Green hydrogen is billed as the new climate friendly fuel in town but will it work?

Key points:

  • Green hydrogen could be a gamechanger if it can be used to decarbonise industries like steel making and shipping
  • The concept of green hydrogen has been around for decades, but making it isn’t cheap
  • Fortescue said a green steel industry could create tens of thousands of jobs

You may have started hearing the phrase “green hydrogen” and wondered if this clean “fuel of the future” will live up to the hype.

Experts and the big companies funding green hydrogen trials have been wondering the same thing.

Before we get to that, here’s a quick refresher on what hydrogen is.

Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe but it rarely exists on its own.

On earth it’s most commonly found in water, H2O.

To use it, the hydrogen has to be split from the oxygen molecules using electrolysis, which is essentially when electricity is run through water.

Fossil fuels can power the electrolysis but when renewable sources, like the sun are used, it’s called “green hydrogen” because no greenhouse gasses are emitted.

Hydrogen fuel cells can power electric cars and trucks. But it could be a game changer if it can be used to decarbonise industries like steel making and shipping.

The concept of green hydrogen has been around for decades but making it isn’t cheap.

The Chief Executive of the Australian Hydrogen Council, Fiona Simon said hydrogen was finally being talked about seriously now because so many countries have committed to reducing their carbon emissions through net zero targets.

“Hydrogen’s time has come because we’re moving to global decarbonisation,” she said.

So back to whether hydrogen will live up to the hype.

Pilbara based iron ore miner Fortescue Metals has been trialling turning iron ore into so-called green steel using green hydrogen.

Julie Shuttleworth, the Chief Executive of Fortescue’s Future Industries arm, said very early results were promising.

“We’re very confident in the test work that we’re doing on green steel,” she said.

“There’s a lot of test work going on globally using two processes.”

“One is electrolysis of iron ore, the other is using green hydrogen to reduce the iron ore all without coal.”

“We are very confident of these technologies, they’ve yet to be proven at commercial scale.”

Kobad Bhavnagri, the Global Head of Industrial Decarbonisation at independent research organisation Bloomberg NEF has described Fortescue’s plans as “great in ambition.”

“(They’re) of the scale that would be required for Australia really to get a foothold in the green steel industry,” he said.

“Making the economics work and finding the business case to invest when government policy really is not all that supportive will probably be quite a challenge.”

Fortescue has estimated a green steel industry could create tens of thousands of jobs.

Mr Bhavnagri agreed it could drive new employment opportunities.

“I can’t speak to the exact number of jobs that could be created but the steel manufacturing business is employment intensive,” he said.

“It could be a very good candidate to replace the jobs, which will inevitably be lost in future in coal mining.”

Cheap and abundant oil supplies have helped keep hydrogen on the back burner.

But Woodside, a company that’s made its money extracting oil and gas, spent almost a fifth of its “new opportunities” budget on hydrogen in 2020.

Woodside’s Executive Vice President of Sustainability Shaun Gregory said at its “core” Woodside was an energy company and would deliver what customers wanted.

“We’re seeing increasing customer demand for hydrogen and that’s great for us, that’s great as an energy provider but it’s great for the world as well as we move to a lower carbon future,” he said.

Woodside has proposed a pilot project called H2TAS in Northern Tasmania.

Mr Gregory said it would use hydro power to create four tonnes of hydrogen a day for transport.

But he said Woodside was already looking at bigger volumes.

“We have plans to grow those to 100 tonnes per day, in order to match that market demand,” he said.

“As the customer starts buying more and more and the market grows, we’ll need to grow the size of those plants and you’ll see us make announcements on the size of plants.”

A big question mark remains about the viability of transporting hydrogen.

It’s why Fortescue Future Industries has been scouting green hydrogen production opportunities overseas, closer to international customers.

But Mr Gregory was confident transport hurdles could be overcome.

“Forty years ago, we didn’t expect to transport natural gas in a liquid form either and we did,” he said.

“I think we’ll see the same with hydrogen.”

Kobad Bhavanagri takes a different view.

“It’s not easy to put enough of it on a ship to make it worthwhile to take halfway around the world,” he said.

“Hydrogen is best used in the places where you produce it.”

Mr Bhavnagri said as a country blessed with the ability to create vast amounts of renewable energy Australia could become a hydrogen “superpower.”

But he said it would require more Federal Government support, including the signing of a net zero carbon emissions target.

“Until you are clear that you want to reduce and eliminate emissions from your economy, you don’t really have a business case to develop something like hydrogen,” he said.

Federal Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor disagreed.

“I think the real debate here is not about whether to reduce emissions,” he said.

“We all accept the need to reduce emissions.”

“It’s how to do it and absolutely, Australia recognises that hydrogen is one of the important technologies where Australia has a competitive advantage.”

The German Government is spending billions of dollars on hydrogen development compared to the Australian Government’s $570 million investment.

But Mr Taylor argued as a smaller country, Australia was punching above its weight.

“We developed a national hydrogen strategy several years ago through the excellent work of Alan Finkel and that was path breaking work, not just for Australia but for the world,” he said.

Extracted fromĀ ABC

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