Will hydrogen from coal and gas be necessary to meet future energy demands?

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Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel says that the production of hydrogen from coal and gas may be neccessary to meet global transport energy needs.

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The production of hydrogen from gas and coal may be necessary to fill a potential gap in the global supply energy in the future, and Australia may be ideally placed to emerge as a major player in the global hydrogen market, Australia’s chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel has told the clean energy sector at a conference in Sydney.

Speaking at the 2019 Australian Clean Energy Summit, Finkel said that wind and solar have emerged as the most viable new sources of zero-emissions energy going into the future, as the sources have overcome the cost, scale and social challenges faced by other energy sources, including nuclear, biofuels and wave or tidal energy.

Finkel was confident that Australia was well-positioned to become a major global supplier of clean hydrogen, with the abundance of sun, wind resources and land necessary to produce sufficient levels of clean energy that Australia could be in a position to export clean energy overseas.

While Finkel remains confident that clean energy resources will be sufficient to meet the world’s future energy needs, there is still a long way to go before renewables become the dominant source of primary energy.

Fossil fuel supplies still represent around 81% of the global primary energy supply, with renewables from sources like wind and solar needing to grow by 70-times their current levels before they will match current contribution of sources like coal, gas and oil.

However, Finkel recognised a gap in the current supply of clean energy, the ongoing need for a storable transport fuel and suggested that hydrogen would be the best placed to meet that need.

While hydrogen is able to be produced directly via renewable energy sources, using electricity generated by wind and solar projects to convert water to hydrogen via electrolysis, Finkel questioned whether it would be possible to produce hydrogen with the scale and diversity of supply needed to meet the needs of a global energy market.

In raising the question of whether the production of hydrogen from coal or gas would be necessary, Finkel raised concerns about the prospect that the global energy market may become reliant on two sources of primary energy, being wind and solar.

Finkel suggested that the use of coal and gas for the production of hydrogen, when paired with the total, or near total capture of emissions from the production process, could serve as a third primary energy source in the future.

“There are two things that concern me, one is scale, and the other is diversity,” Finkel said.

“It scares me to think in the future we may only have to primary energy sources,”

“Now, the sun will always be shining, and the wind will always be blowing. But who knows what the challenges may be for land access rights, transmission rights, climate change impacting weather patterns, or one of those spectacular volcanos like Krakatoa, that could lead to a month of shade.

“Is there a third? Could we increase our diversity? Well hydrogen from coal and natural gas could be something that has to be given consideration, as it is not reliant on solar and wind as an input, its using fossil fuels repurposed to produce a clean fuel.”

“Of course, it will need carbon capture and storage to work”.

As the chief scientist, Finkel previously completed a review of the national energy market, which recommended the implementation of a Clean Energy Target to support investment in new electricity generation capacity in Australia, while reducing emissions. A recommendation that was ultimately rejected by the Turnbull Government.

Finkel is currently leading the development of the National Hydrogen Strategy, which is expected to the delivered by the end of the year.

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