Opinion: Hydrogen gas key to California avoiding rolling blackouts

It’s a fuel that produces zero carbon emissions and can be stored for use during surges in electricity demand

BILL QUIRK, Mercury News

There is a lesson to be learned about California’s electrical power system from the record heat that scorched the Western United States in August – and it’s not the trumped-up assertions that the need for limited rolling blackouts was the result of this state’s commitment to renewable power.

The climate extremes we experienced – 130 degrees in Death Valley, the tinder-box condition of our wildlands – put an exclamation point on the imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

California’s commitment to a 100% renewable power future can be achieved – and future disruptions avoided – by maximizing storage of our abundant solar- and wind-generated power. As part of that formula, we need the kind of long-term storage that carbon-free hydrogen gas can provide.

The blackouts we experienced were inexcusable. Californians around the state, in the middle of the highest heat wave in decades, found themselves with no air conditioning, no power and no lights. These blackouts were a result of the massive demand on the electrical grid.

Unfortunately, the California Public Utilities Commission does not plan for the worst day in its resource adequacy planning. If it did, the blackouts would not have happened. We need better planning for such a worst-case scenario.

The blackouts were clearly not the result of our growing reliance on renewable power. That is the assessment of the individual who knows most about managing California’s vast electrical grid. “Renewables have not caused this issue,” said Steve Berberich, CEO and president of the Independent System Operator.

Going forward, we must better leverage California’s renewable capabilities. That means storing power at times of peak solar and wind production to create renewable resources that can always be tapped.

There are many ways to achieve sufficient storage, and California must employ them all. Batteries can provide abundant short-term storage. Pumped hydro storage, in which solar power is used to pump water up so that gravity can pull it down to generate power when solar is not available, is becoming a growing source of medium-term storage.

A third means of storage – one capable of producing long-term storage in great supply – is just beginning to be tapped to meet California’s needs. It is the production and storage of hydrogen, a fuel that produces zero carbon emissions.

Carbon-free hydrogen gas can be produced from water through a process called electrolysis, which uses wind- or solar-generated electrical power to split the hydrogen from oxygen. The gas can be stored underground or liquefied and stored in tanks.

This is precisely the type of clean-energy storage that would be most valuable to have on hand when extreme conditions create a surge in electricity demand.

European leaders, committed to a zero-carbon future, see hydrogen as essential. France and Germany have each earmarked billions for hydrogen deployment. European Union experts estimate that clean hydrogen could meet 24% of the world’s energy demands by 2050 – powering vehicles, industrial machinery and electricity generation.

Closer to home, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power embarked last year on a project to transition a coal-generated power plant it owns in Utah to one that will be fully powered by clean hydrogen by 2045 – California’s target date for full conversion to renewable power.

The Department of Water and Power’s general manager told commissioners he believes there is no way for California to get to 100% renewable energy “without hydrogen in the mix.”

The lesson from a summer of searing heat and ferocious wildfires is that California must maintain its commitment to renewable energy, and it must target its incentives and investments to ensure clean-energy storage that will balance its electrical grid. The Public Utilities Commission and the Energy Commission must pursue an aggressive strategy to fully incorporate clean hydrogen into California’s renewable portfolio.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, has a PhD is astrophysics and is the only scientist in the California Legislature.