22 June 2020

Why hydrogen will be a viable alternative to natural gas

| Karyn Starmer
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Hydrogen at CIT Fyshwick

A first-of-its-kind hydrogen test facility is now located at CIT’s Fyshwick campus. Photo: Region Media.

Most Canberrans are aware that the ACT Government is working towards a target of zero-net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, but not many people realise that the ACT’s existing natural gas network is expected to transition to 100 per cent renewable gas.

Approximately 22 per cent of the ACT’s total greenhouse gas emissions currently come from natural gas use but per capita natural gas consumption has been falling since 2011 due to more efficient houses, the uptake of more efficient gas appliances and rooftop solar power. But these changes do not necessarily mean the end of gas for the region. The solution, say the experts, is renewable hydrogen.

While still in its early testing stages, Evoenergy Gas Manager Bruce Hansen says the key to using hydrogen is to implement a staged approach that is compatible with the current network and existing appliances.

“We already have a vast network of pipes and infrastructure, we just need to be prepared to do things in stages, with good research and training,” Mr Hansen said.

The Master Plumbers Association says they support using green hydrogen as an alternative to natural gas and are in discussion with the government to inform and collaborate on the phasing out of natural gas in the ACT.

Master Plumbers Association ACT board member Robert Edwards says, “The government’s response has been positive so far, as hydrogen is compatible with their overall aim to reduce CO2 emissions. Green hydrogen has no emissions other than water and heat. Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe, it doesn’t need to be mined, and it can be produced anywhere there is water,” Edwards explained.

Edwards says other advantages to hydrogen are that it is renewable, lightweight and has no legacy issue such as waste.

Bruce Hanson and Robert Edward

Evoenergy Gas Manager Bruce Hanson with Master Plumbers of Australia Board Member Robert Edwards. Photo: Region Media.

A first-of-its-kind hydrogen test facility is now located at CIT’s Fyshwick campus, thanks to a collaboration between Evoenergy and the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT). Launched in December 2018, it is the product of more than 12 months of research and planning by Evoenergy and the CIT. Evoenergy hopes that the results will deliver a positive impact both in the ACT and across Australia.

Evoenergy’s Bruce Hansen says they are currently testing what level of hydrogen can be mixed with natural gas to help reduce the amount of CO2 emissions but still use the current network and appliances.

“It is not feasible to make a full switch to hydrogen at this stage but we certainly hope to get there. There are challenges we need to overcome, such as changes to infrastructure and adapting appliances but by introducing a mix of hydrogen into the system as soon as possible we can start to reduce emissions.”

Renewable hydrogen gas is a solution that can be applied to multiple energy needs. Compressed hydrogen gas can be stored for fuel for heavy machinery, and hydrogen and batteries can work together for home energy solutions.

“It is important that people are aware that they don’t have to choose between batteries and gas. I see future energy use as being similar to today where we have combinations of grid power, solar, wind, battery and gas,” Edwards said.

Production of renewable hydrogen gas is by electrolysis, using electricity from renewable sources to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. While only minimal water is required, the limiting factors at present are the cost of electricity and the cost of hydrogen generators (electrolysers).

“As the cost of electricity comes down through the use of renewables and the demand for electrolysers increases, hydrogen gas will become more viable. The fact is, hydrogen gas is where solar was 30 years ago,” Hansen said.

Evoenergy testing facility

Evoenergy is testing what level of hydrogen they can mix with natural gas. Photo: Region Media.

Longer term, Hansen says hydrogen gas can be used in an electricity network to balance demand.

“Evoenergy is in the unique position of owning an electricity network and a gas network. No other network operator in the country holds both in the same place. We are working on a model that can use surplus electricity in the grid to produce hydrogen gas that can then be stored in the existing gas pipe network around the ACT. The hydrogen gas can be converted back to electricity at times of peak demand,” Hansen said.

Edwards says for hydrogen to succeed, more government support is required, similar to what solar panels and solar hot water received in the early days.

“We also need more awareness in the community of what is possible with hydrogen and change the perception that hydrogen is less safe than other gases we have in our homes. I would rather have hydrogen in my home over LPG any day.”

