Rising electricity and gas prices have put energy in the national spotlight, but even before the current crisis, major corporations and governments began to turn their attention to hydrogen as one of the answers to meet the demand for clean and reliable energy.
Most important points:
- SA government pledged $593 million over four years to create hydrogen plant in Whyalla
- The facility will enable the state to produce and store hydrogen energy
- Experts say hydrogen could be an important part of Australia’s energy mix and help reduce our gas dependence
Clean energy experts say: hydrogen project near Whyalla on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia could help provide answers on how best to do the process of making and storing hydrogen energy.
Program director for energy and climate change at the Grattan Institute, Tony Wood, said one of the key benefits of the project would be to actually test the technology.
“Nobody does this anywhere in the world anymore,” he said.
So how will it work? And how can it be used to help our energy-hungry world? Let’s see.
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 electrical current to the water and causes the chemical reaction.
Former CEO of Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Oliver Yates, who now works at Sentient Impact Group, explains:
“It just starts out as a glass of water… the glass of water zaps 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 everyone is brushing their teeth, they are cleaning it with fuel.”
The process may not sound energy efficient, but the electrolysers will be powered by excess solar energy.
Yes, South Australia sometimes generates too much solar energy, to the point where panels are temporarily disabled†
Mr Yates said having an electrolyser to take that extra power and produce hydrogen is exactly what was needed when there was too much solar power.
“Right now the energy is actually lost. It could really use this,” he said.
Excess solar energy is usually generated in the middle of the day, and Mr Yates said electrolysers tend to run.
He said they also have the ability to quickly turn off when needed.
But, said Mr Wood, electrolysers weren’t that cheap.
“First of all you have to produce the renewable energy, but then you have to add up the costs of converting it,” he said.
What’s in the Whyalla hydrogen plant?
In addition to the 250 Mwe electrolysers, the government of South Africa will build a 200 MW power station powered by hydrogen.
The government said the power will help supply energy to factories, manufacturing companies and mining companies.
In his recent state budgetSA government reaffirmed its commitment to the $593 million project.
Chief executive of the newly created Office of Hydrogen Power SA, Sam Crafter, said there was no time to lose and the facility should be operational by the end of 2025.
Mr Crafter said the goal of the power station was to have more shippable power generation available in SA.
He said that was very important, especially in times like now, with the current gas supply†
“We need to be in a position to have our own broadcastable generation working here in South Australia,” he said.
The plant will also have the ability to store the hydrogen energy for later use.
That’s why experts say it’s a good use of excess solar energy.
What about wind and sun?
According to experts, hydrogen is not the only solution for our energy needs, but will become part of the energy mix.
For example, Tony Wood says that solar and wind energy are the preferred way to power electricity in the home, because that same electricity doesn’t have to be converted into hydrogen.
“If there is an alternative, such as just using electricity in the first place, that will almost always be preferable because it will be cheaper,” he said.
But wind and sun have their drawbacks, including that they depend on Mother Nature and in some cases are not powerful enough.
“In some production processes, like blast furnaces and so on, you can’t do that with electricity.
“You just don’t get enough energy from electricity, at least not now.”
That is why there is a lot of talk about using hydrogen instead of coal for steel production, or what is called green steel.
Liam Wagner, an associate professor of energy economics at the University of Adelaide, said this could also benefit the hydrogen plant near Whyalla, as there is a steel mill nearby.
“I think the hydrogen plant being installed in South Australia will help with that industrial transformation and lead to more jobs and a greater share of South Australia’s exports to the world,” he said.
But it’s not just steel.
Hydrogen can also be combined with nitrogen to make ammonia, which Dr. Wagner said would be used in heavy transport logistics, shipping and possibly aircraft.
Could it be exported?
One of the potential benefits of the hydrogen plant is that it will also make it possible to export renewable energy around the world.
Mr Crafter said there was an opportunity to use the current surplus of solar and wind energy, convert it into green hydrogen or later into green ammonia and export it overseas to Japan, Korea or Europe.
But, said Mr Wood, it can also be a pain to store and transport.
“The point is, if we gradually replace the use of fossil fuels – coal and gas and oil – in all the applications where we use them today, hydrogen could very well find itself in a situation where it is almost the only solution in some cases.”
He said that meant focusing on hydrogen should be where it makes the most sense both technically and economically.
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