Clean Energy Finance Corporation chief executive Oliver Yates says he is a big fan of hydrogen energy, and believes that right now solar-to-hydrogen fuels in regional Australia would be cheaper at the pump than petrol. All that is missing are the hydrogen fuel cell cars and a refuelling network.
But Yates would like to fix that. “I’m a self-proclaimed hydrogen junkie,” he quipped in a speech to 6th World Hydrogen Technologies Conference in Sydney this week. That was opposed to the overall Australian economy, which he said was a “carbon junkie” and needed to drop its habit of heavy emissions.
Yates has a vision of having hydrogen fuels follow the NBN network around Australia. This, he says, would provide power for the telecoms towers, and also provide a network of fuelling stations that could be used by commercial and heavy vehicles – utes, trucks, buses and even tractors – and at the distances required in regional Australia.
“There is an ability for hydrogen to be a piggy back technology – with one investment, Australia can solve two problems. Can we think that far ahead?”
Yates said that an array of solar panels, with an electrolysed to transform the electricity into hydrogen (just add water and bottle the left over pure oxygen) might be able to deliver fuel at around $1.25 a litre. In areas such as Mt Isa, where fuel had to be trucked vast distances, petrol prices were above $1.40. In other areas, even more.
Yates said that potentially in some remote areas, it would be possible to cut out the costly transportation of fuels. “We have got significant solar resources, and significant wind resources,” Yates said.
“We like the hydrogen space; it is versatile, transportable and flexible and economic in regional Australia right now. It is a very exiting market.”
Yates said that he was also interested in encouraged fleets of fuel cell vehicles, which he said could lower emissions and increase the uptake of renewable energy, as well as increase energy security. Hydrogen had the advantage of being able to generate on site (with solar), store the energy onsite, and provide refuelling on site.
The big challenge was to get the FCVs – fuel cell vehicles – to justify the expense in refuelling infrastructure. In Japan, they have had the same problem – a chicken and egg situation that was only resolved when the big three car manufacturers – Toyota, Honda and Nissan – pledged to build fuel cell vehicles, and the big power companies vowed to provide the infrastructure.
That is now starting to emerge. The Toyota Mirai, which went on sale in Japan this year, has been unveiled in Australia. But it is not on sale here, and not likely to be for several years, although it will be taken to Canberra’s Park Hyatt this week to show to politicians. Hyundai has unveiled a single vehicle in Australia, the ix35, and has even built a refuelling station in Sydney to service that one vehicle.
“Those two vehicles are a key step to realising the transition to low carbon can provide to us all,” Yates said, indicating that the CEFC was interested in financing such developments. “Hydrogen is a new technology, refueling is a new technology. Banks are nervous about financing new technology, and that is where the CEFC can step in.
Australia has a real problem in the transport fuels sector. Currently, it has little or no emissions or fuel standards, although environment minister Greg Hunt is talking about changing that. The NRMA has pointed to the risks of importing nearly all its transport fuels.
Yates says Australia needs to encouraging investment in low or zero emission vehicles. Australia, he said, sells one million vehicles a year, and Australia’s vehicles were the least efficient in the world, with emissions 43 per cent higher than the EU on average.
“In a carbon-constrained economy, we have got a lot of work to do to improve vehicle efficiency standards in Australia.”
One company looking to develop a system of home-or business-based hydrogen refuelling systems in Sefca.
CEO Martin Burns says the technology is expensive and clunky, but no more so than the initial mobile phones.
He is proposing a system that would use 10kW of rooftop solar and rain water or filtered tap water to produce pure hydrogen, that could then refuel FCVs (fuel cell vehicles), at a fraction of the time of electric vehicles, and with more range.
“You get sunshine, you bottle it, and you have enough hydrogen to fill up the car” every day of the week, he said.
Brand says the company is working with Hyundai and government agencies for support for the unit, which could be trialled in Australia next year.
“The first units will be like the first mobile phones, large and clunky and do only one car a day,” Burns said. “But with 5 cars a day we can match costs. I don’t have to be cheaper than petrol because if you are (refuelling) at home or at work, you will use the technology”
Still, it’s a big capital cost. The initial target price for an electrolysis system for five cars would be $100,000. It wold deliver “free” fuel after that, but may only have an operating life of five years. Brand says the company is aiming for $10,000 a unit. That would provide free fuel for a single car for five years, comparable with petrol price costs.