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Dr Jake Whitehead

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The University of Queensland

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Your comments

Survey questions

What do you think are the two or three most significant recent developments in hydrogen?
While some commercial proponents and lobbyists will claim that hydrogen technology has made a number of significant breakthroughs in recent years, the reality is that the process to produce 'green' hydrogen will always remain inefficient and energy intensive. No doubt the process has improved over recent decades, and will continue to improve, but even after taking into account expected advancements, for every 1 kWh of renewable energy used to generate 'green' hydrogen, after considering the energy required to extract and purify water, split it into oxygen and hydrogen, compress or liquefy the hydrogen, transport and then use it, less than 0.5 kWh equivalent of hydrogen will remain. In other words, an optimistic round trip efficiency would be 50% maximum. This is a physical limit due to the laws of thermodynamics, not a technological limit. As such, hydrogen use must be scarce and targeted towards those sectors where it can have the greatest emissions-reduction impact e.g. shipping (in the form of hydrogen or ammonia), aviation (used to produce synthetic fuels), agriculture and manufacturing. The renewable energy generation required to support renewable hydrogen for these sectors alone will be of such a scale that Australia will not be able to afford to produce more hydrogen for other sectors, without relying on non-renewable forms of electricity generation in the medium-term, and running the risk of significantly increasing domestic emissions.
What are the most important safety issues to consider in producing, handling and using hydrogen in Australia?
Hydrogen is a volatile gas. As such, proper safety standards must be put in place for its production, storage, transport, disbursement, as well as end use. Given hydrogen cannot be stored indefinitely, as it is the smallest molecule and will always be able to escape at some rate, leakage in basements, tunnels, homes and car parks must also be carefully considered, managed, and controlled.
What environmental and community impacts should we examine?
First and foremost, the vast of majority of hydrogen for the foreseeable future will be produced using methane (natural gas), unless a carbon price is introduced, given the favourable economics of this method compared to water electrolysis. Even Japan's own national hydrogen strategy foresees that hydrogen will be predominantly fossil fuel derived until the 2040's. As such, the emissions impacts of transitioning to methane-based hydrogen must be analysed and assessed against alternative emission reduction pathways. Secondly, if a carbon price was to be introduced and/or other regulatory measures enacted to restrict hydrogen production to water electrolysis, an analysis of the energy and water inputs required to support this approach must be conducted. Taking the example of the existing road vehicle fleet in Australia, on the basis of transitioning all vehicles to run on 'green' hydrogen, this would require approximately a 150% increase in national electricity generation. In other words, for this process to be zero emission, Australian Governments would need to legislate and plan for a 250% renewable energy target in the near future. Contrast this to converting the same vehicle fleet to battery-electric technology, which would would require only a 40-50% increase in national electricity generation, whilst providing the additional benefit of storing enough potential energy to power the entire nation for several days. Similarly, whilst many hydrogen proponents downplay the significance of the water requirements of 'green' hydrogen, in a drought-stricken nation like Australia, which is only likely to experience even drier conditions in coming years, we must carefully consider the impact of converting potable water resources into an energy storage fuel, and what levels would be sustainable going forward. The figures for using hydrogen for transport may only add up to 3-4% of national annual water consumption, but if production is concentrated in particular areas, this level of water consumption could have significant impacts on both the environment, as well as the agricultural sector.
How can Australia influence and accelerate the development of a global market for hydrogen?
A key question remains as to whether this is the most efficient way for Australia to export renewable energy and reduce emissions. 'Green' hydrogen produced in Australia and shipped to Japan for use in vehicles or manufacturing would have 5-15% of the emissions reduction efficacy compared to the direct export of renewable electricity using undersea high voltage transmission lines to Indonesia. Noting that Indonesia currently has a population ten times the size of Australia, yet currently only consumes the same amount of electricity as Australia, leading to enormous potential growth in demand for electricity, and a need to support one of our closest neighbours in making this transition as energy and cost-efficiently as possible. Given the energy and water intensity of hydrogen, it is unlikely to be a viable economic prospect for a developing nation, such as Indonesia.
What are the top two or three factors required for a successful hydrogen export industry?
It is highly unlikely that Australia will be able to pursue a successful hydrogen export industry in the next 20-30 years without a significant increase in renewable energy generation. Therefore, before any government funds are committed to this industry, further work will need to be undertaken to map out a strategy for reaching a 300-500% renewable energy target, in order to produce sufficient renewable energy to support a 'green' hydrogen export industry. The production of hydrogen from methane or coal should not be supported as this approach will exacerbate global carbon emissions, and leave Australia and the world in a worse position than it is today, in aiming to meet the IPCC's recommended emission reduction targets.
What are the top two or three opportunities for the use of clean hydrogen in Australia?
