The Latrobe Valley Hydrogen Fiasco

Governments are notoriously wrong at picking winners and the coal to hydrogen fiasco in the Latrobe Valley is a case in point. DELWP has just announced a $2 million investment in the “green hydrogen economy” which has all the appearances of more ‘greenwash’. One suspects that the coal to hydrogen project will be the chief beneficiary of this largesse.

These funds can be added to the $100 million already contributed by the State and Federal governments to the coal to hydrogen project to produce an estimated 2 tons of hydrogen. It is also not clear whether the Victorian government’s offshore drilling program to locate places to store carbon dioxide – the chimera of carbon capture and storage (CCS) – is part of, or extra to, the Victorian government’s contribution.

As readers will know the coal to hydrogen plans cannot be described as a ‘green process’ (see here). Using fossil fuel means that CO2 will be produced and contribute to global warming unless all this greenhouse gas is captured. The best result of CCS trials to date has been to capture up to 30% of CO2 which was prohibitively expensive (see here for more detail).

This is not to say that ‘green’ hydrogen cannot be produced but rather that the Valley coal to hydrogen project is a ‘dud’. The CSIRO have been working for many years on sustainable hydrogen processes. They produce the hydrogen by electrolysis from water using renewable energy and using air convert the hydrogen to ammonia for safety, storage and transportation. I know of no plans for anything like this in Victoria although the water being evaporated in the cooling towers of the electricity generators may be the resource to exploit rather than brown coal.

Another problem with hydrogen as a fuel is that any substantial production is at least ten years down the track. It is touted as the green fuel for transport but in the area of cars, buses and light trucks it has already lost the battle with battery powered electric vehicles. The Sea Electric operations in Morwell is just the beginning. One expert predicts that no new internal combustion engines will be manufactured after 2025 and the winner will definitely be the electric vehicle. This does not exclude hydrogen as a source for heavy vehicles, trains, shipping amongst various options.

It is difficult to imagine why these decisions have been made. Governments have probably been receiving poor or incorrect advice from department heads – especially DELWP and Earths Resources. These departments are welded to the status quo supporting what is already there – the coal deposits. They are fixated with brown coal and cannot see beyond it. And most of all they do not comprehend the enormity of global warming and the enormous task to reduce greenhouse emissions to zero by 2050.

Mining brown coal for generating electricity or converting coal to hydrogen is not the future for the Latrobe Valley. Numerous proposals have been made for generating more than enough jobs to assure a just transition in the Gippsland to a sustainable and non-polluting era. Most of them do not require any government funding but just general support and fast tracking the various renewable energy and industrial solutions. The Star of the South offshore wind project is a good example of this.