Features Australia

Hydrogen’s all hot air

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

Faced with evidence that the Paris Agreement on limiting emissions is being ignored, including news that China is building or re-opening coal-fired power plants that collectively almost equal the coal-fired power capacity of the entire European Union, Australia’s green industry has retreated into denial and fantasy.

Any number of groups have demanded huge cuts to Australian emissions to avert supposed climate emergencies, although without a strong international agreement on emissions these calls make no sense. The Chinese building spree is just the beginning of the problems with the Paris Agreement, including President Trump starting the formal process of withdrawing the US from it.

In addition, governments and scientists are planning to make Australia a powerhouse in an imagined new industry where hydrogen is used as a store of energy, while other groups are proposing to export non-existent renewable energy from the Top End over direct current lines to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The fantasy of using hydrogen as a store of energy, for example, reached the November meeting of the Energy Council of the Council of Australian Governments. This COAG sub-council reacted to a report produced by chief scientist Professor Alan Finkel, Australia’s National Hydrogen Strategy, by opting to tip $370 million into overcoming various problems with it.

There are plenty of problems. Scientists and engineers have been kicking around the issue of using hydrogen as a store of energy (hydrogen combined with oxygen and a spark produces a bang and water) for decades without anyone working out how to store the gas safely in enough quantities to make a difference, let alone how to do so economically.

The report at least points to the need for various test and pilot projects to overcome what the better qualified commentators have acknowledged in passing as ‘key technological issues’ and does not limit the production and use of hydrogen to renewable energy. But then there is the apparently unsurmountable problem that any external customers for this newly generated hydrogen would have to build a lot of infrastructure to use it. There has been some movement on this in Asian countries but to any casual observer, these changes would seem to fall well short of the mass adoption required to make an international hydrogen economy work.

Nor did anyone at COAG or in the media point out that Australia already has a well established gas industry which is helping to reduce emissions, with the country set to push past Qatar to become the largest exporter of LNG (‘LNG is the new coal’, The Spectator Australia, 7 September). The use of gas over coal has been known to reduce emissions, notably in the US, where cheaper gas produced by the fracking revolution has been replacing coal in power plants. The LNG industry could have used $370 million to undertake further research.

At least various proposed direct current lines (high-voltage lines are now often direct current, instead of the traditional alternating current) from the Top End will deliver the energy in a form that can be used, and the technology is already well known. However, the lines are expensive – China just completed one about as long as the distance between Darwin and Singapore, across land, for A$8.6 billion – and the green energy projects required to collect the Top End’s undoubtedly vast wealth of renewable energy do not yet exist. Most of Australia’s wind farms are at the other end of the continent. The remaining contentious issue of whether there would be customers at the other end of these power lines willing to buy expensive, green electricity has been waved aside as a detail.

Despite all these proposals and the best green advice declaring that coal is on the way out, that derided fossil fuel has refused to die or even decline. The United Nations Environment Program has produced a ‘Gap Report’ on the difference between actual fossil fuel production and the production level required to keep the world’s warming to 1.5° or 2° centigrade. The report gloomily concludes that production is now more than double the amount at which the earth would be able to keep to the 1.5° mark or about half a degree above present levels. Production also adds up to 50 per cent more emissions than is needed to put earth up to the dreaded two-degree mark, or about one degree above present levels.

Australian coal production is expected to increase by more than 30 per cent in the coming decade, the UN report notes, while oil and gas production in the US will increase by a similar amount as will oil production in Canada. In addition, as commentators note, various countries are continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure.

This problem for the green industry was emphasised by a report on China’s new enthusiasm for building coal-fired plants. Entitled ‘Out of Step’ by US-based environment group Global Energy Monitor the report states that in the 18 months up to June 2019, the Chinese built 43 gigawatts of coal-fired power capacity, or enough to more than cancel out a general reduction in the number of coal power plants in the rest of the world.

In addition, a staggering 147 gigawatts worth of power stations, or not much short of the entire existing capacity of the European Union, is due to be built or will be re-opened. As the reports notes, and as seems typical of modern China, this extraordinary expansion is being driven by regional governments, anxious to meet growth targets for their areas, rather than by Beijing. However, the central government has shown little interest in reining in this expansion which, as GEM also notes, will deliver far more power capacity than the country needs.

In addition, and to emphasise the strange results that can occur when politics is mixed with planning national grids, the Chinese are also building a network of direct current lines to move renewable power from the area it is produced to where it might be consumed. This is an extremely expensive solution to the problem of making cheap green electricity continuously available, but one that might be successful enough to reduce the need for coal plants.

Unfortunately for Australia’s newest obsession, the Chinese approach does not seem to involve hydrogen.

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