A new UMass Lowell report funded by Associated Industries of Massachusetts makes the case that hydrogen should be added to the fuel mix to help Massachusetts curb greenhouse gas emissions.
A draft of the report, unveiled at an event in Lowell on Tuesday, outlines several possible uses for hydrogen, from transportation to electricity generation to home heating.
It’s that last idea — blending hydrogen with the methane that flows through natural gas pipelines to heat homes and businesses — that worries natural gas critics. They fear hydrogen will be used to justify more investment in utilities’ gas pipeline networks, and would prefer to see natural gas phased out completely in favor of electric heat pumps.
But greening Massachusetts’ electric grid through offshore wind and other renewable sources will take years, if not decades, said Bob Rio, a senior vice president at AIM. Right now, he said, the majority of New England’s electricity still comes from natural gas-fueled power plants, so it’s important to look at alternatives that could reduce carbon emissions, such as hydrogen. Meanwhile, he said, state officials should focus on harnessing “green hydrogen” — that is, hydrogen made with electricity generated by wind or solar turbines.
“We think there’s an opportunity here to use hydrogen to reduce greenhouse gases,” Rio said. “There’s a long haul to electrify every home in Massachusetts [for heating] as well as to electrify every business.”
The target audience is state policymakers such as Representative Jeff Roy, co-chairman of the Legislature’s energy committee, and Patrick Woodcock, the state Department of Energy Resources commissioner, both of whom were panelists at Tuesday’s event in Lowell.
Among the report’s recommendations: reevaluate transportation policies that hinder hydrogen fuel use, such as restrictions on where compressed-hydrogen vehicles can go; establish a pilot program allowing utilities to mix hydrogen with natural gas for heating purposes; and create a state incentive to encourage hydrogen use for gas utilities and suppliers, similar to the renewable energy credits that benefit solar- and wind-power plant owners.
Mary Usovicz, director of business development at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said the pipeline system that utilities use can be more reliable for heating in storms than heat pumps, which often rely on above-ground power lines, though the remaining cast-iron pipes in the ground would likely need to be replaced with sturdy plastic ones.
For power generation, Usovicz said hydrogen could act as a valuable backup source for renewables, storing excess solar and wind power for times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.
Natural gas critics concede that hydrogen might help with buttressing renewable power sources. But some say they worry that reports like this one will be used by utilities to justify investing in their aging pipeline systems.
“The gas companies are fighting to keep their business model,” said Sarah Griffith, a volunteer with the Gas Leaks Allies coalition. “They’re trying to figure out how to preserve that gas distribution system and their answer has been to start mixing in hydrogen with the methane.”
Meanwhile, Representative Lori Ehrlich and Senator Cindy Creem are making the case for a bill they filed at the State House that would create incentives for utilities to harness geothermal energy sources for heat, and lessen the reliance on natural gas. Ehrlich questioned the safety of pumping hydrogen into homes and whether enough renewable electricity would be available to make “green hydrogen” for heat.
“It will be a long time before we can make hydrogen from renewable generation,” Ehrlich said.
Jon Chesto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.