Split on the atom

‘Code red for humanity’ was the sobering assessment made by chief scientists in a United Nations report on climate change earlier this year. The report details warnings of increasing global temperatures, devastating floods, droughts and wildfires to be felt unless emissions are dramatically curbed.

As countries frantically look to transition to low-carbon futures, hydrogen has become a buzz word amongst nations. It is included in all eight scenarios of the European Commission’s net zero strategy by 2050.

It’s also set to play a major role in Western Australia’s emissions future. The latest 2021-22 state budget saw WA’s renewable hydrogen industry boosted by $61.5 million in order to transition the state to a low-carbon future and meet net zero emission targets.

Policy fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre James Bowen, describes hydrogen as the ‘missing link’ of the renewable revolution.

“Hydrogen is the only way we can successfully increase the penetration of renewables in the market and achieve our decarbonisation targets,” he says.

Bowen explains a hydrogen market within the Indo-Pacific region would not only help avoid the worst effects of climate change but also transform regional geo-politics. He says Australia is poised to replicate the success of the fossil fuel industry.

“If the policy evolution goes the right way, hydrogen could account for 25 per cent of the total energy mix by 2050 and that’s broadly comparable to natural gas right now,” he says. “I think the hype now, is justified. I think it’s beyond hype, it’s a realisation we need hydrogen and the next task is how do we make it happen?”

Funding commitments and policy are driven by an accelerating climate crisis, Bowen says. “We can see climate change happening everywhere; wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and this means there’s much more policy momentum behind tackling the climate crisis.”

The recently injected funds will drive the development of renewable hydrogen production hubs as well as feasibility studies of how hydrogen can be transported and exported in the future.

The boost follows an initial $15 million renewable hydrogen fund established by the McGowan government which spans across multiple hydrogen projects within the state.

In a media release, the Premier says the funds will drive economic growth as well as climate goals. “This $61.5 million initiative will attract investment, support work to grow a local hydrogen production industry and drive local demand for hydrogen- delivering local economic benefits and helping WA meet its emissions reductions targets.”

Hydrogen offers the promise of ‘clean fuel’, that, in theory, could power homes, transportation and eventually decarbonise the energy industry. However, while the production remains in its infancy, it runs the risk of being over hyped as a ‘one fix’ solution to climate change.

What is hydrogen?

Hydrogen is the most naturally abundant chemical element on earth, commonly recognised as the atoms that make up water in H20. In order to understand how hydrogen can be used as an energy source, we first need to dive into the different types.

Hydrogen types are dependent on their source. Most hydrogen currently produced is black or grey, says Senior research fellow of engineering at the University of Western Australia, Dr Saif Al Ghafri. This hydrogen is made through steam methane reforming or coal gasification, both of these methods being high in carbon emissions. Blue hydrogen occurs when the emissions are trapped underground through a process called carbon capture storage.

“Green hydrogen is the only type with zero carbon emissions and is produced when renewable electricity is used to split water molecules, a process known as electrolysis.” Al Ghafri explains.

Infographic courtesy of the Department of Jobs, Tourism, Science and Innovation from the Government of Western Australia.

Al Ghafri says the potential of use for the end product spans across multiple industries.

“Hydrogen can be used in a variety of industrial sectors, for example transport, power and electricity. It can also be used to decarbonise steel and mining sectors, used to replace conventional fuels like diesel and petroleum and is currently being researched as to how it can provide heat and power,” he says.

Future Energy Exports is a research centre dedicated to determining how Australia can efficiently produce and export hydrogen. Chief executive Eric May explains the biggest barriers to mass green hydrogen production right now, is the cost.

“Today if you buy your natural gas, you’re paying something like four dollars a gigajoule. The cheapest way to make carbon free [green] hydrogen is $2 a kilogram. That’s $16 a gigajoule and much more expensive than natural gas.” He says.

“The population really does want to decarbonise, but they don’t want to pay four times the price for energy.”

Al Ghafri says in order to mass produce green hydrogen, the research that needs to be undertaken is to figure out how to make hydrogen as cheaply as possible and then how to transport it as cheaply as possible.

“The way you get prices down, is to increase demand. We need to minimise costs across the entire value chain.”

Dr Saif Al Ghafri with a pressure, volume and temperature (PVT) apparatus for hydrogen-enriched natural gas. Photo: Gabrielle Becerra Mellet.
An ortho to para hydrogen converter. Photo: Gabrielle Becerra Mellet.

So, is it a quick fix?

Dr Jan Rosenow is the programme director of the Regulatory Assistance Project, a European think tank dedicated to the clean energy transition. He explains current global hydrogen production is far away from solely green output.

“Currently, 99 per cent of hydrogen production is black or grey. Only a very small fraction, less than one percent, is green hydrogen from renewables or some form of blue,” he says.

Rosenow says the hype around hydrogen energy as a solution to the climate crisis is a dangerous distraction. “I think the promises of hydrogen cars and people heating their homes with hydrogen are very far-fetched. The current hype around hydrogen is partly driven by an industry that is threatened,” he says.

“If you work in the gas or oil industry and see net zero goals, there is simply no space for the continuation of burning fossil fuels. I think they perceive hydrogen as a potential lifeline that could rescue them, their business model and their industry. There are some legitimate applications but I think time will show hydrogen is not a silver bullet, there are other solutions that are more effective.”

“Replacing all the black and grey hydrogen would be a massive undertaking. There’s a huge need to clean up the current hydrogen production, let alone begin thinking about renewable applications.”

Rosenow describes the risk of hype surrounding hydrogen as similar to when ‘clean coal’ was touted to be the future. “The risk is similar to what we’ve seen of the coal industry. They were threatened by climate goals and found themselves under immense pressure to produce clean coal and essentially have zero emissions coal power plants,” he says. “Today, only one clean coal plower plant operates in the world.”

With this in mind and the hype and funding that was poured into failed clean coal power plant schemes, Rosenow says it’s fair to remain skeptical of zero emissions hydrogen energy.

Eric May, from the Future Energy Exports Centre, says despite the recent increase in funding commitments and policy development, the potential of hydrogen has been known about since the nineteenth century.

When discussing hydrogen being seen as a solution to emissions reductions scheme, Eric May says hydrogen will not solve problems on the time scale needed to stop climate change. In reality, he compares the time frame to that of the fossil fuel industry.

“When you look at the LNG industry, it started in 1979. The first export of LNG took 10 years to 1989, the first shipment really only took off in the scale we’re used to now in the 2000s. It is a 40 year journey,” he says.

“Hydrogen, no question will be a part of the answer, but it’s not everything and it will take some time,” May says.

“People have been talking about hydrogen since the ’70s. This time is different, because of the cheapness of renewable energy, but again, there are a lot of big barriers to overcome and practical ways of getting there are my concern.”

Dr Eric May and Dr Saif Al Ghafri. Photo: Gabrielle Becerra Mellet.

Categories: Environment, General