Hydrogen will be the answer to the energy trilemma

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ACT gas distributor Evoenergy and the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) have partnered to build a first-of-its-kind hydrogen test facility, which has the aim of transitioning the ACT’s gas network to 100 per cent hydrogen gas. Energy Editor Laura Harvey met with Evoenergy Gas Networks Branch Manager, Will Yeap, to learn more about the facility and the ultimate impact it will have on gas supply in the ACT and around the country.

Will Yeap

The new test facility, located at CIT’s Fyshwick campus, was launched in December last year, and is the product of more than 12 months of research and planning from Evoenergy and the CIT.

While many gas distribution companies are embarking on hydrogen-related projects, the difference with this project is that it will look at testing 100 per cent hydrogen on existing materials, equipment and work practices, in preparation for application to the existing gas distribution network.

According to Gas Networks Branch Manager Will Yeap, the test facility will allow Evoenergy to gain a clear understanding of the impact introducing hydrogen will have on existing infrastructure. It will also move Evoenergy closer to rolling out a viable renewable gas source on a large scale.

Mr Yeap said it is essential to understand the impact of introducing hydrogen on the existing network, as this will have a major impact on any modifications or replacements that may be required to accommodate its use in the natural gas distribution system.

Evoenergy, along with the industry as a whole, has been working towards solutions that solve the energy trilemma – providing energy that is affordable, reliable and clean – and has the added incentive that the ACT Government is working towards a target of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.

“The energy landscape has been moving very fast, and Evoenergy is looking closely at the decarbonisation of the gas network,” said Mr Yeap. “We’re looking very closely at renewable options, but the price has to be affordable and the source has to be reliable.

“From our research, we foresee that hydrogen will be the answer to meeting this trilemma,” he added.

As an added benefit, the potential applications for hydrogen are twofold: it can be used as a clean energy source; and because it can be stored in our existing gas pipelines until it is required, it essentially turns the network into a giant battery for storing energy.

Exploring the impacts of hydrogen

The new facility will be testing three things:

1. Testing existing Australian network components, construction and maintenance practices on 100 per cent hydrogen application

2. Testing hydrogen as a broader energy storage source to support coupling the electricity network to the gas network

3. Appliance testing (e.g. testing hydrogen and mixed gases in existing appliances such as gas continuous hot water systems)

The Evoenergy hydrogen test site

The key focus of the test facility will be to examine the impact of hydrogen in the gas network, and in particular, at what percentage hydrogen can be introduced into the current network with no impact at all.

According to Mr Yeap, this process will take approximately six months. Once this level is determined, hydrogen can be introduced into the existing network straight away. From here, the vision for the ACT Government, and Evoenergy, is to have 100 per cent hydrogen in the network by 2045.

The process from moving from a level where there’s no impact on the network – which is expected to be somewhere in the vicinity of 10 to 20 per cent – to 100 per cent hydrogen will be a step-change process.

And while it will most likely require some financial support from government, the key for Evoenergy will be ensuring the process of transition is one that is affordable for customers. Crucially, the fact that the existing network will remain in place, will make a significant contribution to keeping costs down.

Looking inside the facility, it doesn’t have a huge footprint – measuring approximately 10m by 16m, the tests don’t require a huge amount of space. What is required is a safe location, thanks to the hazards that come with testing fuels. For this reason, the facility is located outside at the CIT.

“The facility is about allowing us to understand the network,” said Mr Yeap.

“It’s very important that the test facility allows you to mock-up the actual network, not just something that might not be there. At the facility we’ll be testing existing meters – not the new meters coming out from the workshop, but we will dig out old meters and then put them in the system and see what the impact is.”

Generating electricity

Once a safe level for hydrogen in the network is established, the next step for the test facility will be to investigate the process of actually producing hydrogen.

Currently hydrogen is produced through electrolysis, a process of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. Some of the crucial next questions that need to be answered include how much water will be required to provide enough hydrogen gas to power the entire ACT gas network? And what sort of water do we need to use – can it be normal pipe water, or does it need to go through a purification process before it can be used to create hydrogen?

While these questions will be investigated over the next 12 months, Mr Yeap said scientists have estimated that to meet the gas needs of the ACT for 12 months, around 1.5 per cent of the water stored in Corin Dam would be required.

So while we’re not talking about a volume of water that’s totally out of the question, the shift to hydrogen does raise questions about where the water required will come from, and it requires further investigation and understanding of what we do with our water when it is a precious resource.

The teat facility is conducting leading research already

Partnering with industry

One of the most exciting things about hydrogen for Evoenergy is the range of different potential applications for the fuel, from storage to hydrogen-powered public transport.

According to Mr Yeap, Evoenergy view their exploration of hydrogen’s potential as something that can be done with a range of partners in the industry.

“There’s a lot of tests that need to be done, and we’re looking to collaborate with the whole industry,” he said.

“The aim of this project is not to build an IP. The aim of the project is to allow us to introduce hydrogen into the network as soon as possible. To do that, we need to work together, because we don’t have all the resources.

“Importantly, we all have the same goalposts here, and we’re going to go there together, we’re going to work collaboratively.”

Mr Yeap said a key conduit for the kind of industry collaboration we will need to see in order to develop a hydrogen industry is Energy Networks Australia. Members of the gas committee within the organisation will be meeting regularly and talking about what needs to be done to propel hydrogen forward.

Now that the test facility has been launched, Evoenergy is keen to organise tours of the facility with industry, fellow utilities and related businesses. This will be the platform to share information and develop partnerships.

Next steps for hydrogen

Both in Australia and overseas, the desire to reduce carbon dioxide emissions has resulted in plans involving the widespread use of hydrogen gas as a replacement for natural gas.

Proving the viability of hydrogen as a clean gas energy source will have a profound impact on customers, and of course on the broader energy industry.

Mr Yeap said he has a passionate team working on this project, all dedicated to bringing the hydrogen revolution about. Two of his senior engineers have come out of retirement to work on this project, such is the excitement surrounding the project.

“Our people are passionate,” said Mr Yeap. “They’ve been in the business for a long time, and it’s been a tough few years for the gas industry. Now, we see hydrogen as a bit of a ‘green’ light at the end of the tunnel, and we’re passionate about bringing this fuel to customers.”

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