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Labor’s plan for the greening of the Kurri Kurri power plant is absurd

Labor’s plan for the greening of the Kurri Kurri power plant is absurd

coal power station seen from above

Is it possible for you to have your cake, and eat it as well? Federal Labor is certainly giving it a go by supporting government plans for a fossil gas/diesel peaking plant in the Hunter Valley currently under construction – as long as the plant switches to green hydrogen by 2030.

Three reasons make this disappointing.

One, we don’t actually need the Kurri Kurri power station. It will be a white elephant built by the government.

Two, retrofitting it with hydrogen-burning technology would be so costly as to be unrealistically expensive.

Third, you can only use hydrogen to make power.

The gas/diesel plant under construction and Labor’s hydrogen proposal came from the realm of politics. It should have stayed there.

Why did Labor shift its position?

Labor has long been divided on the Kurri Kurri Power Station, which has been promoted as a way of increasing dispatchable generation. At first, Labor denounced the Morrison government’s plans, with climate change spokesman Chris Bowen It is described as a “cynical attempt to pick a fight on gas and continue the climate wars, or to reward the major Liberal donor who owns the Kurri Kurri site”.

Now They sayIt will create jobs and provide reliable, affordable electricity.

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Labor leader Anthony Albanese announced the switch to climate spokesman Chris Bowen. This was in response to climate change action. Kurri Kurri would use green hydrogen for 30% of its production when it enters service 2023, and 100% by 2030. Labor claims it is willing to spend upto Another $700 MillionOn the plant.

It has been Widely recommended the proposed plant is the government’s way to take advantage of Labor’s internal divide.

Kerry Schott was Energy Security Board chair when the proposal for the plant was first made for the small town located 35km inland from Newcastle. Its viability has been questioned. “Nobody is going to build it from the private sector because it doesn’t stack up,” she said.

She’s right. It didn’t stack up then and doesn’t stack up now, regardless of how it’s powered.

coal power station seen from above

The Hunter Valley has been a location for fossil fuel power stations since the early days of the 20th century, such as Bayswater coal station.

The power plant everyone needs

My colleagues and I went on a deep diveWe discovered that the proposed power station was not needed until at most 2030. That’s the best case. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that it will ever be required as cheaper and more efficient options such as batteries are available to meet the growing demand for stored energy.

That’s to say nothing of the fact the initial proposal would only have had enough gas stored to run for six hours and then take a day to recharge. These plans have been extended by Snowy Hydro to include 10 hours of storage.

And Snowy Hydro’s price tag of $600 million? Fiddlesticks. It will cost a lot more. We estimate it will cost over $1bn, including hydrogen costs. Kurri Kurri is unlikely to generate enough income to cover its costs. It’s hardly surprising private investors are steering clear. Why bankroll a dud?

But isn’t it good to make gas plants greener?

It is possible to add hydrogen to gas-fired turbines up to 10% without any problems. You can also use hydrogen as the primary fuel for turbine-based power plants like South Korea. has doneHydrogen is used in oil refining as a byproduct.

The problem is that the two Kurri Kurri Turbines ordered by the government are limited to running on a maximum 15% hydrogen mix. Snowy Hydro suggests that the turbines could be extended to use a maximum 30% hydrogen mixture, with modifications to the internal equipment and pipes. The gas lateral pipeline/storage systems are only being built to carry a 10% mixture. They would need to be completely rebuilt in order to transmit a higher mix.

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A boulder coral on a reef that has bleached white.

Converting Kurri Kurri into hydrogen involves the complete rebuilding of the plant, its pipeline, and storage infrastructure. These are not minor adjustments.

gas fired plant
The Kurri Kurri plant, as depicted by Snowy Hydro planning documents.
Environmental Impact Statement, Snowy Hydro Hunter Power Project

Let’s imagine Labor is elected and proves determined to press ahead with these plans. How will they store the hydrogen and where will they get it? The world currently has no large-scale source of climate-safe hydrogen from water. While there is a great deal of interest in large scale electrolysis – the process where we split water to get hydrogen and oxygen – there is a long road ahead.

Let’s not waste time on distractions

Are these the final issues plaguing this plant’s health? Nope. No.

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That’s because combustion turbines are very inefficient ways to produce electricity. They lose half of the energy they consume as heat that is vented to the atmosphere. This alone makes hydrogen turbines uneconomic. We don’t think hydrogen will ever find a place in combustion turbines that produce electricity. It is not necessary to do so, as there are better alternatives. Australia and other countries already have the largest market for batteries for storage, and this will likely continue.

We’d be much better off using green hydrogen to decarbonise more difficult industries, such as the production of fertiliser, in industrial processes and chemical manufacturing, and for long-distance land or sea heavy freight where hydrogen still has a weight advantage over batteries.

There are many challenges to overcome in the transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. These types of economically and technically impossible proposals only serve to make us worse. These plans should be given short shrift.

Ted Woodley, an engineer independent, contributed to this article.

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