Thursday, 9 March 2023

GOT GAS? Natural gas still needed but brown coal for hydrogen’s a joke

by Berkeley Lovelace

Despite protests from the green lobby, there is little doubt that gas will continue to play a key role in the energy transition as Australia moves towards net zero emissions by 2050.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese thinks so, noting in a Q&A session that the firming capacity of gas would still be needed, singling out a company looking to move towards hydrogen for their aluminium refinery and other activity in Gladstone, Queensland.

He was also quick to call out the Greens, saying that “if it doesn’t stack up, if it has a negative impact, then you’re not actually helping the transition of what you say your objectives are”.

The Prime Minister also remained open to the development of new gas fields to meet demand as production continued to slip though he warned that proper environmental assessment would still be required.

And them’s the facts.

Gas demand remains elevated while supply – decimated as it has by years of underinvestment into new supply – continues to decline.

And while adoption of renewable energy continues to gain momentum, a massive uptick in energy storage will be required to stabilise the grid and provide power at night or when the wind’s not blowing.

It also needs to be taken in the context of the early closures of some very large coal-fired plants, which makes the firming role of gas-fired plants even more important.


‘Clean’ hydrogen missing the point

Meanwhile, the buzz is out about Japan’s Green Innovation Fund investing $2.35bn into a ‘clean’ coal to hydrogen project which will gasify dirty brown coal before extracting and liquefying the resulting hydrogen and liquefy it before shipping it to Japan.

The resulting carbon dioxide will then be captured and sequestered in storage facilities in the nearby Bass Strait.

While the concept sounds exciting, especially with the big guns firing from Japan, they are several problems with it starting with the use of carbon, capture and storage.

Carbon sequestration itself has been proven to work in the past, but it almost always has been in the context of enhanced oil recovery with the captured CO2 used to boost reservoir pressures.

The success rate when used expressively for the purpose of reducing emissions has been rather more mixed with the Chevron’s Gorgon project proving that even deep pockets can only go so far.

Shipping the hydrogen by liquefying it is also problematic.

While hydrogen itself has a high energy density, its low ambient temperature density actually results in a low energy per unit volume.

This means that for the same volume, liquefied hydrogen actually has less energy than liquefied natural gas.

And because hydrogen liquefies at a much lower temperature than methane (natural gas), you also need a lot more power both to liquefy it and keep it cold.

Then of course there’s the use of brown coal, which sounds terribly like the last gasp of a fossil fuel source that really should have been retired long ago but has hung on by its fingernails.

For hydrogen to really make any impact on carbon emissions, its production will really have to come through the use of renewable energy – aka Green Hydrogen – and not the use of stop gaps such as coal gasification combined with CCS.

That companies and countries continue to ignore this point is just a continuation of the short-sighted thinking that has landed us in our current state in the first place.

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