Does Labor’s green hydrogen plan for the Kurri Kurri gas power plant stack up? | Graham Readfearn

Energy analysts say their Hunter Valley plan is just ‘an expensive way to avoid a small amount of emissions’ when there are cheaper, greener alternatives

Labor said this week it will back a gas-fired power plant in the Hunter Valley, but only if the gas is mixed with hydrogen.

The rationale for this move, according to Labor, was the Morrison government’s $600m support for the project was “risking taxpayers’ money on a gas plant that experts say will become stranded in an increasingly renewable energy system”.

Starting up the Snowy Hydro plant with at least 30% hydrogen – and eventually upgrading the plant to run entirely on green hydrogen – was also “consistent with net zero emissions by 2050, as well as our commitment to 43% emissions reductions by 2030”.

But there are some big doubts from analysts about how much emissions could be saved and whether Labor’s plan would do anything to prevent the plant from becoming a white elephant sitting in the Hunter Valley.

The announcement was light on details – a shame because there are some fundamental questions that can’t be answered about the viability of the plant and how clean it might be.

But first, some very quick background: the plant at Kurri Kurri is proposed to only come into operation when there are short-term gaps in electricity supply. The government-owned Snowy Hydro has said it expects the plant will only run for about 2% of the year.

Some analysts, academics and the former head of the Energy Security Board, Kerry Schott, have said regardless of what the plant runs on, it makes little commercial sense and won’t be needed to firm the supply of electricity anyway.

But Labor says it’s backing the plant because it will drive demand for hydrogen from renewables and allow more clean energy to enter the power sector.

There’s a problem here. Or at least an important calculus as hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer cash are being committed, with Labor saying more investment would be needed to get the plant to run on 100% hydrogen.

First, how much might actually be saved in emissions?

A spokesperson for the shadow climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, told Temperature Check the initial requirement to have the plant run on 30% green hydrogen (that is, hydrogen with zero emissions, presumably derived from renewable energy) would relate to the volume of hydrogen being added.

Dr Fiona Beck, an expert on the emerging green hydrogen industry at the Australian National University, says that distinction is important.

Methane has about three times as much energy by volume as hydrogen. So she says if 30% of the volume of fuel added is hydrogen, you don’t cut emissions by 30%. Rather, you only cut emissions by about 12%.

That’s not insignificant, but it’s also not that much for a plant that will hardly ever run in the first place. Adding hydrogen will also push up costs. And it’s going to cost about $600m, and Bowen has said more will need to be spent to allow the plant to burn more hydrogen.

Energy analysts have also said that of all the uses for clean hydrogen, blending it in power plants is likely to be one of the least economically viable uses.

But Beck says a plant like Kurri Kurri – built to cover only peaks in demand – would also be competing with other technologies that can do the same job, such as batteries or pumped hydro.

“You have to think about what else you could be doing with that hydrogen,” she said. “It seems like an expensive way to avoid a small amount of emissions when there are cheaper and less emitting alternatives out there.”

Record corals v record heat?

In the wake of a Morrison government announcement of $1bn in funding for Great Barrier Reef conservation over the next nine years, one Coalition senator wasn’t impressed.

Queensland Liberal National party senator Gerard Rennick complained to journalist David Lipson the cash would “only be used to fund academics who spread alarmist doomsday rhetoric”.

He apparently hadn’t read the detail that more than half of the money will go to on-ground projects to improve water quality.

Rennick also said the money wasn’t needed and that recent data showed the coverage of coral over the reef was “at an all-time high.”


Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.
Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. Photograph: ARC Centre of Excellence

The Australian Institute of Marine Science has been monitoring coral cover on reefs since the mid-1980s. Its latest monitoring report does not show record coral cover on any of the reef’s three regions – southern, central or northern.

What it does show is an increase in coral since back-to-back bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. And this increase, AIMS has said, was driven by a fast-growing coral species that are also the most susceptible to the next coral-bleaching outbreak.

And there are fears the next bleaching event could be unfolding right now, with record ocean temperatures recorded over the reef in December.

Blame Greta?

You might have noticed there’s a bit of a supply crunch going on in some supermarkets.

Earlier pandemic shortages of product were down to panic-buying, with some people convinced those who would best survive lockdowns would be those holding the most number of toilet rolls.

More recently, there have been supply fears caused by a shortage of a diesel additive, and the current gaps on shelves are due to staff shortages in the supply chain as people catch Covid or isolate themselves.

A partly empty Woolworths shelf in Sydney on 24 January.
A partly empty Woolworths shelf in Sydney on 24 January. Photograph: Richard Milnes/Rex/Shutterstock

News Corp columnist Vikki Campion, who is engaged to the deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, doesn’t want customers abusing young staff (I’m down with that also).

But at the weekend Campion took the supply shortage to weave a creative tale where the abuse – and the gaps on shelves – were somehow due to a lack of support for fossil fuels and the resource sector.

Corporations looking to cut their emissions were just fawning to “fashionable philosophies” rather than, say, a broad goal backed by financial institutions that manage about US$130tn of investments.

Australian corporations didn’t understand how things were made, Campion said, and had instead “swallowed Greta Thunberg’s thundering” rather than, say, absorbing decades of scientific analysis and warnings and being worried they’ll be left with fossil fuel assets that become worthless in a zero-carbon future.


Graham Readfearn

The GuardianTramp

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