A transition to renewable, zero emissions hydrogen for powering transport is in the “natural order of things”, according to chief executive of H2U – The Hydrogen Utility Dr Attilio Pigneri.

Dr Pigneri’s company is currently working with local councils in Melbourne to develop Australia’s first fleet-scale hydrogen refuelling stations.

He told The Fifth Estate now that renewable technologies such as solar and wind power have established themselves as the lowest cost option for increasing power generation capacity, there are clear opportunities to bring these cost benefits beyond just the electricity sector.

That includes using them to power electrolysers to generate hydrogen for fuel cells.

Attilio Pigneri

Already Hyundai and Toyota have a hydrogen-powered car on the market, and Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen and GM are also working in the space, he said.

In commercial and heavy vehicle applications the fuel technology is at the point where it can deliver for heavier applications such as trucks and match or exceed the payload, range and performance delivered by diesel.

In addition to using solar or wind capacity to power an electrolysis process that creates hydrogen, the fuel can also be derived from biomass and waste, Dr Pigneri said.

His company is focusing on fleet-based deployment of hydrogen refuelling stations to provide sustainable mobility and renewable energy integration solutions.

“We see ourselves as an energy service company.”

The offering is being structured as a service, and incorporates performance guarantees for the vehicles and guarantee of origin for the 100 per cent renewable fuel.

Dr Pigneri said the company was currently working with fleet operators to develop the proposition of commercial-scale refuelling and a broader adoption roadmap.

It is also focusing on developing the supply chain capabilities that can address what is potentially a very large market.

Already, a refuelling station project is on the books for Moreland Council in Melbourne.

The company is being supported by the South Australian government and Adelaide City Council to undertake a feasibility study into establishing SA’s first hydrogen refuelling station at Mile End.

The big picture plan is for an initial network of 14 stations nationally.

In other cities the company is working with councils on opportunities around waste and cleaning services and public transport authorities with buses.

The benefit is not only reduced emissions from the waste and cleaning transport fleets, but also noise reductions as the hydrogen powered trucks are quieter.

That makes for a “sweet spot”.

Dr Pigneri said the use of fuel cells in trucks was a “proven platform”, and expects these heavy applications will comprise 80 per cent of the eventual market for the fuel.

Tackling transport emissions a “natural progression”

It is similar to the kind of “natural progression” that has been seen in the building sector, where energy efficiency and concerns around emissions have led to improvements in energy performance and increased uptake of renewable energy.

“It is the natural order of things, once you start to address emissions through energy efficiency and renewables.”

The next logical step then becomes addressing transport emissions so the nation can meet its targets for decarbonisation.

He said there was a sense of excitement in the industry as key milestones were achieved.

They include the development of a standard nozzle design, and international standard on refuelling protocols.

There have been successful hydrogen-powered bus trials in London and San Francisco that Dr Pigneri said were “unique milestones” for the technology.

The trials showed the cells could deliver more than 25,000 hours of operation without needing servicing.

In southern Germany a hydrogen-powered train has been trialled by Alstom and will enter full passenger service from next year, and ferry projects are currently planned in San Francisco Bay and Norway.

“There are many more potential applications. We are really excited by the potential for the agriculture and resource sectors,” Dr Pigneri said.

“What’s really interesting is that since 2010 electrolysis manufacturers are working to megawatt scale designs.

“Megawatt scale is the beginning of the cost reduction curve.”

Costs for electrolyser technology could soon be 60 per cent of what it has been historically.

The process of fabricating stack materials for both electrolysers and fuel cells is essentially akin to “2D” manufacturing processes such as printing and textiles.

The potential for standardised processes and large-scale manufacture to drive significant cost reductions is substantial, Dr Pigneri said, not unlike what we have seen with the solar PV industry.

The momentum around hydrogen, which he will be presenting on at All-Energy Australia this week, is a “combination of the industry maturing and hydrogen being an integration technology that can benefit from renewables and create a new market”.

Australia in unique position

Australia is in a unique position with regard to the emerging hydrogen industry, he said.

We have some of the best renewable resources in the world and high energy prices, but we lack heavily subsidised infrastructure.

Dr Pigneri said while these early infrastructure roll out programs have helped the industry grow, it was also important to recognise the risk of being locked-in to a pattern of subsidised infrastructure with excess capacity.

That means a company like his can instead “work from a clean slate” in Australia in terms of competitiveness.

Australia then becomes the “perfect sandbox to establish business models that can be exported”, he said.

One of Australia’s key strengths is in technology deployment and commercialisation – and Dr Pigneri said that while we may not see the next Tesla grow from here, we have plenty of success stories from the recent past that we can certainly replicate, such as Transfield in the infrastructure services area or Multiplex in the tall buildings sector.

“Australia presents a unique opportunity.”