Most of New Zealand’s energy comes from fossil fuels.  This is despite more than 85% of our electricity coming from renewable sources like water, wind and geothermal.  

That’s because almost all the cars we drive, the trucks that carry our goods, the planes we fly in and many factories we work in don’t run on electricity.  These are the ‘hard to abate’ sectors, so named because electrification is not yet technically possible, or not yet economically viable.  

Even if we shut down every non renewable power station in the country overnight, we’d still use fossil fuels to haul logs, make steel, dry milk powder or catch a red eye flight to Wellington. Decarbonising our economy means electrifying as many things as we can, while replacing fossil fuels with clean fuel alternatives for the things that we can’t. 

"Even if we shut down every non renewable power station in the country overnight, we’d still use fossil fuels."

In some cases, electrification will make sense.  Our light passenger vehicle fleet will largely transition to electricity over the next decade or two, as government regulations incentivise the purchase of Battery Electric Vehicles, and disincentivise the purchase of vehicles that run on petrol or diesel.

Developing an integrated electric rail network is another possibility; electric local delivery vehicles are one more.  Here in New Zealand, some smaller-scale industrial process heat is already successfully being converted to run on electricity. 

But reducing emissions on an economy-wide basis will not be solved by electrification alone.  Reaching our goal of net carbon zero by 2050 will require the pragmatic deployment of multiple approaches and multiple zero-emissions technologies over time. 

"Reducing emissions on an economy-wide basis will not be solved by electrification alone." 

This is where green hydrogen comes in. The level of investment globally in converting fossil fuel technologies to hydrogen is a signal that the world’s major economies have already begun to pivot. 

For countries with scarce sources of renewable generation, hydrogen is set to play a far more significant role than others.  In Japan, the pathway to net carbon zero includes shifting 100% of its coal fired electricity generation to hydrogen by the 2040s.  South Korea has similar plans to use hydrogen fuel cells for electricity generation.

In New Zealand, our renewable electricity generation advantage means domestic uses for hydrogen will be directed to heavy transport and other hard to abate industrial uses mentioned above. But despite the different applications between countries, the goal is the same: to use hydrogen pragmatically and where needed to decarbonise the economy.

Getting to net carbon zero does not mean we have to choose between investing in hydrogen or electrification.  Both will be needed.