The major public relations launch of Hydrogen Energy, the BP/Rio Tinto joint venture coal plant in Western Australia, is geared to make it look like the brave new world of “clean coal” is here and ready to roll out.

But according to a Hydrogen Energy team lobbying hard in Canberra this week, there are serious gaps that need to be filled before the project becomes a reality.

The most serious gap relates to the most serious concern about geosequestration – permanent storage. In general terms, of course, safe geological storage of CO2 as a supercritical liquid remains unproven. In this specific case, regardless of the generalities, Hydrogen Energy has not identified sites for the “permanent” sequestration of the CO2 they plan to capture. It seems that the seismic analysis necessary to confirm the presence of storage sites has not been done.

Serious questions remain as to who is going to determine the viability of any site Hydrogen Energy chooses – will the company make the call, or will an independent adjudicator be required to make an assessment?

There are a few related regulatory hurdles Hydrogen Energy, indeed any geosequestration proponent, still needs to leap. For instance, who is going to carry the long-term liability in case the CO2 leaks, losing forever all the climate benefits gained by the process? Indeed, who is going to monitor the site for leakage in the long term?

It’s worth mentioning, too, that the project has not confirmed which technology they plan to use to gassify the coal and separate the CO2.

Given these uncertainties, it would be brave indeed to trust Hydrogen Energy’s assertion that they can provide power at around $60 a megawatt hour. Where does that number come from if they don’t know what technology they’re using, what site they’ll be pumping into, and what regulatory environment they’ll be operating in?

Hydrogen Energy reckon that, if they’ve answered enough of these questions, “a final investment decision to develop the project could be made in 2011”. In that timeframe, major baseload renewables like solar thermal and geothermal could already be online in Australia, like they already are overseas. Admittedly, they also face some regulatory hurdles, but the technologies are proven and they have no waste to bury.

Moving to renewables and energy efficiency now can reduce emissions fast and deep. If we wait until 2014, when Hydrogen Energy hopefully claim their project could come online, the window for avoiding dangerous climate change will have closed.

Peter Fray

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