The proposed Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) project in Victoria’s Latrobe looks like a swell idea at first glance. Take brown coal – possibly the ‘dirtiest’ fossil fuel around – gasify it, extract the resulting hydrogen and stuff the carbon dioxide into the depths of the earth.

Not only will this enable the project to use the cheapest type of coal – because of its lower chemical potential energy and greater emissions – to produce clean burning hydrogen, the resulting emissions will be safely kept away from the atmosphere through the magic of carbon capture and storage.

Sounds like a win/win, especially when the project is pushed by a partnership between heavyweight companies such as Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Shell and AGL – right?

Except for the niggling little issue about the lynchpin which makes the project viable not quite working as advertised.

Not the coal gasification part of it, that’s actually technology – admittedly in a rather crude form – that has been in commercial use since the mid 19th Century and is now used at more than 250 gasification plants around the world.

The real issue is CCS.

Despite its rather simple sounding premise of taking carbon dioxide and pumping it into deep underground reservoirs – essential gas production in reverse – implementation has proven to be somewhat more problematic.

CCS’ rather large kinks are still being ironed-out

The problem is best highlighted by the CCS project that is supposed to capture and store 80% of the emissions generated by Chevron’s giant Gorgon liquefied natural gas plant.

Despite undoubtedly the best efforts of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, it not only started operations several years late but it still isn’t operating at the capacity it is supposed to be working at.

In fact, the Gorgon CCS project is only running at about a third of its capacity, well short of the amount of CO2 that it is supposed to be sequestering, leading to calls for the supermajor to be hit with hefty fines. (Hint – that hasn’t happened yet.)

To be entirely fair, it is sequestering some CO2 and any CO2 being sequestered is CO2 that’s not vented into the atmosphere.

But this lacklustre performance needs to be the line that the HESC proponents take with their project, the knowledge that they will need to overengineer their CCS efforts in order to achieve their objectives without the risk that it falls flat on the nose.

There’s also the concern that the CO2 pumped into the reservoirs doesn’t stay where it is supposed to – as seen by the leaks experienced by the Sleipner and Snøhvit CCS projects in Norway, which are supposed to be the example all CCS projects should aspire to be like.

Unsurprisingly, environmental groups have raised a stink about HESC with Friends of the Earth being the latest to voice its opposition.

“The companies involved can spin this as clean hydrogen all they want but the reality is if it’s using coal this is just another dirty fossil fuel project that the climate can’t afford,” the environmental group’s No More Gas campaigner Freja Leonard noted.

Friends of the Earth is of course also opposed to hydrogen exports (we are not entirely clear if it’s just exports or hydrogen as a whole), so there’s that too.

Maybe forget the coal

Regardless of what one’s thoughts about hydrogen might be, the fact remains that are far cleaner ways of producing the gas.

Electrolysers powered by renewable energy aren’t the most efficient way of producing hydrogen, but they are clean and a recognised way of capturing energy from the sun or wind into a form that can be stored and used at a later date.

And costs of producing hydrogen have been slowly but surely coming down as the age-old method of industrial scale kicks in.

What is clear is that the HESC might want to run their numbers again and just leave the brown coal in the earth.