Understanding Hydrogen Leakage Today and Tomorrow

by Hydrogen Forward

The effort to accelerate hydrogen deployment continues to build momentum this summer. Last month, the G7 Climate, Energy and Environment Ministers announced a new Hydrogen Action Pact to ramp up the production and use of low-carbon hydrogen for hard-to-abate sectors. Meanwhile, a new coalition of public and private stakeholders is advancing nuclear hydrogen production as a means to meet the required hydrogen volumes to achieve net-zero goals.

However, the associated risks of hydrogen have also featured prominently in public discourse. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) released its “Climate consequences of hydrogen emissions” report, which examined leakage scenarios and created modeling on the potential benefits and consequences of hydrogen pipelines.

This report raises important concerns as industry and governments continue to advance their hydrogen ambitions to meet net-zero goals. As hydrogen continues to scale up and deliver real emissions reductions for more applications throughout the global economy, ensuring the integrity of its infrastructure will be essential to realizing the promise of its decarbonization potential.

The EDF study is informative with regard to the scenarios it presents. In the best-case scenario, the study assumes a 1% leak rate across the value chain for hydrogen produced from natural gas and CCS (including an additional 1% methane leak rate), which would result in a 70% cut in warming effects compared to traditional fossil fuels. For renewable hydrogen (with a 1% leak rate), there is a 95% cut in warming effects. For the same pathways in the worst-case scenario (assuming a 10% hydrogen leak rate, 3% methane leak rate), the benefits compared to fossil fuels are less significant, ranging from a 20-year warming impact increase of 25% to a two-thirds reduction.

Ensuring the industry develops hydrogen to meet EDF’s best-case scenario will be key to mitigating leakage risks and maintaining infrastructure integrity. Luckily, the technology to address these concerns exists today.

We know hydrogen is different than natural gas, gasoline and all of the other fuels we use today. Putting in place the right technology to minimize leaks and impacts is an integral part in building out the H2 economy. A federal regulatory framework is needed to ensure the industry can continue to invest in clean hydrogen solutions and mitigate risks throughout the process. Governments need to address this sooner rather than later. Pairing existing and new pipelines with leak detection monitors will go a long way to addressing concerns. EDF agrees that the necessary leak detection technology needed exists today.

Context matters

Examining the benefits hydrogen pipelines have for the overall energy system provides much-needed context to the leakage discussion.

The University of Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy study, “Hydrogen Leakage: A Potential Risk for the Hydrogen Economy,” stated that “pipelines, including both dedicated hydrogen pipelines and natural gas blending systems, are the most important systems for hydrogen delivery. In and of themselves, these systems demonstrate a low risk of leakage.” The study also found a roughly 0.4 percent leakage rate for hydrogen passing through a pipeline, which is a lower leakage rate than the EDF’s best case scenario of a 1% leakage rate.

Additionally, hydrogen can be made using locally sourced feedstocks and co-located near end users, which will reduce the need for an expansive intercontinental pipeline distribution system. This is yet another fundamental difference between hydrogen and other fuels, and misunderstanding hydrogen’s unique properties can result in conclusions that miss the mark.

Perfect Being the Enemy of Good

As hydrogen continues scaling up, all stakeholders must examine the potential benefits and concerns to ensure we deliver on the climate promise hydrogen offers. Achieving net zero will be a long process that will present numerous challenges. What will be important is taking a solutions-focused approach that accurately captures those challenges and brings together academics, industry, government, and stakeholder groups to effectively address them by leveraging the best technology and regulatory framework.

Leave a Reply