By Robbin Laird
During my current visit to Australia, I had an opportunity to continue my discussions with Air Vice Marshal (Retired) John Blackburn with regard to the challenges facing Australian energy security.
Increasingly, there is a perception that Australia needs to create an energy reserve or buffer with regard to energy supplies in case of supply chain disruption. And certainly, it does not make sense to have a serious vulnerability in terms of energy supplies which provides an adversary with an easy option to put pressure on Australia in a crisis.
Blackburn has been at the forefront of the effort to get the Australian government to focus on this challenge.
But in this interview, we assumed the importance of that effort and we discussed a more comprehensive way to provide for a key element for Australian security, namely a reliable and secure energy supply.
Blackburn has argued for what he calls a “fifth generation” approach to energy security, i.e. designing an approach which looks at building an integrated energy system,” rather than the exisiting stove-piped approach where various energy supplies and systems are treated in isolation from one another. His explanation of this approach was published previously on Defence.info.
He proposes that the integrated design principles underpinning the Plan Jericho approach whereby the RAAF looked to leverage the F-35 and its entry into service for a major reworking of the entire force, be applied to Australia’s energy system. Blackburn believes that the expanded use of Hydrogen, as an energy system integrator, could provide a similar trigger for change in Australia’s Energy systems as the introduction of the F-35 is doing for the ADF.
A key example of the absence of strategy with regard to energy in Australia is seen in the natural gas sector. According to Blackburn: “When Australia started to extract a lot of gas for exports, only West Australia had a 15% domestic reservation policy. In other words, 15% of the supply had to be kept for domestic use, the rest could be exported. No other state or territory in Australia did that.”
“So today, gas in West Australia cost one third or even less than gas on the East Coast of Australia. So much is being exported from the East and North of Australia that the Government is now projecting there won’t be enough gas for the domestic supply in the East of Australia in the next few years. There now is a discussion about building liquid natural gas import terminals on the East Coast so we can buy liquid natural gas (that we just exported) from the global market and import it to Australia for the East Coast gas supply. That’s a real indicator of the absence of systems thinking.
“Even though we are now the largest exporter of gas in the world, because we didn’t have a strategy or a plan, we just let industry export with no controls (apart from West Australia), with the result that now the cost for gas in East Coast is killing business and impacting our economy negatively. Businesses like aluminum producers, fertilizer producers and others, are really suffering on the East Coast because they don’t have affordable gas.
“This is an example of a common problem in Australia – a lack of systems thinking in the Government. The focus is on exports and export earnings at the cost of domestic security and domestic cost of energy supplies.
Blackburn argues that if you took a broader view, Government needs to consider how the different energy supplies could be woven under a comprehensive strategy which would enable exports but within an approach that was based first upon domestic costs and supply considerations and national security.
“What would we like to have?
“It’s very important for national security purposes to have an integrated energy system design of some sort. Otherwise, it’s just like a 3rd Gen Air Force, you buy all these platforms and you hope sometime in the future they’ll be sort of connected by data links and they’ll be integrated.”
“We learned that it didn’t work that well so with the 5th Gen Air Force, we’re thinking about how do we use parts of that force, in this case, the JSF, as an integration driver which can leverage legacy capabilities and help integrate them into a 21stcentury Air Force.”
We then focused on how hydrogen energy, if leveraged with a fifth-generation integrated design perspective in mind, could trigger fundamental change in the energy security domain.
“Hydrogen could be as significant an export in the future as our liquid natural gas is currently. But we need to look beyond that opportunity to see it as a trigger for change.
“Hydrogen can be part of a significant energy transition.
“For example, using a “Hydrogen system” we can store electricity from wind and solar in the form of hydrogen and you can then use a hydrogen gas turbine and generate electricity when you need it. Hydrogen also changes the mode of energy. With hydrogen you can make ammonia, which is important for fertilizers, explosives, and a wide range of products.
“You can also make liquid hydrogen for export which is what Japan will be importing under its future Hydrogen Society model. Japan has a National Policy Statement, in which they indicate that they want to be the first hydrogen society in the world. Japanese companies are looking at how they move away from fossil fuel-based energy in their production. What they’re planning is for hydrogen to actually be the energy source for a lot of their production.
“We can be one of the largest exporters of Hydrogen to Japan; likely at the same scale as our current natural gas exports to Japan.
“In other words, there’s an energy relationship that could complement our security relationship with Japan.
“The opportunity for us is to use the emergence of hydrogen as a significant factor in our energy market to develop an integrated energy strategy and plan for Australia. This could have a positive impact on our economy, on the environment and defense, improving our our national resilience and, in turn, our national security.
“The challenge we will face is that we do not have any examples of coherent national level strategies and plans in the last few decades. We do not have a national security strategy, nor national strategies for energy components such as oil/fuels, gas or electricity systems. Given that we are the 9thlargest energy producer in the world, the lack of any integrating strategy or plan (apart from “dig it up and export it”) beggars belief.
“We don’t have a culture of doing that. And this is why the current focus in Australia is on developing a national hydrogen strategy with a strong focus on export.
“I think that there needs to be an expansion of the Terms of Reference for our hydrogen strategy to allow it to look beyond just production of hydrogen for export, to the impact on our energy security as a whole.
Hydrogen production and deployment systems could positively impact our electrical power networks, by providing base loads for networks with a high percentage of renewable generation, frequency stability services and electricity production (via hydrogen gas turbines) when required by the network operators to stabilize the electricity system.
“This results in a more robust distributed energy system which can reinforce electricity system resilience by being able to produce electricity on demand.
“The emergence of hydrogen powered vehicles will also reduce our oil and fuel import dependency which is currently a major energy security risk. Thus hydrogen needs to be considered in the development of a transport energy strategy (which we do not have.)
“Hydrogen can be injected into exisiting methane gas networks in order to reduce gas imports and to lower emissions thus having a significant impact on our gas energy systems.
Put in other terms, in Blackburn’s view, a hydrogen strategy is not just about hydrogen but it’s about an integrated energy security strategy where Hydrogen acts as both a temporal and mode shifting medium that integrates other “legacy” energy components into a much more resilient and secure system.
“The development of the national Hydrogen strategy can help trigger a change in thinking, to think about integrated design of energy which in turn can significantly improve our national security.”
“Once we’ve done that on the energy sector, you can turn that sort of thinking and apply it to the other parts of national security system.
“If we could trigger an integrated system design and strategy for energy, we could, in turn, significantly improve our national security and ideally highlight the value of actually having a national security strategy!”