Why everyone is talking about hydrogen energy (and how it could power our future).

This has been quite the year for hydrogen.

A year in which this humble element migrated from the pages of scientific journals and energy news websites into the mainstream lexicon. A year that has seen it grow from a periodic table element you were forced to rote learn to pass you high school science test, to an energy source with the potential to be Australia’s environmental and economic saviour.

A type of energy that can fuel your car, heat your home, fire up your cook top, store your solar, and even power your next flight (whenever that may be…) – all with zero emissions. A type of energy that can be used to transition our country (and the world) into a renewable energy future.

But beyond the headlines, what do you really know about hydrogen energy? How is it made? How does it work? What can it be used for? How can it benefit you, Australia, the world? Let us break it down for you here.

We share what we have learned delivering hydrogen energy communications  for Deakin University.

What is hydrogen energy?

As you’ve probably guessed, hydrogen energy comes from the chemical element hydrogen (also known as atomic element #1, or simply H). According to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), hydrogen has strong potential as a renewable energy source for Australia as it is not only the most common chemical in the universe but also highly versatile. Produced as either a liquid or gas, Hydrogen has a myriad of uses including:

  • transport (converted to liquid to fuel trucks, ships and even planes)
  • heating and cooking (both domestic and industrial, delivered through existing natural gas pipelines)
  • power generation and storage (to be fed back into the electricity grid at a later date).

Hydrogen can cut emissions from transport and natural gas because it releases energy without carbon dioxide as a by-product. It could replace petrol, diesel and other fossil fuels for cars, trucks and ships, and natural gas used for cooking and heating. Hydrogen can also work like a battery, storing surplus electricity from renewable energy to be used later. Furthermore, Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy states that the Australian hydrogen industry could generate thousands of jobs, many of them in regional areas. It could add billions of dollars of GDP over coming decades.

In short, hydrogen ticks all our energy need boxes.

It’s abundant, versatile, flexible (use now or store for later) and sustainable (if produced using renewable methods, which we’ll delve into now), and can provide a much needed boost to our nation’s economy (potentially even replacing our coal exports as a global fuel source).

If only it had been cheaper, sooner, we might not even be in our current climate mess. (That’s a big maybe.)

How is it made?

 When hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the air, it generates heat energy. This energy can be produced from a variety of resources (some sustainable, some not) including natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind.

Currently the bulk of the world’s hydrogen supply is obtained from fossil fuels through thermochemical reactions using coal (in a process known as gasification) or natural gas (in a process known as steam methane reforming). However, the potential for reliable hydrogen production from renewable sources is vast, and increasingly economical.

One way to produce ‘clean renewable hydrogen’ is through a process called electrolysis.

Electrolysis works by running electricity through fresh water, which splits the hydrogen from oxygen. When it burns, it creates water or steam. If hydrogen is produced from water using renewable electricity (such as solar or wind power), then hydrogen becomes a readily available and zero-emissions resource, and a strong candidate as a renewable zero-emissions future fuel.

Hydrogen can be so-called clean, green, blue or brown – depending on how few carbon emissions are released when it is produced.

  • Clean hydrogen is low emissions (but not totally carbon free).
  • Green hydrogen is zero-emissions: it is produced from 100% renewable energy.
  • Blue hydrogen is clean but not green: it is produced from renewable energy and natural gas, but the carbon is not released into the atmosphere; it is captured and stored.
  • Brown hydrogen is not clean: it is produced from fossil fuel sources (such as gas and brown coal) and the carbon is released into the atmosphere.

For this blog, I’m going to focus on clean and green (or as I like to call them, planet saving) hydrogen technologies.

Hydrogen energy uses.

 The International Energy Agency’s “The future of hydrogen” report details four key uses of hydrogen: industry, transport, buildings (gas), and power generation and storage.

  • Industry: Think oil refining, ammonia production, methanol and steel production. This type of energy is mainly sourced from fossil fuels so a move to green hydrogen would be a key step in decarbonising these energy-intensive industries. Enel Green Power recently declared that green hydrogen “plays a key role in the energy transition, contributing to the spread of renewables and the decarbonisation of ‘hard to abate’ industries”.
  • Transport: Zero-emissions hydrogen can be used to fuel heavy vehicles like trucks, buses and potentially even aeroplanes and cruise ships. For heavy vehicles, where it’s predominantly used today, the hydrogen fuel cells create electricity while the vehicle travels, avoiding the need for recharging stops and extensive infrastructure. Hydrogen engines are refuelled at special fuel pumps, which in the future will likely be located at our regular service stations (where you currently fill up on petrol or diesel), reducing the need to create new separate charging stations such as those required for electric vehicles.

