August 2021

The Nation Reviewed

The shed that contains the future

By Andrew P Street
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
A green hydrogen project in South Australia aims to demonstrate zero-emission energy production

Inside a demountable unit on the site of Adelaide’s experimental hydrogen plant are boxes and boxes of shiny new hard hats, eye protection and pristine high-visibility vests, which seems like overkill for a site currently run by three people. “We had to get these in,” explains Huw Dent, the project’s commissioning supervisor, “for all the politicians coming on site.”

This isn’t hyperbole. Hydrogen Park South Australia – HyP SA for short – has become a favourite hangout for politicians of all stripes. Part of its appeal is the environmental value of non-fossil fuel energy generation, and part of it is the reflected kudos of the scientific and ­engineering achievement that is the plant itself – along with the fact that no Australian politician in 2021 can turn down an opportunity to be photographed wearing hi-vis.

Not that it’s particularly prepossessing. Despite the grandly high-tech sounding name, I drove past Hydrogen Park twice before realising that, yes, it really was that cluster of transportable offices and a large, shiny shed on a block smaller than a suburban Aldi car park.

But it’s extraordinary that the plant exists at all, given that it appeared at the tail end of a decade of climate and energy stalemate in Australia. While solar and wind remain unofficially technologia non grata, hydrogen generation has escaped censure in part because it aligns with the Turnbull and Morrison governments’ rhetoric around adopting new and emerging technologies to combat climate change, along with strategies such as carbon capture and storage (aka “clean coal”) and modular nuclear. And hydrogen is unique in that group in being neither an unscientific boondoggle nor a fossil-fuel fever dream.

The $14.5 million project also avoided becoming caught up in the endless energy wars between South Australia’s major political parties by a quirk of timing. It was first greenlit by the SA government during the dying months of Jay Weatherill’s Labor government in early 2018. It was then supported by the Liberal government of Premier Steven Marshall, so when the first hydrogen was produced this year on May 19, Energy Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan was proud to praise its “important role in helping achieve our goal of 100 per cent renewable energy”.

And if that sounds odd coming from a Liberal minister, it’s worth acknowledging that South Australia has been quietly becoming the most pro-renewable jurisdiction outside of the Australian Capital Territory, demonstrated most obviously by the “Big Battery” built by Tesla in 2017 near Hornsdale, three hours’ drive north of Adelaide.

Hydrogen Park is part of the refurbished site that used to be Adelaide’s enormous Mitsubishi car-manufacturing plant in the southern suburb of Tonsley, about 15 minutes from the CBD. At its peak in 2000, the suburb-spanning automotive complex employed almost 5000 people, but after waves of job cuts the company announced in 2008 it was shutting production down.

Acutely aware of the unhappy symbol of the death of the state’s largest industry rotting alongside the state’s busiest road, in 2010 the Rann Labor government announced it had bought the site with a plan to create an “innovation district”. Eleven years on, the area is home to dozens of tech companies, including Tesla and Siemens, as well as a TAFE campus, a satellite department of the nearby Flinders University and a new train line to service the growing workforce and expanding residential development.

As Dent leads me about Hydrogen Park he speaks about the facility like a proud and bashful parent. He pats one of the bollards protecting the maze of piping and explains that what looks at first glance like a wooden sleeper is in fact made entirely of solid recycled plastic, a versatile and weather-resistant product his team developed for all of the site’s sleepers, walkways and bridges. “Our engineers came up with this,” he says, beaming with pride. “You can cut it, drill it, use it anywhere – power plants, national parks, anywhere you need something sturdy and all-weather.”

Dent’s been working in the gas industry his entire professional career but found himself growing increasingly discomforted by the threat of climate change. He became ever more passionate about the need for the gas industry to change: indeed, he recently gave a speech about the future of hydrogen in Australia at a conference for technical workers in the resource industry, which ended with a challenge to young engineers to work with companies that are moving towards a clean-energy future. “It was a bit controversial,” he says wryly. “I got some pushback from colleagues, definitely. But I think it started some really good conversations.”

While many of the proposed next-generation fixes for energy generation seem to rely on technology bordering on the magical, the production of “green hydrogen” is at least conceptually straightforward: electricity from renewable sources powers an electrolyser to split water molecules into their constituent atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. The process is rather complex in practice, requiring a bank of computers to monitor the storage and movement of the highly pressured gas, to carefully maintain the temperatures in the many units on site, and to control the fiddly electrolysis process itself. But despite Hydrogen Park being billed as an experimental site, it’s already splitting water and producing hydrogen: 480 kilograms of it a day.

