What do people really think about hydrogen?

October 2nd, 2023

Mitchell Scovell has conducted research into community perceptions of hydrogen, which is important to know as companies and governments scale up the hydrogen industry in Australia. So do we love it or…?
A Caucasian man wearing a collard shirt and dark trousers presents to an audience. The slide has a summary of his research findings and a blue CSIRO logo in the top left corner.

Mitch presenting about his hydrogen perceptions research at ICEP – an environmental psychology conference in Aarhus, Denmark.

Mitchell Scovell is a CSIRO Early Research Career (CERC) Postdoctoral Fellow studying community perceptions and attitudes to hydrogen.

His research will inform the burgeoning hydrogen industry and governments, to ensure innovations deliver benefits for all Australians.

With the publication of his fifth paper imminent, we take a sneak peek at his conclusions and also learn more about how and why Mitch conducts his social and community psychology research.

The path to researching hydrogen perceptions

When Mitch was studying psychology as an undergraduate, his goal was to become a clinical psychologist. However in his final year he realised how much he was enjoying the research part of his degree; so he decided to do a PhD at James Cook University in Townsville, looking at the psychology behind cyclone preparedness behaviour.

On completion of his doctorate, he saw a CSIRO role advertised to study community perceptions of hydrogen. It sounded right up his alley because of his experience researching perceptions of risk, and because he enjoys working to solve practical issues.

Joining CSIRO in November 2020, Mitch started his postdoc project which is jointly funded by the Hydrogen Energy Systems FSP and the Responsible Innovation FSP, and overseen by the highly respected Andrea Walton.

He has conducted three studies:

  1. review of the existing literature to get an initial understanding of the factors that influence the acceptance of hydrogen energy technologies. The review found that the perceived risks, benefits and costs of the technology, and associated emotions, were strong predictors of acceptance. However,  most studies looked at acceptance of hydrogen refuelling stations or hydrogen fuel cells vehicles and did not consider technologies necessary for hydrogen production, storage or transport.
  2. A series of face-to-face focus groups to learn about community attitudes to technologies required to make, store, transport and use hydrogen, and the beliefs that drive those perceptions. Earlier this year his paper ‘Identifying informed beliefs about hydrogen technologies across the energy supply chain’ was published in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.
  3. A national survey completed by about 1600 people using a representative sample produced quantitative findings about Australians’ acceptance and beliefs about hydrogen production methods. One area of focus was comparing attitudes to hydrogen produced using renewable electricity (‘green hydrogen’), to hydrogen produced from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage to minimise carbon emissions (‘blue hydrogen’).

“Focus groups were a good place to start, to get in-depth understandings about what the community’s concerns are. That helped me to build a survey instrument that is asking relevant questions”, Mitch said.

Surprising findings

Mitch’s paper is well worth a read. His newest paper, titled ‘Blue or green? Exploring Australian acceptance and beliefs about hydrogen production methods’ is also fascinating.

When asked what was most interesting or surprising about his findings, Mitch reflected on the findings from both studies.

A graph showing responses to different types of hydrogen application, comparing hydrogen made with renewables with hydrogen made using fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

Some of the findings from Mitchell Scovell’s newest paper, which is currently under review. It’s a graphical comparison of hydrogen acceptance across conditions, showing that hydrogen produced using renewable electricity is slightly more accepted than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

“Usually people have some hesitancy toward new, potentially risky, technologies, but that isn’t the case with hydrogen. People generally seem to be quite optimistic!” Mitch said.

“However they are interested to hear the strategy for Australia, and have some unique concerns – such as how we will manage water resources, and ensuring that we balance hydrogen supply for our domestic energy needs with our desire to sell hydrogen internationally.”

Results also showed that some study participants were concerned hydrogen might compete with other renewable energy sources and somehow slow down the transition to renewables.

Mitch explained, “this concern suggests that the role for hydrogen and how it fits with other clean energy sources will be important to explain.”  

Engaging with the community to build trust

Mitch has some advice for the governments, companies, consortia, and industry bodies that are currently developing and approving the many Australian hydrogen projects to build the industry.

“The hydrogen industry should engage with community early to find out what their expectations are, and be honest about plans and risk mitigation to develop trust”, he said.

“We need to provide realistic expectations about what hydrogen can do, and what we don’t yet know. There is a tendency to sell the benefits, but we need to be transparent about benefits, risks, and challenges.”

This article was written by Claire Jordan-Peters of CSIRO’s Energy Business Unit.