According to the Clean Energy Council’s “Hydrogen for Transport report”, transport in Australia equates to a significant proportion (approximately 18%) of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

In transport, hydrogen is one technology that can both provide a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well as a more reliable, domestic fuel supply.

Additionally, Australia’s claims that one of the most exciting prospects for hydrogen is the transport sector – Australia’s largest end user of energy. Benefits include the ability to carry much more energy than the equivalent weight of batteries and shorter refuelling times and improved fuel security (through greater choice of fuel supply options and reduced dependence on fuel imports), reduced carbon emissions and noise pollution.

  • Buildings (gas): Hydrogen has the potential to be blended into existing natural gas networks and pipelines, substituting natural gas used for cooking and heating, for both domestic and industrial use. ARENA believes that hydrogen provides a “stepping stone to decarbonised gas networks as it has the potential to not only ‘soak up’ excess electricity generated by wind and solar, it offers a pathway to decarbonise gas networks”.
  • Power generation and storage: Hydrogen is one of the leading options for generating and storing renewable energy. It can be used to generate electricity (through fuel cells or being burned to drive turbines) and any excess energy can be stored and then used to produce electricity when there is insufficient electricity available from other sources, contributing to a securing and independent energy future for Australia.

Australian hydrogen also has great potential for export.

ARENA’s ‘Opportunities for Australia from Hydrogen Exports’ report, calculated that global demand for hydrogen exported from Australia could be over three million tonnes each year by 2040, which could be worth up to $10 billion each year to the economy by that time.

Australia’s role in the hydrogen energy industry.

Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, endorsed by COAG Energy Ministers across the country in November 2019, lays the foundation for Australia to capture the hydrogen opportunity and become a leading player in a growing global market. Setting a clear vision for a clean, innovative, safe and competitive hydrogen industry that benefits all Australians, it aims to position our country as a key industry player by 2030.

With Australia’s abundance of wind and sun, we have the capacity to produce enough clean hydrogen energy to not only fuel our own land, but also export to the world.

And with research informing Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, claiming that global demand could reach 300 million tonnes by 2050, and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicting that by 2050, 6% of the world’s end energy consumption could be linked to hydrogen, it’s no surprise that Australia wants to play a leading role in the sustainable production, storage and export of this energy source.

And we’re well on the way. In addition to our national hydrogen strategy and the CSIRO National Hydrogen Roadmap for the development of a hydrogen industry in Australia, the Australian Government has committed over $146 million to hydrogen projects, including a $70 million Renewable Hydrogen Deployment Funding Round to support the acceleration of hydrogen in Australia. The Government wants to use this funding to determine how hydrogen can form part of Australia’s energy mix to help drive down prices and emissions, as well as provide a foundation of expertise to build a competitive export industry.

But hydrogen energy is not only a smart move for the environment. It’s also smart for the economy.

A strong hydrogen energy industry will create jobs and drive economic growth, strengthen industrial competitiveness, and bolster Australia’s fuel security. Not to mention the strong export potential.

Our national strategy states that three of Australia’s top four trading partners – Japan, the Republic of Korea and China – have already made clear commitments to use clean hydrogen to decarbonise their energy systems. The Europeans and America are also interested in transport applications, and energy intensive industries such as shipping, steel-making and chemical production see hydrogen as a long-term alternative to their dependence on fossil fuels.

According to PWC’s ‘Embracing clean hydrogen for Australia’ report, Australia can lead the global shift to hydrogen due to:

  • abundant renewable energy potential at low cost, which is integral for the development of industrial-scale green hydrogen
  • strong existing trade links – especially with high hydrogen demand economies of Japan, South Korea, China and Singapore
  • a proven track record in industrialising commodity production – at the forefront of natural gas production and trade, with well-developed regulatory, safety and market infrastructure.

In summary.

Well, that just about sums up this hydrogen energy 101 explainer. Hopefully you’ve transitioned your understanding from Hydrogen as that periodic table element representing the H in H20, into an energy source with vast potential – both environmentally and economically – for you, your country and your world. A key feature in our roadmap to a renewable energy future.

And just FYI – for a short, sharp, snazzy video explaining hydrogen energy, check out this great explainer from ARENA.  Or this video from a nerdy YouTuber, or this one minute one from the CSIRO. You’re welcome.

Talk to us about hydrogen energy communications (or any type of energy!).