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

By | Climate change resilience | No Comments

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?

Climate change makes sustainable water management more important than ever

By | Engineering for humanity | No Comments

Whether it’s under a lake, a river or the streets of a city, Salini Impregilo is ready for whatever job needs doing to help clients improve people’s lives.

This is especially the case when it has to do with water, a sector where its leadership was confirmed for a fifth year in the latest global rankings published by Engineering News-Record (ENR), the US trade publication.

As the world’s climate changes, this most precious of resources is becoming even more precious. So much so, that the management and treatment of water has also assumed greater importance. This is not lost on Australia, which has had its fair share of droughts, floods – and everything in between.

With decades of experience, Salini Impregilo helps cities manage heavy rainfall, treat wastewater and make seawater drinkable. It also harnesses the flow of rivers to generate electricity and light up the homes of countless communities. Briefly put: it makes available everything that water has to offer.

For decades, Salin Impregilo’s dams have helped communities thrive in the most sustainable way possible, producing electricity without the harmful emissions that come from other forms of energy production. In Australia, it will be building Snowy 2.0, the expansion of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme that will provide the storage and on-demand generation needed to balance the growth of wind and solar power and the retirement of Australia’s ageing thermal power stations. The electricity produced will also support the push towards sustainable mobility, whether it be in the form of light rail transit or electric vehicles.

In the United States, it helped Las Vegas secure its water supply in case of drought by excavating a 4 km-long tunnel under nearby Lake Mead. This record-setting project saw it bring the tunnel to a pipe at the bottom of the lake. The water drawn by the pipe is pumped to a treatment plant on shore and then sent to the city. This has made the pipe – known as the Third Intake – the main supplier of water because two other pipes near the lakeshore risk going dry whenever the water level goes down in times of drought.

And when potable water is hard to come by, Salini Impregilo extracts it from the sea by means of desalination. In Dubai, the Jebel Ali M is an icon for the sector because it was the largest such plant in the United Arab Emirates at the time of its completion. With a capacity of 140 million gallons of water per day, its eight desalination units provide nearly all of the city’s potable water.

Of droughts and flooding rains

Sometimes the problem is too much water, such as when heavy rainfall overwhelms a city’s sewer system. In Washington, D.C., Salini Impregilo is excavating its second tunnel for a project to expand the system to reduce the amount of untreated stormwater and sewage that flows into nearby rivers during a storm.  Known as the Northeast Boundary Tunnel, it is the biggest component of the Clean Rivers project. By helping reduce combined sewer overflows by 98 per cent and the chance of flooding in the areas it serves from about 50 per cent to 7 per cent in any given year, it will help improve the quality of the water in the nearby Anacostia River.

In some cases, the river is polluted for reasons other than combined sewer overflows. Victim of decades of industry abuse, the Matanza Riachuelo River Basin near Buenos Aires, Argentina, is among the most contaminated in the world, putting at risk the health of millions of people. Part of a massive project supported by the World Bank, Salini Impregilo is building a pre-treatment wastewater plant, pumping stations and an evacuation tunnel to help clean it up. At a capacity of 27 cubic metres per second, the plant will be one of the biggest of its kind in the world. The water it treats will be flushed through the 12-kilometre tunnel into the River Plate where the basin empties.

Respect for the environment is a tenet that Salini Impregilo has and will always uphold in everything it does, especially when it has to do with water. It is the kind of respect that it has found in Australia, where efforts are made to grow in the most sustainable way possible. And as these efforts accompany the ambitious investments being made in infrastructure, Salini Impregilo will be there to help.

The World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne is about engineers coming together to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

To learn how you can help build a better world, register here

renewable energy exports as hydrogen

What will it take to make hydrogen the clean fuel of the future?

By | Climate change resilience | 6 Comments

Interest in hydrogen as a source of clean energy has risen in recent years, and engineers have a key role in scaling up technology to help Australia fulfil its potential as a major exporter.

According to Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, a keynote speaker at the upcoming World Engineers Convention, Australia has all of the key ingredients needed to make and export hydrogen.

