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Stoves to Big Rigs: Hydrogen Aggressively Powers Into the Valley's Energy Profile
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By Edward Smith
Published 3 weeks ago on
June 4, 2024

A new proposal from SoCalGas would make Orange Cove the first town in California to be fueled in part by hydrogen gas. (GV Wire Composite/David Rodriguez)

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Los Angeles-based SoCalGas wants to demonstrate in the Valley community of Orange Cove something never tried before in California — fueling homes with hydrogen gas.

The company plans to start small, pumping the hydrogen through natural gas lines at a low rate to prove it can be done. And, they’ll make the hydrogen in Orange Cove using solar power.

Meanwhile, in Kerman, demand for transportation fuel from the nation’s first hydrogen facility powered by biogas exceeds six times the production capacity. H2B2 USA built the Kerman facility a year ago and plans to more than triple its production in 2025 with a second phase.

“We went from being — I’m not going to say crazy, but close to that — to pioneers.” — Pedro Pajares, CEO, H2B2 USA

Bottom line: As California tries to meet its green energy goals, hydrogen advocates see the gas as complementary to other renewables such as wind and solar. In addition, hydrogen better meets the energy demands than other renewables for industries such as heavy manufacturing and logistics.

“It’s basically being able to store solar power in the form of hydrogen for days, weeks, and months,” said Neil Navin, senior vice president of engineering, major projects and chief clean fuels officer with SoCalGas. “And so you can draw on that hydrogen for powering homes, stoves, and ovens at any time.”

Orange Cove Project Starts Small

Plans call for SoCalGas is to build a 1.1-megawatt solar facility to power the machines making hydrogen that will be pumped into the city’s existing gas pipelines, said Blaine Waymire, project manager of hydrogen blending strategies for the company. The project’s cost is an estimated $54 million, and the plant could be ready in mid-to-late 2026.

What the company needs to prove to regulators is that hydrogen can integrate into existing infrastructure, all the way from underground pipes to the stoves in peoples’ homes.

It is imperative that the small hydrogen particle not leak or corrode existing infrastructure. Appliances also must be able to use the gas without an adapter.

Hydrogen already is part of the energy mix in several states and countries. In Hawaii, for example, energy companies have been mixing and sending hydrogen throughout the island of Oahu for decades. European countries are similarly using hydrogen.

But while Hawaii blends hydrogen into natural gas at a rate of 15%, SoCalGas will start with .1%, working up to 5%. The company’s project at UC Irvine sends up to 20% to a portion of the campus.

The entire project would be a self-contained microgrid. After full deployment, SoCalGas will decide whether to keep the hydrogen facility active at Orange Cove. The solar farm would stay regardless, according to the company’s proposal.

“The beauty of keeping it between 5% and 20% is that the change really doesn’t impact the end user, so you don’t have to go out and buy a new stove, you don’t have to have your heater changed,” Navin said.

With solar power and water, the electrolysis process creates hydrogen gas which will be delivered to Orange Cove residents if approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. (SoCalGas)

Hydrogen Makes Renewables Goes Farther

The most common way to extract hydrogen is through a thermal process using natural gas. But as the state moves away from natural gas, energy companies have turned their eyes to water.

Hydrogen can be pulled from water molecules using a process called electrolysis. Using electricity, the molecule can be split into hydrogen and oxygen. One challenge is the amount of energy required for the process.

At the same time, wind or solar only produce energy when its windy or sunny. Enter hydrogen.

During hours when solar or wind power is plentiful, energy can be invested into the electrolysis process, resulting in hydrogen gas, which can be stored for weeks or months, Navin said.

Iron and steel production need the high energy potential of hydrogen, as do some oil refining processes, according to a California state Senate analysis. Some food processing methods also require high heat that solar can’t provide, said Navin.

Navin said hydrogen could be useful to decarbonize those parts of the economy they know will be difficult to electrify.

“Things like big-rig trucks, high-heat manufacturing, things like maybe even fruit-drying and agricultural product processing,” Navin said.

Hydrogen Offers Big Advantages Over Electricity in Big-Rigs

In June 2023, H2B2 USA opened its SoHyCal project, producing 1.2 tons of hydrogen a day, depending on available energy, said Pedro Pajares, CEO of the company.

