Innovating the way to net-zero with low emission technologies
Why investment in new technology and innovation, and not divestment in old technology, is critical for a global energy transition
- Carbon capture utilisation and storage will have a key role to play in reaching net-zero long after power plants are closed
- Low emission technologies are often the only way to reduce emissions from hard-to-abate industries
- Innovation and investment in technology are proven paths to large scale change
Carbon capture utilisation storage has a critical role to play in achieving a net zero future, according to Australia’s former chief scientist.
Giving the 14th Sir Zelman Cowen Oration, Dr Alan Finkel said the world needs CCUS in the energy transition to capture emissions that are the “direct result” of chemical reactions in industrial processes.
Industry currently contributes nearly one quarter of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr Finkel, who is a Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technology, noted people think of carbon capture technology only in relation to electricity generation.
“They think of it as a ruse, as a plan to indefinitely extend the lives of our coal-and-gas-fired power generators.”
“Clear thinking says that we’ll need CCS in this role [dealing with industrial emissions] long after the last coal and gas plants have closed,” he said.
Hard-to-abate industries that could benefit from CCUS include cement, steel, aluminium and chemical manufacturing. All of these industries take large amounts of energy to produce and create emissions in the production process. In his speech, Dr Finkel concentrated on the example of the emissions created by making concrete from cement - one of the most consumed products in the world.
“Globally, the cement industry is responsible for approximately 6% of greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “That’s a huge percentage of global emissions from just one industry.”
When cement is made, carbon dioxide is released from the reaction that converts limestone into lime. And without an alternative to lime, CCUS is the only viable alternative to reduce emissions from hard-to-abate industries like cement.
“The world needs CCS to capture emissions that are the direct result of chemical reactions in industrial processes,” Dr Finkel.
Taking the technology led path
Dr Finkel, who is also chair of Australia's Low Emissions Technology Investment Advisory Council, strongly backed new and emerging technologies to help deliver the nation’s commitment to net zero by 2050.
The Australian Government’s modelling plans for 40% of emissions reductions is to come via the Technology Investment Roadmap:
- 15% through global technology trends
- 10% from international and domestic offsets and
- 15% from unidentified technology breakthroughs.
Noting the “surprising” criticism of this new technology approach, Dr Finkel said history has shown that innovation always delivered.
“It’s preposterous to claim to know today every technology we’ll be using in 2050, and to do so denies the proven role of innovation,” he said.
“Instead, clear thinking argues for investment, not divestment. Supporting the new, not shaming the old.”
Dr Finkel said achieving net-zero meant making transitions on an enormous scale - driven by the market and technological revolution. He argued one way to reduce the cost of high-priced low emissions technologies and low-priced high emissions incumbents was to price carbon. The other way is to “invest in newcomers to accelerate their deployment at scale to bring prices down”.
“Time and time again, history says that encouraging investment is the logical approach,” he said.
Dr Finkel also highlighted how Australia’s expertise in large resource projects will be critical in helping provide low emissions energy security to the world. Citing the global impact of the war in Ukraine, he said the conflict was a “rallying cry” for investing in new, clean technologies to help deliver energy security.
“In Europe, there is the shocking realisation that they have been overly dependent on Russian oil and gas,” he explained. “For the rest of us, it is a stark reminder of how important secure access to reliable energy is for modern societies.”
With abundant natural resources, energy expertise and proven innovation capabilities, Australia is well placed to become a global energy technology leader.
What’s on the hydrogen label
In a separate address to APEC’s Low-Carbon Hydrogen International Standard Workshop, Dr Finkel said low emission technologies will be critical in transforming our energy mix, highlighting the role of clean hydrogen and ammonia.
While governments have provided substantial support to grow the hydrogen industry, he said the global industry will only flourish when there is a sustainable market. And that sustainability is based on scalability, cost effectiveness and trust from tracking any emissions associated with hydrogen production.
“A critical step in achieving this consistency is the development of internationally accepted methods for measuring the emissions intensity of hydrogen and its derivative products,” he said.
Dr Finkel said using agreed standards for low emissions hydrogen was critical, rather than categorising hydrogen “into arbitrary qualifiers or colours’. He argued for a Guarantee of Origin scheme that tracks and verifies emissions intensity, energy source plus production technology and location.
“I expect to eventually see blending into a single pipeline, ship or refuelling station of hydrogen from a variety of sources that have different emissions intensities,” Dr Finkel said. “We should encourage this, rather than set definitions that might inhibit these activities.”
LETA has recommended a simple certification label of “clean hydrogen” as part of any Australian Guarantee of Origin scheme. Having a technology neutral approach can help take advantage of growing demand for hydrogen now and in the future.
Concluding his Sir Zelman Cowen Oration, Dr Finkel said in the quest for net-zero by 2050, technology will be the cornerstone of the energy transition.
“With innovation to deliver emissions reductions that currently evade us,” he said.
“With investment, not divestment, to get that tech to scale when it’s ready.”
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