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Australia’s Hydrogen Future

Australia is a nation built on natural resources.  They have fortified our economic growth and lifted our prosperity. They created generations worth of jobs and income for regional communities. Their boom-and-bust cycles are part of our national identity and the peaks and troughs of modern Australia.

CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall with a mini-hydrogen fuel cell.
CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall with a mini-hydrogen fuel cell.  CREDIT:EAMON GALLAGHER

Australian coal has powered Asia’s industrial development, but it is now time that hydrogen launches its future. Australia must be ready to capitalise on this opportunity.

The world – and our trading partners – are moving away from our national stalwart. Countries are being forced to grapple with an escalating environmental crisis that calls for lower emissions and cleaner economies. Australia is in the same position and has slowly awoken to the reality that it must decarbonise its energy supply to meet its international commitments, and in the longer term, decarbonise its minerals sector.Advertisement

The transition from coal is an evolution – not a revolution – and it’s happening in slow motion. Today, we rely on it for electricity, jobs and revenue, and will continue to do so for many decades to come. It still forms the basis for many of our strongest trade relationships. Countries such as South Korea rely heavily on coal to fuel their industrial growth. But governments around the world have begun positioning their countries for the transition, and the governments that are best prepared are looking to hydrogen.

Last week, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, sounded the clarion call for hydrogen as a major energy solution for Australia. Hydrogen has 2.4 times the energy of natural gas. It is abundant, transportable, and when produced from water has the capacity to become the linchpin to Australia’s shift to renewable and low-carbon energy generation.

But as Finkel rightly noted, hydrogen is not a silver bullet. It will be one part of what must be a multi-technology energy future, including natural gas and coal as bridging fuels between our previous reliance on resources and renewable options.

Our existing gas and coal resources not only give us a head start on hydrogen, they are crucial to an orderly transition. Hydrogen from coal – with carbon capture – could even bridge the divide between clean energy advocates and the resources sector.

The transition will take decades, but in South Korea, hydrogen is already a reality. It has developed a roadmap to build a “hydrogen economy”. By 2040, hydrogen gas will account for 5 per cent of its  gross energy. Korea has simultaneously begun to phase out coal and nuclear energy, driven by a national plan to captivate investment and provide renewable energy for its households and industry that by 2030 will account for 20 per cent of total electricity generation.

Simon Crean, the chairman of the Australia-Korea Business Council, with Australia's chief scientist, Alan Finkel, and the chairman of H2Korea, Jaedo Moon.
Simon Crean, the chairman of the Australia-Korea Business Council, with Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, and the chairman of H2Korea, Jaedo Moon. 

In Australia, we’re planning for the shift. Our Resources Minister met South Korean officials in November to promote our potential as a hydrogen supplier. The CSIRO recently released its latest Australian National Outlook report, which describes the hydrogen export industry as a critical piece of our future by 2060, and our Chief Scientist released a National Hydrogen Roadmap.

The business community is betting big. Hydrogen was the focus of the joint meeting between the Australia-Korea Business Council and Korea-Australia Business Council in Sydney last year. Macquarie Group has made substantial investments through the Asia Renewable Energy Hub in the Pilbara, Fortescue has partnered with the CSIRO to develop hydrogen fuel technologies, and Woodside is partnering with Korea Gas Corporation to study the feasibility of a green hydrogen pilot project.

Critically, hydrogen has broad bipartisan support, with the Morrison government opening public consultations on a national hydrogen strategy, and Labor committing $1 billion in funding for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation for clean hydrogen development at the last election.

Australia can become a global hydrogen powerhouse; a renowned exporter of renewable energy. We have gas networks that can switch to 100 per cent hydrogen and the technical expertise to deliver emissions-free energy to every Australian household and business. We have willing private sector investment and world-class universities producing innovative hydrogen technology.

The decades-long death knell for coal could herald the ascendancy of hydrogen as our key national export. What we need is the political will to capture the market. If we don’t, another country will. The time is now.

Simon Crean is chairman of the Australia-Korea Business Council, and a former minister in the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Labor governments.

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