Australia’s hydrogen energy future has been given a substantial boost with the recent opening of ATCO’s $3.6 million Clean Energy Innovation Hub.
By Nichola Davies
ATCO’s Clean Energy Innovation Hub in Jandakot, Western Australia, is a state-of-the-art facility that will investigate the potential role of hydrogen on the future energy mix, effectively acting as a gas-enabled microgrid.
The Hub comprises more than 1000 solar panels, which, coupled with battery technology, provides sufficient energy to power the Jandakot operations centre 24 hours a day.
Excess energy produced from the PV system charges the batteries located on site and upon the batteries being charged, the excess solar runs the electrolyser, splitting water into its individual elements: hydrogen and oxygen.
Oxygen is released into the atmosphere and the hydrogen is stored.
“This process effectively ‘converts’ the excess solar energy to hydrogen, enabling it to be stored and used in various gas appliances and run through a fuel cell which can then generate electricity when required,” ATCO Gas Division president Stevan Green said.
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The Hub was launched in July this year, and at the launch was Minister for Energy Hon Bill Johnston MLA and Minister for Regional Development and Chair of the Renewable Hydrogen Council Hon Alannah MacTiernan MLC. Also in attendance was Western Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken, and ATCO’s Chair and Chief Executive Officer Nancy Southern.
Since the launch, green hydrogen has been produced and stored for use on site, and detailed work has commenced on the blending methodology and process, as well as work with Energy Safety on appropriate standards and approvals framework.
“ATCO believes the natural gas distribution network has an important ongoing role to play in the future energy mix,” Mr Green said.
“The Clean Energy Innovation Hub draws on ATCO’s established expertise in natural gas as we work to transition the network to a potential future energy mix, which may include a blend of natural gas, biogas or hydrogen.
“The creation of green hydrogen, with zero emissions, to be used for energy is a real possibility, and blending with natural gas (initially in amounts up to 20 per cent) can also reduce the carbon footprint of the natural gas network.
“There are certainly a number of challenges to be overcome along the way, including ensuring hydrogen is an economically viable, but our Clean Energy Innovation Hub is a significant step in what we hope will be a successful journey to a lower carbon future.
“The data from the Hub will provide technical insights into how hydrogen can be used for direct consumption and act as a future balancing fuel to complement the intermittent nature of renewable energy technology.”
From scoping in early 2018 through to the launch of the Clean Energy Innovation Hub took around 18 months. In mid-2018 project secured $1.6 million in funding from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) as part of its Advancing Renewables Program. From thereon, it took a year to complete.
Mr Green said the project didn’t face any significant challenges, but under current regulatory frameworks, “energy network and energy services businesses like ATCO face potential regulatory barriers to participating in innovative energy solutions”.
“ATCO welcomes the opportunity to work with policy makers to transition regulatory frameworks to keep pace with the current rate of change and ensure the market is incentivised to continue to innovate,” Mr Green said.
“Some of the safety and technical challenges that will be tackled by the project include optimising hydrogen storage and distribution solutions, blending hydrogen with natural gas, using hydrogen as direct use fuel and hydrogen for electricity balancing.”
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As well as the Clean Energy Innovation Hub, on site is the ‘Six Season Garden’ and ATCO’s new training centre.
“ATCO’s Six Season Garden is based on the six seasons in the Nyoongar culture and has been designed by Nyoongar woman, Denice Kickett, in consultation with local Elders and with ATCO’s support,” Mr Green said.
“As well as meaning ‘Spirit of the Land’, the chosen name – ‘Muminbulah Wilak – is significant to Denice in that it was the name given to her by her grandparents.
“ATCO is very proud of its Six Season Garden, and uses the garden as a tool to educate our staff and visitors on the Nyoongar culture and further understand the Six Seasons. The Garden is divided into the six seasons showing planting groups used at various times of the year.
“Also outlined is a map of all 14 Nyoongar language groups of the southwest, coupled with the major towns where ATCO has a presence, including Kalgoorlie albeit sitting outside the southwest.
“The water feature shows the importance of water in Nyoongar culture and how communication then has a ripple and flow effect.
“We intend to use some of the plants within the Garden in our Blue Flame Kitchen program, which educates primary school children about natural gas safety, healthy eating and cooking.”
The training centre features ‘ATCO Avenue’, a mock street that provides real life, hands-on experiences for employees and trainees. ATCO currently has nine trainees working towards a Certificate III in Gas Supply Industry Operations, as well as an additional 16 mature employees undertaking formal training at the centre.
As ATCO works through the various opportunities it sees for the hydrogen they are generating, Mr Green said the company is also looking at how to scale this project to start delivering commercial-sized hydrogen outputs.
“[The Hub] positions ATCO at the forefront of energy research incorporating the production, storage and use of hydrogen, as well as the realisation of benefits including affordable, secure and low-carbon energy from commercial hybrid micro-grid systems,” Mr Green said.