'Clean' hydrogen and carbon capture: Will the government's energy roadmap drive down emissions?

Energy Minister Angus Taylor unveiled the federal government's technology roadmap at the National Press Club. Source: AAP

Analysts are torn over whether the federal government's technology roadmap can effectively drive down emissions.

The federal government’s technology roadmap has named five priority energy technologies it says will help drive down the nation’s emissions over the next decade.

The target list - which includes “clean” hydrogen, energy storage, low carbon steel and aluminium, carbon capture and soil carbon technologies - has divided policy analysts. 

Some are backing the technology-focused policy approach as a sensible means of developing emerging technologies, but others are sceptical over the viability of the technologies prioritised. 

So, is the government’s strategy a policy that can help drive down greenhouse gas emissions and can it be successful without the clear destination of a 2050 emissions reduction target?

Turbines are seen at a wind farm near Bungendore
The federal government expects to invest more than $18 billion in new energy technologies to 2030.

'A good start' - but does it drive down emissions?

The federal government has announced it will deliver $18 billion over the next ten years into the emerging projects arguing this will help drive down emissions and lower costs.

Grattan Institute energy program director Tony Wood said the emerging technologies chosen by the government were as good as any to identify for priority investment.

“This is in some ways only the beginning of the journey but it's a good start and it doesn't lead us down any dead ends either - it opens up some possibilities ... and I have these on my list,” he told SBS News.

“What we will need eventually is some kind of overarching policy to drive the deployment of the technologies once they get over this early stage development phase.”

Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the plan showed the government was committed to finding a way to reduce emissions without suppressing to the nation's economy.

“We need more horses in the race – not less. There are only two ways to suppress emissions. Either through some form of taxation, or you improve the activities,” he told the National Press Club on Tuesday.

“There is no third way. Australia can't and shouldn't damage its economy to reduce emissions.”

Two of the priority technologies, carbon capture and soil carbon, have been rejected by environmentalists over concerns they are aimed a propping up fossil fuel energy sources.

Investment in hydrogen also has many critics, with opponents concerned it is currently mostly produced from fossil fuels despite its capacity to be created using renewable energy sources.

Richie Merzian, climate and energy director at progressive think-tank the Australia Institute, said he remained concerned the roadmap would do little to reduce emissions over the next ten years.

The Bayswater coal-fired power station in the NSW Hunter Valley region.
The Bayswater coal-fired power station in the NSW Hunter Valley region.

“There seem to be technologies that are proven and can reduce emissions now and over the next decade and they seem to be off this shortlist,” he said.

“Instead we are seeing carbon capture and storage that hasn't delivered any serious emissions reductions. This roadmap (also) has the potential of turning hydrogen into clean coal 2.0.”

The roadmap sets no date to achieve results and comes as the government continues to resist pressure to implement a net-zero emissions target by 2050.  

Labor's energy spokesman Mark Butler accused the government’s strategy of being a "roadmap to nowhere".

"In the deepest recession in almost a century, this long series of announcements in energy won't deliver a single new job in the timeframe Australia needs," he said.

Greens Leader Adam Bandt also criticised the roadmap for failing to implement a strong enough plan towards reducing Australia's carbon emissions.

“The government is backing yesterday's technologies and ignoring solar and wind which are our only chances of avoiding dangerous runaway global warming,” he said.

“This is a road map that will drive us off a cliff and … young people will pay the price.”

Solar and wind considered "mature technologies"

The roadmap plan includes the naming of "mature technologies" identified as coal, gas, solar and wind, which are not on the government's priority investment list.

The government said it would only invest in these technologies “where there is clear market failure” like a “shortage of dispatchable generation”.

But Australian National University renewable energy expert Andrew Blakers said not prioritising investment in solar and wind technology was misguided, fearing it could undermine the transition towards reducing emissions.

“If the roadmap placed wind and solar at the front and centre then emissions would decline much faster than the current version of the roadmap,” he told SBS News.

“They need to be at the top and everything else is to support wind and solar not the other way around.”

Instead, the roadmap sets out a series of "stretch goals" that seek to establish when new technologies will be considered competitive with existing technologies.

This includes getting energy storage costs to less than $100 per megawatt hour, cutting the cost of carbon capture and storage to less than $20 per tonne and storing emissions in "soil carbon" for less than $3 per hectare per year.

Another goal would see hydrogen deemed competitive if it could be produced for $2 a kilogram or less.

Mr Wood said the priority technologies could essentially be considered as “horses” in a race, saying some will go on to prove themselves while others would likely fail to meet their targets.

“What will be a challenge is if we are heading in the right direction towards those targets how do we get them in the market,” he said

“How do they get deployed at scale to seriously do the job that they need to do for emissions reduction?” 

The Australian government is currently committed to reducing emissions by 26 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030.

But states, territories, business groups and farmers are urging the federal government to also adopt a target of net zero emissions by 2050. 

Mr Taylor said the government was focused on reducing emissions without comprising the nation's economic prosperity.

"What we will not do is impose a target that will impose costs on the economy, destroy jobs, and stop investment," he said.

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