Jaws Drop: Alan Finkel Talks Hydrogen From Fossil Fuels At Clean Energy Summit

(Video Credit: Kevin Warner via LinkedIn)

By now, it won’t surprise readers to know Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel’s enthusiasm for hydrogen continues unabated. At the end of July, he took to the stage at the Clean Energy Summit with the message that without it, the world will have trouble replacing fossil fuels in the accelerating timetable we face.

Dr Finkel pitched that message to the Summit: today, wind and solar leave a gap in the market; hydrogen is the best fuel to burn to fill that gap; and Australia (we suppose by way of our superabundant supplies of coal) could be a “major player” in a world market for hydrogen.

It’s the scale of the gap that worries Dr Finkel: he reckons the world would need to build 70 times more wind and solar than already existed at the end of 2018 (along with the associated storage – pumped hydro, and batteries) for those technologies to displace the energy we get from coal, gas, and oil.

In that light, he told the summit, hydrogen is attractive.

“Many people, not just me, will argue we will need a means of storing electricity in a high-density transportable form,” he told the summit, “and the leading candidate … is hydrogen”.

His key numbers were that Australia could, in time (think 20 to 30 years), export 30 megatonnes of hydrogen annually to match the energy exported in the 70 Mt of LNG the country shipped in 2018, since hydrogen has 2.4 times the energy density of LNG

With solar power driving the electrolysis, and assuming a 25 percent capacity factor, a site that can carry 50 MW of capacity per square kilometre and 50 percent energy losses in hydrogen production and handling, Dr Finkel calculated “three quarters of one giant cattle station” (18,000 square kilometers) could deliver that much hydrogen.

That’s the good news

So far, I expect Solar Quotes readers would probably agree overall, since anything we can add to the zero-emissions mix helps displace fossil fuels.

However, in discussing scale, he turned to the need to look at other sources of hydrogen – specifically, hydrogen from methane and coal.

Dr Finkel’s call for these sources stood on two legs: scale, and diversity. The former is, I guess, obvious from his export calculation – scaling up hydrogen to 2018-equivalent LNG exports requires a solar energy facility with eight times more annual generation, at 1,980 TWh, than Australia’s total electricity generation today.

While he described that thought experiment as a manageable task, there’s the rest of the world’s fossil fuel consumption to be displaced.

Even at a global scale, installing the capacity for the 44,000 TWh needed to meet the Hydrogen Council’s prediction the world will be consuming 667 Mt of hydrogen annually is still manageable he said – but for diversity of primary power sources, his other concern.

“It scares me to think of a future where we’ve only got two primary energy sources,” he said. “Who knows what the challenges will be? Land access rights, transmission lines, climate change changing the weather, one of those extraordinary volcanoes like Krakatoa that could lead to a month of shade?”

Dr Finkel said coal and natural gas “has to be given consideration,” since that approach doesn’t rely on solar or wind as the input, but rather uses fossil fuels “repurposed to produce a clean fuel”.

It’s worth highlighting his careful phrasing here. You need energy as an input for coal gasification or steam-methane reforming, and having said he was worried about solar and wind being the world’s only primary energy sources, Dr Finkel excludes them from this process, with fossil fuels as the source.

Carbon sequestration is clearly the big dependency here, since of the four technologies featured in Dr Finkel’s speech it’s the furthest from any kind of deployment and the furthest from economic success.

As he acknowledged in the speech:

“I agree that carbon capture and storage has never been successful economically when applied to electricity generation… but there are reasons to think that when applied to gasification of coal or steam NG that it can work better or more economically”.

I’d ask this: since the climate news of 2019 is so worrying, is it time to wonder whether 20-to-30 year timescales are fast enough. To borrow a summary from The Guardian columnist Greg Jericho, the climate change debate is now about “how bad we think it is, and how bad is really is”.

From the point of view of our ability to produce, store, and transport hydrogen, it can be regarded as a mature technology that’s only now penetrating new markets such as powering railways (The Conversation has a handy summary of rail projects here).

So Dr Finkel is right, the challenge is all about how to scale up hydrogen production without burning more fossil fuels to get it.

His bet is that carbon sequestration can be commercialised and scaled up fast enough to drive a hydrogen economy. Readers might think that since solar energy and wind power are already mature at scale, they offer a better bet!

