A group of energy sector heavyweights in Australia has announced plans to build a large-scale renewable hydrogen production, transportation, and export hub in the Hunter region of New South Wales, which might lead to the country’s first hydrogen electrolyser “gigafactory.”
The Hunter Hydrogen Network (H2N) project, managed by renewables advisory firm Energy Estate, intends to build the so-called “hydrogen valley” in collaboration with AGL Energy, APA Group, and ITM Power.
ITM Power, based in the United Kingdom, is working on a one-gigawatt-per-year electrolyser production plant in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, which will provide a design for a high-capacity, semi-automated PEM electrolyser that can be easily copied, according to the business.
ITM may build its planned Southern Hemisphere gigafactory in the Hunter, according to Energy Estate’s Simon Currie, maybe in Tomago – home to Australia’s largest aluminum smelter – or the Muswellbrook energy, training, and industry zone, where an existing coal mine is being transformed as a sustainable industrial hub.
The first part of the project, which runs from this year until 2024, will help more renewables come online in the region by installing electrolysers in strategic locations such as Muswellbrook, according to Currie.
The H2N’s first stage would include the construction of a hydrogen pipeline from Muswellbrook to Liddell, as well as accompanying infrastructure for hydrogen fuels, transport, and green chemical mining.
Stage two, which would take place between 2022 and 2026, would see the development of an electrolyser at Muswellbrook continue as well as the construction of another at the AGL Energy-owned Liddell coal-fired power station, which is set to start its phased shutdown process in early 2023.
Stage two would also aim to build a hydrogen pipeline from Liddell to Newcastle, as well as a hydrogen gas power station, or gas speaker, the viability of which would be investigated during phase one, according to Currie.
The export of renewable hydrogen from the region would be the focus of a third stage of development, which would include the construction of port infrastructure as well as export and “bunker” facilities in the Lower Hunter.
H2N is anticipated to help Idemitsu repurpose its Muswellbrook coal mine as a clean industrial hub with pumped hydro, solar, battery storage, training facilities, and a new manufacturing district, with the support of Beyond Zero Emissions.
The Walcha Energy Project, which plans to develop around 3,400MW of wind production capacity, up to 700MW of solar, and several 500MW/3000MWh pumped hydro energy storage facilities between Walcha and Uralla and connect it directly to the Hunter through WalchaLink, builds on Energy Estate’s previous projects in the region.
The wide plan is the latest in a wave of green and not-so-green hydrogen initiatives and policy announcements in Australia, including the federal Morrison government’s announcement last month of $275.5 million for the establishment of five “clean” hydrogen centers.
It also comes as a major global research document warns that a universal reliance on hydrogen-based fuels could sabotage – not help – the global climate effort by diverting attention away from the primary game of renewable electrification and locking in long-term fossil fuel dependency.
The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in the Netherlands concluded that while renewable hydrogen would play a vital part in a low-carbon future, its production was too inefficient, costly, and uncertain to replace fossil fuels on a large scale.
Currie told RenewEconomy that the H2N’s ideas were entirely sustainable, and that they centered on how the group of enterprises might work together to “unlock the Upper Hunter,” rather than just use it as a power storage facility.
“This is not about using the coal [in the Hunter], it’s about the infrastructure you can build [around] what is already there and using the really skilled power sector workers in the Upper Hunter,”Currie
Currie said the project was also exploring a number of practical use cases for using renewable hydrogen in the region, including the conversion of a coal locomotive to hydrogen-fuel and the manufacture of renewable hydrogen tractors.
“Let’s stop having airy-fairy discussions about renewable hydrogen and let’s start talking about ‘this is how we’re going to be applying it’,”Currie