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How the water sector can engage with the hydrogen economy

An Ozwater’23 session grounded in technical detail but focused on implementable solutions looked at how the water and hydrogen sectors can overcome collaboration challenges to achieve synergy.

Fiona Simon, CEO of the Australian Hydrogen Council (AHC), kickstarted the discussion by contextualising water’s role in the hydrogen economy.

“At the start of last year, we set out to answer some key questions,” she said. “We were really keen to understand what volumes of water [are] required for different means of producing hydrogen and its derivatives, and how those volumes change by your water source, by treatment process.

“We wanted to fill in a matrix of different conditions [and] different water volumes so that we could scope the size of what the emerging hydrogen industry will be asking from the water sector.”

Simon said there is such a high level of water use in the hydrogen creation process that the two industries should no longer be considered as disparate bodies.

“To get one kilogram of hydrogen you need nine litres of water,” Simon explained. “Consider the additional water use for making liquid hydrogen and ammonia. When we make hydrogen out of electrolysis we’re creating gas. And to transport hydrogen you really do need to try to compress it as much as possible.

“You need to actually turn it into liquid hydrogen in some cases, which is a cryogenic temperature. There is a high cost to get a more dense energy.”

Matthew Vogt, Treatment Plant Growth Planning Manager at Yarra Valley Water, reflected on how the water industry’s long-term water supply objectives – such as increased efficiency, improved waterway health and more resilient agriculture – might align with or need to adapt to what the hydrogen industry requires.

The need for hydrogen plants to be located inland at some distance from coastal water sources, for instance, could prove a tension point to resolve.

“[And] what waste is going to be produced with all this treatment?” Vogt asked. “Do we need to start considering our supply impacts on waste as well?”

Asked if water entities acknowledge the potential surge of demand from the hydrogen industry and are sufficiently engaged across the process of securing water supplies, Vogt hesitated before responding.

“In some ways yes and in some ways no,” he said. “The sheer scale of hydrogen even across [Yarra Valley Water’s] areas of responsibility is significant.”

The environmental impacts of water’s role in hydrogen generation was front of mind for John Poon, Technical Director of Water at Aurecon and Kellie Charlesworth, Associate Principal at Arup.

The panel heard of how a hydrogen plant consumes 950GL of water a year, which Poon said was equivalent to “another Melbourne”.

“If you mapped the environmental sensitivity of some of those coastal ecosystems and marine ecosystems, you might get a fright,” he said. “The hydrogen does need to engage with the water industry – and probably the environmental industry, as well.”

Charlesworth added that “going into the future, social licence and environmental concerns… are going to become much more prominent”.

Opportunities for collaboration

For Karen Rouse, CEO of Water Research Australia, it is telling when a news story about a new hydrogen facility doesn’t mention water, and when assumptions are made about the availability of recycled water for hydrogen use.

“We need as an industry to make sure that within our organisations we have [collaborative] thinking,” she said. “There may be some short-term opportunities with recycled water in some jurisdictions, but in some [others] it’s already fully allocated for agriculture and other uses.

“There's an assumption that all recycled water is available for hydrogen, which is definitely not the case.”

Looking at collaboration opportunities between the two industries to harness the potential of the circular economy, Vogt said the obvious answer was co-location.

“Treatment plants have a use of oxygen and a plentiful supply of water,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to produce hydrogen.”

Rouse reflected this sentiment, saying that the potential synergies could extend ever further then seeing the issue as affecting just the two sectors.

“There's also the chemical industry,” she noted. “There’s the ability to… work in collaboration with the chemical industry, potentially to help with some of our supply chain challenges that we've had through COVID and then through extreme [weather] events,” she said.

The coupling of industries is an ongoing trend that shows no sign of slowing, Charlesworth added.

“Look at electrified transport or hydrogen transport,” she said. “It’s the same with water and energy getting even more coupled as [we] go forward.”