“We’ve got the land, the sun, the wind, the coal and gas, the technology smarts, the regional hubs, the global networks and the industry expertise,” he said.

Finkel added that clean hydrogen technologies could also help reduce emissions on the home front. For example, hydrogen-powered trucks, trains and ships could meet the growing demand for zero-emissions transport.

Hydrogen could also replace liquified natural gas (LNG) in domestic and industrial heating, which has the potential to cut emissions and reduce energy bills at a greater rate than electrification.

And engineers will have a key role in making hydrogen a viable energy source for both local use and export.

“The key challenges here are to get to scale, bring down production and utilisation costs and improve efficiencies – these are all the bread and butter of engineers,” Finkel explained.

Why now?

As well as a zero-emissions energy alternative to coal, oil and natural gas, hydrogen can be used as a feedstock for industrial chemistry.

And while this isn’t the first time the world has gotten excited about a hydrogen revolution, Finkel said current interest is being driven by factors including rapidly falling production costs, as well as hydrogen fuel cell transport options such as the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo, which are starting to compete with petrol-fuelled vehicles in terms of cost, efficiency and performance.

hydrogen powered cars

Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells offer benefits like faster charging compared to electric vehicles.

“This isn’t the first time the world has been interested in hydrogen. But I can tell you that this time it is different,” he added.

Another driver is that energy-intensive countries such as South Korea and Japan do not have the capacity to generate enough clean and renewable electricity to meet their needs.

“These countries will be looking to import zero-emissions energy. This is where clean hydrogen comes into the picture,” Finkel said.

Japan has already made a strong commitment to importing hydrogen from Australia. Construction has recently begun on a government-backed joint venture between Japanese and Australian industry to prove the technology to liquefy hydrogen produced from brown coal in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley and ship it to Japan, although carbon capture and storage will be needed to prevent increased local emissions if the trial is scaled up to commercial proportions.

It won’t happen overnight

Finkel said that turning this opportunity into a real-world transformation will require both the production and use of hydrogen to be significantly scaled up.

“This is not something that can happen overnight. It is a journey to be navigated with patience, innovation and determination. We will need to build out gradually, learning and recalibrating along the way,” he added.

But Finkel believes that Australia has what it takes to build a large-scale hydrogen industry, citing the three decades of work that has put Australia in a position to surpass Qatar as the world’s leading exporter of LNG.

To help the country fulfil its potential, Finkel is leading the development of a national hydrogen strategy commissioned by the Coalition of Australian Governments Energy Council (COAG), which is due for release in December .

Australia Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel

Dr Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist

The strategy is focused on six areas: hydrogen exports; hydrogen for transport; hydrogen in the gas network; hydrogen for industrial users; hydrogen to support electricity systems; and issues such as safety, finance, and research and development (which could affect the other five areas).

In July, the Hydrogen Working Group released nine issues papers that focus on various aspects of the emerging industry, which has already attracted more than $100 million in Federal Government funding. Finkel said these papers provide some indication of what the final strategy will look like, and will provide more details during his WEC keynote in November, when the strategy is closer to completion.

Demand for engineering resources

Finkel said scaling up hydrogen production and use will require a huge quantity of engineering and manufacturing resources.

In the longer term, engineers will be needed to maintain the reliability of the hydrogen energy network by developing smart systems to manage diverse networks and loads, and solving the challenges of large-scale storage.

They will also be key players in managing trade-offs and opportunities as we move from independent electricity distribution and transport sectors to a coupled relationship governed by hydrogen use.

And while the challenges are far from trivial, there is scope to use hydrogen along with other clean energy technologies to improve reliability, while reducing energy costs and emissions.

“If we get this right, we will all benefit from using new technologies to overcome the problems that have emerged from the use of older technologies,” Finkel said.

Dr Alan Finkel will be a keynote speaker at the World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne, where he will explore the challenges of scaling up to meet the dream of a low-emission planet based on the development of Australia’s national strategy for clean hydrogen.

Register here