Postscript:

If you want more background on Dr Finkel’s opinions, this PDF media release from a year ago is handy, and this news release from July 2019.

About Richard Chirgwin

Richard Chirgwin is a journalist with more than 30 years' experience covering a wide range of technology topics, including electronics, telecommunications, computing and science.

Comments

  1. Interesting proposition, given the recent nuclear push from some in the LNP.

    Finkel: ““But whether or not we should build nuclear depends not only on whether the technology can deliver zero emissions electricity, but also on the economics and the societal acceptance. And ultimately that is very much a decision for politicians.”

    Great to see Finkel recognises that ‘societal acceptance’ of the hazards of nuclear power is an obstacle… and that the massive issue of waste storage, means that hydrogen production may be a more promising option.

    Is he correct that nuclear power “a decision for politicians”? Surely we voters have a say in whether we risk 30,000-year wastelands, no-go zones for countless generations of Australians, including those with resultant birth defects?

  2. Erik Christiansen says

    Surely to goodness this is just bunkum put forward to convince us to accept nuclear as a lesser evil. Carbon re-sequestration just doesn’t work as a concept. Fossil carbon is already sequestrated, so leaving it there is the only efficient and reliable sequestration method. Burning it to produce CO2, then burning another 30% to power re-sequestration, is nuts. (With oxygen sequestration as the only net effect.) Coal doesn’t leak through cracks, already present or resulting from earthquakes, to reenter the atmosphere when our situation is at its worst, but CO2 does. “No, that’s not my CO2 spewing up over there, I’m only responsible for pushing heaps of it down this hole here. Go away, and let me count my money.”

    If we need a backup energy source, to cover simultaneous loss of wind, wave, and solar power, then let us use the millions of hectares of forest we must plant to withdraw CO2. At least then we are making a withdrawal from a CO2 credit account, not courting greater disaster through greater CO2 debt. By replacing coal in power stations as soon as possible, that could reduce emissions sooner. (Letting the carbon forests stand is lunacy – they’re not a permanent carbon store – only coal is. Siberia’s July fires released CO2 equivalent to twice Sweden’s annual emissions, in a couple of weeks. Australia outdoes that regularly.

    Europe could perhaps buy nuclear power from Russia. They don’t seem to mind a bit of leakage of radioactives here and there, now and then.
    Pay them to keep new reactors in evacuated areas on the other side of the Urals, perhaps. At least the new Small Modular Reactors should only cause small disasters, if you space them out a bit.

  3. Stuart Brown says

    Increasing the solar energy, by 70 times, less difficult than you might think, it’s now at parity with grid price, on rooftops, in the whole of China, will be at parity with most of the world, next year. Solar and wind, plus storage, is the cheapest energy, because the installation, is cheaper in bulk, those massive power lines, in China, for coal power, graze the Gobi desert.

    The price of solar halves every 3 years at the moment, in 6 years, that’s a quarter of the price, we continuously overestimate the price of solar power, in the future and underestimate the the increasing production, that results, as a consequence. Liquid hydrogen, is an excellent aircraft fuel, light per kWh, which is the essence of flight, lighter structures, but what if we also lighten the fuel, then the fuel, doesn’t have to carry, the fuel anywhere near as much. Vast cheap land, for solar farms, in the world’s deserts, 1/4 of Australia’s deserts can produce 1;250 times as much power as we currently consume. Who would have thought a decade ago, Australia would be the largest liquid natural gas exporter, in another decade, we could replace and surpass that massively, with liquid hydrogen.

    Then there’s wind, giant carbon fibre blades, are so cheap per kWh, the greens in Tasmania, are against wind farms as too big, in the migratory birds pathways, we can store some of that power, as pumped hydro. Pump it to the mainland, take mainland desert solar farm power, store it in the day and send it back to you at night, when your rooftop and desert solar power, is gone. Here comes the roaring twenties.

    • Marc L Jackson says

      It’s a little more complex than that, detailed design, scaling, resource …
      You can’t put turbines everywhere, efficiency reasons. The resources needed to build the energy solutions of the planet.
      When you model these in detail you start to see the picture.

