Fuel for thought: understanding public acceptance around hydrogen

Hydrogen has been tapped as the 'fuel of the future' in Australia's transition to a clean energy future. But as with any technology, public acceptance will be required for it to be adopted. We speak to Mitch Scovell about his research into hydrogen.

Tell us about your research background.

I’ve always been interested in trying to understand how people think and behave to solve practical problems. My PhD research looked at the psychology behind cyclone preparedness, as in, why some people prepare for cyclones and others do not.

RI FSP researcher Mitch Scovell.

How does that relate to your current research?

It’s something I’ve been able to extend to my current research in understanding public acceptance around hydrogen technology. The research looked how the various beliefs we have about objects in the world (people, new technologies, extreme weather events) shapes our attitude towards it and, in turn, our behaviour.

Tell us about how your current research in investigating public attitudes around hydrogen.

Perhaps surprisingly, researchers have been interested in the public acceptance of hydrogen energy for many years now. But it’s only recently that the focus has shifted to trying to explain acceptance, especially using psychological theories. In a new paper I summarise what we do know based on this more recent explanation-focused research, some gaps in our knowledge and some recommendations for future research. One major gap is that few studies have looked at how people think about more large-scale hydrogen technologies like production facilities, and storage and transport infrastructure. Such large-scale technologies are important for the development of new hydrogen industry. 

What motivates you as a researcher in working in responsible innovation?

I think responsible innovation is an area of research that will become increasing important. I’m generally quite interested in new technologies, and the innovation process in general, so it’s exciting to think that our research may help future technologies to be developed and deployed in ways that provide positive social outcomes for all Australians. One area of research I’m really interested in now is new ways of understanding how people form attitudes and how this knowledge can be used to better understand and predict human behaviour.

Can you tell us what is unique about Australia in considering a future hydrogen industry? How might that impact public acceptance?

I think one thing we must be particularly mindful of in Australia is water use. Water is needed to make hydrogen and if we end up producing a lot of hydrogen, we may need a lot of water. Australia consistently struggles with droughts, and we already have a lot of competing demands for water. So I think it is important to investigate the extent to which public concerns about water influence public acceptance of hydrogen in general.

What other enablers or barriers to the adoption of hydrogen have you discovered through the course of your research?

Last year I spoke with about 30 people living in Brisbane. Basically, I wanted to get an initial understanding of how people think about the main components of the hydrogen supply chain: production, storage, transport and application. People were, generally, quite supportive of a new hydrogen industry as new economic opportunity for Australia. But they expressed some concerns about the efficiency of using hydrogen energy (particularly when it can be tricky to store and transport) and whether it will live up to the hype.

It sounds like there is a lot of existing public knowledge out there around hydrogen despite it being relatively new. How about the ‘colour’ of hydrogen? Is this a determining factor for public acceptance?

I think how we make hydrogen will be important for shaping public acceptance. Each method seems to have advantages and disadvantages which may be valued more or less depending on the individual. I think we need to understand a bit more about why some methods might be preferred over others and the extent to which people value the outcomes associated with each production method (energy price, carbon emissions, environmental impacts.)

I think it’s important to acknowledge that hydrogen is still an emerging industry, which must throw up some challenges in terms of your research. Do you think further research will need to be undertaken into public acceptance of this technology as our National Hydrogen Strategy becomes operational?

I think the hardest thing has been trying to determine which type of hydrogen energy technology is likely to have the biggest impact on the day-to-day lives of Australians, especially in the short-term. Hydrogen’s versatility means that it can be used in so many ways so it was difficult to determine where to focus my attention initially. So I think RI research will be necessary for many years to come, particularly when more large-scale projects come online.

How might this field of research help to understand, or even overcome opposition or concerns around hydrogen? How are you hoping for your research to be used?

To overcome potential opposition or concern, you need to first understand what drives it. So I’m hoping that my research will help key stakeholders decide where, when and why it makes sense to use specific hydrogen energy technologies, and what we might not yet understand about the perceived safety of hydrogen. I think my research will also help to inform policy and messaging so that we can address concerns people have in a targeted way so we can solve public acceptance issues before they emerge. I’m hopeful that this field of research might next be able to identify what gaps might remain in a safer transition to hydrogen economy.


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