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Stay open to future technologies, energy executives told

By Gavin Evans

Nov. 1 (BusinessDesk) - Rapidly evolving technologies may deliver household energy options in coming decades that can barely be imagined, a conference of industry executives heard yesterday.

While large-scale generation and residential lines networks may be around for a long time to come, they may no longer be “necessary” for a growing part of the community, sustainable development specialist Rod Eddy said.

Rather than continuing to “build what we know”, he urged the industry to be open to genuinely new options, and to look beyond even relatively new technologies like solar panels and lithium-ion batteries.

Technologies will keep evolving, he said, and a novel, “user-friendly” solution developed for rapidly urbanising developing countries could take off at scale and quickly spread globally.

“Don’t rely on the status quo,” he told delegates to the Asia-Pacific Energy Leaders' Summit hosted by the BusinessNZ Energy Council in Wellington.

“Who says solar will be the answer for tomorrow?”

Electricity providers globally are adapting to the rapid expansion of solar and the development of large-scale, often remote wind and solar generation sites as countries seek lower-emission alternatives to coal and oil-fired generation.

Delegates heard that rapidly falling solar and battery costs could have 40 percent of Australia’s generation capacity “behind the meter” by 2030 and that globally, investment in that technology could reach US$2 trillion by 2050.

But they also heard that in Australia, which still makes more than 70 percent of its electricity with coal, using renewable energy to make zero-emission hydrogen may be 40 percent cheaper than an all-electric solution for decarbonising home heating, industry and heavy transport.

Eddy’s firm does most of its work overseas, developing renewable energy schemes, often with the latest battery storage and cloud-based management systems.

He noted that in New Zealand, many new farms would find it cheaper to have their own generation and batteries installed rather building a line to connect to the local network.

Urban households could also make that choice today given the “plug and play” options that are available. And those options also include domestic-scale wind, he said, which would have an advantage over solar in meeting the winter and night-time load peaks that network companies in this country typically face.

“We all want to be independent and energy secure and the technology is there to let us do that,” he said during a panel discussion on future role of networked energy supply versus decentralised supply.

Eddy said the two may coexist for a long time, but there is no reason that should remain forever. That may come down to the choices individual households, communities and industries make.

“It’s very easy to do it today,” he said. “It could happen very, very quickly or it may not happen at all.”

Vikram Singh is leading low-carbon initiatives at Australian Gas Infrastructure Group, a major gas pipeline operator. The company is embarking on a 750-home hydrogen trial in the Adelaide suburb of Tonsley.

The Hydrogen Park project features a 1.25 MW electrolyser to split hydrogen from water using grid-supplied renewable power. That hydrogen will then be delivered as a 5 percent blend in the town’s existing natural gas pipeline network. Singh noted that existing gas appliances can accommodate a 10-15 percent blend.

While the trial, due to start in a year’s time, will reduce emissions from domestic gas use, its main purpose is to kick-start a 30-year programme to develop a major hydrogen industry for local and export use.

Future stages of development would include establishing a 10 percent hydrogen blend in the gas supplies of some regional towns and then taking that state-wide.

Singh said hydrogen presents a huge opportunity for Australia, given the scope for large-scale solar and wind, which can in-turn be drawn on at times when production is high but other demand is low.

Being able to use off-peak renewables to make hydrogen is a key reason for the cost advantage over large-scale electrification of transport and industry, he said.

But the biggest cost advantage comes from transforming the existing natural gas system for hydrogen rather than investing huge sums to expand the electricity grid.

Pure hydrogen cannot be moved in steel high-pressure mains, he conceded, but the distribution network, which increasingly uses polyethylene pipe, is fine.

Singh said the scaled ramp-up of hydrogen would ensure consumers could retain the option of having gas, and all the convenience it provides for heating, water heating and cooking, while also offering bigger emissions gains in renewable transport and as an exportable renewable fuel.



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