    • David Priol says

      You’re argument is spot on.
      I believe every rooftop like Bunnings should be tax free havens for companies to make money providing their own needs and profiting completely from selling at a sub-coal price (About 20% less) to encourage energy companies to also safeguard their profit margins as demand obviously reduces. The energy companies should be encouraged to manufacture and supply solar, thermal, wind and wave power with tax breaks for every 10% reduction in coal and 5% for gas.
      The research into batteries for houses to large cities and states should be a priority for the CSIRO and they should be partnering industries on a large scale to research first, but ultimately produce and export batteries using new technologies including anything from salt water to any recyclable materials that can lower the price, reduce pollution and store copious amounts power.
      Business people and researchers and scientists should be given ample opportunities to become tech millionaire and billionaires if it makes renewables our national number one industry and hopefully a huge export industry. The trade deficit alone from importing fuel would be astronomically sensational and provide jobs, and more importantly lower the cost across the board for thousands of other industries.
      Every industry which uses cars, machines, trucks etc etc etc would have their costs reduced significantly with an ongoing benefit.

    • “….Australia would be the largest liquid natural gas exporter, in another decade, we could replace and surpass that massively, with liquid hydrogen.”

      Oh Mr, Brown. That isn’t going to happen because of the very low boiling point of hydrogen. If you want to transport industrial quantities of hydrogen the best way to do it would be as ammonia (NH4), and strip off the nitrogen at the far end.

      Anyway, what are you proposing to do with all this hydrogen ? Its not like CNG or LPG that you can use easily in cars with minimal re-plumbing.

      ( Have a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gu1v7d7-Wh0 for an entertaining exposition on why hydrogen is impractical for use as a gasoline / diesel replacement. )

      Where is the cost benefit of changing lots of end-use equipment to use what will not be very cheap hydrogen, anyway ? Let’s see some figures, please ,before you start pushing this barrow down the street. It’s not as if the world has infinite money to squander. Humanity has already wasted trillions of dollars on wind (and solar) power trying to find a replacement for fossil fuels from intermittent sources, when nuclear power is the obvious clean alternative.

      • Geoff Miell says

        OldCynic,
        I see you are still hiding behind a pseudonym. You challenge Stuart Brown with:

        “Where is the cost benefit of changing lots of end-use equipment to use what will not be very cheap hydrogen, anyway ? Let’s see some figures, please ,before you start pushing this barrow down the street. It’s not as if the world has infinite money to squander.”

        And then follow that with an example of your own hypocrisy with this apparently unsubstantiated statement:

        “Humanity has already wasted trillions of dollars on wind (and solar) power trying to find a replacement for fossil fuels from intermittent sources, when nuclear power is the obvious clean alternative.”

        Where are your figures, OldCynic, that supports your claim that “nuclear power is the obvious clean alternative”?

        Evidence I see indicates nuclear-fission technologies have NEVER DEMONSTRATED that they are:

        • Affordable/low-cost (without large government subsidies, and for most countries it also requires strong military patronage);
        • rapidly deployable – a decade, and often significantly more, to deploy (i.e. plan, construct, commission) is IMO far too slow;
        • low-risk – only governments will insure and pay-out dearly when things go very wrong (e.g. Chernobyl, Fukushima) – commercial insurers won’t touch them because although serious accidents are rare, the consequences are catastrophic;
        • long-term sustainable – fast-breeder reactors needed to extend supplies of finite and relatively scarce high-grade fissionable materials have been a technical and commercial failure; and
        • zero carbon emissions – when the entire life cycle is considered (i.e. construction, operation, plant dismantling, and the nuclear fuel cycle) nuclear energy can by no means be considered carbon-free.
        See my comment: https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/andrews-government-solar-victoria/#comment-479690

        OldCynic, it seems to me you are another wilfully blinkered commentator here at this weblog that refuses to acknowledge the inconvenient evidence – renewables have won the race! Renewables are cheaper, cleaner, faster-to-deploy, reliable with adequate energy storage, long-term sustainable, no ultra-long-term toxic waste legacy.

