Hydrogen can be a key energy source in a zero-emissions future

By Pat Burke Executive General Manager, Asset Services

There is no doubt that the power generation industry is the most disrupted of all industries. The unholy trinity of climate change, perceived soaring energy prices, and legislative uncertainty underlined by an ageing workforce, increasing activism and changing market fundamentals have combined to create a sector facing considerable uncertainty.


Many traditional energy sources are becoming unsustainable, not to mention unpopular among a growing section of the population.

The energy market is changing quicker than most expected. There are also conflicting views on which decarbonisation technologies will most likely progress, and what the current status and development roadmap of those technologies actually looks like.

One clear fact is that the journey to a zero-emissions future is both unavoidable and also fraught with unexpected challenges and risks.

I believe hydrogen is a key part of this zero-emissions future. As a fuel source, it is an obvious solution for large-scale, seasonal power generation.

But it is also only one part of the jigsaw puzzle. It is likely the world will always have a multi-fuelled environment, as we do now, where each energy source or fuel has its part to play.

On a recent visit to Japan I was lucky enough to visit the Osaki Cool Gen project, which uses coal gasification to produce hydrogen and runs it through a gas turbine. It also has a carbon capture plant installed to account for the CO2 produced during the gasification stage. It was a clear example of the advancements being made in the development of these new technologies.

I also saw advances in retrofitting existing plant to better cope with changed operating parameters, improve efficiency, reduce emissions or even convert gas turbines to handle hydrogen.

These technologies are directly applicable to Australia’s power generation fleet and would result in considerable reductions in emissions.

I can see a future where hydrogen is a key contributor to global energy production. But there is a long way to go before that vision becomes a reality.

Much research and development is still required to enable hydrogen to be cost-effectively produced in high enough volumes by renewable energy sources and be truly emissions-free.

We must develop our own roadmap of how we responsibly transition from our existing power generation infrastructure to a new world of true carbon neutrality. Investing in pilots and trials to create capability and develop technology is crucial.

And, perhaps most importantly, we need to convince a sceptical public it can be safely stored, and used in their cars and in public transport.

For Downer, a move towards hydrogen energy would also present many opportunities. We have a strong reputation for the provision of safe and reliable operational services across a diversified range of commodities and our core capabilities can be adapted to new technologies. Our connections with government and academia, across industry and public infrastructure, as well as our strong network with technology partners, including Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, put us in a unique position to partner with our customers to help them move toward a zero-emissions future.

I don’t doubt hydrogen can be a solution to meet our Paris Agreement targets – which is to limit global warming to under two degrees by the end of the century. But we need to develop, trial and implement some of the required technologies in parallel for this to happen. We cannot wait until the whole technology is perfect and we may need to consider using fossil fuels, combined with carbon capture technology, to create hydrogen until such time as the requisite technologies are viable.

In November, Downer’s Asset Services business partnered with Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Japan to host the Future Energy Forum in Brisbane, bringing together global power generation delegates to discuss challenges facing the power generation industry, and potential solutions such as hydrogen.