The company powers its facility using biogas sourced from the dairy next door to the Kerman facility, the only hydrogen in the nation fueled that way, Pajares said.

H2B2 dedicates all its fuel to mobility purposes. One of its clients is the city of Fresno for FAX buses.

Pajares says transportation companies are seeing the limitations of battery-powered trucks. A fully loaded 18-wheeler needs 16,000 pounds of batteries to travel 600 miles.

“That means your payload is more expensive because you’re transporting 16,000 pounds less each trip,” Pajares said.

With hydrogen, you can fill up the at same speed you refill diesel. Some hydrogen companies are offering free retrofits for truck companies that subscribe to hydrogen fuel services.

Five years ago, when H2B2 first worked on developing the project, they were told the market was too early for them, Pajares said. Now, they have requests for hydrogen at a rate six times greater than their capacity.

“We went from being — I’m not going to say crazy, but close to that — to pioneers,” Pajares said.

An aerial view of H2B2’s SoHyCal hydrogen processing plant in Kerman. (H2B2 USA)

Phase Two to Triple Capacity Next Year

There are 55 hydrogen refueling stations in California now. Pajares anticipates there will be close to 100 three years from now. Next year, they plan to have a refueling station on their site.

“The infrastructure is growing at the same speed that the supply for hydrogen and the availability of fuel cell vehicles are becoming available to the market,” Pajares said.

By the third quarter of next year, H2B2 US plans to add a 50-acre, 15-megawatt solar facility to expand the hydrogen capacity to 3.6 tons per day. They’ll keep the biogas to complement their energy profile.

Questions About Hydrogen’s Water Demand Put a Target on the Fuel

Some have speculated that hydrogen’s water demand makes it unfeasible for a thirsty California.

Creating a kilogram of hydrogen takes 9 kilograms of water, according to ACS Publications. This comes as the state continues to tighten regulations on water usage.

Burning hydrogen unites it once again with an oxygen molecule, returning the lost water to the earth’s fixed supply. But the new water is relocated away from where it originally came, so it has to be counted as a loss.

Being a demo project, the Orange Cove facility will require very little water, Waymire said.

They’ll work with Orange Cove officials to sustainably source the water, he added, which could mean reclaimed water or trucking it in. The proposal still needs to be approved so the exact details haven’t been worked out.

At a large scale, researchers with ACS said that hydrogen’s water demand is less than that of coal, oil, or natural gas, so there could be a water savings at full build-out.

Pajares said the 5 gallons of water they use for every kilo of hydrogen is 5% of the water that would be used for the alfalfa that was on the land previously.

“Electrolysis will render fossil fuel energy sources obsolete as the energy sector is able to move more toward renewable technologies, saving 10 billion (cubic meters annually) of freshwater that would have been consumed by energy-related uses of fossil fuels,” the report stated.

Caballero’s Bill Clear Way for Federal Money for Hydrogen Hubs

The federal government awarded California $1.2 billion to create hydrogen hubs throughout the state. But it set rules around using that money.

Senate Bill 1420 from state Sen. Anna Caballero (D-Merced) requires that by 2030, at least 60% of hydrogen used in transportation come from “green” sources, including the electrolysis process.

The bill also clears up some of the judicial review processes around not only hydrogen-producing projects, but also hydrogen-consuming projects, said Yarelyn Trujillo, senior legislative aide for Caballero’s office. It also meets the fed’s criteria for accessing the $1.2 billion, she said.

For the Central Valley, Caballero hopes bringing hydrogen will mean high-paying jobs.

“Our constituents want a job that will provide them good pay and benefits and eventually, this type of industry will be the ones that provides those jobs in our communities,” said Yarelyn Trujillo, senior legislative aide for Caballero’s office.

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Edward Smith,
Multimedia Journalist
Edward Smith began reporting for GV Wire in May 2023. His reporting career began at Fresno City College, graduating with an associate degree in journalism. After leaving school he spent the next six years with The Business Journal, doing research for the publication as well as covering the restaurant industry. Soon after, he took on real estate and agriculture beats, winning multiple awards at the local, state and national level. You can contact Edward at 559-440-8372 or at Edward.Smith@gvwire.com.

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