By David Norman, CEO of Future Fuels Collaborative Research Centre– the industry-focused Research, Development & Demonstration (RD&D) partnership enabling the decarbonisation of Australia’s energy networks

Australia is actively investigating affordable, reliable low-carbon energy for all of its total energy needs as well as for future clean-energy export potential. Achieving this requires solutions that go well beyond renewable electricity.

We need to consider the optimal energy solutions for homes, businesses, transport and industrial sectors which account for 40 per cent of our current energy market, currently serviced mainly by gaseous and liquid fuels.

Decarbonisation can present many opportunities and the gas sector is well placed to provide reliable and secure energy and cost-effective carbon reductions.

We have the opportunity to adapt existing gas infrastructure for the production, transport, storage and use of more sustainable future fuels, including hydrogen and biogas and their liquid derivatives such as liquid hydrogen, ammonia and methanol.

All of these fuels can meet a significant part of local demand and generate export opportunities. Importantly, they also have the potential to be fully scaled up to meet the needs of Australia’s energy markets.

Future Fuels CRC research provides knowledge for the public, industry and government to make informed decisions on our energy future.

Our research is focused through three integrated research programs:

  • Fuels Technologies, Systems and Markets focuses on understanding the technical, commercial and market barriers to, and opportunities for, the use of hydrogen, biogas and other future fuels
  • Social Acceptance, Security of Supply and Public Safety studies the social and policy context, including public acceptance and safety, for technology and infrastructure associated with low-carbon fuels
  • Network Lifecycle Management identifies and addresses gaps in relevant Australian industry codes and standards associated with design, construction and operation of existing and future gas networks

Utilising existing network infrastructure

Existing gas energy network infrastructure can store the same amount of energy as six billion Powerwall batteries and currently services five million homes, 130,000 businesses and powers mining and manufacturing.

Successful adaptation of this existing gas network infrastructure, industrial equipment and household appliances to use future fuels provides an efficient transition pathway to low-carbon energy with lower implementation barriers, and this represents a major economic benefit for Australia.

Recent studies in Australia (Deloitte) and the UK (KPMG) concluded that conversion to future fuels could offer a considerably more cost effective decarbonisation route than full electrification.

Repurposing Australia’s existing infrastructure for future fuels will lower the overall cost of emission reduction and energy supply, and will significantly benefit the productivity of our national infrastructure.

The use of gas infrastructure to store excess renewable electricity for delivery at peak demand will also improve the integration of variable renewable generation, providing benefits in terms of both generation efficiency and energy grid security.

Providing more options for end users for low-carbon energy at competitive prices will broaden consumer choice and security of supply.

Supporting Australia’s Gas Vision 2050, Future Fuels CRC’s research is enabling the Australian gas industry to provide a competitive, low carbon energy alternative for residential, commercial, industrial and transport sectors to complement and support renewable electricity generation.

With targeted investment in research, development and demonstration, Australia can lead in this emerging field and benefit from the resulting technology and knowledge.

Future fuels are already technically feasible today with some large-scale deployment challenges that the Australian industry is now addressing:

  •  Research is still needed to ensure the reliable introduction of future fuels and to ensure the world-class safety levels that the Australian market expects. Australian industry must also keep abreast of fast-moving global developments to utilise these quickly and effectively
  • Appropriate national policy, regulation and standards are being developed
  • The potential social, economic and environmental impacts of future fuels and related infrastructure are being researched now and need to be quantified and communicated to address any public concerns during the transition to new fuel types
  • Detailed confirmation is needed that all types of existing infrastructure can be repurposed to safely and reliably transport future fuels on a large scale. This includes understanding how to maximise the serviceability and life of new and existing infrastructure when it uses future fuels

Feasibility studies and industry projects well underway

New fuels, such as biogas and hydrogen, have the potential to become mainstream and complementary energy solutions that will use existing energy infrastructure. Biogas can make use of landfill or agricultural and forestry waste to produce a net-zero emissions fuel.

Hydrogen can be produced through electrolysis using renewables and then stored or moved to customers via the gas pipeline networks.

These integrated solutions help to address the intermittency of renewable energy sources and enable a secure transformation to a net-zero emissions energy system.

The storage of renewable energy in the form of hydrogen provides both short-term gas and longer-term storage of energy, capable of meeting daily energy variations as well as major interseasonal storage needs over much longer time periods.

Australia is already testing hydrogen blended into natural gas supplies in a series of demonstration projects led by Jemena, ATCO and Australian Gas Networks (AGN).

In February 2020, the Federal Government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency announced it would support the Australian Hydrogen Centre (AHC) to scale up these projects.

The AHC is developing feasibility studies to inject up to ten per cent renewable hydrogen into the gas distribution network of selected regional towns in South Australia and Victoria.

Building on the feasibility studies for regional towns, the AHC will also develop feasibility studies to inject up to ten per cent renewable hydrogen into the gas distribution networks of South Australia and Victoria and develop a pathway to make the transition to 100 per cent hydrogen networks.

AGN’s flagship project, Hydrogen Park South Australia (HyP SA) will be operational by mid-2020.

It will be Australia’s largest renewable hydrogen production facility, where renewable hydrogen will be produced and blended into the gas distribution network in Mitchell Park, Adelaide.

Approximately 710 households in Mitchell Park will be receiving a blended five per cent renewable gas – a combination of natural gas and renewable hydrogen.

By December 2021, AGN is also planning to bring online a hydrogen plant in Gladstone, Queensland, to deliver up to ten per cent blended hydrogen across the city’s total 770 residential, small commercial and industrial customer base.

In the long term, entire networks may be converted to pure hydrogen or mixtures of hydrogen and biogas.

This will require some modifications to existing gas appliances, but a suitable transition program would minimise the cost and impacts on consumers.

Increasing acceptance through community engagement

Each of the feasibility projects already have their own engagement strategies for end users, local communities and first responders, and they are seeing early, positive responses.

COAG Energy Council commissioned a series of reviews, studies, research and analysis to inform Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy including research on ‘Developing Community Trust in Hydrogen’ led by Professor Peta Ashworth of the University of Queensland who is a lead researcher in Future Fuels CRC.

The report documents current knowledge of the social issues surrounding hydrogen projects. It reviews leading practice stakeholder engagement and communication strategies, and findings from focus groups and research activities across Australia.

Future Fuels CRC’s collaborative research is outcomes focused and driven by our unique range of participants from industry, research and government.

We are fortunate to have the Energy Networks Association, Australian Pipeline and Gas Association, and Gas Appliance Manufacturers Association Australia as active participants, with over 60 Australian companies behind them.

Every research project has an industry adviser to provide support and guidance. This means the end user is always top mind in our research, ensuring we deliver their real-world needs including driving change in industry standards and software development.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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