$ 62m chases hy­dro­gen econ­omy an­swers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Nigel Wil­son En­ergy Writer

WHAT will $ US50 mil­lion ($ A62 mil­lion) and the ef­forts of up to 250 peo­ple be­tween now and 2011 tell you? Whether low- car­bon emis­sion tech­nol­ogy is vi­able and whether Aus­tralia can kick­start a hy­dro­gen econ­omy.

It is gen­er­ally ac­cepted that if a tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion is to be found for green­house gas emis­sions, the most promis­ing clean coal tech­nol­ogy is not the retro­fit of cap­ture equip­ment to power sta­tions. It is us­ing coal to make hy­dro­gen from wa­ter, then bury­ing the re­sul­tant car­bon diox­ide and burn­ing the hy­dro­gen.

The an­nounce­ment that Hy­dro­gen En­ergy, a joint ven­ture be­tween oil gi­ant BP and the world’s big­gest min­ing group, Rio Tinto, is ex­plor­ing a $ 2 bil­lion, ‘‘ de­car­bonised fuel’ , 500MW hy­dro­gen- pow­ered elec­tric­ity gen­er­at­ing sta­tion at Kwinana, south of Perth, will put Aus­tralia on the map as a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to the global green­house emis­sions de­bate.

The plant could re­move as much as four mil­lion tonnes of car­bon diox­ide out of the at­mos­phere each year com­pared with a con­ven­tional coal- fired plant, while demon­strat­ing that hy­dro­gen can be pro­duced in quan­ti­ties that make fur­ther com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion vi­able.

Crit­ics have al­ready made their scep­ti­cism known, par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing a plan to se­quester car­bon diox­ide in yet undis­cov­ered de­pleted oil or gas reser­voirs off the WA coast close to Perth.

But hav­ing said that, the chance to bring a num­ber of tech­nolo­gies to­gether in a com­mer­cial plant is a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward, ac­cord­ing to se­nior rep­re­sen­ta­tives of both BP and Rio. Many of the tech­nolo­gies that are be­ing con­sid­ered have only been tested to the demon­stra­tion stage.

The goal is not only to pro­duce low car­bon emis­sion power for Aus­tralia, but to also make a se­ri­ous at­tempt to re­duce emis­sions glob­ally by sell­ing the tech­nol­ogy to China and In­dia, coun­tries rapidly in­creas­ing their coal- fired power ca­pac­ity.

Which­ever way the de­bate goes, coal will im­por­tant fuel.

Ac­cord­ing to en­ergy ex­perts about 23 per cent of the world’s pri­mary en­ergy needs are met by coal and 39 per cent of elec­tric­ity is gen­er­ated by coal.

In Aus­tralia, more than 80 per cent of green­house gas emis­sions come from the elec­tric­ity gen­er­at­ing in­dus­try, most of which is fu­elled by coal.

That’s why the BP/ Rio Tinto link up has huge ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

The Kwinana project would gasify coal from the Col­lie coal­fields south of Perth to pro­duce hy­dro­gen and car­bon diox­ide. The hy­dro­gen would fuel the power sta­tion and the car­bon diox­ide would be cap­tured and per­ma­nently stored un­der­ground.

The first thing to recog­nise is that power gen­er­ated from the Kwinana plant will be sig­nif­i­cantly more ex­pen­sive than power gen­er­ated from coal or nat­u­ral gas.

Lewis Gilles, Hy­dro­gen En­ergy’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, be­lieves that its out­put costs should be com­pared with wind en­ergy and other re­new­ables and there­fore the gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance that flows to those types of emis­sions re­duc­ing tech­nolo­gies should be avail­able to the Kwinana plant.

This is a hard case to ar­gue par­tic­u­larly as the pro­po­nents of wind and other re­new­ables are cry­ing foul, in any case, be­cause of the use of coal for the Kwinana plant.

Aus­tralian Democrats leader Sen­a­tor Lyn Al­li­son says fed­eral Gov­ern­ment sup­port for the Hy­dro­gen En­ergy plan is a case of look­ing af­ter the Gov­ern­ment’s mates in the coal in­dus­try. The so­lu­tion was a com­bi­na­tion of emis­sions re­main a trad­ing glob­ally higher pen­e­tra­tion of re­new­ables, an emis­sions trad­ing scheme and a car­bon tax on high green­house gas emit­ters.

Greens Se­nate leader Chris­tine Milne’s of­fice has also pointed out that there are se­ri­ous gaps be­fore the Hy­dro­gen En­ergy plan can be­come a re­al­ity. Tim Hollo, a for­mer Green­peace spokesman, who is now an ad­viser to Sen­a­tor Milne, ar­gued that geose­ques­tra­tion was the most se­ri­ous con­cern as the com­pany had yet to iden­tify any sites for bury­ing car­bon diox­ide.

This led to re­lated is­sues such as who would have the re­spon­si­bil­ity of de­ter­min­ing the vi­a­bil­ity of the geose­ques­tra­tion site, and who would carry the long- term li­a­bil­ity should the car­bon diox­ide leak.

Gilles was ob­vi­ously aware of this line of ar­gu­ment, hav­ing ear­lier pointed out that car­bon diox­ide con­cen­tra­tions oc­cur nat­u­rally un­der­ground ( there is a car­bon diox­ide field tapped for com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions off Port Camp­bell in west­ern Vic­to­ria) and the same risk ap­plied if an eathquake oc­curred.

While the West Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment has given Hy­dro­gen En­ergy an op­tion over in­dus­trial land next door to Rio’s Hismelt en­hanced iron feed­stock plant, there is no ev­i­dence that much di­rect gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance will be forth­com­ing.

A spokesman said that the pos­si­bil­ity of fur­ther as­sis­tance would be con­sid­ered when the project was fur­ther ad­vanced.

But it is early days, and the en­thu­si­asm for the Kwinana plant within Rio and BP is as much about the in­tel­lec­tual is­sues as the com­mer­cial prospects.

‘‘ Where else can you see that you can get in on the ground floor on a tech­nol­ogy that can have world­wide im­pli­ca­tions,’’ one midrank­ing com­pany of­fi­cial said.

That’s the buzz, the ap­pli­ca­tion of brain power to the prob­lem of green­house gas emis­sions that’s rapidly gained the sta­tus of a dis­as­ter wait­ing to hap­pen.

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