Energy executive Andrew Clennett predicts a bright future for Taranaki, and for New Zealand, if this region can successfully diversify to include hydrogen powered motor vehicles, using hydrogen as a fuel for industrial feedstocks, heat power storage or even exporting the most abundant chemical substance in the world.

By Neil Ritchie

The Hiringa Energy chief executive says a hydrogen ecosystem could harness the skills of both the country’s petroleum and renewable energy industries.

He adds that the country’s integrated economy – the North Island’s natural gas and power networks, as well as abundant natural resources – combines with New Zealand’s innovative culture to make this country well placed to commercialise hydrogen.

Perhaps the most well known of the myriad of uses for this very common element is hydrogen- powered vehicles  -- converting  the chemical energy of hydrogen to mechanical energy, either by burning hydrogen in internal combustion engines, or by having hydrogen react with oxygen in fuel cells to run electric vehicles.

His addresses to various groups so far have also included the progress of carbon capture and storage technology, global investments in hydrogen, and the potential for New Zealand to export the fuel.

Clennett, a former Todd Energy executive, formed Hiringa with his wife Catherine and three other energy professionals last year and the company has been working with businesses, including major New Plymouth-headquartered transport firm TIL Logistics Group, to identify potential markets for hydrogen.

TIL chief executive Alan Pearson, says the group is ready to embrace hydrogen as an alternative fuel. The company operates nationwide with a fleet of 1000 trucks, using a total of 32 million litres of diesel fuel a year and Pearson says there are significant cost savings if a hydrogen fuel cell truck can be driven 800km before being refuelled for about $120.

Hydrogen fuel can be produced primarily using natural gas but this requires the use of carbon capture and storage to reduce emissions.

The technology for the sequestration of carbon has already been developed overseas and applied by the upstream energy industry for hydrocarbon exploration and production.

Hydrogen can also be produced from renewable energy sources -- wind, solar, geothermal or hydro – via the national electricity grid -- using electrolysis.

Clennett says high upfront costs mean establishing hydrogen infrastructure requires the involvement of a Government “stimulus”. So it was good the Government last month announced it will grant $950,000 to Hiringa Energy and partners to help develop hydrogen fuel infrastructure in Taranaki. The funding will be used to scope the engineering and design of two hydrogen generation facilities, as well as up to four mobile compressed hydrogen storage and distribution containers, and up to three hydrogen refuelling stations.

This scoping means the first tanker of hydrogen fuel should be ready by early 2020. And Hiringa’s initial focus will be on commercial transport hubs, not retail.

While electric vehicles may be more suited to urban commuter environments and favoured by various governments, current predictions are that up to 30 per cent of the world's future energy needs could be met by hydrogen fuelled vehicles because these vehicles are more suitable for long range distribution than electric vehicles are. This suits Taranaki's isolated position, Clennett says.

He also notes that various pilot studies are being conducted around the world including in the Netherlands, Australia, Hong Kong, China, Japan, France, Germany, Norway and Canada. Such international developments are also helpful to New Zealand as it should adopt the most useful hydrogen technology available.

Globally car manufacturers Mercedes, BMW and Toyota intend spending $10 billion on hydrogen fuel cell research during the next five years. Toyota aims to produce 30,000 fuel cell vehicles a year by 2020.

In France and Scotland hydrogen fuel cell trains and passenger ferries are being built, while London and Aberdeen have established bus fleets running on hydrogen and China, Japan and South Korea are turning more to hydrogen to replace fossil fuels. Hydrogen fuel cells in small aircraft are being developed in Germany and United States.

However, the infrastructure uptake is slow. There are 15,000 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, and 40,000 outlets, in the United States alone compared to just 33 hydrogen refuelling stations, with 30 of these in California.
A 2007 report from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) says energy efficiency from hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure is "generally low".

The report adds that the development of a hydrogen economy and hydrogen-based transport fleet poses a number of infrastructural issues, such as moving the hydrogen from source to destination, and fitting a large number of conventional fuel stations with storage facilities and equipment to distribute the gas.

However, Clennett is not worried and says hydrogen is the "energy vector" able to connect "electricity, gas, molecules and electrons" together. It can be used for cooking and heating as well as transportation, railheads and bus hubs, industrial parks and the distribution of dairy product, he says.

Taranaki already has the skill set to handle the transformation from oil and gas to hydrogen through an established engineering, fabrication, health and safety workforce.

"We certainly think hydrogen is the fuel of the future that is ready to go now if you look at it as hydrogen and electric vehicles versus petrol and diesel, he adds, saying New Zealand could become ‘the Norway of the Pacific’, referring to Norway being a net exporter of energy (primarily oil and gas).

Clennett says the key issue to reach zero carbon emissions is to be able to capture the carbon before it goes into the atmosphere . . . “if we can achieve this with natural gas as a source of hydrogen that will be a good option.
"The solution to achieving fully sustainable zero emissions is to have renewable energy. Ultimately hydrogen may replace oil and gas but it will take some time. 

"So now is a very good time to start the industry in Taranaki and start also to generate hydrogen from renewable energy," Clennett concludes.