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Hydrogen is the big new thing for clean energy — but it's not always that clean

An engineer works on a hydrogen-fuel engine in Austria. Depending on how hydrogen is made, it can be relatively clean or dirty. Image: Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hydrogen is a chemical element you’re going to be hearing a lot about in the coming decade as it moves into the spotlight as part of the world’s clean energy transition.

Already, the Federal Government has committed $570 million to hydrogen energy development, and countries around the world are doing the same.

But not all hydrogen energy is created equal and climate experts are warning Australia against locking itself into a dirtier version for decades to come.

Ways of making hydrogen

Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element found in the world. Most people would know it as the H in H20, where it bonds with oxygen to create water.

As an energy source, hydrogen can be used as a fuel to power our homes, transport and major industries - although this is still some years away and will require the right infrastructure.

There are a number of ways to produce hydrogen. Most of the hydrogen being made around the world is created by a process called 'steam methane reforming', which uses natural gas. Another method called 'coal gasification' transforms coal into hydrogen.

Both these methods are high in emissions - it takes more energy to transform the fossil fuels into hydrogen than if they were just burnt.

If the emissions used to create this hydrogen are trapped and stored underground (a process called carbon capture and storage, or CCS), the fuel is called blue hydrogen.

Fortunately, there’s another way to create hydrogen energy that has zero emissions.

It’s known as electrolysis, and it uses electricity to split the hydrogen from water (remember: H2O). If this is powered by renewable energy, it has zero emissions and is known as green hydrogen.

The only byproduct of burning hydrogen is water vapour, making it attractive for energy importing countries that also want to reduce their emissions.

A hydrogen superpower

The Australia Institute’s climate and energy program director, Richie Merzian, sees huge potential for Australia to use green hydrogen to export excess renewable energy in the coming decades.

“We don't want to just transform our entire electricity sector to renewables,” Richie told Hack.

“We want to build 300, 400, 500 per cent more energy than we need here in Australia so we can use the additional energy to create hydrogen and ship it overseas.”

"This is a clean, pure, zero emissions fuel. It’s not just Australia that’s interested in this, it’s every country in the world.”

Mr Merzian points to the Pilbara and the Northern Territory as two places where Australia could develop vast solar and wind projects that power nearby hydrogen plants, which produce fuel that is exported from local ports.

University of Sydney energy policy and regulation expert Dr Madeline Taylor says green hydrogen can also be used instead of gas in intensive industries.

“Long term we need to replace gas with green hydrogen that is really the future of industrial manufacturing,” she told Hack.

“For example in South Australia, there’s a steelworks looking to convert all its power to hydrogen to produce green steel and the only byproduct is water.”

Green vs blue hydrogen

Green hydrogen is still an expensive, developing technology in Australia so it isn't yet competitive with blue hydrogen.

In Australia, the Federal Government has committed $570 million to the development of a local hydrogen industry and to further hydrogen research. This is for all kinds of hydrogen energy.

Image: ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Energy Minister Angus Taylor this week touted hydrogen as a key technology priority under their low emissions plan, especially hydrogen with carbon capture and storage (CCS).

“Clean hydrogen from off-grid gas with CCS, and coal gasification with CCS might be the lowest cost clean production methods in the short-term, although renewable production methods will come down in cost as clean hydrogen demand grows,” the government document states.

Put simply, CCS is where carbon emissions are caught and buried in the ground.

It’s controversial, though. Australia’s only CCS project started operating this year and was four years late. In that time it emitted 25.6million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere. Despite that, CCS has received $1.3 billion in government support.

At a crossroads

Richie Merzian is concerned the Federal Government is rushing ahead with hydrogen to lock Australia into a blue hydrogen future, rather than wait and develop a zero emissions, green hydrogen industry.

"The long game is to invest in green hydrogen, get it cost competitive and then build up our capacity to export it to the world.”

“We’re at a crossroads right now," Richie said.

“We either build an industry for the future that’s green and zero emissions, or we build one that simply extends the life of fossil fuels, and is dirty, and it puts us into a more high emissions place.”


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