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Minnesota's largest natural gas utility has launched a pilot project to produce "green" hydrogen and explore how the zero-carbon energy resource performs as a substitute for conventional natural gas. 

CenterPoint Energy launched the pilot earlier this year at its plant near downtown Minneapolis and says the operation will save about 1,200 tons of carbon emissions annually. 

This is only the CO2 equivalent of removing 260 typical cars off the road a year, hardly an amount that's going to prevent a 1.5-2C rise in global temperatures. What's more, every minute the process uses two gallons of water – a resource that is going to become increasingly precious as the impacts of climate change are felt.

Ross Corson, a spokesperson for CenterPoint, concedes too that the production of green hydrogen is several times more costly than natural gas.

But the small-scale pilot project now underway will help explore the potential — and limits — of renewable hydrogen as an energy resource. 

"This effort responds to growing public, customer, policymaker and regulatory pressure for innovative clean energy solutions that can minimize carbon emissions and help address climate change," he told Bring Me The News.

Hydrogen's 'rainbow of colors' 

Green hydrogen is produced by a process called water electrolysis, during which electrical currents (powered by renewable electricity, such as wind or solar) split water into oxygen and hydrogen. 

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"There are a rainbow of colors of describe hydrogen," explains Margaret Cherne-Hendrick, senior lead of innovation and impact at the St. Paul-based clean energy nonprofit, Fresh Energy. 

The most common type of hydrogen used today, known as "gray" hydrogen, is produced using fossil fuels. "Blue" hydrogen, as another example, is produced using a combination of sequestered carbon dioxide and fossil fuels. 

Of all the types of hydrogen available, Cherne-Hendrick said green hydrogen is the gold standard when it comes to decarbonizing the natural gas system. 

Pilot operations 

CenterPoint's pilot project in Minneapolis deploys a one-megawatt electrolyzer to produce up to 432 kilograms of hydrogen per day. As mentioned, the process uses roughly two gallons of water from the city's water supply per minute. 

Once produced, the hydrogen is infused in low concentrations, of less than 5%, directly into the natural gas distribution pipeline system. 

“Our existing natural gas infrastructure system has not been designed to distribute high concentrations of hydrogen gas, so there is a real limitation in how much hydrogen you can blend into our pipes without risking structural damage," Cherne-Hendrick said, adding existing gas-powered appliances would also break down with too much hydrogen. 

Amid these challenges, CenterPoint Energy says the primary goal of the pilot project is to gain operational experience with the technology. 

Corson, the CenterPoint spokesperson, said green hydrogen remains in an early stage of development, similar to where wind and solar electricity stood in the electric power sector 20 years ago. 

"As it is developed, green hydrogen may follow a similar trajectory to lower costs – on par with or even lower than conventional natural gas," he said in an email. 

Looking to the future, Cherne-Hendrick said green hydrogen could play a critical role in decarbonizing the heavy-duty industry and transportation sectors in particular, which are more difficult to decarbonize through electrification than the building sector. 

An on-site electrolyzer, for example, could route green hydrogen directly into an industrial plant — both decarbonizing the operation and reducing the need for an overhaul of the broader pipeline system. 

“With CenterPoint really taking decarbonization of their gas system seriously, we think that investigating opportunities with green hydrogen is a good first step among others," Cherne-Hendrick said.  

BMTN Note: Weather events in isolation can't always be pinned on climate change, but the broader trend of increasingly severe weather and record-breaking extremes seen in Minnesota and across the globe can be attributed directly to the rapidly warming climate caused by human activity. The IPCC has warned that Earth is "firmly on track toward an unlivable world," and says greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 in order to limit warming to 1.5C, which would prevent the most catastrophic effects on humankind. You can read more here.

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