Find more information on Evoenergy Hydrogen Test Facility and Master Plumbers ACT.

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A Nonny Mouse12:37 pm 24 Jun 20

Let’s say you want to burn hydrogen in your house to generate heat for a cooktop or water heating or space heating. What is it likely to cost you compared with using efficient electric appliances?
The energy requirements of a cooktop are very small compared to the other two.
Turning to the two heavier consumers of energy, to move one unit of heat into a room or your hot water tank takes about a third of a unit of electrical energy assuming a typical Coefficient of Performance of a heat pump – about three.
To get one unit of heat would require an amount of hydrogen containing one unit of energy using an unflued gas heater. A flued gas space heater or a flame under a water heater has losses so we need an amount of hydrogen with about 1.2 units of energy.
Hydrogen needs to be pressurised for distribution also takes energy. Let’s say the various losses take us up to 1.5 units of energy required to deliver that one unit of heat into one’s room or hot water.
Electrolysis is about 75% efficient – making 1.5 units of hydrogen takes 2 units of electricity.
To achieve one unit of heat delivered into a domestic home takes 0.33 units of electricity using heat pumps or 2 units of electricity going via hydrogen – a six-fold difference! Somebody will have to pay for six times as much electricity to achieve the same result! How could hydrogen for domestic purposes ever be competitive with using electricity directly? Then there will be a second network charge, currently about about $300/year for gas. Furthermore, using hydrogen would require substantial modification or replacement of existing gas appliances, a further expense. Why would anyone persist with gas appliances rather than efficient electric appliances?

Capital Retro7:36 am 25 Jun 20

Thanks for breaking through the virtue signalling fog that is being sold with hydrogen as the next smart energy and giving some coherent facts about how it would compare with electricity.

A Nonny Mouse6:37 pm 25 Jun 20

Thanks for your comments, Capital Retro. I think there is a place for hydrogen but it isn’t in any domestic application or for ordinary passenger vehicles. For those, the existing electricity grid is sufficient.
I do think there is a role for renewably generated hydrogen as the reductant in steel-making and for especially large, especially long-range vehicles such as ocean-crossing ships. It might also have a role in on-site storage at solar and wind farms although it will be competing with batteries and pumped hydro.

“the existing electricity grid is sufficient”

What about places where there is no electricity grid? People with electric cars will be very restricted where they can go.

Capital Retro6:13 pm 28 Jun 20

Wasn’t the Hindenburg an “ocean-crossing (air)ship”?

A Nonny Mouse10:57 pm 23 Jun 20

For domestic purposes, what use is gas? Over 20 years ago, I got the gas put on for environmental reasons and to save money. A couple of years ago I got off gas for the same reasons.
Now we have electric heat pump heating, which is cheaper to operate. We have an induction cooktop, which is more responsive, easier to clean and healthier to operate indoors than gas. Our hot water has been solar since the 1990s but would also be an electric heat pump run from more solar PV on the roof if we were doing it now.
We save further money by paying only one supply charge rather than two.
Bottom line however, is that our electricity is renewably generated but gas remains a fossil fuel.
I can’t see any domestic purpose for hydrogen as a replacement. Electrolysis is an inefficient process so using the electricity directly is preferable.
Hydrogen has a role as a replacement reductant for steel making, and to fuel very large, very long-range vehicles such as ocean-crossing ships. For ordinary passenger vehicles, hydrogen offers no advantage over using electricity more efficiently, more directly in battery electric cars. We have a distribution system already for electricity but not for hydrogen. I charge my car at home from an ordinary power point.

The problem you’ve got is peak loading and hydrogen’ s ability to play a role in smoothing peaks, so that we don’t have to spend massive amounts upgrading electricity network capacity.

With cars, hydrogen represents stored energy. Cars can be filled up extremely quickly using it compared to electric vehicles which either require huge supply (once again a capacity problem) to fill up quickly or you’re basically relying on charging them overnight which can be extremely inconvenient in comparison.

