Shipping sunshine! Finkel launches race for clean hydrogen in an "electric planet" | RenewEconomy

Shipping sunshine! Finkel launches race for clean hydrogen in an “electric planet”

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Alan Finkel’s hydrogen strategy has raised concerns it could be a prop for brown coal. But if zero emissions is the target, it becomes a race between battery storage and electrolysers.

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Chief scientist Alan Finkel describes it as “shipping sunshine”.

In the introduction to the National Hydrogen Strategy released late last week and endorsed by state and federal governments, Finkel says Australia has an enormous opportunity to become a global clean hydrogen powerhouse.

“We can become a leader in a new industry that I call shipping sunshine,” Finkel wrote. Asked by RenewEconomy in an interview on Wednesday to explain what he meant by that, Finkel refers to the role of the sun in delivering sunshine for solar power, but also creating the wind for wind power, and the evaporation and humidity for rain, and ultimately hydro.

“Whether it is solar PV, or wind, or hydro, it all comes from sunshine,” Finkel says. “And in Australia we have two enormous assets, land and sunshine, and we want to learn how to capture the value of it, and we want to ship it. Shipping sunshine is what we can do, cost effectively, to the rest of the world.”

These are significant remarks because the politics surrounding the hydrogen strategy means it is required to declare itself “technology neutral”.

That means that there is no stated preference for “green hydrogen” created through electrolysers using wind and solar, “brown hydrogen” created by the gasification of coal, hopefully combined with carbon capture and storage, or steam methane reforming, mostly using gas.

There are fears, however, that the national hydrogen strategy in the hands of the current Coalition government will end up being a significant strut of support for the struggling coal power industry.

And one thing that is clear from the National Hydrogen Strategy and its voluminous associated documents is this: hydrogen from fossil fuels only gains a major foothold in Australia if the government is half-hearted about emissions reductions – in scenarios described by Deloitte as “business as usual” and “targeted deployment”.

That may appeal to the current Coalition government, but the scenarios painted by Deloitte make it clear that if the governments are serious about reducing emissions to zero, in accordance with the Paris climate targets, then “clean hydrogen” effectively becomes a race between electrolyser technologies and competing storage technologies such as batteries and pumped hydro.

Deloitte’s most optimistic “energy of the future” scenario represents “deep and rapid global decarbonisation” , and it is here that Australia is presumed to have taken the lead in a thriving global market if it knows how to seize its vast opportunities

This is driven, according to these scenarios, not by hydrogen from coal or gas with CCS, but almost exclusively from green hydrogen, and powered by cheap wind and solar.

By 2050, Deloitte modelling suggests, there will be need for more than 912 terrawatt hours of additional wind and solar output in Australia to meet those needs and opportunities.

That’s more than four and a half times the total of the current National Electricity Market, and more than 20 times more renewables than we have now.

Its only competitor in a zero emissions outcome is the “electric breakthrough” scenario, where the cost of storage, particularly batteries, falls so far that everything is electrified.

“Electricity (in combination with battery and pumped hydroelectricity storage) can meet almost all energy needs,” the report says of this electric breakthrough scenario.

“Electricity replaces the use of gas for heating and cooking, and the use of petrol and diesel in road transport. Consequently, despite strong global commitments to reduce carbon emissions, there is minimal uptake of hydrogen for energy.”

Finkel is not saying which scenario he expects to eventuate. But he does say this:

“I want the world to transition to a zero emissions future – an electric planet with zero emissions electricity. In Australia, that will be solar wind and hydro. In other countries, that will be solar, wind, hydro and maybe nuclear,” Finkel says.

But Finkel adds that it is “not clear that all energy will come from electrons.” He points to heavy transport, and shipping in particular, as well as industrial uses such as steel making. Some of this wind and solar will be stored in batteries, some of it in pumped hydro, and some as a transportable fuel (hydrogen and related carriers).

Perhaps what Finkel is telling us is that we should expect a a tie between electrolysers and other forms of storage. Or at least horses for courses and a defined market for each.

