SoCal Gas President Maryam Brown on the Role for Clean Fuels In California’s Energy Future

Maryam Brown

As the world’s largest direct air capture plant kicked off operations this September in Iceland, Southern California Gas Company recently announced plans to develop and test new direct air capture technology that both captures C02 and collects water for irrigation. To elaborate on SoCal Gas's role in California's clean energy transition, in this VX News interview, President Maryam Brown shares key takeaways from a new study analyzing the Role for Clean Fuels and Gas Infrastructure in Achieving California’s Net Zero Climate Goal. Specifically, Brown highlights opportunities for new and repurposed pipeline infrastructure for enabling carbon capture and sequestration as well as the resilience and affordability benefits of clean fuels—hydrogen, renewable natural gas, and syngas—for accelerating California’s path to Net Zero.

SoCal Gas recently undertook an analysis of The Role of Clean Fuels and Gas Infrastructure in Achieving California's Net Zero Climate Goal. Could you share with our readers the scenarios that were examined and the key takeaways identified in that report?

Yes, and thank you for the opportunity. This new analysis builds on existing climate models used in studies commissioned by state agencies and looks at four different pathways to achieve net zero emissions across all sectors of the economy. All scenarios we modeled are net zero, so not just lower carbon. And, it assumes aggressive electrification scenarios for vehicles and buildings and conservative parameters for clean fuels. We really put ourselves to the test here. One of the scenarios we considered was reaching net zero emissions with no fuels network at all. Importantly, the methodology and results were independently validated by researchers at the University of California Irvine, University of California Davis, and Columbia University so they should serve as a good guide for policymakers.

In the study, those four net zero emissions scenarios were evaluated against criteria that recognize the complexity of our energy systems, and the need for energy to be a lot of things: It has to be affordable, equitable, resilient, reliable, and clean. The five criteria that those scenarios evaluated are the system’s reliability and resiliency; the system's ability to decarbonize the hard-to-abate sectors— meaning long duration electric generation as well as the industrial sectors; customer conversion dynamics; the technical maturity of the technologies; and last, and anything but least, affordability.

The main takeaways from the analysis show that combining the strength of renewable electricity from solar and wind with clean hydrogen, renewable natural gas, and biofuels really is the most affordable, resilient and technologically proven path to carbon neutrality. Another major takeaway as you can imagine, is that leveraging California’s existing gas system to deliver clean fuels and manage carbon is the most affordable option and creates the least amount of risk compared to the other options. To put that in perspective, the modeling shows a clean fuels network is worth between ~$45-$75 billion in savings in transition costs compared to full, economy-wide decarbonization in 2045 with no fuels network. And, finally, the third takeaway is that stakeholders need to act even faster and with greater collaboration to be able to expand and accelerate different decarbonization tools, including clean fuels initiatives. Some of that is already underway, but we obviously need to do more.

For readers who may be unfamiliar what constitute “clean fuels,” how does SoCalGas and the study define them?

We see significant opportunity in green hydrogen and renewable natural gas to decarbonize hard to abate sectors like electric generation, industry and heavy-duty transportation. We also would include synthetic natural gas and natural gas supported by carbon capture and sequestration.

Europe offers important lessons on how we can leverage our existing infrastructure to deliver clean fuels. There, 21 nations plan to repurpose existing natural gas pipelines to make up 70% of the infrastructure needed to carry clean hydrogen to hubs throughout the European Union.

What did the study’s analysis uncover about the role for new and existing pipelines in securing for California a clean energy transition with net zero goals?

Great question. Some of your readers might be wondering, why invest in a clean fuels network at all. What this analysis, and others, show is that a clean fuels network plays several vital roles in a decarbonized California, even in high electrification scenarios.

First, as more solar and wind are integrated onto the grid, and as more end uses are electrified, a clean fuels network supports the reliability of the electric grid by providing indispensable, flexible, and dispatchable power at times when renewables are intermittent.

Second, and I think there’s widespread alignment around this; clean fuels will be essential to decarbonizing hard-to-abate sectors of the economy like heavy-duty transportation and industrial activities, which currently account for a large portion of California’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, this analysis shows a diverse set of decarbonization levers reduces the risk of over-dependence on any one technology and provides resilient and affordable decarbonization as both clean fuels and electrification scale.

By leveraging existing gas infrastructure to deliver clean fuels and to manage carbon, California can achieve its net zero goals more affordably and with less risk than pursuing other pathways.

At a longer-term level, if we look out to 2045, we know that the mix of the fuels in our system will be a different mix than today, but the value of the infrastructure remains the same. In some ways, the value of the infrastructure goes up, but infrastructure gets used in different ways.

It gets used more to support peak electric generation, which is expected to double over the next two decades. It gets used more to support industrial activity and decarbonizing that industrial activity. An important data point on that front is that the LA basin is the largest manufacturing center in the country.  A lot of that activity needs support from clean fuels to continue manufacturing activities that drive the economic engine here in California.

We speak to you not long after President Biden signed the 2021 federal bipartisan infrastructure bill into law. Elaborate on the challenge of repurposing our existing gas pipeline system and whether federal investments will help expedite this transition?

It depends on what type of fuels you're talking about. Renewable natural gas, which is an important tool for decarbonizing our energy system is basically a drop-in, renewable substitute for natural gas. It also helps address methene emissions from waste and agriculture. In fact, RNG is flowing with traditional natural gas from a growing number of dairy farms in California and is in our pipelines today. Your more specific question probably relates to hydrogen and using the existing gas pipeline system to be able to move hydrogen. That's something that we're actually working on today.

