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Solar fuels could be Australia’s biggest energy export

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Australian developers are hoping to tap into the voracious demand for clean energy from the big north Asian economies, and create a “solar fuels” export industry at a scale many would have thought unimaginable.

Proponents such as Renewable Hydrogen’s Andrew Want are talking of the prospect of developing massive solar arrays in the Australian outback at a scale of “multiple tens” of gigawatts.

“This is a great opportunity to create a solar industry which is not limited to the scale of our electricity network,” Want tells RenewEconomy at the sidelines of the 6th World Hydrogen Technologies Congress in Sydney.

“This plan is bolted on to the prospects of the biggest economic growth region in the world.”

As RenewEconomy reported on Wednesday, there is a big push in Australia to tap into Japan’s emerging “hydrogen” economy, and use Australia’s rich solar and wind resources to provide clean fuels to Japan and other countries.

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Vision of a sustainable hydrogen fuel community. Source: Nature.com

Professor Ross Garnut and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief executive Oliver Yates say this could create an export industry that could rival coal and gas.

Japan is hungry for hydrogen and clean liquid fuels because it relies so heavily on imported fuels – now entirely coal, oil and gas – but knows it needs to rapidly decarbonise.

It believes the best option for a country with limited renewable energy resources – and a nuclear strategy stranded by the Fukushima disaster – is hydrogen.

It has set in motion a “hydrogen plan” that includes fuel cells in homes and buildings, a refueling network for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and then for large-scale power plants.

But as we noted on Wednesday, while the likes of Garnaut, Yates and others involved in the emerging hydrogen industry in Australia see this as a way to unlock Australia’s renewable energy resources, some Japanese industrials seem more focused on using fossil fuel as feedstock, particularly cheap brown coal from Victoria.

There is a belief, though, that when costs for carbon capture and storage are included, and a strong signal for clean energy emerges from the climate conference in Paris, then renewables will be the most logical power source.

Want and his associates – including some big corporate names from Europe and Asia – are working on a plan to begin exports of solar fuels by using electrolysis and existing infrastructure for ammonia exports to test the Japanese market.

They are planning a small MW-scale pilot plant near Karratha in the Pilbara, not far from the country’s biggest ammonia plant, which would generate electricity from a solar PV plant, and add water for electrolysis, which separates the hydrogen from the oxygen.

If this initial project is successful, it would be followed by a massive solar PV plant of around 100MW to 400MW.

It would then be an industry that Want says could be in the multiple tens of gigawatts, and use a combination of solar PV and solar towers and storage. (Want is also a director of solar tower developer Vast Solar, which has a demonstration plant in western NSW).

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To put this into some perspective, the Pilbara has some of the world’s best solar resources, and a land area of more than half a million square kilometres – one third bigger than all of Japan. And it has major LNG infrastructure.

“We have energy-intensive economies immediately to our north, including Japan and Korea, which are struggling to find a way to decarbonise their industry,” Want says.

“This is massive growth opportunity. Australia has huge solar resources in the Pilbara, western WA, Queensland and South Australia. We have also got wind and tidal.

“Ten years ago – this idea was just not feasible. But there has been a big fall in the cost of solar technology, and in electrolysis, and there has never been a stronger industrial imperative to improve cost and efficiency.”

Want says Europe has recognised that the way to store energy for industrial scale use is through hydrogen, and Japan has come to the same conclusion.

Right now, almost all of hydrogen currently made comes from fossil fuel feed stock, with just 4 per cent by electrolysis converging on same technologies.

Want says Japan’s hydrogen plan still assumes reliance on gas and coal for hydrogen production – but Australian promoters, taken aback by the scale of ambition from Kawasaki to use brown coal from Victoria as feedstock – are trying to talk them round to renewables.

“We have been constrained by what we could do within the local power system,” Want says. “But if you look at our trade relationships, and the need to decarbonise the global economy, that is where Australia can play a serious role.”

Financing projects at such a scale, once the concept is demonstrated, should not be a problem, given the massive shift of global funds from fossil fuels into clean energy, particularly into climate and green bonds

Want says a pilot plant could begin construction in 2016, and be in operation by 2018.

The creation of a solar fuels export industry would also lead to lower cost renewable energy generation for domestic use, as well as industrial gases. This, as Garnaut points out, could make Australia a natural site for clean energy-intensive industrial activity.

“This is not a five-year vision, it is a 20,30, 50 year vision,” Want says. “That is the timeframe that we saw for the development of the Pilbara iron ore reserves.

“If renewable hydrogen production can get down the cost curve and be of scale, we can remodel energy systems around hydrogen,” Want says.  

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  • Jacob

    The Middle East is sunnier and maybe has cheaper land.

    The Arab monarchies will probably be able to export liquid Hydrogen cheaper than AUS can.

