With around 300 days of sunshine a year, long coastlines with consistent tides and an abundance of open land, Queensland is the perfect environment for the research and development (R&D) of sustainable and renewable energy. These natural attributes are supported by government and industry investment together with widespread community awareness and adoption of sustainable energy initiatives.
Professor Ian Mackinnon is a driving force within the Australian sustainable energy industry. He is the founder of the Institute of Future Environments at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and now Director of the Centre for Clean Energy Technologies and Practices. These QUT entities and others aim to address the worldwide challenge of sustainable living in a resource-constrained environment that is undergoing rapid change on a global scale.
Professor Mackinnon has also been appointed as the strategic hydrogen advisor for the Queensland Government’s $19 million Queensland Hydrogen Industry Strategy to develop the state’s renewable hydrogen industry.
We spoke to Professor Mackinnon about how Queensland is powering the future through sustainable energy and the big opportunities for graduate careers in this innovative field.
How has the Queensland sustainable energy industry evolved?
Since 2005, Australia’s renewable energy revolution has been driven by a combination of good government policy and consumer initiatives, which has led to the widespread use of solar PV (photovoltaic systems) on household roofs. Subsequently, Queensland has one of the highest proportions of household solar PV installations in the country, and Australia has the highest penetration of household PV in the world.
This was an important step for the sustainable energy industry. After 2013, due to federal government initiatives and state government support, larger-scale renewable energy capabilities such as solar and wind farms became possible and have rapidly increased the level of renewable energy that is now available in Australia.
At the same time, Queensland universities were developing important initiatives such as the Sir Samuel Griffith Centre at Griffith University’s Nathan campus, which was established in 2013. This large-scale 6,000sqm building operates on a combination of solar power and storage using hydrogen and batteries and produces electrons for use within the building. Many learnings from this building have been translated for use around the state.
Since then, other Queensland universities have built solar farms and installed solar PV on their campuses to improve their overall sustainable energy footprint. The University of Queensland (UQ) is developing commuter buses using fuel cell vehicles to service between campuses and QUT will install a hydrogen refuelling station in 2021 to service consumer vehicles, such as those used by state government officials in the local area.
To sum up, there has been an evolution of the Queensland sustainable energy industry that is now rapidly reaching an exponential rate of improvement and increase across the state.
Why is hydrogen such a promising area of sustainable energy?
Hydrogen already exists in many industries and is used for many purposes, however generally as a by-product of refining or extracting fossil fuels. Green hydrogen is generated from a renewable energy source, such as wind, solar or biomass, so, it’s a key component for a sustainable energy future.
Similar to natural gas, hydrogen is an energy storage vector in that the energy is stored and until it’s used, it doesn’t become power or electricity. Hydrogen is a key element of the sustainable energy future because when we use this stored energy, we only have water as the emission when converted to power using fuel cells and other technologies. Fuel cell technology has evolved dramatically over the past 15 years and is now commercially available and used in transport vehicles and many other applications that convert gas to power.
Queensland has a strong industry capability and good governance that will allow the development of a domestic and export market for hydrogen. Both are key elements for a sustainable future and by building the domestic market first, we can provide training and opportunities that will allow people to learn a range of skills for a career in Queensland.
What sets Queensland’s sustainable energy industry apart?
Australia has the largest proportion of land with a high level of Direct Normal Irradiance (DNI) – the amount of sunlight that hits the earth that is important for sustainable solar energy. We also have reasonably good quality wind in different parts of Queensland and Australia, which is another key form of renewable energy.
We are also repurposing the biomass generated by the state’s strong agriculture and horticulture industry into electricity and biofuels. The combination of naturally occurring resources, such as solar and wind, repurposed agricultural and horticultural waste and using electrolysis to generate hydrogen allows for the compatibility of many different technologies.
Queensland also has 40 per cent of the population living in regional areas outside the main cities, which means we have major infrastructure for a good proportion of the state, substantial transport corridors and more than 5 export-oriented ports along the coast.
These factors give Queensland a direct advantage in the sustainable energy industry, resulting in excellent skills at all levels of the workforce from trades to professions and management with on-the-job and formal training tailored to the industry.
How is Queensland’s sustainable energy industry regarded globally?
Our sustainable energy industry is regarded as having lots of potential. Queensland is ideally positioned to build a strong, globally powerful sustainable energy industry with the skills and capacity to handle newer forms of technology to improve efficiency and develop new products from biomaterials.
With support from federal and state governments, we have a strong R&D base throughout the state combined with high-quality training within trades and universities and a good governance structure, which means Queensland has the potential to export our capabilities to the world.
What drives the sustainable energy industry forward in Queensland?
The drive to upskill Queensland’s university sector and attract a higher level of professional researchers began around 20 years ago and we now have many PhD-qualified researchers working in both universities and industry. Queensland also has the capability to move quickly, which can be seen in the specific courses developed by Queensland universities to train people in this area.
Several innovative companies have also emerged from universities that are leading the field in scalable renewable energy capabilities, such as Brisbane-based Tritium, which is one of the world’s major suppliers of very fast electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. This is just one example of how opportunities arise from ground-breaking research to build an industry on that capability and provide employment in Queensland.
How do Queensland universities set students up for success for a career in sustainable energy
All Queensland universities offer industry opportunities for students studying related courses such as engineering and science. For example, QUT places all third- and fourth-year engineering students and science undergraduates into workplace activities such as project internships for 6 weeks or longer. These project placements are common practice in all universities and provide potential job opportunities for students once they graduate.
What are your predictions for the future of sustainable energy in Queensland?
From an industry and educational perspective, the sustainable energy industry in Queensland has an exceptionally good future.
From an industry perspective, we need to ensure we have people who can use the tools developed for sustainable energy and also to manufacture them locally. Many sustainable energy technologies were either invented or developed in Australia, and we have a huge opportunity to create a commercial industry to manufacture these tools in Queensland.
Queensland offers great education and industry opportunities across the state for people who are considering a career in sustainable energy. Those who are considering studying in Queensland will be part of rapidly evolving developments in sustainable energy technology that will be useful in future careers. From an education point of view, Queensland is not static and will continue to evolve along with this innovative industry.