Chief scientist challenges WA to lead energy transition
Western Australia is uniquely blessed with sun, wind, gas, and the complete suite of battery minerals to be a world leader in clean energy, according to WA Chief Scientist Peter Klinken.
In a livestreamed event for the WA Petroleum Club, Professor Klinken said it was time for the State to develop a strong narrative around its natural advantages, and to convert them into comparative advantages as the demand for cleaner and renewable energy increases.
The renewable component of the energy mix will increase, he said. “You can feel it, you can actually see how it's becoming increasingly cost competitive. This is Australia's great opportunity to be perfectly honest, and we in Western Australia are just uniquely blessed.
“But we don't have a narrative around the smarts and the sophistication that goes into Western Australia.
“We have a remote operations capability that doesn't exist in other parts of the world. We have companies that are running mines and offshore oil rigs from within a kilometre of where we're sitting right now.
“That's phenomenal capability that NASA, for example, is really interested in. That's incredibly sophisticated technology, but we don't have a narrative around it. “We are much more than taking a selfie with a quokka on Rottnest Island.”
Professor Klinken said WA should promote its overall benefits to attract leading experts and creative people to the State. “We are a great place to do whatever you want to do, because we're well connected. You can even work from home now, as we've noticed over the last few months,” he said.
“You can do business anywhere in the world. And this is about as good a place as you want to be in the world.”
On the issue of energy transition, Professor Klinken said WA had baseload capability covered with gas and coal, while accepting that ageing coal-fired power stations would be phased out, which set the scene for solar, wind, and hydrogen to be developed. “Perth is the second windiest capital in the world after Wellington,” he said.
“The north west of Australia is the place with the greatest potential for solar energy. The south west of Australia is the best place for wind energy.
“WA couldn't be better placed to take advantage of renewables. You can see how the world is changing and it's partly because of the decreasing cost of renewables.”
Energy storage was the answer for when “the sun’s not shining and the wind’s not blowing”, he said.
And, again, WA was perfectly placed to take advantage of the increasing demand for energy storage. “There’s only one jurisdiction in the world that’s got lithium, nickel, cobalt, aluminium, vanadium, zinc, manganese and untapped graphite — and that’s WA. We have all the elements necessary to be making lithium ion batteries,” he said.
“The State has developed a future battery strategy and for the first time is actually looking at going beyond exporting rocks and saying what can we do further downstream.
“It's exciting for me to see that processing of lithium is taking place here. The next step would be to look at cathode production, then battery cell production, and then eventually the possibility exists for recycling.
“So, we're more than just a rocks and crops economy; we do more than just dig and blow things up and put them on ships. We are trying to extract more value. At the moment it’s thought that we're getting less than 1 per cent of the total value of our lithium.”
Hydrogen would become increasingly important as a clean energy option, with particular benefits in reducing the carbon footprint of heavy haulage transport and shipping.
“With the big energy companies just about everyone's got a bit of renewable or a bit of hydrogen as part of their energy mix. So, I think that's telling you something,” Professor Klinken said. “If you could get rid of bunker oil and go towards an alternative, let it be a bit of natural gas or hydrogen that would make a massive change to emissions globally.
“I see this as a great export opportunity for countries that have tried to decarbonise their economies like Japan and South Korea.”
He said while there were challenges associated with hydrogen, including combustibility, transport, and storage, he was surprised at how quickly they were being resolved.
Most hydrogen was being produced as brown or grey which, while low cost, still produced carbon dioxide emissions.
Blue hydrogen, in which high-temperature steam is used to produce hydrogen from a methane source, such as natural gas, and the carbon dioxide is sequestered provides an opportunity to move towards hydrogen as part of a fuel mix.
Professor Klinken said he had been sceptical about the success of carbon sequestration but that in the past year Chevron had been successful in implementing the process at Barrow Island. “That's one of the great success stories in terms of carbon sequestration globally,” he said.
Professor Klinken lauded the “homegrown technology” of the Hazer Process. “It came out of UWA. It has been commercialised; I've seen it grow from a laboratory idea to slight scale-up and now they're building a pilot plant.
“The Hazer Process is ridiculously simple: you take methane, crack it using iron ore; you get graphite, which can be used in lithium ion batteries and you make hydrogen.
“It's one of the best technologies that I've seen and if we could scale that up, I think it’s just going to be an absolute game changer for the whole hydrogen world.”
Water was also important in any discussion around energy — with water security one of the greatest challenges facing the State.
In a generation, rainfall in the South West had decreased by 30 to 50 per cent, depending on the area, Professor Klinken said.
Where 95 per cent of drinking water once came from dams, that figure is now 5 per cent, with about 60 per cent from desalination and about 30 per cent from aquifers – with questions over how well they are recharging in a drying climate. “Desalination is crucial for our water security, and for the viability of this State,” Professor Klinken said. “It’s energy intensive; why aren’t we using our solar, wind, renewable capability linked with our battery technology? We could be running really cheap and efficient water production.”