    Iceland has dirt cheap electricity.

    One firm is installing Hydrogen fuel cells at mobile phone towers in India. No idea where the hydrogen comes from to power said fuel cells.

    • david_fta

      Australia’s closer to Japan and Korea by sea than all those nations, Arabia and Iceland, and India’s more likely to consume produced hydrogen domestically.

    • Stephen V. Zorbas

      “Australia is an anchronism”-Bob Hawke. Arab Monarchies are the most unstable places to invest; no way will the world risk that I can assure you. Economies of scale in Western Australia would trump any other. Iceland use enormous renewable power and are one of the leaders in the world now, as regarding applications of hydrogen.Hydrogen can come from liquid chemicals like methanol, liquid ammonia(8-10 bar pressure) and other chemicals. Their better than batteries in backup for cell towers.

      • Jacob

        You do not invest in Arab oil wells. The monarchies invest in the oil wells themselves and export the oil.

        In future they may export hydrogen.

  • Stephen V. Zorbas

    “Australia is an anachronism”-Bob Hawke , “our markets are to the north”-Paul Keating, “Never underestimate the power of water”-Professor Suzuki

  • digicle

    Am I missing something here, did someone find an asteroid load of platinum on the sly, cause that’s what this dream will require

    • david_fta

      What you’re missing is a UNSW team has developed an electrode for watrer electrolysis using nickel and iron; we’ve got asteroid-loads of those.

      They’ve published in open access (ie free) Nature Communications, paper’s at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2015/150317/ncomms7616/full/ncomms7616.html

      • orko138

        And its cost for mass market deployment?

        • david_fta

          Probably bugger all once the scale-up is done; it’s not as if the raw materials are going to cost.

      • Stephen V. Zorbas

        Absolutely correct.

      • joono

        Worth noting that is 100 year old technology. NiFe cells are both indestructible batteries and excellent hydrogen producers.

        • david_fta

          “Worth noting that is 100 year old technology” Err, no;

          the clever thing these blokes have done is to build a NiFe solid foam which hugely increases surface area per mass of material.

          The paper isn’t about using Ni and Fe, it’s about making a solid foam; perhaps you could have a look … and a think?

          • joono

            Great stuff. They developed a foam.

            Doesn’t detract from my point, that Nickel and Iron have excellent properties that have been well known since the days of Edison, after whom such cells are known.

            These properties include being used as electrodes for producing hydrogen. The chemistry is simple.

            While everyone goes on about energy storage, it is interesting to note that the Chinese military are basing their energy storage future on NiFe technology. The reasons, like the technology itself are simple; its is proven, cheap, robust tech thats lasts forever.

          • david_fta

            Matey, I don’t know what your issue is: yes, we have always known about Ni/Fe properties, but no, we have not known up until this work how to actually implement it in a practical device that is profitable.

            The issue is, and always has been SURFACE AREA PER MASS of electrode. THAT’S what these blokes have sorted out.
            Have you no comprehension that there’s a difference between theory and practice?

  • Andrew Thaler

    Many of us have been saying this for years and years and years.. New Zealand could also turn its vast presently un-exploited Hydro energy into synthetic liquid fuels or Hydrogen.. it would have an advantage over Australia in that regard.. closer production to its coastal areas for export.

  • Henry WA

    Using PV or Solar Thermal to convert solar energy to electricity, in order to extract hydrogen from water, to compress, store and ship the hydrogen to Japan and to then use the hydrogen for fuel cells, for heating, or for whatever, seems an extraordinarily wasteful and expensive process. Every stage will involve efficiency losses. Undersea UHVDC cables to transport electricity direct to Singapore or even Japan may be a better long term solution (losses are said to be only 3% per 1000km) so about 10% Darwin to Singapore and about 16% to Japan.

    • orko138

      Couldn’t agree more. And every business in the supply chain will extract a dollar or two. Prices will therefore be volatile. The only reason for exploring this idea is to create an export market in clean fuels. That is probably the last thing we need when most developed countries, and many developing countries, are heading into an energy independent world driven by smart micro-grids powered by distributed generation with centralized renewable generation support

    • Stephen V. Zorbas

      Artificial photosynthesis coverts water directly to hydrogen as a solar fuel, and now with carbon dioxide we can make methanol and other derivatives. That’s why solar fuels are being so widely researched at the moment. We need to export very much so; must always keep the $ in mind.

    • Ian

      Perhaps a crazy idea, but maybe in the same time frame they could just build a gigantic battery -ship.

      Unplug it from a giant Australian solar array, sail it to Japan and plug it in to their grid.

      • Doug Cutler

        Interesting. The only additional cost over conventional grid storage would be costs associated with the ship itself.

        One consideration might be the risk of the ship sinking and losing such a large investment. Insurance therefore might add considerably to costs.

      • Ant..

