In 1836, Charles Darwin visited Australia as part of the historic second voyage of the HMS Beagle. Though he didn’t make landfall on that continent’s northern coast, the Beagle’s follow-up expedition studied the shores of the Northern Territory, and the captain of the Beagle gave Port Darwin its name in honor of the father of the theory of evolution. Today Darwin is the territory’s capital, and it’s playing a role in a new kind of evolution for our species: the transition toward a decarbonized energy future.
Last month, the prime minister of Australia announced a $150 million investment in seven Clean Hydrogen Industrial Hubs to be stationed across the country. Already a major exporter of liquefied natural gas, Australia wants to become a major exporter of green hydrogen — especially to countries in Asia that are acting fast to transition away from fossil fuels. Darwin, with its abundant sunshine and wind potential, is one of the nominated hubs.
In the first step, Australia is looking to boost its domestic industry. “To export hydrogen will take time; to use it domestically and to build your industry with domestic consumption is a quicker pathway,” says Sam Maresh, CEO of GE Australia.
That’s why GE has partnered with government-owned utility Territory Generation to install a TM2500 aeroderivative gas turbine at the Channel Island Power Station, just across the bay from Darwin. The TM2500 is a trailer-mounted (thus the “TM”) turbine whose beating heart is a grounded CF6 jet engine, the same one that powers the Boeing 747. It can generate electricity from burning natural gas — or a blend of natural gas and hydrogen. In less than 10 minutes, the turbine can go from a cold start to full power and churn out up to 32 megawatts of electricity, making it ideal as a bridge for generating backup power when demand spikes.
It’s also the perfect bridge for power producers that are integrating more solar and wind energy, which don’t have consistent round-the-clock output. “As more renewables come onto the grid in the Northern Territory and you get these peaks and troughs — clouds come over and the renewables drop down in terms of their power output — the TM2500 can start up very quickly and help firm peaks and troughs,” Maresh says.
There are some 300 TM2500 turbines installed around the world, but the capacity to feed this one with hydrogen makes the project special. There are many factors that make the Northern Territory (NT) an ideal proving ground for hydrogen, the most abundant gas in the universe. The federal government has called hydrogen a priority technology in its Technology Investment Roadmap, and the territorial government’s own Renewable Hydrogen Master Plan lays down ambitious goals that, if reached, could mean 3.7 billion Australian dollars ($2.7 billion) in economic growth and 2,500 new jobs.
The plan would also propel the NT toward its commitment to reach 50 percent renewable electricity by the end of this decade. Private investors are also eager to pour money into renewables — case in point: the Sun Cable project, billed as “the world’s first intercontinental power grid,” which intends to send up to 20 gigawatts of solar energy to Singapore through undersea cables. Making it all possible is the NT’s vast solar and wind potential — already one in six homes there have rooftop solar — and the opportunity to use that renewable energy to split water molecules and produce so-called green hydrogen.
The TM2500 that is expected to begin operation in 2022 at Channel Island will initially run at 22 megawatts (MW) on natural gas; once enough hydrogen comes onto the marketplace, the unit will be able to run on a blend of up to 75% hydrogen by volume, explains Mark Benjamin, sales manager for GE Gas Power ANZ.
Another major hydrogen project announced in Australia this year was the Tallawarra B power station, south of Sydney. That plant will be powered by a GE 9F.05 gas turbine and generate about 316 MW of quickly dispatchable power, helping to replace part of the 1.7 gigawatts lost when a nearby coal-fired power station shuts off its furnaces in 2023.
The Channel Island project is only the first of six or seven TM2500s that GE hopes the Northern Territory utility will eventually commission. In terms of output, this first project is a relatively small step for hydrogen, but for Maresh it’s all about pointing the way forward. “For Australia, the pathway to building a hydrogen economy is with gas turbines,” he says. The units can operate with small or large amounts of hydrogen mixed in, which gives the utility and the government “a lot more flexibility about how they grow their hydrogen industry.”
And when the TM-2500 has done its work, it can be trailer-mounted once again and sent off to another location that needs it for backup or wants to advance renewables as the grid and the demand evolve. “This is one of many projects looking to operate GE aeroderivative gas turbines on hydrogen/natural gas fuel blends,” Benjamin says. “These units provide great operational and fuel flexibility, helping to lead the way into the energy transition.”