Identifying potential impacts of a hydrogen industry

Identifying potential social and environmental impacts of developing a large-scale hydrogen industry in Australia

Project duration: September 2021 to June 2022

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Understanding causal networks to explore potential social and environmental impacts of hydrogen energy production at scale 

The Challenge

Hydrogen has been identified as a key energy source in Australia’s transition to a low emissions future. Additionally, Australia’s strong potential for large-scale hydrogen production, thanks to its vast renewable resources including solar energy, makes it well-positioned to be a world leader in hydrogen exports.  

Producing, transporting and consuming hydrogen will, however, require new infrastructure (plants, pipelines, roads, solar farms, etc.) to be built. It will also require access to water and electricity where this infrastructure may not already exist. New infrastructure, such as hydrogen production plants, solar farms, roads or pipe networks, may create positive opportunities such as, for example, employment, but may also negatively affect environmental and social assets. For instance, native vegetation clearing, noise and light pollution and changes in property values could result. Therefore, decision-making around hydrogen production at scale must account for any environmental and social impacts that may arise well before any infrastructure development takes place.   

While evidence-based risk assessments are a standard part of any planning process, a challenge exists in integrating both environmental and social impacts as a single, consistent framework. This framework would ensure that both decision makers and the public can verify that the hydrogen can be produced, stored and consumed in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. 

Our Response 

The Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform has partnered with CSIRO’s Land and Water and Energy business units and the Hydrogen Industry Mission to better understand the social and environmental impacts of a hydrogen industry.  

This project will use a ‘systems thinking’ approach to build a framework for decision-making around development and infrastructure. That is, researchers will identify activities associated with the production, storage, transport and use of hydrogen and will map them to any flow-on social and environmental impacts.  

The research team will utilise existing research on social and environmental impacts, from, for example, the Hydrogen FSP. Insights gathered from interviews with domain experts will also be used to complement this data. These will be fed into a type of model called a ‘causal network’ which can be used to visualise the relationships and their interconnectedness.  

The network will enable end-users to, for example, understand the effect one impact might have on another asset. For instance, the spatial footprint of a hydrogen production plant might be relatively small, but the spatial footprint of a solar farm producing renewable electricity for the hydrogen plant may be much larger and require native vegetation or farmland to be cleared. This in turn might affect social and environmental assets, such as a protected bird species or the local economy. Modelling these relationships will allow the research team to assess which activities may be of concern to which assets and to identify which geographic areas may be affected. 

Impact

Identifying causal pathways of potential impacts associated with a future hydrogen industry has many potential benefits. It could help guide social and environmental impact assessments for the hydrogen industry, increase transparency of the approval process and help ensure that Australia can develop a sustainable, socially and environmentally responsible hydrogen industry. 

While the primary goal of this project is to increase our understanding of social and environmental risks associated with a large-scale hydrogen industry, it will also contribute to the  further development and refinement of CSIRO’s capability in the integrated assessments of future energy technologies and developments at scale, positioning CSIRO as a lead in the practice of integrated risk assessment using causal networks. 

Team

Luk PeetersYuwan MalakarAndrea WaltonDan O’SullivanKaren Kozielski, Patrick Hartley 

References

Geological and Bioregional Assessments (example of environmental risk assessment with spatial causal networks): https://gba-explorer.bioregionalassessments.gov.au/