogen, which can be stored in existing pipelines and storage facilities. This energy storage solution is already being tested or used at scale in Germany, Canada and the Netherlands.
Using this simpler approach allows renewable energy to be stored in gaseous form, and the carbon-free hydrogen gas can then fuel the same type of low-emitting power plants in use today, or zero-emission fuel cell plants.
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This renewable hydrogen technology has been tested at the University of California, Irvine for almost a decade, and will play an important role in ending climate change and improving air quality.
Misguided concerns about pipelines
So why isn’t this solution getting more attention? It is partially due to those who wish to see the gas pipeline system go away. Activists across the country argue as long as the U.S. has pipelines, those pipelines will carry fossil fuel. But this argument is unimaginative, short-sighted and simply not true. To be clear, fossil fuel will not be a part of our energy future. But that does not mean we shouldn’t have a pipeline system. We’ll need that pipeline system to store and transport carbon-free fuels.
The U.S. would be ill-advised to decommission existing gas infrastructure that will ultimately be indispensable for storing, transmitting and distributing the renewable, non-fossil energy we need with reliability and resiliency. And the renewable energy storage and delivery resource that the gas system can provide is massive.
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In Southern California alone, we already have a completely zero emissions 13,000 gigawatt-hour battery and transmission system. It’s the gas system right underneath our feet. Now we need to put it to use to reduce emissions and meet the consumer’s demands.