One thing that is clear is that whatever Australia does, making hydrogen from the current grid is a dumb idea. Or at least those parts of the grid where coal remains significant.

It would increase emissions rather than reduce them, and produce far more emissions than the maligned process of (brown) coal gasification and steam methane.

Perhaps this is why the most enthusiastic state governments  for the hydrogen economy – Tasmania and South Australia – are those that either already source all their generation from renewables, or intend to do so within a decade.

The question for the other states then become whether carbon capture can actually be done effectively, and at a competitive cost. Or, will they too, focus on wind and solar. Carbon capture is easier in hydrogen than coal power plants, because the hydrogen process already separates it – but while it could bury the bulk of emissions it will never be rid of them all. (See table above).

Finkel says if Australia’s goal is to fulfil the opportunities of a massive export industry, the choice of technology may ultimately come down to a choice from its customers.

Because of this, the next significant move will be in developing a “certificate of origin” scheme, which will detail exactly where the hydrogen has come from, how many tonnes of emissions have been emitted in its process.

“The certification of origin scheme will ensure that the countries know what they are getting,” Finkel says.



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  1. Stu 9 months ago

    They did not listen they did not know how, perhaps they’ll listen now. You know who.

  2. suthnsun 9 months ago

    I hope Mr Finkel has thought through all the issues with any form of hydrogen liquefaction; embrittlement; high escape volumes;low energy density; expensive consumables; high energy loss overheads; expensive fuel cells are ones I can think of immediately. I have not studied his proposal.
    Weighed against likely order of magnitude drop in headline storage costs together with doubled energy and power densities, hydrogen looks like it would have a hard time competing against local renewables in the bulk energy markets. Shipping, aviation, steel, and other specific markets perhaps. In that case it still has to be a sufficiently large market to warrant the overheads of production for export.
    Of course I believe gasification or derivation of any kind by fossil energy should be completely banned (then we would save a complete ‘certification scheme’ overhead)

  3. Peter Eburne 9 months ago

    I had a quick read of the strategy, but I couldn’t find anything on the waste produced through the process and disposal of same.

  4. MrMauricio 9 months ago

    Nah!! We are deep in the big coal cuddle.We prefer to go down with coal than compete with the progressive world.We will be left behind cuddling our little bits of lacqured coal.

  5. Glynn Palmer 9 months ago

    “One thing that is clear is that whatever Australia does, making hydrogen from the current grid is a dumb idea. Or at least those parts of the grid where coal remains significant.”

    Unfortunately that means Qld misses out on getting in early and capturing the market. Qld is the highest emitter of all states from both electricity generation and total generation.

    Hydrogen from electrolysis needs a reliable source of water and electricity. The water issue probably eliminates a plant in the arid far west where there is plenty of cheap marginal land available to have a renewable energy hub to concentrate the clean renewable energy source.

  6. Michael Murray 9 months ago

    “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
    Sun, sun, sun, here it comes
    Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting”

    Not so sure about the slowly.

  7. Tim Forcey 9 months ago

    Watch out for that “blue” hydrogen too.

    The fossil-gas industry’s version of “clean coal”.

  8. Askgerbil Now 9 months ago

    The table of “Emissions intensity of production” seems to have some very pessimistic figures.

    For instance, 16 kilograms of methane consists of 12 kgs of carbon and 4 kgs of hydrogen.
    In steam methane reforming, 16 kgs of methane reacts with 36 kgs of water, producing 8 kgs of hydrogen and 44 kgs of carbon dioxide.

    The emissions intensity is 44 kgs of carbon dioxide for 8 kgs of hydrogen.
    That is 5.5 kgs of carbon dioxide per kg of hydrogen. The table used in the article shows 8.5 kgs.

    Note that hydrogen from steam methane reforming of biomethane is emission neutral.

  9. Kramhh 9 months ago

    All so muddled fickle Finkle. You can find a way to be respectful to right wingers without excessive compromise and silly oversimplification.

