Hydrogen to the rescue
4 February 2023
I love a good fairy tale as much as the next person: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, Sun Cable. The really tragic part of this list is that it’s only Sun Cable that doesn’t have a happy ending.
Who would have thought that a project that involved hundreds of solar panels located in the middle of nowhere, a raft of gigantic batteries and over 4,000 kilometres of underwater cables could fail? The answer is pretty much everyone, but when there are two bulls – OK, billionaires – in the same paddock, the initial response by the aggressive beasts is to believe in the fairy tale.
It just sounded so good: Australia as an energy superpower. We were going to supply 15 per cent of Singapore’s electricity – this bit was actually news to Singapore – and at a mere $35 billion, at least, it was a complete steal. Just think of the environmental benefits. And think of the other possibilities – Singapore one day, the world the next.
Tragically, the project has come to a crashing halt and the underlying company has been put into administration. Both founding billionaires, ‘Twiggy’ Forrest and Mike Cannon-Brookes (aka Double Bay Jesus) will be forced to write off what to normal mortals sound like huge sums of money but for them will be mere pocket money. Taxpayers threw in from one of the legions of green assistance programs $15 million which is now gone, never to be recovered.
Mere details, such as the fact that the Northern Territory is to the east of Singapore (and therefore solar energy peaks at the wrong time for the evening peak in Singapore), eventually took their toll. Where was the dumb blonde who could have pointed this out before raising a single dollar for this massive boondoggle? (No, my hair is grey these days, not blonde.)
But fear not, one or other of the bulls may rescue the project from administration and head it in a different direction. Double Bay Jesus thinks that an overland cable to Sydney might do the trick, because that would be easy to achieve. Twiggy, however, wants to use the solar power to create green hydrogen which might be a problem because the panels are not really near any reliable water sources. In any case, it will be many years before we see an operational project based on even part of the Sun Cable dream.
Talking of billionaires, we have had the privilege of the presence of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and latterly, philanthropist and policy wonk. Having ear-bashed Albo for a few hours – nuclear, eliminating our livestock, hydrogen, that sort of thing – he took to taking in the touristic pleasures of this great southern land, such as attending the Australian Open. (Am I allowed to praise our country now or is self-loathing compulsory?)
An interesting prior issue is why Gatesy thinks he has any particular expertise in climate, energy, agriculture, etc., just because he was able to extract vast monopoly profits from his company. Don’t get me wrong here: he is clearly a genius when it comes to matters software and I am full of admiration for someone who builds a company like Microsoft from scratch. But can’t we be spared the other stuff?
Anyway, Bill is big on nuclear and he is investing heavily in an alternative means of nuclear power generation that requires little water and is considerably cheaper than conventional means. But his bizarre message to Albo was that it’s OK for Australia to turn its back on nuclear power because we don’t like it, there is insufficient public acceptance or whatever.
His chin-wag with the PM could have been much more useful if he had just told him – billionaires can do that – to get on with removing the legislative restrictions on nuclear power and prepare for substantial investment in this green source of power.
Getting back to our local billionaires, Speccie readers will be devastated to learn that the US partner in Twiggy’s Gladstone hydrogen outfit has pulled out, citing the difficulty of producing hydrogen at a sufficiently low cost. (By the way, Gates likes grey hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas. Greenies would be storming Canberra were Albo’s government to give any support for grey hydrogen. For them it’s green – by electrolysing water – or nothing.)
But demonstrating the unwavering enthusiasm that is typical of the very rich, Twiggy has declared that the demise of this partnership is not really a setback and everything is on track for commercial quantities of hydrogen to be produced this year. This seems as likely as me travelling to the moon, but who knows?
Hydrogen has proven a very useful word to attack the climate realists who point out the combination of decommissioned coal-fired plants, lots of wind and solar and some very expensive short-duration batteries do not amount to a system that can generate reliable and affordable electricity. These same people also highlight the current (and likely future) deficiencies of electric vehicles. Any expression of doubt is simply rebutted by the single word: hydrogen.
But no one in her right mind, including the dumb blonde, thinks that using green hydrogen to generate electricity makes sense. Just think about it: you use electricity generated by wind and solar to make hydrogen so you can use to it to generate electricity. The hydrogen will need to be compressed before it can be transported which requires more energy. The loss of energy along that chain is vast. Just use the electricity generated in the first place, if you must.
But hang on, you say, hydrogen is a useful means of storing energy. Well, maybe, but you need to invest heavily in special infrastructure because as the smallest molecule, hydrogen is prone to escape and normal pipelines will corrode very quickly. It has been pointed out, for instance, by the House of Commons Committee of Science and Technology that smart meters in the UK (and here as well) are not compatible with hydrogen. So much for hydrogen as a source of home heating any time soon.
I should also mention that you will need loads of platinum and iridium if you want to get this hydrogen project going big-time, which by the way are in short supply around the world. You will also be pleased to know that 14 hydrogen-powered cars were purchased in the UK last year; the figure is probably lower again in Australia. This baby has a long way to go before it achieves adult status. But hydrogen as the central character in a fairy tale has a lot going for it now.