Dealing with the Methane Monster

By Mike Bartlett, guest blog  |   Jan. 7, 2016

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A fossil fuel
spill of staggering proportions is now polluting the environment of California
and beyond. It is not the type of spill that fouls beaches like those in Santa
Barbara or the Gulf Coast. This spill, visible only with special cameras, goes
straight into the atmosphere. If you are close enough, you can smell it or even
become sick. Many who live near the spill have been sickened and forced to
relocate.

The fossil
fuel spill at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in Southern
California is methane, the main component of natural gas. Although the leak was
discovered October 23, 2015, it continues to escape from the ground unabated. Southern
California Gas Company, owner of the natural gas storage field, has made six
attempts to plug the leak with no success. The methane leak so far amounts to
6.6 million metric tons, which as a spokesman for California Air Resources
Board points out is the equivalent of putting 1,320,000 more cars on the road.  Eventually this disaster could cause environmental
consequences more severe than the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico five years
ago, not only in terms of personal loss and illness, but also climate impacts. The
global warming potential of methane is 72 times more potent than CO2,
over 20 years.

Methane
is a short-lived climate pollutant, so much so that scientists at the recent Paris
climate talks advocated for changing the standard methodology for assessing its
climate warming effects. Currently the Global Warming Potential (GWP) is
calculated over 100 years, whereas it should
be calculated over 20 years. Methane’s primary climate warming impact occurs
during the first 7 to 15 years after it is emitted into the atmosphere. Methane
decomposes into CO2, which takes hundreds to thousands of years to
sequester.

Because
the threat posed by tropospheric methane is extraordinarily high and building
in the atmosphere every day, we must begin to ratchet down its use as an energy
source. But methane and methane infrastructure cannot go away with the wave of
a hand. So, is there a sane way to use methane during the transition?

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Methane
can be used to make hydrogen. Methane is CH4, or, one carbon atom to
every 4 hydrogen atoms. Currently, about 95 percent of hydrogen produced for
industrial purposes comes from “steam reforming” methane. The method of steam reforming methane to produce hydrogen
creates too much GHG emissions to be considered energetically efficient.
 The new methane cracking research in Germany bubbles methane through
molten tin, yielding hydrogen and solid carbon, while utilizing hydrogen for
heat in the process. They claim it is 60% more efficient than the steam
reforming process and is considered a transitional technology away from fossil
fuel reliance. Hooray for Germany for making this commitment.

In
contrast to methane, sustainably produced hydrogen behaves in environmentally
friendly ways. It is a very light molecule that does not pool, is non-toxic, and
has no climate warming implications. Released into the atmosphere, hydrogen
rises rapidly, 45 fps and dissipates very quickly. Hydrogen is now being
produced sustainably with excess solar electrical energy and recycled water. When
used to produce electricity in a fuel cell, hydrogen combines with oxygen, with
heat and water vapor as the only byproducts. Hydrogen has a long-standing and
proven track record as a safe transportation and industrial fuel. Some of the
biggest car companies – Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, Audi, BMW, and
General Motors – have made commitments to shift to hydrogen fuel cell electric
vehicles. Imagine near zero greenhouse gas emissions from well to wheel. That
is our path to the future.

It is
time for California to control the methane monster and invest in developing the
clean hydrogen economy.

Mike Bartlett works
at Stone Edge Farm for McQuown Enterprises LLC in Sonoma, where a cutting-edge
microgrid project that includes a solar/hydrogen energy and vehicle fueling
system is well underway.

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