Green hydrogen key part of process

University of Otago professor Sally Brooker. Photo: File

GREEN HYDROGEN has been touted as a clean future opportunity for the Southland economy, but while it might not be the complete answer to decarbonisation, it has been called an enabling commodity.

With a renewable energy source ready to be used after the planned closure of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter in 2024, there has been much attention on what can be done with it.

Establishing a green hydrogen facility is one of the projects being investigated by multiple groups.

Ngai Tahu ki Murihiku and Fortescue Future Industries was one.

Fortescue chairman and founder Dr Andrew Forrest explained it was a zero emissions, zero pollution production.

His views were outlined at a Murihiku Regeneration Science and Innovation Wanaga in Invercargill last week, via a pre-recorded message as he was at the COP26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.

Dr Forrest spoke of work under way in Australia, which included green hydrogen and green ammonia projects.

It was an idea of conversion for decarbonisation: the company announced recently it would be the first to convert a ship to run almost entirely on green ammonia in a year.

Southland could be at the forefront of a great green energy industrial revolution, and that global revolution began locally, he said.

Cars, planes, ships, factories, farming and rail could all be converted for decarbonisation, and it could be exported.

The partnership would encourage local vision, and he explained the relationship with Ngai Tahu would mean vocational training centres be created for people to learn specific skills.

Fortescue director Felicity Underhill took questions via livestream, but not before giving a shout-out to her Invercargill father.

For New Zealand, the hydrogen produced here would be some of the greenest in the world with a low carbon footprint, as opposed to other projects that produced hydrogen from coal and natural gas or by planting trees to offset emissions, she said.

“There’s actually more emissions from that.”

Having noted the relationship between greenhouse gases and climate change with decarbonisation, University of Otago professor Sally Brooker explained how New Zealand was in a better position than most.

Globally, more than 80% of energy came from coal, natural gas and oil. New Zealand runs on 40% renewables.

“We need to do much better than that again… even before we think of exports there is a lot to tidy up in our own backyard.”

With hydrogen, when produced and then burned, you get water back again a cycle as close to zero carbon as you could get, she said.

Some things would need different energy sources again, such as long-duration flights that may need to run on synthetic aviation fuel, possibly from biofuel or synthetic fuel bases.

“But interestingly, green hydrogen needs to be part of that process as well.”

Its use for decarbonisation was key.

“Its an enabling chemical, it’s a central commodity.”

By 2050, it was expected hydrogen would contribute to 10% of global energy use, up from 7% now. The issue now, was that about 98% of that 7% was “brown” hydrogen, made using fossil fuels with a high carbon footprint.

How much water was needed? Modest amounts, she said. One kilogram of hydrogen produced would require about 18l of water.

Prof Brooker leads the New Zealand team in the German-NZ Green Hydrogen alliance.

A research centre was to be set up at the University of Otago to be used as a hub.

With numerous projects under way in New Zealand, Prof Brooker understood the need for some eggs to be laid first.

“I’m very excited we might get some hydrogen being produced down this way soon.”

Meridian Energy and Contact Energy also wanted to establish a large scale but low-cost green hydrogen facility at Tiwai Point: the largest facility at present was in Fukushima at 10MW, while the one they envisioned would sit at 600MW.

Contact Energy strategy general manager James Flannery, explained a 600MW from electrolyser to ammonia plant would cost $2 billion.

From July this year the companies had put out a registration of interest, by September completed a three-part study and in December a request for proposal issues to a shortlist from the partner interest register. This had been reduced from 80 down to 10, which was set to go down to five companies.

By late 2023, there would be a final investment decision and a target of 2025 was set for trial production.

“When the smelter announced closure last year, we had a lot of parties say, ‘let  the power go north’… ultimately that would mean the economy shrinks.”

For domestic decarbonisation, it looked first of all at fertiliser production and heavy transport.

When asked why there were two processes happening simultaneously, with Southern Green Hydrogen on one hand and Murihiku Regeneration with Fortescue on the other, Mr Waipara said he felt competition was good.

“When it comes to Ngai Tahu, that creates an interesting dynamic… at the moment we have someone from Ngai Tahu holdings sitting in our project.”

The end game was to work on the same team together, he said.

Upoko o Awarua Ta (Sir) Tipene O’Regan said, while Ngai Tahu had many friends, it did not have an exclusive arrangement with Fortescue, but said its relationship was productive.

“They made a very intelligent bid for our attention rather more promptly than New Zealand entities.”