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How does hydrogen fit into the renewable energy transition mix?

RPS’ Project Manager and hydrogen specialist, Bonny Cyriac, explores why many are talking up green hydrogen’s role in a renewable energy system.

14 July 2023
Bonny Cyriac

Energy transition

Asia Pacific

Australia

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Much is being said about Australia’s potential to be a significant green hydrogen producer.

The Australian Government is investing $2 billion in the new Hydrogen Headstart program to support large-scale renewable hydrogen projects. Its National Hydrogen Strategy speaks to creating hydrogen hubs, which will help meet large-scale demand.

States and territories are also developing strategies and announcing hydrogen projects.

The Victorian Government’s plans include a multi-million dollar hydrogen hub. The New South Wales government has a Hydrogen Hub Initiative and has awarded $64.3 million to develop two green hydrogen hub projects. And, South Australia’s $593 million Green Hydrogen Power Station is expected to be in operation by December 2025.

So, what is hydrogen’s role in creating a renewable energy system?

green hydrogen energy production pipeline

Hydrogen’s appeal for clean energy transition

Hydrogen is a flexible energy source, carrier and storage option. It needs to be extracted from another source - which could be from fossil fuels, biomass or water - and it can be stored as a gas or liquid.

Green hydrogen’s appeal is that it’s a clean version of fossil fuels. For instance, when you burn natural gas, a waste product is carbon dioxide – aka greenhouse gas. But there is no CO2 emitted when you burn hydrogen or use it in a fuel cell. The only time carbon dioxide is linked to hydrogen is through production (i.e., when natural gas is used to extract hydrogen, for example).

And the ‘green’ in green hydrogen is the sustainable, clean option gaining attention.

Green hydrogen is produced by using renewable electricity from wind or solar sources to power an electrolyser that splits water molecules (H₂O) into hydrogen and oxygen. This produces pure hydrogen, with no harmful by-products.

The added appeal is that when green hydrogen is part of an integrated energy system, it also captures excess electricity from wind and solar for future use, helping to address intermittency challenges.

Hydrogen could be a solution for hard-to-abate industries

Hydrogen is a flexible energy source with multiple uses.

It can be used in industrial processes, for energy storage, as fuel cells to produce electricity, and  for electricity generation and heating. Green hydrogen can also be exported as a liquified gas.

It is a very attractive option for hard-to-abate industries and sectors, where electrification powered by renewable energy is either too costly or faces technical barries. These sectors include iron and steel production, chemical manufacturing, long-haul transport, shipping, aviation, and agriculture.  

Green hydrogen is a clean fuel option for road, air, and shipping transport. It’s already being used in cars, with China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, and the US leading the way with providing fuelling stations for road vehicles.

road running through green trees - linked to sustainable, green energy future

Hydrogen does come with challenges

One of the biggest challenges is scale – producing hydrogen in large enough quantities to offer a viable alternative to natural gas (or methane). We need to harness sufficient hydrogen to meet the energy needs of homes, businesses as well as industries.

Another is building the infrastructure in a timely manner to meet net zero targets. These projects are expensive, require planning and environmental approvals and need supporting infrastructure too – like hydrogen refuelling networks on Australian roads.

Then there’s the challenge of ensuring there is enough high-quality water to support green hydrogen production. Water is already in high demand to support agriculture, communities, cities, and industries – not to mention the increased pressure climate change and population growth will place on this resource.

Having said that, there is much work being done to better manage water, including efficient storage and reuse as well as desalination of sea water for hydrogen production.

Why hydrogen is an important element in roadmap to net zero

Notwithstanding the challenges, hydrogen has a critical role to play in a net-zero economy.

A renewable energy system will need a variety of renewable sources, adequate storage, alternative fuel, and networks to connect everything. Hydrogen is needed in this mix. It not only offers a viable alternative for hard-to-abate sectors but can also capture surplus energy from intermittent renewable sources to ensure there’s enough energy to meet demand.

There’s good reason to talk up green hydrogen’s role in Australia’s renewable energy transition.