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WEC 2019 Day 3: Creating a future fuelled by clean energy

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As the world’s population rises, cities grow and technology advances, finding new and sustainable sources of energy will become vital to keeping the planet a place where everyone wants to live. 


During their opening keynote on day three of the World Engineers Convention, which wrapped up today in Melbourne, Dr Paul Durrant, Head of Innovation Strategies for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), and Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, pitched hydrogen as a crucial component of the clean energy mix to ensure a sustainable future. 

Hydrogen is becoming an element of rapidly growing importance, Durrant said, not just because it’s the most abundant element in the universe, but because it has an important role to play in helping us tackle climate change. 

“There are significant challenges remaining, but engineers play a crucial role,” he told the audience. 

Finkel echoed these thoughts, saying that making hydrogen a viable energy storage option is a challenge best suited to engineers. 

“The goal is to ensure Earth stays beautiful — wind and sun are plentiful, and we need a high-density, transportable fuel with no CO2 emissions.” 

Finding a niche

Durrant said interest in hydrogen is driven by some key factors: there is now a societal and policy imperative to tackle climate change; achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 requires energy access, efficiency and investment in renewables; and there is a growing consensus that the world is facing a climate emergency.  

But there’s some good news, Durrant added, because viable and affordable ways of addressing these concerns are being developed. 

Globally, 26 per cent of power is generated by renewables, but the problem with renewables is that wind and solar are variable. Long-term storage becomes important to bridge the gap.

“Hydrogen isn’t an energy source, it’s an energy carrier, which makes it ideal to partner with renewable sources of energy,” he said. 

There is already some commercial uptake of hydrogen for energy storage — for example, in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or trucks. But Durrant said the area where hydrogen could have a massive impact is in helping industries that currently struggle to find viable ways to reduce emissions. 

That includes manufacturing, transport and construction, as “electrification is difficult in these sectors,” Durrant said.

Scaling up

Currently, hydrogen production is done on a relatively small scale, and a lot of hydrogen is grey hydrogen — that is, hydrogen produced using energy from coal and gas. 

Shifting from grey hydrogen to producing hydrogen with energy from renewable sources (aka green hydrogen) would make the enterprise even more viable. 

“Green hydrogen holds the most promise,” Durrant said. 

“By 2050, two-thirds of hydrogen produced could come from renewable energy.” 

A lot of time and money is currently being devoted to creating more efficient and scalable forms of hydrogen production, Durrant said, which could eventually bring the costs down as well. Most hydrogen is produced via electrolysis, a process where water is split into hydrogen and oxygen. 

He acknowledged that the costs of renewable energy, electrolysis and transport are the main inhibitors, but with advancements in technology, by 2050 it could be “cheaper than fossil fuels”. 

“Economies of scale are crucial to achieving that,” he said. 

Challenges ahead

For those who can scale up production and invest in green hydrogen, there are benefits beyond emissions reductions. Hydrogen is a valuable commodity, and can be exported similarly to liquid natural gas (LNG).  

Some far-sighted countries are laying the groundwork to make this happen, including Australia, which both Durrant and Finkel said is an ideal place for hydrogen production. 

Finkel wasn’t able to appear in person at the World Engineers Convention on Friday, as that same day he was presenting Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy to the Council of Australian Governments in Perth. 

He has visions for a future where Australia produces hydrogen in the same quantities as LNG, which it currently produces for export on a grand scale. 

Hydrogen production on the same scale is feasible, Finkel argued. To make his point, he put it in terms of what’s need to produce hydrogen for export equivalent to Australia’s 2018 LNG exports. As hydrogen has the highest energy per mass of any fuel, the amount of energy stored in 70 Mega tonnes (Mt) of LNG could be found in 30 Mt of hydrogen. 

To produce that much hydrogen, it would take 900 GW of solar energy, requiring 18,000 square kilometres of land. That’s only one per cent of the country’s landmass, he said, smaller than some of Australia’s cattle stations. 

Finkel said by 2050, he would like to see a global hydrogen trade worth trillions of dollars, something he feels is achievable with the right support in the present. 

A focus on increasing the efficiency of electrolysis would go a long way. According to him, a 10 per cent increase in efficiency would yield savings of US$130 billion a year. There is also work being done to make thinner fuel cells, to find ways to increase the storage capacity for transport and to recover hydrogen from other processes. 

However, both Finkel and Durrant acknowledged there is still more work to be done before we achieve a hydrogen economy and Finkel’s dream of an electric planet. 

Hydrogen production requires large quantities of water, which is a finite resource that’s growing scarcer by the day. There is also more research that needs to be done in lifecycle analysis to ensure production is truly sustainable. 

And who better to find solutions to these challenges than the world’s engineers?