Soaring power and gas prices have put the national spotlight on energy but, even before the current crisis, big business and governments had begun turning their attention to hydrogen as one of the answers to meet the demand for clean and reliable energy.
Clean energy experts say a hydrogen project near Whyalla on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula could help to provide answers to how the process of making and storing hydrogen energy can best be done.
Program director for energy and climate change at the Grattan Institute, Tony Wood, said one of the main benefits of the project would be to really test the technology.
“No one’s really doing this yet anywhere around the world,” he said.
So how will it work? And how could it be used to help our energy hungry world? Let’s take a look.
How do you get hydrogen?
Basically, you get hydrogen by separating the hydrogen from the oxygen in water (H2O).
This is done through a process called electrolysis, which sends an electric current to the water and causes the chemical reaction.
Former Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief executive, Oliver Yates, who is now at Sentient Impact Group, explains it:
“It starts off simply as a glass of water … zap the glass of water with wonderful renewable energy, effectively electrifying my glass of water, and it splits off the oxygen and I end up with hydrogen,” he said.
“So everybody cleaning their teeth, they’re cleaning it with fuel.”
The process might not sound energy efficient, but the electrolysers will be powered by excess solar power.
Yes, South Australia sometimes generates too much solar, to the point where panels are temporarily turned off.
Mr Yates said having an electrolyser to soak up that extra power and produce hydrogen is exactly what was needed when there was too much solar power.
“At the moment, the energy actually goes to waste, this actually can use it,” he said.
Excess solar power is typically generated at the middle of the day, and Mr Yates said that was when electrolysers tend to operate.
He said they also have the ability to quickly turn off when needed.
However, Mr Wood said, electrolysers were not all that cheap.
“You’ve got to produce the renewable energy in the first place, but then you’ve got to add the cost of converting that,” he said.
What’s at the Whyalla hydrogen plant?
As well as the 250Mwe electrolysers, the SA Government will build a 200MW power station fuelled by the hydrogen.
The government said the power will help supply energy to factories, manufacturing businesses and mining companies.
In its recent state budget, SA’s government reaffirmed its $593 million commitment to the project.
Chief executive of the newly created Office of Hydrogen Power SA, Sam Crafter, said there was no time to waste and the facility should be operating by the end of 2025.
Mr Crafter said the purpose of the power station was to have more dispatchable power generation available in SA.
He said that was really important, especially during periods like now, with the current gas supply.
“We need to be able to have a position where we’ve got our own dispatchable generation up and running here in South Australia,” he said.
The plant will also have the ability to store the hydrogen energy for use later on.
That’s why experts say it is a good use of excess solar power.
What about wind and solar?
According to experts, hydrogen isn’t the sole solution to our energy needs, but will form part of the energy mix.
For instance, Tony Wood says solar and wind power are preferable for powering electricity around the home as they do not require converting that same electricity to hydrogen.
“If there’s an alternative, such as just using electricity in the first place, then that will almost always be a preferable thing to do, because it will be cheaper,” he said.
But wind and solar have their downfalls, including that they are dependent on mother nature and, in some cases, are not powerful enough.
“One of the characteristics of solar and wind is that they are only available when the sun is shining and when the wind is blowing and sometimes that’s not the case, so one of the possible roles of hydrogen is to be there when those two are not available,” Mr Wood said.
“In some manufacturing processes, like blast furnaces and so on, you can’t do that with electricity.
“You just don’t get enough energy out of electricity, at least now anyway.”
That’s why there is a lot of talk about using hydrogen instead of coal for steel manufacturing, or what’s called green steel.
Associate Professor of energy economics at the University of Adelaide, Liam Wagner, said that could also be a benefit to the hydrogen plant near Whyalla, given there is a steelworks nearby.
“I think that the hydrogen plant being installed in South Australia will help with that industrial transformation and lead to the creation of more jobs and a larger share of exports out of South Australia to the world,” he said.
But it’s not just steel.
Hydrogen can also be combined with nitrogen to create ammonia, which Dr Wagner said would be used in heavy transport logistics, shipping and potentially for airplanes.
Could it be exported?
One of the potential benefits of the hydrogen plant is to also enable exporting renewable energy around the world.
Mr Crafter said there was opportunity to use the current excess of solar and wind power, turn it into green hydrogen or later green ammonia and export it overseas to Japan, Korea or Europe.
“I think that’s sort of part of that really exciting opportunity,” Mr Crafter said.
However, Mr Wood said, it could also be tricky to store and transport.
“The point is that, if we are going to progressively replace the use of fossil fuels — coal and gas and oil — across all the applications where we use them today, hydrogen may very well be in a situation where it’s almost the only solution in some cases.”
He said that meant the focus on hydrogen should be where it both technically and economically makes the most sense.