Hydrogen: the green superfuel

DoC staff fire up the hydrogen-powered barbecue. Excess power from wind turbines and solar panels was used to produce the hydrogen.
DoC staff fire up the hydrogen-powered barbecue. Excess power from wind turbines and solar panels was used to produce the hydrogen.

Clean technology: New Zealand hydrogen pilot scheme with clean energy applications for remote communities set to wow the world.

The head of a groundbreaking New Zealand clean energy experiment will present his findings to the world at October's All Energy Australia 2013 expo. Alister Gardiner, from Callaghan Innovation, will showcase his hydrogen energy pilot programme at the clean energy conference and expo - an annual gathering of thousands of renewable energy experts and interested parties. Gardiner's pilot could eventually benefit thousands of isolated New Zealand and Australian communities and South Pacific islands.

Gardiner says he was originally interested in developing fuel cells for transport applications but soon realised the highest energy costs were in isolated areas. "This is where they currently use diesel and LPG for everything and both of those emit highly undesirable pollutants including greenhouse gases," he says.

Last November, Gardiner and his team deployed a small hydrogen production system on a wildlife reserve in Wellington Harbour and the results have been remarkable. Designed specifically to capitalise upon surplus renewable electricity produced from wind and solar PV, the pilot program has shown just how effective and efficient hydrogen is.

"Although we have only used the system in Wellington Harbour intermittently, it has produced more than enough hydrogen to power the heating of water and cooking requirements in a typical energy efficient home.

"Operating the equipment less than half the time, it has produced 800 kilowatt hours of hydrogen.

"The technology is scalable and could quite easily be used as the sole source of water heating and cooking for small communities such as those in outback Australia and on islands in New Zealand and throughout the South Pacific," Mr Gardiner says.

He says modelling shows the costs of producing hydrogen are comparable to the use of diesel and LPG, making it immediately viable after manufacturing scale up.

Mr Gardiner says that before obtaining the most recent results, his team had already proven how useful hydrogen production could be by positioning a small demonstration plant in Totara Valley in remote Wairarapa on New Zealand's North Island.

"It is really great news that could, in time, do away with the need for dirty fuels to power remote communities.

"There is no doubt in my mind that it is cost effective. If we had any qualms that it would cost more we wouldn't be talking about it. Put simply, it doesn't. The last six months have proven beyond doubt that it is a practical alternative to combustion fuels.

"What we are discussing here is a paradigm shift in thinking about remote energy use. Combined heat and power (CHP) generally uses fossil fuels to produce heat and electricity and in this case we are using surplus electricity to produce clean fuel for heating water and cooking," Mr Gardiner says.

He says hydrogen is set to play a far greater role in both Australia and New Zealand. Gardiner talked about using hydrogen as "a clean means of cooking snags or king prawns on a barbecue. They taste just as good but they don't have any down side when it comes to polluting the environment. How good is that?"

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