As the world wakes up to the challenge of a painful withdrawal from fossil-fuel dependency, many in the clean energy sector are already looking far ahead. To them, the near future will see such a surplus of wind and solar generation that it will be economical to use it to split hydrogen from water and export the clean energy source to the world.

It’s futurist thinking – well over the horizon. But the Liberal Government in South Australia has declared there’s no time like the present and committed itself to a Hydrogen Action Plan, released in late September.

“With more than 50% of the state’s energy mix generated through renewable sources, new interconnection and storage technologies such as hydrogen will support South Australia to become a net 100% renewable energy generator during the 2030s,” Premier Steven Marshall and Minister for Energy and Mining Dan van Holst Pellekaan declare in the plan.

The Council of Australian Governments Energy Council’s National Hydrogen Strategy Working Group has identified hydrogen as Australia’s next multi-billion export opportunity, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency estimates hydrogen exports could contribute $1.7 billion and 2,800 jobs to the national economy by 2030.

“Our aim is to position South Australia to attract a substantial share of that potential economic activity,” Marshall and van Holst Pellekaan say.

“With more than 50% of the state’s energy mix generated through renewable sources, new interconnection and storage technologies such as hydrogen will support South Australia to become a net 100% renewable energy generator during the 2030s.”

To the world

The payoff is at least 10 years away, the government says. “Our expectation is that during the 2030s, South Australia will generate more clean power than required for local use, setting us up to become a national and global force in clean energy.”

The Commonwealth and all state and territory governments are working on a National Hydrogen Strategy for 2020-2030, and South Australia is hoping its Hydrogen Action Plan will help the state qualify as supplier of choice.

Hydrogen can be used to generate and store energy, power transport fleets and provide heat. It can replace diesel as a fuel and supplement natural gas in domestic gas networks.

Demand is anticipated in China, South Korea, Japan and Singapore, and conversion plants would be required to liquify the element for export.

“It’s likely that nowhere else in the world is as well positioned as South Australia to produce, consume and export 100% green hydrogen,” says van Holst Pellekaan.

“Some of our longest-standing and closest trading partners are signalling that they will need hydrogen to make their energy transitions over coming decades, and we want to make the most of that growth opportunity by becoming a hub for the export of renewable energy.”

Water born

Hydrogen projects in the state include a 30MW hydrogen electrolyser in Port Lincoln and a smaller facility in Adelaide. Clean energy developer Neoen Australia has won $1 million in funding from the state to explore the feasibility of 50MW of hydrogen production in its Crystal Brook Energy Park, which will host 125MW of wind, 150MW of solar and 400MWh of storage.

If Australia is to set out on a path to become a major hydrogen producer it needs to understand the risks, International Association for Hydrogen Safety president Stuart Hawksworth told the International Conference on Hydrogen Safety in Adelaide in September.

“Delivering on that potential means gaining trust, acceptance and confidence in hydrogen’s safety and multi-use applications at domestic and commercial levels,” Hawksworth said. “There can be no quicker route to achieving that … than very open and transparent collaboration and communication at an international level by all of the sector’s stakeholders.”

The South Australian Hydrogen Action plan sets out 20 actions across five areas to help scale-up renewable hydrogen production for export and domestic consumption.

Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, is a firm believer in the potential for Australia to harness its solar resources to this end, with hydrogen one day supplanting a major national export: LNG.

Finkel imagines a world 20 to 30 years from now where Australia is exporting as much hydrogen in energy terms that it currently produces as LNG exports. Hydrogen has 2.4 times the energy density of LNG, he says, and if you assume energy losses of 50% in manufacturing and transmission, the equivalent to in exports for 2018 of LNG would be 30 million tonnes of hydrogen.

That amount, when it reaches market, would be converted into 980TWh.

“To make that, I need 1,980TWh,” he told the Australian Clean Energy Summit in Sydney in July. “It’s huge … really huge. About 18,000 square km of solar. But you know what? That’s only three-quarters of one giant cattle station. If you think of it that way, it’s a manageable task.”