Hydrogen cars have the distance of petrol cars and are quick to refill. Electric cars take too long to charge. Not all of Australia is on mains power. I have been told that hydrogen can be brought in, or generated locally by solar or wind. Electric cars are not practical for a large country like Australia, unless you never go far from home.

A Nonny Mouse6:26 pm 25 Jun 20

I have been driving electric since 2009. I have found it to be very convenient to charge slowly at home from an ordinary power point. I can respond to price signals that discourage me from charging at peak times.
I notice that some DC fast chargers along highways have a relatively ‘thin’ connection to the grid but have on-site batteries and solar PV. They can deal with the peaky high loads partially from the battery and then slowly top up over a longer time scale from the grid and/or solar.

A Nonny Mouse6:30 pm 25 Jun 20

I had no problem doing an 800km+ day in my electric car in spite of its 400km range. I stopped along the way for toilet, coffee and meal breaks where there happened to be DC fast chargers. I got top ups but never charged to full. I only stayed as long as it took to do what needed doing (toilet, coffee, meals) and then un plugged and moved on. Consequently, the trip took no longer than I would have taken in a petrol car.

Nonny Mouse,
That’s fine if you want to completely change your behaviour to suit your car charging times, but clearly won’t be acceptable for most people.

It’s the reason why fossil fuels still dominate.

Electric cars will have their place, but to support their widespread use, you either have to massively upgrade the entire electricity network so people can charge in a reasonable amount of time or you would have to think that people will accept not being able to use their vehicles for long periods of time.

It’s not realistic.

If you don’t go far from home, an electric car is great, but for a person who drives into areas off the grid, not practical.

And how much does that car that does 800km+ cost?

No one ever asks the question “at what cost?”

Capital Retro9:50 pm 23 Jun 20

Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer on that one unless someone says “what will the cost be if we don’t!?” which is a favourite of the warmist lobby.

A Nonny Mouse6:45 pm 25 Jun 20

I think this one is not coming from the ‘warmist lobby’ (I presume you mean those who respect the relevant science on climate change). Rather, I think is coming from the fossil fuel lobby, in particular the owners and operators of the gas networks, who are desperate to hold out a carrot or apply a fig-leaf that will let them continue to operate their fossil fuel gas network for as long as possible.

Capital Retro6:15 pm 28 Jun 20

I meant the ones that believe the theory and not the one’s who respect the science.

Can anyone explain the energy loss to convert the electricity into hydrogen gas.

A scientist on radio a couple of years ago said it was huge energy cost conversion process, but I’m not sure what it will actually be for the system they are using?

Second question, is how much per km would it cost to run an Electric Hyundai Ioniq versus the similar Hydrogen Hyundai Nexo? If they both drew their energy from the same solar panel?

Current electolysers are between 70%-80% efficient.

In the future (10-15 years) they should be able to get 90%+ efficiencies, I think the theoretical maximums are around 95%.

The benefit in hydrogen will not be in its cost, it’s in its energy storage potential which is readily dispatchable and can easily be used to smooth power demand profiles. This would place significant downward pressure on wholesale electricity prices.

In your car example, hydrogen would be advantageous as a renewable option in the future because you wouldn’t have to wait long periods of time to fill your car, compared to a electric battery alternative

A Nonny Mouse11:08 pm 23 Jun 20

Electricity to hydrogen is an inefficient process, about 70%. A battery electric Ioniq would go about 3 times further from the same primary source of electricity given only small losses (~30%) since in and out of the battery and transmission are all typically better than 90% efficient vs. 80% loss going via inefficient electrolysis to make hydrogen then losses compressing for shipping it around the country then further losses in a fuel cell (50%) to get back to electricity to run a Nexo. IE. A Nexo might use 20% of your solar panel’s output, the Ioniq would use 70% or more.

Except the electric car would typically take hours to recharge (without creating massive network capacity issues) whereas the hydrogen vehicle would take a few minutes to refill, which is Its advantage.

Julia Ross – Power prices in the ACT are better than almost everywhere else. Doesn’t mean they can’t be lower, but they are certainly not ‘dreadful’ in comparison.

Capital Retro11:29 am 23 Jun 20

It all seems like A Better Place 2.0 but this time they will lose more ratepayers money.

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