The Role of Hydrogen in Greening School Energy Systems

Renewable Energy /
The Role of Hydrogen in Greening School Energy Systems

Universities have long served as incubators for sustainability and environmental ideas. Recognizing a moral imperative to lead by example, an increasing number of academic institutions are moving beyond passive promotion to actively implement greener energy systems on their campuses.

In the name of greening their universities, schools such as the University of California, Irvine, have turned to novel solutions such as hydrogen.

But what does this entail? And why will hydrogen play such a pivotal role?Here’s how green campuses are embracing a sustainable infrastructure future.

What Is University Greening?

Universities aren't just molding the leaders of tomorrow; they're also shaping the cultural norms around sustainability for students and employees alike. For many, this movement has become an ethical imperative that aims to educate, inspire, and influence a more sustainable global culture.

By establishing healthier, cleaner, and more productive campuses, universities set the bar for environmental stewardship. Across the country, campuses are seizing both the challenges and opportunities of sustainability, focusing on real-world examples of environmental, financial, and social successes to inspire creative action.

While the specific sustainable practices and initiatives to reduce the campus’ environmental impact will vary from one setting to another, some common aspects include:

  • Renewable energy – Encouraging universities to generate their energy via alternatives like solar, wind, and hydrogen.
  • Sustainable building design – Investing in energy-efficient buildings that are made of sustainable materials, embracing green construction practices, and reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions.
  • Zero waste – Promoting awareness while maximizing recycling, composting leftover food, and reducing waste generation.
  • Green transportation – Encouraging the use of hydrogen and electric transportation.
  • Walkability – Designing campuses to promote walking and cycling over car usage, reducing the need for fossil-fuel-powered transportation, and fostering a healthier, more engaged student community.

How UCI Is Greening Its Campus with Hydrogen

For more than a decade, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) has been lauded as the greenest university in the country:

“In 2008, UC Irvine vowed to improve its energy efficiency by 20 percent by 2020, then hit that target seven years early, making it the first U.S. school to achieve that goal. Then administrators doubled down by pledging an additional 20 percent energy reduction by 2020. Helping the matter: three on-site solar power projects and a 19-megawatt cogeneration plant with turbines powered by combustion and steam. The school’s water-recycling program saves more than 210 million gallons per year.”

But this was just the beginning. Since then, the university has set its sights on even loftier goals, with publicly popular hydrogen serving as the vehicle it will use to achieve them.

UC Irvine’s Hydrogen Energy Initiative

Recently, UC Irvine proposed a groundbreaking pilot project with Southern California Gas Co. to blend hydrogen into existing natural gas pipelines. This initiative aims to substantially reduce carbon emissions and could serve as a model for safely incorporating hydrogen into more than 100,000 miles of pipelines across California.

With potential backing from state and federal plans, the project symbolizes a significant stride toward meeting California's clean energy goals and achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. If successful, this hydrogen blending technique may revolutionize how energy systems function, offering a cleaner, more sustainable alternative—while contributing to both on-campus electricity generation as well as heating and cooling.

Additionally, UCI has been involved with developing a hydrogen fueling station project, which seeks to construct a fueling station with an observation room on a 0.9-acre site located in the northeast section of the UCI campus. Once completed, the site will have four hydrogen pumps that hydrogen-powered vehicles can use to fill up.

Student and Activist Concerns

Naturally, some students and activists have flagged potential safety issues tied to this ambitious hydrogen project. Many of these concerns echo some of the broader societal apprehensions about hydrogen's inherent characteristics—its smaller molecular size leading to potential leaks and its higher flammability.

These concerns are being met with rigorous safety measures. For instance, the initial hydrogen blend will constitute a mere 5%—a level that a UC Riverside study found poses minimal risk. While hydrogen molecules may be more leak-prone than natural gas, ongoing research aims to quantify these risks and find ways to mitigate them. Similarly, preliminary findings suggest the difference could be a marginal 80 versus 100 years. And, finally, the flammability issue is being addressed through stringent safety protocols.

Put simply, UCI's project leaders assert that with proper management, the risks become manageable, while the upside could be revolutionary.

Addressing Greenwashing Concerns

Facing claims of "greenwashing," critics say UCI's hydrogen projects miss the mark for true green hydrogen—which is only possible via electrolysis. Truth be told, this project may lean more towards “gray hydrogen,” which, while reducing GHGs, fails to eliminate them entirely. Yet, there's an old saying that applies to this situation: "Don't let perfect be the enemy of the good."

Although the project faces challenges like high costs, significant water use, and a continued reliance on fossil fuels, these are stepping stones to a cleaner future, not stumbling blocks. Waiting for an elusive "perfect" green hydrogen solution could sideline meaningful advancements needed to battle climate change effectively.

Even a 5% to 10% reduction in fossil fuel usage—replaced by more efficient and cleaner hydrogen fuel—could make a sizable dent in the university’s carbon footprint.

Shifting Toward Sustainability with FASTECH

UCI's on-campus hydrogen projects exemplify a proactive commitment to sustainable energy solutions. It's one thing to hold workshops and publish research papers. It's another to retrofit your energy infrastructure as an experimental sandbox for the future.

Simply put, UCI is walking the walk—serving as a blueprint for other institutions.

Does your university or company seek to pioneer similar initiatives?

If so, as a leading end-to-end energy solutions provider, the experts at FASTECH can guide your sustainable transition from concept to reality. We’re creating the foundation for a greener future by building hydrogen-based energy infrastructure and systems that can power the world around us.

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