Various companies are investigating green hydrogen, which has the potential to generate jobs and absorb excess electricity production if the Tiwai Pt aluminium smelter closes in 2024 as planned.
Fortescue, a giant Australian mining company, began courting the government over hydrogen more than a year ago, according to emails released under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to a government official who wrote in July of last year, “they plan to start producing hydrogen in 2023.”
“Design and consenting for H2 plant… by 2025,” says another note, which raises the possibility that the plant will consume “600MW” of electricity, which would be a bit more than the smelter has been contracted to provide.
In the emails, it is revealed that Fortescue has met or spoken with Energy Minister Megan Woods, officials from the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment and the Department of Conservation, as well as representatives from Meridian Energy and Transpower.
The company told the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that it was “rapidly developing plans” for Southland.
In an email sent out last October, Woods’ office stated that Fortescue was “quite advanced with plans for Tiwai for hydrogen production.”
Initially, her office stated that the company had requested to be contacted by the government’s Just Transitions Unit, but a later note stated that “Just Transitions cannot assist.”
When questioned by RNZ about the projected completion dates of 2023 and 2025, Fortescue responded, “Timing is dependent on obtaining the necessary consents and approvals in New Zealand, as well as investment approval from the Fortescue board of directors.”
Officials connected the company with the Environment Ministry’s fast-track consenting implementation team, which expedited the approval process.
Fortescue sought another meeting with Minister Woods for its Fortescue Future Industries chief executive Julie Shuttleworth in an email sent three months ago.
This followed inquiries from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in March regarding commercial models for electricity supply that would support hydrogen production.
Several documents, including an email, indicate that the company is offering “support of the battery project,” and other documents mention testing large battery technology in trucks.
Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced through the use of renewable electricity, and it is still considered an experimental technology with uncertain market prospects.
Two major power companies, Contact and Meridian, have announced that they are looking for partners to investigate the possibility of constructing a plant in the Southland region.
As far as international interest is concerned, Meridian describes it as “high quality.”
As a result of threats from the smelter’s owner, Rio Tinto, that the facility would close if no agreement was reached, the power company has entered into numerous agreements to provide cheap electricity to the facility, the most recent of which was signed earlier this year.
In Iceland, Rio Tinto has implemented a similar strategy.
Despite rising aluminum prices helping Tiwai to post a record half-year profit this week – as well as a $9 billion dividend payout to shareholders – the threat remains at the company.
The emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that officials were unsure about Fortescue’s interactions with Rio.
It had been in discussions with the Murihiku Regeneration Programme, which was run by a group of local iwi. It was decided that the iwi would not comment on the discussions.
Aboriginal groups have recently accused the miner of violating laws protecting sacred sites, which the miner denies.
As stated by a company spokesperson, Fortescue’s positive impact on Aboriginal people and communities in Australia “has been long, proud, and widely recognized for many years”.
“At all times, Fortescue’s primary goal is to work in a manner that is respectful of cultural heritage.”
For the past decade, Fortescue has worked to avoid and protect approximately 6000 Aboriginal heritage sites in consultation with traditional custodians.