        OldCynic, if we took your advice to go down the path of excessively expensive, immature/slow-to-deploy, higher-risk, long-term unsustainable nuclear-fission technologies, that are likely to be ineffective at rapidly reducing human-induced carbon emissions in the required timeframe, then human civilisation will be on the irreversible path to likely collapse.
        See: http://www.climatecodered.org/2019/08/at-4c-of-warming-would-billion-people.html

        Do you want civilisation to collapse, OldCynic, for you (and your family, if you have any)?

        • Geoff
          Have a Bex and a good lie down.

          If you think nuclear is immature and expensive, go and look at France.

          See https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-a-f/france.aspx which will tell you:
          a) France produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear fuel
          b) France produces 17% of its electricity from recycled nuclear fuel
          c) France is the world’s largest exporter of electricity – because it is cheap.

          Installations of commercial wind-farms are falling off a cliff in Europe because governments are reducing / removing subsidies.

          So much for Stuart’s claims that wind and solar are ” it’s now at parity with grid price, on rooftops, in the whole of China, will be at parity with most of the world, next year. Solar and wind, plus storage, is the cheapest energy, because the installation, is cheaper in bulk, those massive power lines, in China, for coal power, graze the Gobi desert. ”

          Good luck getting any credible figures for those contentions, from him !

          You ask me: “Do you want civilisation to collapse?” No, I do not, and I believe nuclear power – rather than intermittent wind/solar power (or hydrogen) – is the way to prevent that collapse.

          • Geoff Miell says

            OldCynic,
            You state:

            “If you think nuclear is immature and expensive, go and look at France.”

            Firstly, when I said nuclear is immature, I was referring to Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) and thorium-based technologies. OldCynic, can you please nominate any SMRs operating now anywhere in the world? Can you please nominate any thorium-based technologies running now at large-scale anywhere in the world?

            Secondly, I’m glad you mentioned France as an example.
            See my comment: https://www.solarquotes.com.au/blog/powering-finland-nuclear-renewables/#comment-476197

            OldCynic, if you think €7.6 billion over budget is cheap and ten years behind schedule is an acceptable delay (and there are other examples of enormous cost overruns and lengthy deployment delays in other nuclear power countries), then I think you, OldCynic, need your head read. I think you are living in ‘fantasy land’ if you think humanity can tolerate the cost-overruns on such a large-scale and enormous delays in deployments for nuclear-fission technologies when human-induced GHG emissions need to begin being rapidly reduced now (i.e. 50% reduction by 2030, and net-zero by 2050).

            Thirdly, nuclear power has NEVER been cheap. A new study of the economics of nuclear power has found that nuclear power has never been financially viable, finding that most plants have been built while heavily subsidised by governments, and often motivated by military purposes, and is not a good approach to tackling climate change.
            See: https://reneweconomy.com.au/nuclear-energy-is-never-profitable-new-study-slams-nuclear-power-business-case-49596/

            You say:

            “…I believe nuclear power – rather than intermittent wind/solar power (or hydrogen) – is the way to prevent that collapse.”

            IMO, your “belief” is flawed because you apparently fail to accept overwhelming evidence on the non-viability of nuclear-fission technologies to provide cheap, rapidly-deployable, long-term sustainable, safe, zero-carbon emissions energy. The compelling evidence contradicts your “belief”.

            The compelling evidence I see suggests to me if humanity took your advice, OldCynic, to go down the path of nuclear power to rapidly reduce GHG emissions, then I think human civilisation would be inevitably doomed to collapse. Only renewables have the capacity to be rapidly deployed in the time-frame required, are undeniably cheaper, safer, long-term sustainable, and without the ultra-long-term toxic waste legacies for future generations to be burdened with.

  4. Glen Bruton says

    70x more wind and solar doesn’t sound that hard to me. Certainly cheaper than building a seawall along every costal town.

    • Don’t worry Glen we will still need that seawall..

      If in fact “it” will actually be needed: modelling vs reality ??

      Making Australia the “Renewables Central” may not have the slightest effect on potential climate trajectories…

      PS. I would love to see more zero pollution energy proliferation, think of the economic benefits, we all need to think longer term.

      I am not a denier of reality. It’s just that I understand modelling uncertainty.

      • Geoff Miell says

        Mark,
        You state:

        “I am not a denier of reality. It’s just that I understand modelling uncertainty.”

