Hydrogen and CCS could be the energy road-map winners

In an opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review on Monday 1st June 2020, CO2CRC’s CEO, David Byers, and CO2CRC’s Distinguished Scientist, Prof Peter Cook, identify how hydrogen and CCS could be the energy road-map winners.

The Morrison government’s technology investment road map is a welcome embrace of science and technology as the pathway to accelerating low-emissions technologies.At its core, the message is an optimistic one, backing a range of technologies that will support emissions reduction and jobs growth.

The road map identifies several technologies with enormous potential, including hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS). This is not popular with some, certain of the merits of an exclusively renewables future.

Last month, the government pledged $300 million to set Australia on the path to becoming a hydrogen superpower. An approach that includes clean (no emissions) hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, with carbon emissions captured and geologically stored, is integral to realising that ambition.

Energy decisions should be based on science and economics – and we must keep our options open. As Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, author of the national hydrogen strategy and newly appointed chairman of the road map reference panel, said on ABC Radio recently, “I think the focus should be on clean hydrogen, but there are many ways you can make clean hydrogen. I’ve consistently said … I think the world’s focus should be on reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not on a particular technology.”

Commendably, both the road map and the national hydrogen strategy take a technology-neutral approach to clean hydrogen production. This is the only viable path to success. It means being open to producing hydrogen not just from renewables, but from coal and gas as well.

Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element in the universe. It can be used to power our homes, transport and industry.

Currently, almost all the world’s hydrogen is produced from gas and coal. Clean hydrogen can be made using electricity from renewables to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. It can be made cleanly from coal and gas when coupled with carbon capture and storage technology.

Critics say capture and storage technology will never work at scale: that it’s technically complex, expensive and unproven. But that is incorrect.

Carbon capture and storage is far from experimental – it is a well-understood technology.

Carbon dioxide can be captured at the source from large industrial operations or power plants. It is compressed to a dense supercritical fluid, transported by pipeline, then injected into deep rock formations where it is stored permanently.

The Global CCS Institute reports that since the 1970s, more than 260 million tonnes of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions have been captured and geologically stored.

Globally, 19 large-scale facilities (four producing hydrogen from fossil fuels) are now operating. They capture and store about 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. More facilities are being built or are planned.

One of the largest is Chevron’s world-leading Gorgon gas project in Western Australia, which began capturing and storing carbon dioxide in August 2019. The carbon dioxide injection facility will reduce Gorgon’s emissions by more than 100 million tonnes over the next 25-plus years.

In Australia, our research organisation CO2CRC operates the Otway National Research Facility in south-west Victoria, where it has safely and securely stored and monitored carbon dioxide in a variety of rock formations for more than a decade.

Also in Victoria, the Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain [HESC] pilot project is working to produce hydrogen from brown coal in the Latrobe Valley for export to Japan.

Emissions solution

The Victorian CarbonNet project aims to provide an emissions solution for a commercial-scale HESC project. The carbon dioxide emissions will be captured, transported by pipeline and stored deep underground in the Bass Strait.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has also agreed that ARENA and the CEFC should support investments in the widest range of low-emissions technologies, opening up the prospect that the ‘‘lending bar’’ to carbon capture and storage projects is set to change.

A 2018 study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that the cost of producing hydrogen using coal or gas, with carbon capture and storage, was about half the cost of producing it from renewables.

Under the strongest growth scenario in the national strategy, Australia would meet 20 per cent of global hydrogen demand by 2050.

Australia has great renewable energy potential. But based on official Australian energy data, our calculations show that meeting that hydrogen demand with wind and solar would require about three times our current total electricity production and 30 times our current renewable energy production.

Industries including cement and refineries see carbon capture and storage as a way to lower their emissions and mitigate climate change.

Analyses by the IEA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded that the lowest cost pathway to limit global warming to below 2 degrees should include capturing and storing carbon.

Australia has ready access to the latest carbon-capture and storage technologies and expertise. It has some of the world’s best deep sedimentary basins in which to store carbon dioxide, and an internationally recognised resources industry.

Hydrogen has long been touted for its potential as a clean energy solution. But only a technology-neutral approach makes sense. Pursuing a renewables-only pathway risks condemning hydrogen to stay where it has been for the past 30 years – always the next big thing.