Hydrogen infrastructure encompasses a system of facilities that includes pipelines, liquefaction plants, trains and trucks, storage, compressors, etc. Domestically, pipelines are a main way to move hydrogen. The US already has about 1,600 miles of hydrogen pipelines, mainly located near refiners along the Gulf Coast. The existing hydrogen pipelines give the US a starting point but are a fraction of the roughly 3 million miles of domestic natural gas pipelines.
In certain cases, midstream companies may be able to repurpose natural gas networks, at 50%-80% lower costs than new hydrogen pipeline investments. But this method will require reconfiguration and adaptation, to avoid problems such as hydrogen leakage (attention is needed for the entire value chain) and natural gas pipeline embrittlement (through adding coating).
Another alternative is transporting hydrogen by blending it with natural gas and using the existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure. Today, natural gas pipelines can handle up to 20% of hydrogen blending; beyond that, more research and modification is required to prevent hydrogen from damaging the pipelines. Hawaii Gas has a long history of blending 15% of hydrogen into its natural gas pipelines and the company is now looking to lower the emissions from its hydrogen value chain. There are also operating/announced blending projects in Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, and New York states. Hydrogen can also be transported via specialized intermodal (truck and train) tanks, but their application is now limited, and the infrastructure will also need substantial expansion.
More efforts are set to kick in to address the delivery challenges. Thanks to relevant funding in the IIJA, as well as the increasing awareness and interest from the hydrogen industry, we would expect to see a ramp-up in investment in hydrogen infrastructure in 2023 and beyond. This will help the hydrogen market in the US continue to expand and the perspectives for future exports continue to grow.
In the future, when the global hydrogen market becomes more mature, overseas shipping of hydrogen will be more popular, where hydrogen is transferred in liquid form as liquefied hydrogen, ammonia, or a liquid organic hydrogen carrier. Discussions are also happening around repurposing existing LNG infrastructure to liquefy and gasify hydrogen, but there are notable challenges such as high additional costs. That said, in the short to medium term, the US domestic hydrogen delivery network will come to shape first, as it has advantages from cost and infrastructure standpoints.
Lastly, as the energy system gets greened more holistically in the very long term, we would expect emissions from hydrogen delivery to be reduced considerably through synthetic fuels with hydrogen as an input. This can then lower the life-cycle emissions of the hydrogen industry as a whole. Nevertheless, for now, decarbonization in shipping remains challenging.