        Do you understand risk management, Mark? Do you want to take the risk that you think the modelling is wrong (or too uncertain) and not do anything (i.e. carry on with business-as-usual), and find out later when there is more certainty you are wrong, and it’s too late to do anything about mitigating the situation, and you (and your family, if you have one?) are toast (perhaps literally)?

        See: http://www.climatecodered.org/2019/08/at-4c-of-warming-would-billion-people.html
        In the referenced link above, the post highlights Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, reportedly saying in September 2009 (almost a decade ago):

        “The other thing to remember is that 4C is a global average. It’s probably nearer 5C on land, and would be up to 15C in some areas.

        There’s no evidence to suggest that humanity can actually survive at this sort of temperature. Small pockets of human beings might continue to exist but I don’t consider that to be a success.”

        Do you feel lucky, Mark?

  5. Geoff Miell says

    Richard Chirgwin,
    You say in your post:

    “His bet is that carbon sequestration can be commercialised and scaled up fast enough to drive a hydrogen economy. Readers might think that since solar energy and wind power are already mature at scale, they offer a better bet!”

    It would be interesting to see what compelling evidence Dr Finkel has regarding CCS that suggests it could be commercialised in a timely manner and rapidly deployed (i.e. within the next few years to a decade). I don’t see any – see page 9 in my Submission #9 at:
    https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Fair_Dinkum_Power/FairDinkumPower/Submissions

    Meanwhile, the pipeline for new coal-fired plant developments continues to shrink.
    See: https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-how-plans-for-new-coal-are-changing-around-the-world

  6. betsy hughes says

    I have developed a strong interest in hydrogen produced from methane, simply because it occurred to me that methane is something we as a planet have an over abundance of. Surely if there is a way to harness that in an environmentally conscious way, wouldn’t that be an idea considering it actually can produce clean emissions. Perhaps it might be worth exploring more, working on ways to create a process that makes sense without making waste, using precious resources & making it reliable. I mean we as a species make methane in enormous amounts from our own biological waste that we have to burn of or just let it dissipate into the atmosphere or our sewerage treatment plants blow up. Then there’s cows! I’m not a science person, I just know when I heard you could get it from methane I thought “Well that’s interesting! It’s everywhere & it’s a problem! Surely???” Anyhoo….!

    • David Thrum says

      Most hydrogen today is made from methane using a process called Steam Methane Reforming (SMR), which unfortunately produces CO2 as a waste product. Virtually all of this methane would come from natural gas today (which is mostly methane). Agreed it would be great to capture methane from waste water processing,

      There’s at least one process under development for extracting hydrogen from methane that captures the carbon as a solid (graphite) rather then CO2. CO2 sequestration is not needed, and the graphite has value to offset processing costs.

      They’re already looking at processing methane from wastewater/sewer using this process, as well as from natural gas.

      https://www.energymagazine.com.au/hazer-water-corporation-sign-mou-for-hydrogen-production/

  7. Dan Phillips says

    Did I misread this or did Dr Finkel say that we would need an 18,000km2 solar panel to produce the 30Mt of Hydrogen for export using solar energy only?

    That’s a super high number! I was of the opinion that 1km2 of solar panels could produce as much energy as a nuclear power station already.
    Has anyone here seen the calculations for this?

    • Ronald Brakels says

      One square kilometer receives around one gigawatt or more of solar energy around noon on a clear day. With 20% efficient solar panels that will produce around 200 megawatts of electrical power. While you will need more land to produce an equivalent amount of energy once you add in a portion of a uranium mine it’s not a huge difference.

      • Dan Phillips says

        HI Ronald, after my post I went a looked up a local solar power station here in Victoria, (Bannerton Solar Farm) They have 320,000 panels and if they are the standard 1mx1.7m then that is 544,000 m2 or a little over half a square km of panels.
        They produce 110 MW DC which is converted to 88 MW AC, not close to a nuclear power plant which range from 500-3000 MW (loy lang A&B (coal) in vic is ~3,300MW I think). Half of Victoria’s requirements.

        So you’d need 75 of these solar farms to just supply Victoria (when it’s sunny), rather more when it’s not…

        None of this has any bearing on the discussion of course, its just an interesting tangent. 🙂

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