SoCalGas is among the first utilities in the nation to test the effects of a hydrogen blend on natural gas infrastructure and equipment in a controlled field environment. We've started testing our system at our testing lab that we have at SoCalGas called Situation City. This effort uses the same engineering and technology that will be used to blend into the natural gas grid in the future.

Preliminary results of testing that began earlier this summer show the household natural gas appliances are compatible with up to a 20% hydrogen blend and are consistent with previous international research and lab testing.

In terms of federal legislation, we're very hopeful that it's going to further support those kinds of investments to use existing and new infrastructure to transport hydrogen. The legislation includes about $8 billion dollars to support clean hydrogen hubs. We think that the LA basin provides a natural venue for a clean hydrogen hub. It also includes $3.5 billion for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to establish hubs for removing carbon dioxide from the air. We think that there's a lot of opportunity there.

 The use of hydrogen, either blended with natural gas, or delivered via a dedicated pipeline, is one important component of SoCalGas' strategy to achieve net zero emissions in its operations and the energy it delivers by 2045.

There appears renewed interest in carbon sequestration at the federal level. How promising an opportunity is carbon capture & sequestration?

We look at it very promisingly. Carbon capture and sequestration is a technology that's existed for several decades. They use it in enhanced oil recovery and in other settings. I agree with you, it's one that’s been building traction, and there's a lot of enthusiasm of late around the opportunity for carbon capture and sequestration. There's been a lot of leadership at the Department of Energy in that space, and you continue to see that. I think there's a view that existing pipeline infrastructure can be used to transport gases associated with CCS, just as it can be used to transport natural gas.

Academic and policy experts are putting a lot of time and attention into carbon management, like CCUS. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency IEA highlight the need for carbon management tools to meet our Paris Agreement commitments. The IEA refers to CCUS as a “critical part of net zero goals” because CCUS both reduce emissions in hard-to-abate sectors directly and remove CO2 to balance emissions that are challenging to avoid.

At the open of our interview you mentioned direct air capture. That’s a bit different, it removes CO2 directly from the air, rather than an emissions source. We think both technologies are important and right now SoCalGas is funding an innovative technology first conceived at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and is being commercialized by Los Angeles-based start-up Avnos, Inc that captures carbon dioxide from the air while simultaneously collecting water that can then be reused for irrigation. We are excited to see the results of that project.  

With respect to the San Pedro Bay Ports (LA and Long Beach), what do you see as the opportunities for SoCal Gas and hydrogen?

Our goal is to build America’s first clean hydrogen hub right here in the LA basin that supports our port, our airports, and our industrial activity here. We've been working with a coalition called HyDeal LA and the first phase of their work just completed at the end of the summer with a coalition that includes SoCalGas, LADWP, Mitsubishi, the Green Hydrogen Coalition, the governor's office, and NRDC. It was all driving to this question about the opportunities for an industrial cluster focused on green hydrogen to support heavy-duty transportation at the ports, support marine activity at the ports, and other industrial activity and economic activity that we have in that area.

We are also working on developing the concept of a net zero emissions industrial hub in the LA region that would serve hard to abate sectors like the Ports. This is in alignment with worldwide momentum in developing and implementing industrial hubs under the aegis of the World Economic Forum.

Several analyses, including the Los Angeles Renewable Energy Study (LA100) by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) and NREL, highlight the need, in 2045, for renewably produced and storable fuels to maintain reliability in the power sector. As we’ve talked about clean fuels like hydrogen also help us decarbonize hard to electrify sectors of the economy like industry and heavy-duty trucking.

The HyDeal LA, initiative I mentioned aims to achieve at-scale and affordable green hydrogen produced using renewable electricity and water in the Los Angeles basin by 2030 to help drive more rapid scale up.

Outside of that work, SoCalGas is actively engaged in more than 10 pilot projects related to hydrogen, including a partnership with Netherlands-based HyET Hydrogen on technology that could transform hydrogen distribution and enable the rapid expansion of hydrogen fueling stations for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). The technology would allow hydrogen to be easily and affordably transported via the natural gas pipeline system, then extracted and compressed at fueling stations that provide hydrogen FCEVs. That work could obviously have big implications for heavy duty trucking and the associated emissions.

Pivoting for a moment, there’s a report out from Stanford and MIT touting- despite decades of opposition to nuclear -  the benefits of maintaining California’s last nuclear plant for meeting the state’s climate goals. Elaborate, as an energy executive, on the difficulties of tackling these third rail policy issues in California when the politics do not align with what science would recommend.

I think when you take a leadership position on complex issues, especially issues where the future is unclear or where the answer is unclear—that's exactly what we're doing when we're driving forward the decarbonization goals that we all have and share—there are folks that, for whatever reason, are going to challenge that. I think that it takes courage, especially when there's uncertainty, to take that leadership position.

I would look at the analysis that SoCalGas published a few weeks ago that we started this interview on as a really good example of that—of putting pen to paper, showing these different scenarios, and examining how the future might look.

Finally, re SoCalGas’ plans, investments and future initiatives, what is your take-away fromCOP 26 in Glasgow?

I actually spoke on a panel at COP 26 particularly focused on industrial clusters. I was on a panel with US interests including former US energy secretary Ernest Moniz, and what I took away from that particular experience was how much momentum there is around the globe for industrial clusters and the value of putting a focus on decarbonizing. This is the exact reason that we participate in Hydeal LA and see the opportunity there. The momentum globally is very significant. The momentum in the US is definitely building, but I think that some of our colleagues around the globe are further along than we are. There's definitely room to catch up and catch up quickly. The important thing is to learn from each other and our different experiences as we look to advance and solve very difficult challenges, but also see the opportunity in that.

“We think that the LA basin provides a natural venue for America’s first clean hydrogen hub.”—Maryam Brown