We enter the facility’s main shed where the electrolysis unit resides. It’s about the size of a tram car and humming loudly. The water that goes into the unit is filtered to an extraordinary purity and then de-ionised. ( Just in case anyone fancies bottling it, be advised that such water is basically poison: as Dent chirpily points out, it’d immediately start leaching the calcium and magnesium from your body in an attempt to re-ionise itself.)

Some of the gas produced on the site is compressed into high-pressure tube trailers and trucked up to Whyalla, where it’s used at BOC’s Argon Purification Unit. Heavy industry is where Dent sees hydrogen having the biggest impact, since it can be used in areas that are challenging for wind and solar to service, such as the large, heavy carbon-emitting industrial processes currently reliant on natural gas. “Industrial processes such as concrete and steel production are hard to electrify without rebuilding from scratch,” Dent says. “Likewise smelting – most things with a flame, really.”

Hydrogen from the site is also being fed directly into the natural gas mains servicing the neighbouring suburb of Mitchell Park, where more than 700 homes have been getting a 5 per cent hydrogen mix in their gas supply since the site began production. According to James Wong of Australian Gas Infrastructure Group, which is behind the Hydrogen Park project, “Hydrogen can be safely blended to natural gas supplies at up to 10 per cent by volume without changes to networks, appliances or regulations.” Mitchell Park’s $11.4 million demonstration project is the first in AGIG’s bigger plan for hydrogen rollout.

“Over time,” Wong says, “and with minor modifications to the existing gas networks and appliances, hydrogen can completely replace natural gas for domestic cooking, heating and hot water.” An Australian Renewable Energy Agency grant has funded research into what a 100 per cent hydrogen replacement of natural gas in Victoria and South Australia would look like, with a report from the recently established Australian Hydrogen Centre due in early 2022.

So with all this already happening, why isn’t hydrogen grabbing headlines as the indisputable future of Australia’s energy needs?

The short answer is cost: making hydrogen for power isn’t a cheap process, and is unlikely to ever compete with wind and solar. That said, the biggest upfront cost for hydrogen plants is the electrolysis unit itself, which in this case is a bespoke unit made in Germany and shipped to Adelaide, representing close to half the plant’s budget alone. “But once the demand for hydrogen increases and we start getting these units made in bulk in China or South Korea, that price is going to plummet,” Dent says.

It’s also worth noting that the emissions-free nature of hydrogen production depends entirely on the source of the electricity used to run the plant. “Blue hydrogen” is produced through the burning of fossil fuels, while HyP SA is run on “green” electricity bought wholesale from energy retailers. Dent suggests that full-scale plants will very likely be powered by their own solar farms.

Wong confirms that the company is “actively considering dedicated solar and wind resources in the medium term as our projects increase in scale. For example, the National Hydrogen Strategy found that 912 terawatts in dedicated renewable electricity will be required to supply an export market from Australia by 2050, [which] equates to about 70,000 square kilometres of renewable electricity.”

But for this vision to come to pass within the timeframe science requires, and to get the cost down to the $2 per kilogram required to make it attractive to possible export markets, hydrogen will need the sort of taxpayer support recent governments have been deeply uncomfortable about giving the renewables sector; and that price is still around twice what natural gas costs per kilogram on the global market, even factoring in carbon offsets. Nevertheless, Wong is confident that the National Hydrogen Strategy – released by the former COAG Energy Council in 2019 – will support “the development of clean hydrogen supply chains, policies to create hydrogen demand, or other policies that stimulate private investment”.

Dent envisions an even more ambitious future where solar and wind energy and hydrogen plants are giving Australia close to zero-cost electricity. He points out the path of a pipeline from the HyP SA site to nearby South Road, where a future hydrogen fuel station may one day service heavy freight vehicles. He speaks enthusiastically of green hydrogen as a method by which Australia can export its zero-emission energy to the world, and of fish and biomass farms springing up alongside hydrogen plants to take advantage of the pure oxygen byproduct. “The more you think about what Australia could do, the more possibilities appear,” he says. “It’s a future I can feel some optimism about.”

And that future might just be starting now, in a shed in Adelaide.

Andrew P Street

Andrew P Street is the author of The Short & Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign of Captain AbbottThe Curious Story of Malcolm Turnbull, and The Long and Winding Way to the Top: 50 (Or So) Songs that Made Australia. He lives in Adelaide.

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