The proposed 15 GW Asian Renewable Energy Hub in the East Pilbara region of Western Australia has achieved another key milestone with a positive recommendation from the WA Environmental Protection Authority. The facility’s developer, NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd (a consortium of CWP Energy Asia, Vestas, Pathway Investments and InterContinental Energy) envisages supplying PV and wind generated power to large energy users in the Pilbara, export of power via HVDC cable to south-east Asia, and production of green hydrogen for domestic and export customers. They characterise the project as “renewable energy at oil and gas scale.” Construction would be in ten stages over ten years.

Up to 3000 MW would be assigned to Pilbara, for use in new and expanded mines and downstream mineral processing.

Project development commenced in 2014 with a study of the entire north-west coast of Western Australia. From a 14 000 km2 initial land package, 6500 km2 of land in East Pilbara was selected to accommodate the wind turbines and PV panels.

“Outstanding wind and solar resource and large project scale will result in competitively priced renewable energy with a high capacity factor,” say the project developers. They describe the wind and solar resources at the Pilbara site as “world class” and also “perfectly complementary, with lots of sun during the daytime and high wind speeds in the morning, evening and night”, enabling “competitively priced predictable and firm renewable electricity output, 365 days a year.”

The EPA’s recommendation of environmental approval is subject to conditions including consultation with other stakeholders (notably the traditional landowners, the Nyangumarta people, who have been closely engaged with the project since its inception), and monitoring impacts on migratory birds, with the final decision being up to the WA minister for environment.

The proposed facility considered by the EPA consists of onshore wind turbines (up to 1743) and 2 GW of solar panels (37 x 55 MW modules) situated about 220 km east of Port Hedland and 270 km southwest of Broome, in the northwest of Western Australia, with HVDC converter station and transmission cable corridor to the coast (with above and below ground cables), and four subsea cables to the edge of state waters. The project is described as having “an onshore and offshore development envelope of 662 400 hectares.”

Among key environmental issues, says the EPA, is the proposed clearing of 11 962 hectares (30 000 acres) of native vegetation, and its potential impact on fauna habitat, flora and vegetation. The EPA also considered the potential impact from the construction and operation of four subsea cables on benthic communities and habitat, marine environmental quality and marine fauna. Fire management was also considered a key issue.

The wind turbines would be 26 km away from Eighty Mile Beach and 13 km from Mandora Marsh. “Given the large distances from these important Ramsar wetlands”, says the EPA, it “considers any potential impacts to migratory birds are manageable.”

Among potential project benefits identified by the developers are: the establishment in Western Australia of supply chains for some of the wind, PV and hydrogen production equipment; cheap, clean energy for the Pilbara region, catalysing economic growth; and production of very large amounts of renewable power suitable for large scale production of green hydrogen. The latter will “find markets both in Australia and overseas” say the developers, noting that “Japan and Korea in particular have expressed strong ambitions for adopting clean hydrogen in coming years, to help decarbonise their economies and to maintain energy security.”

BP is also looking at “export-scale” renewable hydrogen production in Western Australia and has recently announced the launch of a feasibility study, jointly funded with ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency).

The study will focus on potential facility development in Geraldton and include evaluation of technologies and process configurations required to manufacture green hydrogen and green ammonia. A potential pilot plant is being considered which would produce green hydrogen to be subsequently converted to green ammonia.

The commercial-scale plant would require around 1.5 GW of renewable power, with Lightsource bp (a joint venture of Lightsource and BP) advising on renewable generation aspects.

Frédéric Baudry, BP chief operating officer for Asia Pacific, said: “Western Australia is the study location due, in part, to its vast solar and wind resources, existing port infrastructure and proximity to large, long-term markets for green hydrogen.”

Meanwhile, another project considering export of renewable electricity generated in Australia via HVDC is that being developed by Sun Cable, which certainly cannot be accused of lacking ambition. This envisages 10 GW of PV capacity plus 22 GWh of battery storage to be located near Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, supplying power to the Darwin region and to Singapore via a 4500 km HVDC link.