Hydrogen made from renewable energy will be used to help power an Australian city for the first time in a landmark trial along the country’s sunny west coast.

Horizon Power, Western Australia’s regional power utility, has unveiled a pilot project that will convert electricity from a solar power plant to make so-called green hydrogen in Denham, 820 kilometers north of Perth.

From there, the hydrogen will be used to power a fuel cell capable of producing enough electricity to power around 100 homes, or a quarter of the city’s demand.

The Denham Hydrogen Plant is right next to the Diesel Generator Plant. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston said the trial was a breakthrough for using hydrogen as a fuel that could back up renewable energy when the wind wasn’t blowing or the sun wasn’t shining not.

He said such deep storage was the “holy grail” of the shift to renewables, noting it could potentially be used to sustain power systems for days at a time.

Aerial view of a solar farm
Denham’s solar farm will power the hydrogen plant. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

In contrast, he said other forms of storage such as batteries were either ill-equipped to operate for long periods of time or, in the case of pumped hydro such as Snowy 2.0, are not suitable for flat landscapes like those of WA.

“This is the first time in the world that we’ve used hydrogen in a microgrid,” Johnston said.

“And that’s the future of energy because it allows the storage of renewable energy over a long period of time to transition to… what’s called 100% firm renewable energy.”

Reduce the use of diesel

As part of the trial, the hydrogen fuel cell will be hooked up to Denham’s existing self-contained power system, which includes a battery, wind turbine and conventional diesel power plant.

Aerial view of a wind farm
Denham’s wind turbines are part of its existing stand-alone power system. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

When fully operational, Horizon said the hydrogen project is expected to reduce diesel use in the city by 140,000 liters per year.

The state’s hydrogen industry minister, Alannah MacTiernan, said switching from diesel was a focus of the trial, given the skyrocketing cost of fuel and the complete reliance on Australia in respect of imports for supply.

Johnston and MacTiernan in high visibility shake hands
WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston and Hydrogen Industry Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the trial was a breakthrough.(ABC News: Chris Lewis )

“We import 6.7 billion gallons of diesel into this state every year,” Ms. MacTiernan said.

“You just think of that from the carbon footprint, from the vulnerability of our supply chain, and the fact is that we put these 6.7 billion liters of diesel in diesel trucks and drive them on thousands miles across the state.

“We can start to make some serious inroads into this reliance on diesel.”

“Enormous” complexity involved

The start of the Denham trial comes amid widespread efforts by investors and governments around the world to find ways to produce hydrogen without generating emissions.

Among those pursued at the national level is a project in South Australia to transform surplus renewable energy into hydrogen before injecting it into the reticulated gas network.

There are also plans in Queensland to produce green ammonia – a type of fertilizer – using hydrogen made from clean energy sources.

Despite the boom in activity, doubts remain about the viability of hydrogen as a fuel source given the current high production costs.

Hydrogen plant with signs that say horizon power, solar, wind, hydrogen, diesel, battery
Horizon Power’s new hydrogen plant in Denham. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

Horizon chief executive Stephanie Unwin acknowledged the dilemma, saying the Denham project showed the “enormous” complexity of designing a hydrogen-powered system.

But Ms Unwin argued that it is only through such trials that production costs could be reduced to make hydrogen more affordable compared to fossil fuels.

Additionally, she said Denham could provide a blueprint for the adoption of green hydrogen in power systems elsewhere, starting with WA.

“There are so many places in WA where it fits,” Ms Unwin said.

“WA has a huge competitive advantage in terms of wind and solar resources, so it’s about finding those places and making it work together.

“I would like to see more and more.”

Residents hail ‘way of the future’

Philip Wood, who owns and runs a marine power business in Denham and has lived in the town for 15 years, welcomed the $8 million investment by the state and federal governments.

Mr Wood said there was no doubt that renewables were “the way of the future” and that anything that helped with the transition was a good thing.

Mid shot of Phillip Wood wearing glasses and a blue collared shirt
Phillip Wood, a resident of Denham, lent his support to the project. (ABC News: Chris Lewis )

The 71-year-old said Denham’s reliance on diesel for power as well as transport was also a bond that should be severed.

But like most residents, he said reliable power supply was seen as essential, especially given the city’s scorching heat for much of the year and vulnerability to cyclones.

“Electricity is very important,” Mr. Wood said.

“We don’t want to go back to the days of candles and Tilley lamps or anything like that.

“But it’s good to be chosen as one of the places to test renewable energy.

“It’s also good as a trial, to test it and see how it will withstand cyclones and a few years under its belt.”