'Green' hydrogen, produced using water electrolysis, should be directed towards shipping, for producing synthetic fuels for aviation, as well as for replacing existing fossil-fuel based hydrogen streams in manufacturing and agriculture. The energy requirements of producing hydrogen to support these sectors alone will be so significant that Australia will not be able to afford to use it for other sectors, where more efficient alternatives exist. Some examples of more efficient alternatives across different sectors are included below: Heating - electrification using heat pumps Light vehicles - battery electric vehicles Heavy vehicles - battery electric vehicles with road electrification where required Energy storage - batteries and pumped hydro Any commercial proponent or lobbyist claiming that hydrogen should be used in land transport is failing to recognise the bigger picture in regards to the energy requirements to power any significant component of the transport sector using hydrogen. The following report provides a thorough overview of the issue, and the importance of targeted use of hydrogen in those sectors where it can have the greatest impact:
What are the main barriers to the use of hydrogen in Australia?
Hydrogen technology is still immature and it will be a number of years for further developments to be made in order to advance the technology to a point of commercial viability. These advancements are not only in regards to the production of hydrogen using water electrolysis (and the associated supply chain and distribution network), but also the end use in fuel cells, which are still tremendously unreliable, particularly in urban areas, due to poor air quality clogging up fuel cell surfaces. The cost of 'green' hydrogen is primarily dictated by the cost of the inputs - water and electricity. As outlined previously, without a detailed plan for a 300-500% renewable energy target, renewable energy generation will not be sufficient to support a 'green' hydrogen sector.
What are some examples where a strategic national approach could lower costs and shorten timelines for developing a clean hydrogen industry?
Claims that developing refuelling infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will accelerate uptake are unfounded and deceptive. Such moves will do nothing more than inefficiently use taxpayer funds, that otherwise could go towards supporting more energy efficient technologies, such as battery electric vehicles, or for supporting the use of hydrogen in sectors where it is actually required e.g. shipping. Australia should aim to become a leader in the use of 'green' hydrogen for shipping, and reduce the emissions generated by importing/exporting goods via sea across the world.
What are Australia’s key technology, regulatory and business strengths and weaknesses in the development of a clean hydrogen industry?
The claim will undoubtedly be made that Australia has virtually unlimited renewable energy capacity. Again, it must be highlighted that this 'capacity' must be captured through renewable energy generation. Without a sufficient plan to support a substantial increase in renewable energy generation, we will not generate enough renewable electricity to support 'green' hydrogen production.
What workforce skills will need to be developed to support a growing clean hydrogen industry?
What areas in hydrogen research, development and deployment need attention in Australia? Where are the gaps in our knowledge?
As outlined, only 'green' hydrogen should be produced in Australia, and it should be targeted towards those sectors where its impact can be greatest i.e. shipping, aviation (used to produce synthetic fuels) and to replace existing fossil fuel based hydrogen in agriculture and manufacturing. Further work should be carried to explore how hydrogen use in shipping and to produce synthetic fuels for aviation can be accelerated locally.
Do you have any other comments or submissions to this process?
Hydrogen refuelling infrastructure in Australia would be an inefficient use of taxpayer funds, and is unlikely to have any significant impact on shifting the vehicle market towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles remain twice the price of their battery electric counterparts, and even optimistically will cost as much to own and operate as existing internal combustion engine vehicles. Australia runs the risk of not remaining economically-competitive with other nations if we try to adopt inefficient technologies in transport segments where more energy efficient alternatives exist and are viable. Battery electric vehicles are, and will always remain, 70-95% cheaper to operate compared to fossil fuel and hydrogen vehicles. There is no reasonable argument to support the use of hydrogen in these segments, and if we are to waste the limited hydrogen that we will be able to produce on these land-based vehicles, this will only delay emission reductions in those sectors that will be dependent on hydrogen e.g. shipping and aviation. Furthermore, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle proponents often claim that these vehicles have the advantage of 'quick' refuelling times. Ignoring the fact that electric vehicle technology is rapidly advancing towards a point of reaching 350-500 km charge rates in 10 minutes in the next few years, it should also be noted that hydrogen fuelling infrastructure has its own substantial limitations. Back-to-back refilling is limited at these facilities, meaning that generally they can only support 1-2 vehicles filling in succession, after which there is a 10 to 15 minute delay in repressurising the system. This delay has been well documented overseas, and is just one example of how hydrogen use in road transport is not as simple as some claim it to be. Add to this that these vehicles would be dependent on service stations, compared to battery electric vehicles that can charge at home, work or anywhere a power point is available, and the supposed advantages of hydrogen vehicles quickly erode in the face of reality of the technology's limitations. That being said, 'green' hydrogen has an important role to play in sectors where electrification is more challenging e.g. long-distance shipping + aviation, and it should be targeted towards these use cases given the limited volumes Australia (and the world) will be able to produce due to the energy intensity of the water electrolysis process.