Beware fossil-gas suppliers bearing hydrogen gifts

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Will the public-relations power of renewable hydrogen be harnessed by fossil-fuel interests only to maintain business-as-usual?

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Recently there has been a flood of announcements about renewable hydrogen. Some seem fully legitimate and exciting. But in some others, are we seeing a red-herring not unlike clean-coal? Will the public-relations power of renewable hydrogen be harnessed by fossil-fuel interests only to maintain business-as-usual?

In the Aeneid, Virgil had a warning for the Trojans. Something along the lines of “you better have a squiz at this big wooden horse and see what’s up”.  So let’s take a quick break from “electrifying everything” and look at what’s up with the green hydrogen being spruiked across Australia by fossil-gas suppliers.

In Western Australia, the fossil oil and gas company Woodside says “Green hydrogen is the holy grail and if people want green hydrogen, we’re happy to deliver.” But then Woodside goes on to remind us “currently, the best way to export hydrogen is via LNG” (liquefied fossil gas).

ATCO, the Canadian owner of Western Australia’s fossil gas distribution networks will use renewable hydrogen in the quest of “maximising existing network infrastructure”.

(Note: After years of experience, we now know that Australian utility companies seeking to “maximise energy network infrastructure” whether it’s needed or not, is code for maximising utility company returns while driving up consumer energy costs.)

In South Australia the owner of the fossil gas distribution networks, Hong Kong’s CK Infrastructure,aka Australian Gas Infrastructure Group (AGIG), aka Australian Gas Networks (AGN), will by the mid 2020’s use renewable hydrogen to “illustrate the complementary nature of gas and electricity in meeting the decarbonisation challenge“.

For Victoria, CK Infrastructure again, this time known locally as Multinet Gas, with the help of its lobby group Energy Networks Australia (ENA) envisions a 2050 future where people install gas-engines outside their Victorian homes to burn hydrogen and spin reverse-cycle air conditioners.  ENA imagines that in 2050 we will love the range of coloured hydrogen flames in our fireplaces.

In the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), ActewAGL (part-owned by Jemena which is owned by China State Grid and Singapore Power) is working to inject hydrogen into the gas distribution network.

In New South Wales, Jemena “will demonstrate how existing gas pipeline technology can store excess renewable energy”.

In Queensland the state government suggests that “existing gas pipeline infrastructure” provides a “competitive advantage in the future production and export of hydrogen“. However to date, no Queensland gas pipeline owners have echoed the state government’s enthusiasm. Those gas companies are busy using their infrastructure to export a good chunk of Australia’s fossil gas to overseas clients.

Now I will admit to being a big fan of renewable hydrogen. At the University of Melbourne we kicked off the discussion of Australia’s potential as a “renewable energy chemical exporter” back in 2015. Any research, development, and demonstration that works toward that end is worthwhile.

Recently both Beyond Zero Emissions in its report “Electrifying Industry” and the CSIRO in the “National Hydrogen Roadmap” described how renewable hydrogen will play a key role in steel-making and some other industrial applications.

But similar to how the Australian coal industry used the fantasy of clean-coal-carbon-capture-and-storage to delay climate action for over a decade, our concern is that the fossil gas industry is suddenly co-opting hydrogen as an artifice – aimed at convincing regulators, politicians and the public that that gas industry has a future in a decarbonised world.

Even the Chief Scientist is now on board with hydrogen, in a recent report describing export and domestic opportunities. Worryingly, not all of the Chief Scientist’s hydrogen is that green, with opportunities also described for sourcing hydrogen from our “convertible fossil fuel reserves”.

In step with the energy networks lobby group, the Chief Scientist’s report describes how with “incremental enhancements” gas pipelines “can be used to store and transport hydrogen”.

Unfortunately, this is quite optimistic because “incremental enhancement” in fact means complete pipeline replacement! A report by Deloitte Access Economics more clearly warns that because of the corrosive phenomena known as hydrogen embrittlement of steel, “new pipelines would be required to transmit hydrogen over long distances”.

The Chief Scientist’s report also states that technically hydrogen “can heat our buildings”. This is true, because hydrogen burns. But even in 2050, the economics of space or water heating with hydrogen will find it difficult to beat electrically-driven air-source heat pumps (aka reverse-cycle air conditioners).

Efficient and multi-purpose air cons already harvest renewable heat and warm millions of Australian homes for as little as one-third of the cost of burning fossil gas – a gas that is nevertheless relatively cheap compared with synthetic hydrogen.

Is it the threat of millions of Australians adopting all-electric homes that has the gas industry contemplating its swift decarbonised demise? A hydrogen-fuelled frenzy may be just the clever stratagem needed to delay that future a while longer.

Tim Forcey is an independent energy advisor and curator at the Facebook group “Australian Gas Market Insights“.

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