    Hydrogen is not an end use in itself for transport and grid storage, so tables of costs and emmissions of producing it are missing the point when touting it for anything other than industrial use. For the case of assessing it as an energy carrier for transport and grid, the rest of the cycle (i.e. conversion of hydrogen back useful energy, cost of storage and logistics) needs to included when comparing to the alternatives. The fundamental science and the empirical evidence is clear, batteries will dominate energy storage for transport in all but niche cases, and batteries and pumped hydro will dominate energy storage for the grid. There’s no 50 50 tie in these areas between h2 and everything else. H2 is niche only as a bulk energy carrier. So more like a split of 5% h2 and 95% other.

    I can’t help being overly pedantic and point out that fossil fuels were also created by the suns energy millions of years ago, so oil tankers are technically shipping sunshine as well by finkles definition.

    Also electrons do not discriminate. They get around. For example, their arrangement in molecules is what determines the chemical energy available.

  10. Honest Mike 9 months ago

    “One thing that is clear is that whatever Australia does, making hydrogen from the current grid is a dumb idea.” Really?…. when it comes to hijacking the ideas of aspiring entrepeneurs, it sounds like Dr Finkel has it all sorted out….presumably it is dumb idea because the large miners are in the pockets of LNP? ….. or perhaps LNP has a flame for socialist causes like hijacking business ideas from aspiring entrepeneurs?

    PHES is the bulk of electricty grid storage across the planet and has a low energy density …. Batteries are experimental and there are plenty of skeptics about future of batteries as grid energy storage…….

    which leaves a massive market opportunity for hydrogen …. presumably LNP stands for the cause of a freek market , the aspiring entrepeneur and creating opportunities for small entrepenurs who want to become billionaire lighthouse keepers????? or do they? do the large coal miners own LNP or does LNP have a torch for socialist causes like hijacking renewable hydrogen business ideas from aspiring entrepeneurs for the good of the people?…. because , at the moment it is Crystal clear that renewable hydrogen was never a business idea originated by the LNP, or an idea that that requires anything other than a liberalised electricity market and yet…….. one could be mistaken for thinking that Mr Finkel is a genius for coming up with the idea for the economic prosperity of a socialist state appeasing unionised coal/electricity industries

  11. Miles Harding 9 months ago

    Honest Mike below makes the point that the hydrogen economy represents and opportunity to extend business as usual and is in no way disruptive or the step change that we need to reform our ways sustainably.

    I argue that the hydrogen economy is much worse for the planet than it would appear at first glance and its problems are in the physics, hence inescapable.

    Hydrogen can be sourced from either renewable sources via electrolysis or from reforming fossil fuels at temperature and pressure. The latter removes carbon from the fossil fuels, but produces carbon dioxide that must be captured and stored. While there are a number of commercial demonstrations, they amount to only around 1% of what would be needed to meet the Paris accord. It is also expensive, suggesting that brown hydrogen will continue to be a big GHG emitter and its proponents should not be trusted.
    Sourcing hydrogen from renewable sources is only a little better due to the inefficient process of sourcing, transporting and then converting it into a useful form of energy. We have seen calls for 700% renewables recently. This is should be read as nearer to 200% renewables after the losses in a hydrogen fuel cycle.

    The Twiggy-Cannon-Brookes’ subsea HVDC cable is still capital and resource intensive, but much more efficient with losses in the 15 to 20% region for a 5000Km cable to Singapore. This is far better than the 60-70% losses that would be seen in shipped hydrogen.

    More efficient still would be to move the energy intesive components of, say steel making, to near the energy (and raw material) source, then shipping materials in their most efficient form, ranging from steel coil stock to finished products. Switching back to making durable and repairable products could increase this efficiency further.

    The 700% renewables call may actually be a deadly for complex society, as so much resource would be diverted into an inefficient system that it could disable society’s ability to function, actually causing the demise of our civilisation.

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