A South Australian government-backed operation to manufacture green hydrogen and distribute it through the gas mains has officially begun operations – but the so-called “renewable gas” it produces will be just a tiny fraction of the gas piped to households’ cookers and heaters.
Dubbed “Australia’s largest electrolyser” – at just 1.25 megawatts – the Hydrogen Park South Australia (HyP SA) is operated by Australian Gas Networks, part of the Australian Gas Infrastructure Group. The gas industry sees “green hydrogen” as a potential saviour of its sunk investments in gas pipelines.
The hydrogen it manufactures will be blended with carbon-heavy fossil methane gas (or “natural gas” as it prefers it to be known) and distributed through the gas mains to 700 homes. Hydrogen, which emits no CO2 when it is burned, will make up 5 per cent of the blended gas, fossil fuel gas will be 95 per cent.
The South Australian government hopes to roll out the pilot more widely, and aims to increase the hydrogen content to 10 per cent, resulting in a small reduction in emissions. The Victorian government last week said it hoped to do the same thing.
At 5-10 per cent hydrogen, the emissions reductions would be pretty insignificant – and it certainly won’t do anything like enough to get gas hungry households to net zero. Only full electrification of space and water heating and cooking appliances can achieve that.
But that hasn’t stopped Australian Gas Networks from marketing the blend as “renewable gas” and “clean burning gas”.
“HyP SA will be Australia’s largest renewable gas project and the first to blend hydrogen with natural gas for supply to customers using the existing gas network,” the gas company says on its website.
“The clean burning gas will be supplied to approximately 710 nearby properties in Mitchell Park, South Australia, with a blend of up to 5 per cent renewable hydrogen and natural gas, delivered through the existing gas network.”
The hydrogen plant itself cost $14.5 million, of which the South Australian government contributed $4.9 million. Opening the plant today, South Australia’s Minister for Energy and Mining Dan van Holst Pellekaan said the state wanted to be a global leader in the production, consumption and export of renewable hydrogen.
“Green hydrogen is a fuel of the future and will play an important role in helping achieve our goals of 100 per cent net renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 per cent in South Australia by 2030,’’ he said.
“The outcomes of this project are part of the state government’s ambition to blend up to 10 per cent renewable hydrogen in South Australia helping to drive domestic demand and consumption.
“Importantly, there is no additional cost to customers who will receive the blended 5 per cent renewable gas as part of this project and the change will not impact any arrangements they have with their existing natural gas retailer.”
The state has bolder visions for green hydrogen, outlining plans to be an exporter via three new hydrogen hubs that could require up to 12GW of new wind and solar to produce. That, at least, will be zero emissions as long as the fuel source remains renewables only.
“Countries around the world are looking for new technologies to help decarbonise their industries and the Marshall Liberal Government intends to create local jobs by become a world-class producer, supplier and exporter of ‘green’ hydrogen,” the minister said.
The plant also has an agreement with BOC Gas to transport the green hydrogen by road to industrial customers in Whyalla.
While hydrogen may marginally reduce the emissions of gas use in the home, it does not fundamentally solve the problem of carbon emissions.
Speaking last week at the Smart Energy Conference in Sydney, Rebecca Burdon, chief executive of Climate Resource, said ultimately electrification was the only plausible answer.
“We’re looking at a zero emissions future, so we need a very high proportion of very low emissions hydrogen, and that’s 100 per cent, and that’s not the same as the sort of 10 or 20 per cent transition pathways which are currently being contemplated by most studies in Australia.
“So I think it’s about the pace at which you think things might unfold. I don’t think it’s good end game,” she said.
James Fernyhough is a reporter at RenewEconomy. He has worked at The Australian Financial Review and the Financial Times, and is interested in all things related to climate change and the transition to a low-carbon economy.