Columbia Gas tests hydrogen blends in natural gas appliances

Near Beaver Valley Mall in Center, a micro-village is undergoing an experiment. They call it Safety Town.

Small cabin-like structures surround a tiny house that’s been outfitted with the usual natural gas appliances you’d find in any home — a stove, water heater, washer and dryer and fireplace. There, Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania is testing out what they hope is the future of low-carbon energy.

Columbia and its parent company, NiSource, are launching a project that blends hydrogen with natural gas to see how it interacts with not only consumer items, but also the infrastructure that transports the fuel underground to homes and businesses. Also being monitored are the emissions from different blends.

The company says it’s one of the first in the country to use a blending skid in a controlled setting to determine the best ratio between consumer use and environmental benefits.

Right now, the ratio can be anywhere from 2% to 20% hydrogen, with the remainder being natural gas, said Erich Evans, director of corporate strategy and risk integration for Nisource. So far, 20% seems to be the limit, Evans said.

“We’re learning a lot and we expect to learn even more,” Evans said after a demonstration Thursday. “Our next step is to keep the evaluations going. We want to run longer trials on the appliances at different blends. And we want to get our folks in the field comfortable with it.”

Pennsylvania is angling to become a hydrogen hub as the federal government prepares to fund efforts to invest in production centers to help fight climate change. With the Keystone State’s position atop the Marcellus Shale play, natural gas companies are hoping to add the element to their portfolios. About 95% of all hydrogen is produced from natural gas, according to the Department of Energy.

Hydrogen, when produced under the right circumstances, can be a carbon-neutral energy source.

Still, regulations for hydrogen are in their infancy. Pennsylvania lawmakers are divided on how to manage the production of the element to reduce community and environmental impact.

“Our existing natural gas infrastructure positions us well to bring our customers along into the energy of the future, and hydrogen blending is one promising solution we are exploring to enhance sustainability and to deliver a safe and reliable energy source to our customers,” said Lloyd Yates, NiSource president and CEO. Canonsburg-based Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania is one of NiSource’s six regulated utility companies, with about 445,000 customers.

The model home, located in Columbia Gas’ training facility dubbed Safety Town, was built specially for the hydrogen project. Workers are also monitoring hydrogen’s effect on the natural gas itself, as well as equipment and piping, and the net change in carbon emissions. The company is looking at how hydrogen can be blended into the existing natural gas grid to help decarbonize pipelines.

So far, NiSource has found there isn’t much difference in using a 20% ratio for end users. It takes the same amount of time to boil water, for example, and the same amount of time to dry clothes.

“The two things we’ve seen is the flame gets a little lighter in color (on a stove),” Evans said. “Another interesting difference was the noise on the gas furnace is quieter. If you’ve stood by your furnace when it comes on, it’s kind of a roaring sound.”

Ultimately, it will take time to bring hydrogen to the market as companies explore their options and state and federal regulations are developed to oversee its manufacture.

Evans said NiSource sees hydrogen as part of its future portfolio.

“We see delivering a blend to customers in the future — not next year, but in the future,” Evans said. “And we see some customers, like large industrials like steel plants, that could probably more easily switch over to handle more hydrogen.”

Stephanie Ritenbaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephanie at [email protected].

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