Hydrogen, but not for the Hindenburg

Oct 7, 2020

In Mafia folklore, when faced with an existential crisis, the mobsters would “go to the mattresses” a euphemism for dropping everything to engage in a life and death struggle with their enemies.

In Victorian politics in similar circumstances, we “go to an inquiry”, standing on one leg and holding our breath until someone tells us it’s safe to start breathing again. If you’re the federal government with a crisis, you blame others or engage in distracting activities, like “out with coal, in with gas”.

Both equally futile in an existential crisis – as is looking for saviours and salvations in fanciful projects that fit our particular prejudices.

For the very real twin existential crises of climate change and economic recovery post-COVIT, this week’s salvation is going to be hydrogen, and the saviour, Germany.

Germany’s Research Minister, Anja Karliczek, has apparently identified an “historic opportunity … for Germany to buy hydrogen produced in Australia via renewable energy…to be shipped to the northern hemisphere using a reconfigured fleet of environmentally friendly tankers.” (Melbourne Age, 28/7/20). Australia and Germany have apparently signed an agreement for a “joint feasibility study to examine how big the partnership could be.”

Let’s hope the feasibility study proponents avoid the Germany Energy Agency. Last November the Managing Director of the Agency, Kristina Haverkamp, was in Australia and spoke to a seminar at the Australian-German Climate and Energy College at Melbourne University’s Energy Transition Hub.

Ms Haverkamp outlined some of the challenges facing Germany as it transitions away from coal, (which supplies 35%) and nuclear (11%) of Germany’s energy needs, and works to achieve zero emissions by 2050. The zero emissions by 2050 policy is supported by 80% of the population and all but one of the federally represented German political parties.

Targets for closure of nuclear and coal are non-negotiable and will require an energy shortfall to be made up by imports from other countries.

Ms Haverkamp said plans are being developed for a major new interconnector that will enable the importation of emissions-free hydro electricity from Norway; however, until this is built, the shortfall will be made up by importing electricity from Poland (where it is 80% coal generation) and France (70% nuclear generation.)

Whether such a step represents a high level of political pragmatism on the part of the German voters, or whether they just haven’t twigged yet, she did not reveal.

Of greater relevance to Australia and our hydrogen salvation, Ms Haverkamp was asked about the potential for Germany importing Australian hydrogen made with our abundant, but as yet untapped, renewable energy.

The Germany Energy Agency MD displayed all the tact for which her folk are famous as she laughingly said this would never happen. Germany was certainly planning for a large role for hydrogen, but this would be sourced from Kazakhstan, which was also blessed with abundant renewable potential, was much closer to Germany and already connected by gas pipelines. Pipelines were much cheaper – and safer – for transporting hydrogen, the German’s had found.

She said Australia should definitely pursue a hydrogen for export policy, but our focus should be on Asia (and the Japanese have already started building specialised tankers for transporting liquid hydrogen.)

What also tends to throw a bit of a dampener on the optimistic reporting of Research Minister Karliczek’s statements is that in February, the German Government withdrew its funding from the Australia-German Climate and Energy College.

What we should focus on from all of this are the realities: Germany is pushing ahead towards zero emissions by 2050 and are confident they will get there. But there are some key differences with Australia:

·       The Germans are prepared to make compromises to get there (taking coal and nuclear generated electricity from other countries while they build renewable alternatives.) Many people who have been engaging with the issues of transition from coal to renewables generation in Australia over the last decade (like most manufacturers) have regarded gas as being an essential bridging generation source. Now it seems it is to become a pariah source equal – or worse – than coal! And don’t mention nuclear under any circumstances.

·       More fundamentally, the Germans are attacking all emissions, rather than becoming fixated just on electricity generation from coal (and now gas). Ms Haverkamp pointed out that Germans were focused on changing the way they live, with major efforts going into changing car use (there are 47 million cars in Germany that drive one hour per day on average) as well as moving to electric or hydrogen power. There was also a massive focus on buildings to refurbish or rebuild for better insulation and lower heating costs. A zero-emissions future would be one where much less electricity was used overall.

The most fundamental difference with Australia is that the Germans are working to a plan, not a serious of ad hoc and disconnected announcements to appeal to fringe or ill-informed interests.

Seventy years ago Australian planners managed to conceive and develop a massive transformational project – the Snowy Mountains Scheme – that was planned to take decades complete (yet was completed on time and on budget) and had within it contingencies for expansion that are being utilised today with the Snowy 2.0 project.

Has that capacity been lost for good?

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