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Storing Electricity as Hydrogen

January 16, 2015

Wind and solar advocates are constantly looking for ways to store electricity for use when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining.

Pumped storage is the traditional method for storing large amounts of energy that can be converted to electricity. Batteries and all the other methods are too expensive or can’t store and release the energy economically.

Periodically, a new method is touted as the answer.

The latest such proposal comes from the Netherlands and Germany, where EU policies are forcing the adoption of renewables, no matter what the cost and no matter how much they harm the economy and the standard of living of Europeans.

The latest proposal is termed Power to Gas, or PtG. It uses hydrolysis to convert unneeded electricity, from wind and solar, to hydrogen.

It has already been tried in Germany, where excess electricity was converted to hydrogen and injected into natural gas pipelines, but the PtG approach has a few new wrinkles.

There are several safety concerns with adding hydrogen to natural gas pipelines.

These concerns vary between countries, due to the composition and design of pipelines and appliances.

In the United States, there are three basic concerns over the concentration of hydrogen being transported or distributed by natural gas pipelines.

  • Concentration of hydrogen in natural gas that can safely be used by appliances.
  • Concentration of hydrogen that can safely be in transmission lines.
  • Concentration of hydrogen that can safely be in distribution and service lines.
Natural Gas Transmission Pipelines, from EIA

Natural Gas Transmission Pipelines, from EIA

The assessments referenced here are from The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and apply to the United States. Conditions in Europe and elsewhere may vary.


The effect of hydrogen mixed with natural gas varies with the age and type of home appliance. Acceptable concentrations of hydrogen for use by appliances have ranged between 5% and 20%.
For industrial applications, each installation will have to be evaluated separately.

Transmission Lines

Most transmission lines are made of steel and can usually accommodate hydrogen, though some lines may be susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement.

Mixing hydrogen would require a mandatory assessment of all U.S. transmission pipelines. Concentrations above 50% are ruled out.

Distribution and service lines

Safety concerns are magnified due to distribution lines being in close proximity to populated areas, and for service lines being inside buildings and homes.

All piping will have very small amounts of leakage, either through the wall of polymer piping or though the threads of black iron or other metal piping. Leakage of hydrogen is up to five times greater than with natural gas alone. Leakage of hydrogen can be especially dangerous in confined spaces in homes and other buildings.

Overall, the NREL report indicates that it’s reasonably safe to mix hydrogen with natural gas in pipelines, if the mixture contains less than 20% hydrogen, and if all the piping systems and appliances have been assessed as being of the types that can accept up to a 20% concentration of hydrogen.

The NREL report’s Appendix, prepared by the Gas Technology Institute (GTI), says the risk of using a 20% mixture of hydrogen in service lines is approximately 25% greater than for natural gas alone.

Adding hydrogen to natural gas pipelines, therefore, results in some added risk and increased cost.

There will be energy losses from converting electricity, generated by wind and solar, to hydrogen.

Not discussed here are the added costs of extracting hydrogen from the mixture of hydrogen and natural gas if the hydrogen is to be used for purposes other than burning in gas turbines to generate electricity.

Adding equipment to a wind farm to convert electricity to hydrogen, increases the total investment. The value of the hydrogen can’t be great since natural gas which the hydrogen is replacing, only costs $4 per million BTUs. ( Currently closer to $3 per million BTUs)

There are 30 PtG demonstration plants installed in the EU, mostly in Germany, with a few in surrounding countries. Concentrations of hydrogen have mostly been around 5%. These are experimental installations. One experiment is to make methane by combining hydrogen with CO2, referred to as eGas, which is far more expensive than natural gas in the United States.

While European countries must adopt expensive technologies to meet the CO2 reduction mandates established for Europe, PtG is inappropriate for the United States: PtG merely increases costs, making electricity generated by wind and solar even more expensive than it already is … which would further hurt American consumers and industry.

There is no valid reason to reduce safety and increase costs by adding hydrogen to natural gas pipelines, other than as part of a regimen for reducing CO2 emissions. See The Great Divide.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Catcracking permalink
    January 16, 2015 10:43 pm

    I suppose the psychologists have a name for this behavior, but I find it sad that someone pursues a foolish idea in an ill prepared rush, and then is forced to do other “foolish” steps in an effort to compensate for problems associated with the initial action.
    You raise a lot of good questions, and I hope that those responsible for solving these problems, especially the safety issues, are not blinded by the urgency to compensate for the shortcomings of the first action.

    I have a lot of mechanical experience with plants that manufacture and use hydrogen and am painfully aware of all the challenges and safety involved in handling such a small molecule. I saw the results of an explosion in an H2 Plant that sent debris flying all over the place, damaging nearby equipment.

    As you mention, H2 is a small molecule and is extremely prone to leakage at valve packings and other joints. Metallurgical problems include H2 attack and blisters since the molecule can pass through steel at certain pressures/temperatures. Also to get a reasonable amount of energy, the gas must be pressurized to high pressures to provide some energy density,
    Isn’t the energy density per unit volume significantly reduced with the light molecule?
    I am sure that I don’t want hydrogen coming into my home to fuel my furnace or stove. .

    • January 17, 2015 8:40 am

      Glad you amplified my concerns over the safety issue.
      It’s amazing the lengths that activists are willing to go to, so as to cut CO2 emissions.

  2. James Burkes permalink
    January 17, 2015 10:45 pm

    This has to be one of the craziest ideas I have ever heard of. Natural gas pipeline explosions are deadly enough now. Why add an even more explosive component to them? Critics of the nuclear industry are always trying to scare people with the so-called “dangers” of reactor accidents, but has anyone of them ever seen a gas explosion? You want to be terrified, just take a look at a major natural gas explosion:

    Imagine how much more damage there would be if a significant amount of hydrogen were present.

    • January 18, 2015 9:10 am

      No question that adding hydrogen will increase risk.

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