30th October 2020
NEW INDUSTRY FOR WESTERN AUSTRALIA
A CLEAN WAY TO POWER THE STATE AND SOLVE THE WATER CRISIS
By Dr John Morris
Dr Morris is the CEO of International Energy Consultants which is a consulting firm supplying advice and support to large energy companies involved in the electricity sector throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In addition to over 20 years of experience in the electricity supply business, including as the CEO of major power companies, he also has a strong geological background and has worked across the world for oil and gas majors including Shell and BHP, where he was the Chief Geologist.
The latest data from the Commonwealth Government shows that WA emitted 71 million tonnes of greenhouse gases during 2019 which was around 21% of Australia’s total. That figure works out to the equivalent of over 26 tonnes of CO2 emitted for every person in the State. To put that figure into context, Australia’s average GHG emissions were only 13.5 tonnes per person, while the world average was just 4.5 tonnes per person. In fact, if WA were a country, it would be the world’s worst emitter on a per capita basis.
80% of WA’s GHG emissions were from the oil, gas and mining sectors but more than 15 million tonnes were from power generation. Electricity generated from fossil fuels (gas, coal and diesel) accounted for over 90% of WA’s total electricity output in 2019; only 10% of our electricity came from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro. Even Victoria, with 18% of its power generated from renewables, managed to do better than WA.
This is an extremely poor result, considering that WA is regarded as having some of the largest renewable resources in the world. In fact, many experts in the power industry consider WA to be the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy. The State has a vast coastline and much of it is suitable for wind turbines. WA ranks number one in the world for sunshine hours making it ideal for solar farms. But, so far, we have managed to tap only a tiny fraction of these renewable resources and have instead relied upon a highly polluting – not to mention expensive – source of fuel for our electricity.
In theory, all of Australia’s electricity could be supplied by solar power using just 0.02% of WA’s total land which is an area about 10% the size of Perth. And the whole world could be supplied with solar power from an area equivalent to just 2.3% of the State. The problem with this idea is that that we would only be able to use electricity on cloud-free days and not at night. Similar figures and barriers apply to wind power.
To generate reliable, 24/7 electricity supply or so-called “base-load” power from solar or wind, we would have to build generating capacity equivalent to two to three times peak demand and install vast amounts of storage that would allow the surpluses to be banked and used overnight or when there is no wind. While such a system can be economic for specific reasons (eg. the Tesla battery storage plant in SA was installed as an emergency project to be used for very short periods), nobody has yet been able to make it viable as a large-scale, base-load solution. The cost of the generating equipment would be three times the cost of similar-sized gas-fired plants and the batteries would double that cost again. On top of this, batteries need replacing every 10-15 years and solar panels only have a 20-year life; gas- and coal-fired power plants last 30-40 years. Of course, if we added in the true economic cost to the environment and society of the GHG emissions from fossil fuels, then even the much more expensive base-load renewables option becomes cheap. But there is currently no universal accounting mechanism to count that cost.
Bottom-line: base-load solar or wind power is currently much more expensive than electricity supplied from fossil fuels, even though they both have a zero cost of fuel. Battery costs need to drop by 80% to make this option competitive vs. coal or gas. Until that happens, another low-cost source of base-load renewable power is required.
When considering the plentiful renewable energy resources in WA, most people look at the sky and focus on solar and wind. However, there is another vast and potentially even larger energy resource belowground: geothermal energy, which is emission free, continuously available and has a lower cost.
When most people think about geothermal power, they point to countries such as NZ, Indonesia or the Philippines which are geologically active and where steam is shooting out of the ground. It often only requires drilling to depths of 1000m or less in these countries, before the high temperatures required for power generation are reached. In contrast, WA is geologically old which means cold - the last time a volcano erupted here was 125 million years ago when the dinosaurs were roaming the country and you still could walk from Cottesloe to Kolkata.
However, just because we don’t have volcanoes erupting in our backyard does not mean that we don’t have high temperatures underground – they are just a lot deeper to reach than in Indonesia or NZ. If you drill deep enough, eventually you will hit hot rocks – the only question is how deep? In WA, that question hasn’t yet been answered fully, because the deepest wells - which were drilled by the oil and gas industry - have only reached down to maximum depths of 5000m. Oil companies don’t drill any further than this because the oil is already “overcooked” by the high temperatures; plus it’s very expensive to drill this deep, using conventional technology.
