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3 May 2022 5 min read

Asked to form an opinion on hydrogen, some minds will invoke the Hindenburg airship burning to the ground in black and white.

Others may recall the hydrogen Hummer driven by Governor Schwarzenegger, or a first viewing of the periodic table, top-left occupied by an "H".

But with hydrogen a growing part of Australia’s plan to reach net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, CSIRO research is asking, will we get behind it?

Public acceptance for hydrogen energy

An industry's public acceptance is more crucial than the materials that power it, a reality that has prompted CSIRO's Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform to take a closer look at hydrogen.

The timing seems, suddenly, more urgent.

May's federal budget included $1.3 billion for low emissions steel, carbon capture and storage technology and, and hydrogen fuel.

Days earlier, NSW, Victoria and Queensland had committed to an east coast hydrogen refuelling network for trucks.

CSIRO's own Hydrogen Industry Mission is aiming to drive down the cost of hydrogen production to under $2 per kilogram, making the fuel more affordable and helping to position Australia to lead the world in exporting hydrogen by 2030

But with hydrogen energy and its uses in their infancy, people’s acceptance of the technology is difficult for researchers to explain.

For answers, CSIRO research is looking to psychology.

(L–R) CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall with Hydrogen Industry Mission Engagement and Strategy Lead, Dr Vicky Au, and Hydrogen Industry Mission Lead, Dr Patrick Hartley.

As a mainly unknown quantity, hydrogen enjoys the benefit of the doubt in Australia. That is the assessment of Dr Mitchell Scovell, CSIRO Postdoctoral Fellow.

Among Dr Scovell’s published research through the Responsible Innovation and Hydrogen Energy Systems Future Science Platforms is a review of studies looking at hydrogen acceptance.

Emotions are a strong predictor of acceptance of hydrogen

He found that past research, primarily conducted overseas, suggests the perceived effects of hydrogen technologies (i.e., the degree to which they are seen as dangerous, beneficial and costly), and the associated emotions, are strong predictors of people’s acceptance.

It's still early days for the hydrogen industry in Australia but it’s important to ensure Australians are on board from the beginning.

"Research to date suggests that people like the idea of using hydrogen as an energy source, but they want to know a bit more about it and how it might affect their life before they make up their mind about hydrogen" Dr Scovell says.

"I think it will be important to consider how specific communities may express different levels of support based on the type of technology they may be living near and impacts it may have on the community.

"For example, the water required to make hydrogen may be more or less of a concern for people depending on where they live," he says.

Hydrogen energy may be a mystery to most, but humans have been forming attitudes about new technologies since the first nervous sparks from our newfangled flintstones.

What influences attitudes?

Most psychologists tend to agree, says Dr Scovell, that our attitudes are explained by our beliefs, feelings and behaviours.

If someone has a strong positive attitude towards hydrogen cars their thoughts, feelings and behaviours usually inform this attitude.

For example, "I think hydrogen cars are good for the environment; I feel proud driving a hydrogen car; I have driven a hydrogen car in the past".

For Dr Scovell, it's a theory that helps explain why we think about many things – people, technology and places – in either a positive or negative way.

Furthermore, our differences as individuals go some way to explaining why we support the use of some technologies but not others.

Our differences of opinion about technologies come down to how we think about their risks, costs and benefits, and our broader values as well as the information sources we rely on shape our beliefs about those things.

But so far, finds Dr Scovell, it's unclear which context-specific beliefs underpin attitudes towards hydrogen.

For many who imagine a hydrogen future, visions of that future are dominated by evolutions in transport.

There are good reasons for that.

Hydrogen-fueled trains, planes and automobiles

The three-state "hydrogen highways" strategy could change truck transportation on the eastern seaboard, especially if green hydrogen can be made competitive.

While the case for hydrogen cars is not as economically strong yet, they are not inconceivable. Nor are hydrogen planes.

But, says Dr Scovell, past research of hydrogen acceptance has focused on its transport applications, perhaps at the expense of understanding how people think about other components of the hydrogen value chain.

Hydrogen can be used to store energy to balance electricity grids, for domestic heating, as a chemical feedstock, and in refining and manufacturing.

With a range of applications could come a host of communities in line to host new hydrogen manufacturing, infrastructure and jobs.

This, says Dr Scovell, shapes as a critical period for an undecided public.

"From past research looking at other industries we know that it will be important for stakeholders involved with the hydrogen industry to develop community trust," Dr Scovell says.

"That is, communities will want to know that the companies involved are competent, operate with integrity and will keep the community's best interest in mind.

"But we don't yet fully understand what factors may be uniquely important for developing trust and acceptance for a hydrogen industry," he says.

There are already lessons to be learned.

Obtaining social license for hydrogen

Whether it’s coal seam gas or genetically modified organisms, time and time again we have seen that community engagement and education are paramount when it comes to social license.

Research conducted in Australia by the University of Queensland shows that people are supportive of using hydrogen if safety is prioritised, and the industry provides jobs and economic benefits for regional communities.

For Dr Fiona Simon, chief executive of the Australian Hydrogen Council, the amount and quality of employment a hydrogen industry can offer will help decide its level of acceptance.

"I think the future for social acceptance of hydrogen is going to have a lot to do with jobs and how we understand quality jobs," Dr Simon says.

"Social licence questions that, for me, will end up being vital would be around how the communities think about the energy transition as a whole, and how they think of the trade-offs they would need to make in the long term.

"Would you be more positive about a hydrogen market if it meant your family had a job in the local steelworks for the next 30 years, than if it was a boom-and-bust environment that brought a few short-term construction jobs? Social licence is political," she said.

As Australians gradually discover the potential of the most common element in the universe, CSIRO's Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform will continue to learn how the human element shapes the industry.

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