$ 62m chases hydrogen economy answers
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.