The information from the deep wells that have been drilled here suggests that the kind of temperatures that are needed for sustainable geothermal power generation around the coast of WA are probably deeper than 6000m.
A typical onshore oil and gas well in Australia drilled to 3000m might cost $10-20 million to drill. Drilling deeper could easily cost more than $60 million because it gets harder to drill with depth. While it may be possible to reach such depths to access geothermal resources, using conventional oil and gas technology, the cost of drilling makes it uneconomic.
This is where Good Water Energy have achieved a major breakthrough ……….
Good Water Energy (GWE) have developed a new but proven drilling technology that is much cheaper than the conventional rotary-bit drilling methods used in the oil and gas industry. Using a so-called “mud hammer” percussion drilling technology, GWE literally pounds the rock at the bottom of the well which allows the company to drill much faster and, therefore, much cheaper. Also, unlike oil and gas drilling, the mud hammer technology doesn’t care how hard the rock is – it eats up granite almost as easily as much softer sandstone.
GWE’s founder and CEO Warren Strange - who has over 40 years of experience drilling all over the world – has invented, patented and developed several versions of the percussion drilling technology. He has applied it in places such as Finland where low cost, deep wells were drilled into granite, so that geothermal energy could be extracted for district heating. Now his plan is to drill deep wells in WA and tap the geothermal resources and use the steam to generate base-load geothermal electricity.
The company estimates that each geothermal well will be capable of providing enough heat to generate sufficient electricity to meet the demand of 3000 homes 24 hours a day – potentially for hundreds of years. The cost of this power is likely to be competitive versus existing fossil-fuel power stations but it is produced without harmful emissions. The only waste product is heat which can be used to support a whole range of spin-off industries including water desalination. And the drilling poses no danger to the environment. No fracking, no batteries and no extraction of groundwater is required and there are no emissions or toxic materials to dispose of.
Renewable, emission-free electricity is not the only product GWE will be supplying from its geothermal wells. After energy has been extracted from the steam for power generation, there is still a significant amount of waste heat available. Normally, this heat would be disposed of in cooling towers but GWE plans to put it to good use to desalinate seawater using low-cost, multi-effect distillation or MED modules to produce high quality fresh water.
After generating electricity, each well still has enough remaining heat to produce more than 2.5 million litres of fresh water per day – that is equivalent to an Olympic-size swimming pool. Each GWE project would typically have 50 wells with a combined potential to produce up to 125 million litres per day which is equivalent to 1/8th of Water Corp’s total WA supply requirements or about the same output as their Kwinana desalination plant.
Regional Western Australia - which has a growing fresh water crisis - would particularly benefit from this extra water source. GWE’s high-quality water could go to local farmers who could increase production or invest in new crop types. Or it could be used to supplement or replace the existing town water. Or it could be used by local industries.
But perhaps GWE’s most innovative and highest value use for all this water is to produce zero emission bottled water for both the domestic and export markets. Bottled water is a $375 billion global industry and is growing at 10% pa. Unfortunately, most of this water is sold in single-use plastic bottles that are produced from oil and do not decompose. Instead, the plastic bottles fill up landfill sites or litter the streets and end up floating out to sea and washing up in beaches.
Even worse, microscopic particles of these bottles break off and are ingested by small marine organisms which are eaten by larger fish and finally end up being eaten by us. Already, this plastic is showing up in human tissue samples. Not much work has been done on the toxicity of these microplastics, but they are unlikely to be a healthy supplement.
Perhaps worse still, the energy required to produce the 18 million tonnes of plastic water bottles in the world every year is roughly equal to twice Australia’s annual electricity consumption. This results in 200-400 million tonnes of GHG being produced annually by the global bottled water industry which is between 0.5-1.0% of all emissions.
GWE plan to take some of their zero-emission electricity and waste heat and convert local crops such as wheat into an environmentally-friendly, plastic-substitute known as polylactic acid or PLA. In contrast to oil-based plastics, PLA is biodegradable and plant-based so it has lower toxicity. PLA water bottles are indistinguishable from the regular oil-based products. The final product would be marketed as the world’s first “zero emission water” packaged in biodegradable, plant-based bottles produced using renewable geothermal energy and 100% manufactured in Australia.
