The Australian Capital Territory’s existing gas network is expected to transition to 100 per cent renewable gas, thanks to a new collaboration between the Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) and ACT gas distributor Evoenergy. We met with Evoenergy Gas Manager, Bruce Hansen, who shed some light on the build of a first-of-its-kind hydrogen test facility and its anticipated impact on gas supply both in the ACT and across Australia.
The new test facility, located at CIT’s Fyshwick campus, was launched in December 2018, and is the product of more than 12 months of research and planning by Evoenergy and the CIT.
While several gas distribution companies are undertaking hydrogen-related projects, the difference with this project is that it is testing 100 per cent hydrogen on existing materials, equipment and work practices, in preparation for application to the existing gas distribution network.
According to Evoenergy Gas Manager, Bruce Hansen, the test facility will enable Evoenergy to gain a clearer understanding of how hydrogen will impact existing gas infrastructure, and marks an exciting new chapter for the Australian gas industry. It will also move Evoenergy closer to rolling out a viable renewable gas source on a large scale.
“The hydrogen test facility has been an exciting thing to be involved in, because even after 30 years I’ve not seen change in the gas industry like what this represents for the future,” Mr Hansen said.
Such is the buzz surrounding the project that two Evoenergy senior engineers have come out of retirement to work on the project.
The rise of hydrogen
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 zero-net greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.
Mr Hansen said there were a number of factors to consider when exploring the role hydrogen would play in achieving that target.
“The first question to answer is: will gas play any sort of role in the future energy mix? If the answer to that is yes, and we want to have a zero greenhouse gas future, then hydrogen is going to be fundamental to that, because you generate hydrogen from renewable electricity,” Mr Hansen said.
“Whether hydrogen will be something that is made at service stations and pumped in cars, or whether it’s something that’s manufactured in large plants next to gas pipelines, using megawatts of power, I can’t predict. But it’s the starting point for the industry.”
As well as offering a clean energy source, another benefit of hydrogen is that it can be stored in existing gas pipelines until it is required, essentially turning the network into a giant battery for storing energy.
Exploring the impact on the Canberra network
The new facility is testing three things:
- The effect of 100 per cent hydrogen application on existing Australian network components, construction and maintenance practices
- Hydrogen as a broader energy storage source to support coupling the electricity network with the gas network
- Appliances (e.g. testing hydrogen and mixed gases in existing appliances such as gas continuous hot water systems)
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.
Once the optimum level has been 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 percent renewable gas 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 ten 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.
The test facility has been operational since December 2018 and is already providing data about how hydrogen affects existing infrastructure.
“The Canberra network that distributes gas to most customers is a plastic network, and it uses two types of plastic pipe – polyethylene and nylon,” Mr Hansen said.
“We’ve got a small network with both materials, and those types of fittings and joints have been tested with hydrogen to determine whether the existing materials in the network can handle a 100 per cent hydrogen mix.
“We’re looking at the network side of the meter, the customer side of the meter and the meter itself. That’s quite a different approach to the problem.”
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 to mitigate any hazards that come with testing fuels. For this reason, the facility is located at the CIT.
“We’ve partnered with CIT because of the educational value they have identified in the project. And they have a lot of control over the burner configuration on their appliances, so we can test those appliances on different blends of hydrogen and methane,” Mr Hansen said.
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?
- What sort of water do we need to use – can it be normal mains 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, scientists have estimated that to meet the gas needs of the ACT for a year, around 1.5 per cent of the water stored in Corin Dam would be required.
So while the volume of water required is not unattainable, the shift to hydrogen does raise questions about where this water will come from, and how we prioritise its use.
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 Hansen, Evoenergy is joining with a range of industry partners to explore the potential of hydrogen.
“Because we can’t test everything, we are hoping that if we share our results, then others who are doing testing will also share theirs too,” he said.
“The industry is really trying to get as much done in this field as quickly as it can, because time is of the essence with how we transition to a low-carbon future, so if we all work collaboratively then we’ll get there a lot quicker.”
Mr Hansen said he has been heartened by the interest from academia and government in the project, and he believes that demonstrating the new direction of the industry is as important as the testing itself.
“We’ve had a number of universities interested to understand what we’ve done, and what we’ve learned, because they’re doing their own research,” he said.
“Of course government has been interested in the project too; we’ve had ACT Government ministers, Federal Government and others tour the facility.
“Canberra is an ideal place to conduct a project like this, because there’s so many interested people here.”
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 provide a platform to share information and develop partnerships.
Next steps for hydrogen
Both in Australia and overseas, the desire to reduce carbon emissions has seen hydrogen emerge as a viable green alternative to natural gas. The development of a hydrogen industry in Australia also represents a real opportunity to create new growth areas in the economy.
Proving the viability of hydrogen as a clean gas energy source will have a profound impact on customers and the broader energy industry.