Features Australia

Twiggy’s Green steal?

The mining tycoon’s hydrogen hype doesn’t add up

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

30 January 2021

9:00 AM

There was a time when the ABC’s Boyer Lectures made sense. Based on the Reith Lectures sponsored by the BBC, they have been presented each year since 1959. Radio National’s blurb states that ‘the Boyer Lectures is a series of talks by prominent Australians chosen by the ABC board to present ideas on major social, scientific or culture topics’. In recent times, considerable thought has been given to ensure the necessary PC mix of males and females, minority representation and the like. Obviously, only prominent Australians with the correct progressive views are considered.

But here’s the problem; very few people take any notice of the Boyer Lectures. We have the internet. We have unending options to watch lectures from all over the world. We can source information from multiple sources, not just from jumped-up, privileged commentators selected by the ABC Board. It’s all so yesterday.

Sensing this, some ABC program director has obviously decided to refresh the Boyer Lectures and get the prominent Australian to present a down-market version of a TED talk.  (Just how appalling are these bilious TED talks, by the way?)

You can check out this year’s Boyer lecturer, billionaire Twiggy Forrest, chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, doing this on ABC iView. Kitted up with an ear microphone, Forrest bounces around the stage telling us how humanity will always need iron ore – no surprises there given his company extracts iron ore – but we will be so much better off without fossil fuels.

Mind you, Forrest was not always the darling of the local investor community. His previous involvement in Anaconda Nickel led to much dissatisfaction on the part of some investors and some of them have long memories.

But buoyed by escalating iron ore prices and grabbing key Chinese markets, Fortescue has since been a runaway corporate success, spinning off oodles of spare cash and generating massive dividends for the shareholders, the largest being the Forrest family.

With time on his hands – he stood down as CEO of the company in 2011 – Forrest has devoted himself to a number of causes, including the abolition of slavery in the world.  (It’s always best to aim big if you are doing the noblesse oblige thing.)  Every listed Australian company is now compelled to report on their efforts to stamp out slavery, no matter how senseless this is for most companies while Twiggy has said nothing about slavery in China.

Hydrogen is now Twiggy’s thing. It’s the future. It’s the most common element on earth.  According to this prominent Australian, it’s so simple: ‘all you need to do is run electricity through water’ and we will have endless supplies of hydrogen to power everything.

He might like to talk to a few engineers about some of the problems associated with doing this.  He might also spend some time acquainting himself with the laws of thermodynamics. But, hey, it’s the vision thing: hydrogen is our future, it’s the solution to all our problems.

Of course, it has to be green hydrogen. Hydrogen extracted from methane, for instance, is not good even if it’s a whole lot cheaper than extracting it from water. And when he talks electricity, it’s not bad electricity sourced from fossil fuels (currently over 70 per cent of grid-sourced electricity in Australia) but good electricity sourced from renewable energy.

According to Forrest, green hydrogen, ‘could replace up to three quarters of [Australia’s] emissions, if we improve the technology and had the scale’.

What you need to understand is ‘Australia, with characteristic luck, is sitting on everything it needs to be the world leader, but only if it acts fast’. The world market for green hydrogen in 2050 will be $US12 trillion (or some really, really big figure).

But if we wait until 2050 to act, ‘Our planet will be toast’. I’m not quite sure what the technical meaning of toast is in the context of a serious lecture, but I guess we can assume it’s not good. And, sure, there are some technical problems in transporting hydrogen – yep, it has a tendency to leak, corrode metal and explode (think Hindenburg) – but nothing we can’t deal with.

And here’s the really wonderful thing about green hydrogen – it can be used to make green steel.  Not that dirty coking coal of which Australia has plentiful supplies, but iron ore and green hydrogen to create steel.

You have to understand that ‘steel is fundamental to everything you see around you, from your home, to your car, the road you drive on’.  The possibility that technological change could also replace steel obviously hasn’t occurred to Forrest.

Notwithstanding the fact that Australia has a very small steel industry – we drove most of our steel plants out of business years ago, in part because of our archaic industrial relations practices — we are going to be world leaders in making green steel.

Of course, no one should object if Forrest puts up his own money to have a go — he has no shortage of it. ‘We aim to start building Australia’s first green steel pilot plant this year, with a commercial plant in the Pilbara, powered entirely by green electricity, from wind and solar in the next few years’.

No doubt, there will be some government money involved — for example, R&D tax concessions — but hopefully nothing that is not available to other players.

But whether green steel really has a commercial future, certainly in the near future, is very dependent on significantly reducing the cost of generating the hydrogen. At this stage, the cost is simply too high to make green steel competitive with traditional steel-making.

All this nation-building exhortation is all well and good – there could be 40,000 jobs in green steel according to Forrest, more than enough to replace jobs in coal mining – but it sits rather uneasily with him slagging off at that other billionaire do-gooder, Elon Musk, founder of electric car company, Tesla.

Unsurprisingly, Musk is not a fan of hydrogen-powered cars.  He has even called them ‘mind-bogglingly stupid’. But battery technology is not green enough for Forrest.

Who said business types embrace collaboration when mauling competitors is so much more fun?

Like previous Boyer lecturers, Forrest doesn’t suffer from self-doubt. He has the answer and one that ‘doesn’t demand sacrifice, where quality of life increases and we reduce carbon emissions at the same time’. It’s hydrogen. Or is it?

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