The potential export market for such a product could be vast. Anybody that has been to Indonesia or Thailand and seen the enormous quantity of plastic bottles littering the streets and beaches there will immediately understand the attraction of such a product. The Indonesian bottled water market alone is 18 million bottles per day. Water production from just five geothermal wells could easily meet total Indonesian demand.
And PLA production would not be limited to making water bottles. There is currently no local PLA production in Australia - it is all imported. GWE plans to eventually expand its PLA production beyond its own requirements and supply the rest of Australia and beyond. And GWE’s PLA would have an advantage over imported products – no emissions would be generated during the manufacturing process. PLA can be made from virtually any plant-based feedstock. In regional WA, this could be locally grown wheat or barley, or even dedicated non-food crops that are contract-grown by local farmers.
Renewable electricity, desalinated bulk and bottled water and bioplastics are not the only green industries that GWE will be supporting. Only a few years ago, hydrogen was not showing up on the radar screen as a feasible green fuel. Battery-powered cars were assumed to be the inevitable replacement for the internal combustion engine. But, almost out of nowhere, hydrogen has now emerged as a strong competitor to battery-powered cars, with the Federal Government recently throwing its weight behind this technology, as part of its long-awaited energy roadmap for Australia. Other countries are also showing interest, with Japan being a major potential customer.
With minor modifications, hydrogen can be burned in internal combustion engines just like petrol but the only waste product is water. Currently, the industry suffers from a lack of infrastructure, customers and production but once these hurdles are overcome, hydrogen vehicles should rapidly start appearing on our streets.
Hydrogen can also be used in fuel-cells which combine it with oxygen to produce clean electricity and heat with the only waste product being water. There may be a point in the future where each house is self-powered using a fridge-sized fuel-cell in the garage connected to a hydrogen pipeline.
Currently, hydrogen is mainly used in industrial processes and is almost entirely produced by “cracking” natural gas in a process that emits a lot of greenhouse gas. So, while this so-called “blue hydrogen” might be clean to burn, it is dirty to produce and using this to replace fossil fuels won’t do much to lower emissions.
However, there is another way to produce hydrogen that does not create greenhouse gases. If you run electricity though distilled water, in a process known as electrolysis, it splits the H20 into oxygen and hydrogen without any greenhouse gases being emitted. And, if that electricity and the water is produced using a green, renewable source, then you have a truly zero-emission fuel.
The only catch is that “green hydrogen” producers need a base-load renewable source of electricity.
This is where GWE comes in again ……..
The company is now in discussions with several potential H2 producers, including oil and gas majors, who are already planning green hydrogen plants here in WA. Given that the potential future demand for green hydrogen could be practically infinite and that the lowest-cost source of renewable base-load power in the world could be right here in WA, hydrogen exports could quickly grow to rival LNG as one of the State’s future economic growth engines.
The real reason that GWE’s technology is so exciting is that it is scalable and can be applied almost anywhere in the world. Once the company’s first WA project is completed, it will demonstrate the ability to supply virtually unlimited amounts of baseload, renewable electricity at competitive prices and, in coastal locations, produce similarly unlimited quantities of freshwater.
GWE are currently evaluating several potential projects across the State where the company plans to drill a series of deep geothermal wells and generate between 200-500MW of electricity. One large GWE project being examined south of Perth would be sufficient to replace the coal-fired power stations at Collie.
GWE plans to begin drilling its first wells by early 2022 and to be delivering the first green electricity and water to customers sometime in 2023. When fully developed, the first geothermal project will represent an investment of over a billion dollars into the State, generate $250 million of annual revenue from sales of electricity and bulk water, support green hydrogen production earning another $250 million in export revenues and a further $200 million in zero-emission bottled water sales. All of this investment will have a major stimulus effect in the local economy and provide a significant number of quality jobs.
The company’s vision is to replicate this project many times across Australia and become a major contributor in the race to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, by replacing fossil fuels used in electricity generation and transport, as well as solving the country’s water crisis and replacing oil-based plastics with biodegradable substitutes.
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