        Undersea cable?

      • Dean Laslett

        Yes, interesting. I have also heard a proposal to have wind powered ships just sailing around,using wind and solar sourced electricity to split seawater and storing the hydrogen. When the tanks are full – go into port and sell your hydrogen. Perhaps it could be combined with a cruise ship holiday package…

      • Bungarra

        There was some discussion re this using aluminum and capturing the energy when it oxidizes on a ship. Then sending the oxide back to a low cost electricity source to make aluminum again. It was in the context of low cost electricity from hydro in Iceland. Aluminum does not require careful storage. I have not seen much about this recently. It may have been someones dream.

        There may be other suitable metals to use in metal/air batteries.

    • tokenpom

      I don’t see any problem, as the ‘fuel’ (Wind, or Sunlight, etc) is ‘Free’.

      So, in converting it into H2, you’re just storing it for later use.

      You could even allow unprofitable open-cast Mines to flood in the next big wet, and use them as your water source.

    • jfreed27

      agreed. Hydrogen per kg doesn’t have much oomph, and one must compress/chill? it .

  • Shaun Colley

    Has anyone looked at using natural gas instead of water and extracting the carbon as Carbon Nanotubes (the manufacturing material of the future) and producing emissions free hydrogen. My understanding is this requires far less energy than splitting water and produces 2 marketable products. Hydrogen & Carbon Nanotubes. Eden Energy has tech in this space.

    • Stephen V. Zorbas

      Eden Energy “rings a bell”-(Hythane) from memory. Again here is export $, as there will be opportunities for numerous companies.

      • Shaun Colley

        Stephen, Good memory. Hythane is one of Eden’s tech’s but not the one that is of interest here. Their carbon extraction technology is what is really of interest and IMHO is the real value of that company. I agree, big export potential.

    • JohnRD

      Using natural gas means extracting fossil carbon that will eventually end up as CO2 or some other greenhouse gas.

      • Shaun Colley

        Not quite JohnRD, the carbon is extracted from the gas in a solid form to be used in manufacturing/construction etc. and the Hydrogen is available as a fuel source for fuel cells etc. The carbon if extracted as nanotubes etc. are extremely light and extremely strong and will be worth more than the Hydrogen.

        • JohnRD

          No problem while the carbon remains as a solid. How do you guarantee it doesn’t end up oxidizing and producing CO2?

          • Shaun Colley

            OK, you just jumped my paygrade regarding tech knowledge. All I can say is that the carbon fibres that are extracted from the process are very stable and are being trialled as an additive to concrete that increase the strength of the concrete and reduce the amount of concrete needed. I don’t think oxidization is an issue but I’ll defer to better minds on that.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Well, carbon nanotubes should basically burn like graphite, which burns like very pure coal. When buried underground we know that coal and graphite can be stable for hundreds of millions of years. But if you were to mix a little into your garden, in such a biologically active area over time a significant amount would be oxidised. How much I really don’t know. At a guess maybe half over 100 years.

    • Ronald Brakels

      It takes a lot of energy to make carbon nanotubes. So even with a 100% efficient process it would take almost half the energy released from burning methane to convert the carbon in it to naotubes and no process is 100% efficient.

  • Stephen V. Zorbas

    Electricity is hard to store, and infrastructure would be needed to support extra loads. Micro-grids will be well established by year 2025, as will be the price of solar PV,set to be cheaper than carbon globally by then as well.No centralised producer will be needed. Solar fuels now involve capturing carbon dioxide to make methanol, and soon other derivatives. Must remember the $, because if you cannot think of what to export by say year 2050, your lives will not be what you may think.

  • JeffJL

    Look! Squirrel

  • Mike Dill

    In my mind Ammonia is a better fit for a transportable energy source, as it has no carbon issue, and is much less corrosive.

    In the mean time, we should be running the LNG liquification plants on solar and wind.

    • jfreed27

      ammonia less corrosive? Than what?

      • Mike Dill

        Ammonia is less corrosive than hydrogen. In both cases special materials need to be used.

        • jfreed27

          depends on definition of ‘corrosive’; neither will oxidize metals.

          • Ronald Brakels

            Hydrogen doesn’t corrode metals but it will embrittle them. This can be mostly avoided by using copper or the right grade of stainless steel, or gold plating the inside of pipes and storage tanks, but it does add to the cost of hydrogen infrastructure.

  • Ant..

    Gosh all I asked for was the energy to make a cup of hot tea

  • Rockne O’Bannon

    Whoa! Look at all the people who don’t understand comparative advantage. Let me simplify this. If Japan or another country is willing to pay for a product that can be produced profitably in Australia, produce it and sell it.

    If Japan wants hydrogen and is willing pay for it, don’t offer them natural gas because it is better or cheaper. Why not just give them what they want and take their money?