WA city aims to run on green hydrogen in the 'holy grail' of renewable energy transition

WA city aims to run on green hydrogen in the ‘holy grail’ of renewable energy transition

Hydrogen from renewable energy is being used for the first time to power an Australian city in a pioneering trial along the country’s sun-drenched west coast.

Horizon Power, the state-owned regional electricity supplier in Western Australia, has presented a pilot project in Denham, 820 kilometers north of Perth, which will convert electricity from a solar system into so-called green hydrogen.

From there, the hydrogen will be used to power a fuel cell that can generate enough electricity to power about 100 homes, or a quarter of the city’s needs.

Denham Hydrogen Plant is adjacent to the diesel generator plant. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

WA Energy Secretary Bill Johnston said the trial is a breakthrough for using hydrogen as a fuel, which could support renewable energy when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

He said such deep storage is the “holy grail” of the renewable energy transition, noting it could potentially be used to underpin power systems for days.

Aerial view of a solar park
Denham’s solar farm will power the hydrogen plant. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

In contrast, he said other forms of storage, such as batteries, are either ill-suited to long-term operation or, in the case of pumped hydro plants like Snowy 2.0, are not suited to flat landscapes like those in WA.

“It’s the first time in the world that we’re using hydrogen in a microgrid,” Johnston said.

“And this is the future of energy because it allows renewable energy storage to be deferred over a long period of time…which is 100 percent solid renewable.”

Reduction of diesel consumption

As part of the trial, the hydrogen fuel cell will be connected to Denham’s existing stand-alone power system, which includes a battery, a wind turbine and conventional diesel-powered equipment.

Aerial view of a wind farm
Denham’s wind turbines are part of the existing autonomous power system. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

When fully operational, Horizon said the hydrogen project should reduce the city’s diesel consumption by 140,000 liters per year.

State Minister for Hydrogen Industry Alannah MacTiernan said displacing diesel is a focus of the trial given the fuel’s skyrocketing cost and Australia’s complete reliance on imports for supplies.

Johnston and MacTiernan in high visibility handshake
WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston and Hydrogen Industry Minister Alannah MacTiernan say the process is a breakthrough.(ABC News: Chris Lewis )

“We import 6.7 billion liters of diesel into this state every year,” Ms. MacTiernan said.

“You just think of carbon footprint, our supply chain vulnerability, and the fact of the matter is we pack 6.7 billion liters of diesel into diesel trucks and drive thousands of miles across the state.

“We can start making serious progress on this dependency on diesel.”

“Enormous” complexity involved

The start of the Denham Trial comes amid widespread efforts by investors and governments around the world to find ways to produce zero-emissions hydrogen.

Projects being pursued domestically include a project in South Australia that will convert excess renewable energy into hydrogen before feeding it into the reticulated gas grid.

Queensland also has plans to produce green ammonia – a type of fertilizer – using hydrogen from clean energy sources.

Despite the hustle and bustle, doubts remain about how viable hydrogen will be as a fuel source given the current high production costs.

Hydrogen plant with signs saying horizon power, solar, wind, hydrogen, diesel, battery
Horizon Power’s new hydrogen plant in Denham. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

Horizon chief executive Stephanie Unwin acknowledged the dilemma, saying the Denham project shows the “vast” complexity of developing a system to run on hydrogen.

But Ms Unwin argued that only through such trials could production costs be reduced, making hydrogen more affordable compared to fossil fuels.

Additionally, she said Denham could provide a blueprint for the inclusion of green hydrogen in electricity systems elsewhere, starting in WA.

“There are so many places in WA where this is appropriate,” Ms Unwin said.

“WA has a tremendous competitive advantage in terms of our wind and solar resources. So it’s about finding those places and really working together.

“I’d like to see more and more of that.”

Locals welcome “Way of the Future”

Philip Wood, who owns and runs a marine electrical business in Denham and has lived in the city for 15 years, welcomed the $8 million investment by the state and federal government.

Mr Wood said there seemed little doubt that renewable energy was “the way of the future” and anything that could help with the transition was a good thing.

A medium shot of Phillip Wood wearing glasses and a blue collared shirt
Denham’s Phillip Wood has thrown his support behind the project. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

The 71-year-old said Denham’s reliance on diesel for both energy and transport is also a link that needs to be broken.

But like most locals, he said power reliability is seen as essential, especially given the city’s scorching heat for much of the year and vulnerability to hurricanes.

“Electricity is very important,” Mr Wood said.

“We don’t want to go back to the days of candles and Tilley lamps or anything like that.

“But it is good to have been selected as one of the pilot sites for renewable energy.

“It’s also good as a test to try and see how it stands up to cyclones and a few years on the clock.”

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