In 1977, Jack O’Leary, deputy secretary of the newly-minted Department of Energy, called reporters to a press conference at the Old Post Office building in Washington — now the Trump International Hotel — and laid out a dismal energy future.

Richard Myers, the gifted young editor of The Energy Daily, asked where natural gas fit going forward. O’Leary responded, “Forget about natural gas. It is a depleted resource.” Myers went on to write an extraordinary piece of analysis headlined, “Requiem for Natural Gas.”

The next year, Congress passed two significant pieces of natural gas legislation that changed things. The first was the hugely significant Natural Gas Policy Act (known as the natural gas act). The second was the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act (known as the fuel use act) which sought to restrict the use of natural gas for what were deemed essential uses, such as feedstock for fertilizers, plastics and domestic appliances. Electric utilities were directed to use coal for new generation, not gas. Ornamental flames were banned and there were even questions about keeping the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame at Arlington Cemetery alight.

The natural gas act began the business of deregulating natural gas prices and untying peculiar regulatory knots which had natural gas divided between interstate gas which was strictly regulated and intrastate gas which was less regulated. The net result was to dry up the supply of gas to the interstate market. The in-state price was higher and, therefore, the supply greater.

More Gas in the Ground

On the available data, there had been no reason to believe that there was more gas in the ground, let alone that there was an abundance of it. But there was.

The second piece of legislation, the fuel use act, somewhat negated the positive things in the first act. Market forces were at work and more gas came to market. Higher prices were stimulating supply, but demand was restricted. By the early 1980s there was an oversupply of gas, known as “the bubble.”

Three things set free natural gas. Congress repealed the fuel use act in 1988, and new drilling technology was around the corner. Horizontal drilling improved fracking applications; by the early 1990s, this technology began to revolutionize the gas supply. A second technology was the aeroderivative turbine. It was as it sounds, little more than a jet engine modified to operate on the ground. These machines were more efficient than the old “heavy frame” turbines.

The new machines swept the market. In the United States today, more electricity is generated from gas turbines than either coal or nuclear. It is the premier fossil fuel for electricity generation.

In the wings was another gas, more of a blithe spirit in those days than a serious contender: hydrogen.

Throughout the turbulence of the 1970s, environmentalists pushed hydrogen as the magic gas that would solve the energy crisis. It was not to be, not then. It was thought of as a revolutionary fuel, primarily for cars and trucks, but too much new infrastructure would be needed for it to take off.

Now hydrogen is a serious player, according to experts at Guidehouse, the global consulting firm that helps utilities and governments plan for the future and to go green. Its role is seen either as an additive or, in Europe, as a fuel.

Daan Peters, a director at Guidehouse in Europe, told me in an interview on public television’s “White House Chronicle” that hydrogen has captured the imagination of European governments and utilities. It is, he said speaking from Amsterdam, part of the European Green Deal – Europe’s attempt to go green all the way in a circular economy.

A consortium of European countries – the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, among others — is planning a giant, 10-gigawatt wind farm in the North Sea which will be devoted to the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen derived from cracking water is called green hydrogen; that attained by reforming natural gas or from coal is called blue hydrogen.

The North Sea project aims to produce over 800,000 tons of green hydrogen annually. Production costs are coming down, Peters says.

Hydrogen Is Coming

In the United States, there is a drive for even cleaner natural gas — it starts out as the cleanest fossil fuel — across a broad range of endeavors.

Mark Eisenhower, a partner at Guidehouse in Washington, told me, “Policy and stakeholder objectives are being implemented on a myriad of pathways to midcentury decarbonization.” These include carbon capture, use and storage, tightening up on methane leaks from the gas fields, and enriching natural gas with hydrogen to improve the burn and reduce the carbon load.

He added, “In the near term renewable natural gas, hydrogen-enriched natural gas, and hydrogen networks are viable technologies that can be utilized to decarbonize the current pipeline commodity.”

Wind and solar power both offer the opportunity for hydrogen production by electrolysis without being dedicated to that purpose. Surplus power from these renewables can be diverted to hydrogen production – a kind of energy storage.

There are caveats. First, hydrogen does not have the same energy density as natural gas, so it requires more hydrogen for the same effect. Hydrogen has about a third of the energy content of natural gas, requiring modifications all along the gas system. If it is green hydrogen, as opposed to a blend, these modifications are going to be more severe. Pipes, storage, compressors, and pumps will have to be aligned to the realities of hydrogen.

“Guidehouse research indicates that utilizing decarbonized gas in existing pipeline infrastructure alongside electrification and clean-energy development can support a cost-effective transition to a decarbonized and resilient energy system by midcentury,” Eisenhower stated.

In his 1874 novel “The Mysterious Island,” Jules Verne, one of the fathers of science fiction, had a character say, “Yes, my friends, I believe that water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen, which constitute it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable.” Not fiction anymore?



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