As I mused earlier this year, hydrogen is something of an entirely novel challenge for the climate and energy community. It is literally transformational. It can be produced from the worst, most carbon intensive fossil fuels, or it can be produced from the cheapest, cleanest sources, with everything in between. The end product is identical – a couple of hydrogen molecules squished together, which can be cleanly burned to power things.
One clear emerging problem is the ‘stretching’ of hydrogen as an emissions reduction solution. While there’s consensus on hydrogen having some likely applications in heavy industry, it isn’t going to be the sole or even dominant method for decarbonising vehicles – that’s going to be electricity stored in batteries, blended with public and active transport. That’s debate is over – but there was still years and years of bullish forecasts of hydrogen dominance that each turned out to be badly wrong.
Most forecasts are wrong. But few have been as wrong as fuel cell vehicle forecasts. https://t.co/l3C28fOzmz
— Colin Mckerracher (@colinmckerrache) March 15, 2021
What’s of concern right now is a little earlier in the supply chain: what it’s made from. Hydrogen can serve as a very, very useful tool to create a gap between the usage of climate-damaging fossil fuels and their eventual point of use in the form of hydrogen. Attempts so far to differentiate between types involve a meaningless rainbow of colours. The Climate Council’s Tim Baxter has a relatively simple solution: there is renewable hydrogen, and fossil fuel hydrogen. Simple.
Once again, because it came up in the media again, hydrogen made with fossil fuels attached to carbon capture is, at best, a bit tidier than hydrogen made with renewables.
— Tim Baxter (@timinclimate) July 14, 2020
Late last week, Australia’s Energy Minister Angus Taylor celebrated a key milestone in progressing the absolute worst segment of the rainbow above: hydrogen produced using the most emissions intensive source available to us, brown coal.
“The start of Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) operations in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria marks an important day for Australia’s hydrogen industry. The HESC project will produce hydrogen using coal from Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, with the liquefied hydrogen to be exported to Kobe in Japan”
Victoria’s Latrobe Valley is a dense source of fairly decent chunk of Australia’s total emissions. The brown coal extracted from that region is burned in power stations. It’s actually quite hard to think of a source of energy for hydrogen production that could be worse. “This HESC project milestone demonstrates the value of Australia’s technology-led approach to reducing emissions and the leading role hydrogen could play in our future,” said Taylor. “Real projects like this show our approach is working”.
The core claim here is that once up and running, emissions from the coal will be captured and injected into the Bass Strait. The pilot plant is set to only produce three tonnes, from 160 tonnes of gassified brown coal. 100 tonnes of CO2 will be released to generate these three tonnes of hydrogen.
“Carbon offsets have been purchased to mitigate these emissions. In the commercial phase, carbon dioxide would be captured during this process and stored deep under-ground in a process known as carbon capture and storage (CCS)”, claim HESC, on their site.
100 tonnes of CO2 for 3 tonnes of hydrogen (at a cost of around $500m AUD) isn’t the end of the world (or, at least, is a small contribution to the end of the world). Except, a commercial scale brown coal hydrogen plant would “produce 225,000 tonnes of clean hydrogen annually with carbon capture and storage”. Using that same ratio, that’s around 7,500,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum, or about 7.5 megatonnes to be ‘captured’. For comparison, Chevron’s West-Australian Gorgon CCS project will purportedly capture 3.3 to 4 megatonnes per annum – at full capacity, which it is far from reaching.
CCS has, of course, been the other technology that’s been constantly ‘stretched‘ to far beyond what role it might reasonably serve within the realm of technological climate solutions.
It is meaningful that the ‘carbon capture’ element of this entire venture is basically non-existent, while plenty of effort is being put into figuring out the best way to burn the worst fuel, to produce hydrogen. The only information about the CCS element is this, in the press release from last week:
“The Victorian and Commonwealth Governments’ CarbonNet Project is developing in parallel with HESC and is essential for the hydrogen pilot’s commercialisation. If both projects are commercialised, CO2 captured during hydrogen production would be transported and stored by CarbonNet using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Rather than entering the atmosphere, CO2 emissions will be safely stored in rocks 1.5 kilometres beneath Bass Strait”
‘CarbonNet‘ is now more than a decade old. From 2011 to 2020, CarbonNet has carried out a range of investigations testing the feasibility of CO2 storage. As far as I can tell, it is yet to capture and store a single gram of CO2. “Start-up is planned for between 2015 and 2019”, wrote the Norwegian energy site Zero in 2012. The most recent CarbonNet report was posted in 2018. The Victorian government’s site for CarbonNet suggests that “Should CarbonNet progress to a commercial stage, construction and operations could be expected to begin in the mid to late 2020s subject to relevant approvals and private sector investment”. We’re now in March 2021, and there’s still no timeline on when this project will start storing CO2, let alone storing it at the magnitude required for a massive, CO2-intensive brown-coal hungry hydrogen operation.
It’s very clear that the emissions impact of the dirtiest, most emissions intensive hydrogen products will be hand-waved away with the promise of some amount of carbon capture, at some point in the future. The climate debt will stack up, and the empty promises will continue to serve their purpose. What should happen is no emissions release without a hard guarantee of permanent storage underground, but that’s almost impossible.
The debate about hydrogen’s end of use aside, we already know how to produce hydrogen without emissions. You can use an electrolyser powered by zero emissions electricity, such as from wind and solar. It is currently slightly more expensive than fossil sources (because people pay the price of pollution, not the polluters).
"NSW is showing it's serious about tackling climate change and protecting Australians, and in doing so, is cashing in on Australia's renewable energy and clean industry potential" – Climate Council energy expert, Greg Bourne. @matt_kell01 https://t.co/NwFwXGrV9s
— Climate Council (@climatecouncil) March 15, 2021
Considering the political and industry weight behind high-emissions hydrogen, this isn’t going away any time soon. There seems to be a lot of interest in worsening the climate problem and trying to erase the social consequences by translating it into a neutral energy carrier that shakes off any carbon regulation. CCS, which currently serves a primary purpose of always being a few years away but never actually living up to predictions, will help.