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    utilitiesChanges in SoCalGas’ UCI project

    March 16, 2023 - OC Post-Irvine World News


      After pushback from student and environment groups, UC Irvine leaders told Southern California Gas the utility is no longer welcome to use freshman dorms and on-campus dining areas to test the safety of blending hydrogen into the natural gas pipelines that fuel furnaces, water heaters and other gas-powered appliances.

      That doesn’t mean the proposed $13 million pilot project is dead. Other buildings at UCI remain available as test sites, with the gas company, researchers and state regulators still hoping the project will help them develop standards for safely blending cleaner-burning hydrogen into more than 100,000 miles of natural gas pipelines that snake across California.

      But the UCI proposal already has been pushed back about a year, after the California Public Utilities Commission passed new rules requiring additional changes to the utility’s plans. That includes requiring SoCalGas to hold a public meeting by June to let interested parties offer feedback before plans can advance to regulators for a vote.

      Meanwhile, a coalition of students and environmental advocates sent a letter last Thursday to Rep. Katie Porter and state and local leaders who represent Irvine asking them to help oppose the project.

      “We are out of time for fantasy technologies that ‘may someday’ solve the problem,” the letter states. “This proposal is another fossil fuel industry scheme to make money by destroying our health and our future, wasting ratepayer dollars on a scam that will not decarbonize buildings while putting UC Irvine students and faculty at grave risk of injury and death.”

      With a memorandum of understanding from UC Irvine in hand, Sempra-owned SoCalGas filed a request with the commission in September to replace up to 20% of natural gas in test-area pipelines with hydrogen. It was a joint application filed with San Diego Gas & Electric, which proposed a similar project at UC San Diego, and Southwest Gas, which proposed sending hydrogen to commercial buildings in Truckee.

      But a commission decision in December called for Pacific Gas & Electric to also run a pilot hydrogen project at the same time, so all four of the state’s natural gas utilities could be involved. That updated application is expected back to the commission in November. (SoCalGas didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.)

      Several groups tracking the UC Irvine project say they aim to use the additional time to gather more information and push for additional safety measures or other changes — though there’s some disagreement about what those changes should look like.

      Groups like Sierra Club and Climate Action Campaign’s Orange County chapter oppose any efforts to send hydrogen to buildings, saying environmental improvements should remain focused on electrification, and that hydrogen should be used only in hard-to-decarbonize sectors, such as powering jets and cement making. They argue that fossil fuel companies such as SoCalGas just see hydrogen as a way to extend demand for their products while still claiming some reduction in emissions.

      Instead, Ayn Craciun, Orange County policy manager for Climate Action Campaign, said her team would like to see the UC Irvine project use hydrogen to power batterylike fuel cells, not buildings. That fact that hydrogen isn’t burned with those systems, she said, would ease concerns about safety and emissions.

      That’s the direction UC San Diego went. A test planned on that campus originally called for blending hydrogen into the pipelines that powered gas appliances in family housing and other buildings. After students and faculty raised concerns, university officials directed the San Diego utility to shift to a fuel cell project.

      But if the Irvine project also goes that direction, then Michael Colvin with the Environmental Defense Fund said we won’t get the data his organization — along with state regulators, researchers and others — want. They’re hoping to learn what happens when different levels of hydrogen are blended into natural gas pipelines.

      “If we’re going to study things, let’s study a variety of options,” Colvin said.

      While the push in California is to electrify all future appliances and new construction, Colvin said existing appliances and buildings will be powered by natural gas for the foreseeable future. So if there’s a chance to reduce the carbon footprint of those systems, soon, he said he’s open to that conversation. He also said he believes the tests can be conducted safely.

      However, Craciun points to key questions about how much hydrogen can be safely transported in existing gas pipelines, which weren’t designed to carry the slippery molecule.

      Hydrogen leaks more easily than natural gas alone, since it’s smaller and lighter. Such leaks also are harder to detect. And hydrogen can make pipelines get brittle and potentially fail faster than pipelines carrying natural gas alone.

      If hydrogen does leak, emerging research suggests it’s a so-called secondary greenhouse gas that still contributes to global warming. It’s also roughly five times more likely than natural gas to ignite, raising the risk of catastrophic events.

      Even if hydrogen blends can be delivered safely into buildings, it must be made with 100% renewable electricity before many environmental groups consider it “green” energy. The pilot at UC Irvine would use electricity from the grid, which is a mix of renewable and fossil fuel energy.

      Student senators at UC Irvine raised many of those concerns during their Feb. 28 meeting, where they considered a measure to oppose the project.

      “As of right now, at UCI, what we are trying to do is to get away from gas or anything even close to that as much as possible because we want that sustainable future,” student Sen. Amin Mansouri said.

      Jack Brouwer, an engineering professor at UCI who’s been working with SoCalGas on the project, told students he doesn’t believe we can reach a net-zero carbon climate without hydrogen. And of the pilot project, he said, “I can guarantee you that it will be safe.”

      When the Register asked Brouwer about that confidence, he noted his teams have been safely handling hydrogen in their laboratories for 25 years. And if the SoCalGas pilot advances, he said that they intend to install additional monitors to detect leaks, which he said should make the blended system safer than the campus’ natural gas system as is stands today.

      Student senators declined to weigh in on the project during their Feb. 28 meeting, instead referring the issue to their advocacy committee for further discussion.

      University spokesman Tom Vasich said via email that the school responded to student concerns by verbally directing SoCalGas to move the project out of student housing and dining facilities.

      As for where the pilot might now go, Vasich said it’s still early in the process.

      “We have not begun to look at other options, but we will keep in mind concerns shared by the UCI community.”


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