What’s all the fuss about hydrogen?

The South Australian government announced the winners of its Hydrogen Jobs Plan, an ambitious hydrogen project to construct 250 MW electrolyser and a 200 MW power generator to push the state towards 100 percent renewables.

Companies ATCO and BOC Linde have been named the “preferred partners” and Epic Energy as the hydrogen storage facilitator.

But despite the government offering $600m in subsidies for a project that ultimately might cost billions, energy experts are divided on the usefulness of the project.

“Hydrogen has been a massive, unprecedented jump in interest recently,” said Dr Scott Dwyer, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Futures from University of Technology,  Sydney.

Dwyer says there are two entirely separate end goals for hydrogen production.

“We need to decarbonise these really hard to abate sectors,” he says, like steel, aluminium, energy intensive transport.

But he also says there is another goal: “We also need to deal with this increasing amount of renewable energy … South Australia are regularly meeting 100% of their demands with renewables and sometimes more.”

Wind and solar require more flexibility in the power system. When there’s excess solar and wind than what can be used, batteries can store extra energy, but currently only for shorter periods.

If there’s even more bountiful amounts of solar and wind – which there sometimes is – the extra energy could be used to produce green hydrogen.  Which could be used later to fire up power stations to produce – electricity.

Hydrogen can be stored for much longer than batteries and has been billed by the Malinauskas’ Labor government as a way to fill that longer term energy gap.

Most energy experts agree there are a few key areas that green hydrogen will be incredibly useful, but it’s just too expensive to be a panacea for our energy needs.

Michael Liebreich, an environmental analysis has recently released an updated ‘Hydrogen Ladder’, which ranks when hydrogen will need to be used, all the way down to where it’s completely uncompetitive compared to batteries and other established technologies.

Hydrogen ladder

Making fertiliser, methanol, shipping, jet fuel and steel are all likely to be important industries for green hydrogen in the future. According to Liebreich, long duration grid balancing – meaning the long-term storage suggested for this project – could also be a use of hydrogen.

“We really need all the tools in the toolkit,” said Dwyer. 

“Whether [this project] is part of the solution, or whether it’s combined with these other measures around demand, flexibility, energy efficiency, and distributing energy resources … I think it’s important that these pilots give us real data and really see what works.”

Some states are looking to blend green hydrogen with natural gas.

“We’d be far better off to be using it in industrial processes, and displacing fossil fuels there,” says  Andrew Stock, energy expert and Councillor with the Climate Council.

“Making hydrogen from electricity and then storing it and then burning it to make electricity again. That’s not a very efficient way of using that renewable electricity and hydrogen.”

Despite being on the agenda for over a year, the hydrogen project in South Australia is in its earliest stages. ATCO and BOC Linde will work on project designs, find equipment and importantly – work out the cost.

“It will need to store a lot of hydrogen and that will need a very large cavern underground or perhaps a long pipeline system. Maybe metre diameter pipelines 10s of kilometres long,” said Stock.

“Or if you were to liquefy it, you’d probably need storage bigger than the biggest hydrogen liquefied storage in the world today, which has just been finished at NASA’s Cape Canaveral launch site. Storing hydrogen is complex and somewhat difficult.”

Both Stock and Dwyer agree that hydrogen has its place in the Australian energy landscape, but we could be more selective about what projects tax-payer money is spent on.

“We need to focus our funding and research efforts,” said Dwyer.

“Really being strategic about where we’re investing in hydrogen … Really look at where hydrogen could play a role in and give a benefit to the Australian economy – long haul ships, long haul aviation, steel, some of these other higher priority areas.”

Stock is more direct: “There has been a lot of money spent on hydrogen in Australia and I’m not sure that all of it has been wisely spent.”

Listen to the debunks podcast

Do electric car batteries explode? Will an electric car ruin my weekend? Get the facts on electric cars. Listen now.

Please login to favourite this article.