Southern California Gas works on power-to-gas means for energy storage

Southern California Gas (SoCalGas) said April 13 that it has joined with the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the National Fuel Cell Research Center (NFCRC) to launch demonstration projects to create and test a carbon-free, power-to-gas system for the first time ever in the U.S.

The technology converts electricity into gaseous energy and could provide North America with a large-scale, cost-effective solution for storing excess energy produced from renewable sources. Other energy storage means being tested at a time when highly variable energy sources are increasingly being used are batteries and pumped storage hydro. 

Using electrolyzer-based methods, the power-to-gas concept uses electricity from renewable sources, such as solar and wind, to make carbon-free hydrogen gas by breaking down water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can then be converted to synthetic, renewable methane — traditional natural gas — and stored to meet future energy needs. It can also be used as a multi-purpose energy source for vehicles, micro-turbines, fuel cells or other equipment.

“A power-to-gas system can help California meet environmentally-focused energy goals and solve a major energy challenge facing our nation: how to cost-effectively store excess power from renewables to meet energy demands when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine,” said Patrick Lee, senior vice president, customer service, innovation and business strategy for SoCalGas.

California is expected to produce 33% of its electricity from renewable sources within five years and Gov. Jerry Brown’s new energy goals call for significantly increasing that level to 50% by 2030. Batteries, a standard form of storage, require significant capital investment, but have limited capacity and relatively short duration, SoCal Gas noted.

Commercial-scale power-to-gas systems are already used in Germany and are being explored globally. Such a commercial system could enable natural gas utilities across North America to use their existing pipeline infrastructure as essentially a large, cost-effective “battery” to store and deliver energy on demand.

Located at the NFCRC at the University of California, Irvine and NREL’s laboratories in Golden, Colorado, the power-to-gas demonstrations will also assess the feasibility and potential benefits of using the natural gas pipeline system to store photovoltaic and wind-produced energy. Initial project results are expected by year end.

“As we reach high levels of renewable energy on the grid, storing the electricity generated by solar power and other variable energy sources will help unlock greater use of these renewable resources in the U.S. and throughout the world,” said Dr. Martha Symko-Davies, the Director of Partnerships for Energy Systems Integration for NREL. “This project will examine a unique way to reduce the capital cost of energy storage.”

“With the extensive storage capacity of natural gas infrastructure, this project will provide important validation of the technical and economic feasibility of carbon-free energy transformation and storage,” said Professor Scott Samuelsen, director of the NFCRC.

SoCalGas is the nation’s largest natural gas distribution utility, providing service to 21.4 million consumers connected through 5.9 million meters in more than 500 communities. The company’s service territory encompasses approximately 20,000 square miles throughout central and Southern California, from Visalia to the Mexican border. Southern California Gas is a regulated subsidiary of Sempra Energy (NYSE: SRE).

The National Fuel Cell Research Center was dedicated in 1998 by DOE and the California Energy Commission with the goal to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced fuel cell technology and systems. Examples include the tri-generation of bio-hydrogen, the hybridization of fuel cells with gas turbines, and the deployment of hydrogen fueling infrastructure. The NFCRC is located at the University of California, Irvine.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.