Hydrogen will change the face of Australian energy

Hydrogen will change the face of Australian energy

Arianna Pescini
The state of Victoria has signed an energy deal with the Japanese government to export lignite-derived hydrogen, potentially revolutionizing the Australian energy economy

Latrobe Valley, a 90-minute drive east of Melbourne, is home to 25% of the world’s lignite, or brown coal, a fossil fuel with a wide range of uses. With the coal industry in crisis and policies in place to curtail CO2 emissions, Australia is now planning to extract lignite from the valley in order to produce hydrogen for export as a clean fuel. The plan has the potential to revolutionize the country’s economy. Studies by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) already signal 2020 as a tipping point, starting with exports, followed by exponential growth in the domestic hydrogen consumption by 2030. The country already has the capability for developing hydrogen from its wealth of other natural resources (especially coal and natural gas). In 2016, its total capacity amounted to over 1 million cubic meters per day. The government’s plans have already aroused skepticism over the brown coal extraction process, transport costs and emissions, but experts assert that it will bring only good. According to Ben Hart, a spokesperson of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), ''Aside from the clear economic benefit, this process represents a major opportunity since it is potentially emissions-free, making liquid hydrogen an excellent alternative fuel that Australia can also export in order to work towards other goals''. By 2021, the global hydrogen market will be worth over 152 billion US dollars.

Powering the future

@Arena_aus: #Australia will begin using hydrogen as fuel in #electric and #transport sectors by 2020

Latrobe Valley brown coal already supplies 85% of the Australian state’s total energy consumption. But the carbon it generates through combustion can be used to produce hydrogen by subjecting it to a specific chemical reaction. The hydrogen is then liquefied to make it easier to transport - clean energy from a non-renewable source. ''We should clarify that hydrogen from lignite does not pose a threat to renewables, but, on the contrary, supplements them'', explains Paul A. Webley, director of the University of Melbourne’s Peter Cook Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage Research and a member of the Melbourne Energy Institute. ''With carbon capture and storage of the carbon emissions, this system will produce hydrogen with virtually zero emissions''. Starting already in 2020, the first country to benefit from Australia’s initiative will be Japan. Since scaling back its nuclear energy system in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Asian country has been hard at work diversifying its energy mix, investing over $100 million in developing hydrogen fuel-cell engine technology. The Japanese Ministry of Transportation, upon signing the trade agreement with Australia, announced the creation of a fleet of 40,000 fuel-cell vehicles by 2020, to be expanded to 800,000 over the following decade. If the partnership proves a success, the agreement will be extended to the whole of Australia. ''At first the hydrogen will be consumed only in Japan'', continues Webley, ''but there is plenty of room for local uses, for example in fuel-cell vehicles, which may have an important role to play in Australia’s low-emissions future''.

Already a booming market

The hydrogen projects on which Australia has been working since the early 2000s have gone hand-in-hand with the development of renewables, even though fossil fuels still dominate the market: 38% of Australian energy consumption is petroleum, followed by coal (32%) and natural gas (24%). According to the IEA, clean energy made up 6% of the country’s total energy consumption (14% of electricity), but these figures are set to double over the next few years: “Our large-scale production target is 33,000 GW/h by 2020'', continues Webley, ''while the percentage of electricity generated from renewables should rise to 23.5%''. Hart points out that Australia’s wealth of ''land, resources and infrastructure'' will help it meet this challenge. In addition to hydropower and biomass, wind and solar are also growing: ''There are now at least 1.5 million solar panel systems installed on Australian rooftops'', states Webley. ''Solar and wind energy are becoming increasingly important to our energy system, to the point that some regions get as much as 40% of their electricity from clean sources. This growth certainly carries with it new challenges, like how to reduce costs and down times. This is also why the government is reviewing its policies in this sector and for the national electricity market as a whole, in order to know in which direction to move from here''.

Japan-Australia partnership will enable the creation of a 40,000-strong fuel-cell fleet by 2020, to be expanded to 800,000 over the following decade