Big ideas are easy. Finding the big money and big names to back them is not. But a long-term plan to turn WA’s Pilbara into the largest renewable energy hub in the world has just taken a giant leap forward.
It’s not just about export. It’s not just about mining.
Regional communities like Karratha and Broome throughout the Pilbara are poised to become Australia’s green industry heartland. And a company town will be built to house those employed by the new project – replacing the existing model of a fly-in, fly-out workforce with semi-permanent residency.
The idea of an Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) first arose in 2014. The original concept was to export solar-generated electricity to Indonesia and Singapore via sub-sea high voltage cables.
That idea hasn’t entirely been dismissed.
But a variation has prompted international energy giant BP to buy up a 40.5 per cent stake in the project and take over responsibility as its operator.
The objective is still to generate up to 26GW of renewable electricity each year from a mix of wind and solar. That’s equivalent to a third of all electricity generated in Australia in 2020.
But it’s going to be used to generate about 1.6 million tonnes of hydrogen, or 9 million tonnes of ammonia, each year. And in the process, it’s hoped to eliminate 17 million tonnes of annual carbon emissions.
Existing rail and shipping infrastructure, established to service the region’s mining industry, will also benefit from the new energy hub as part of a plan to accelerate the shift to a hydrogen-based economy throughout the Pilbara.
This will replace diesel, petrol and gas as the primary drivers of industry.
And at least 3GW of the new green electricity will be reserved for use in the Pilbara itself.
“The provision of low-cost green energy to Pilbara communities and industry would create thousands of jobs and catalyse significant new manufacturing and mineral processing opportunities for WA,” says state Regional Development Minister Alannah MacTiernan.
“A project of this scale will require new supply chain facilities for the manufacture and assembly of equipment for wind, solar and hydrogen generation, which will create new, local, high-value jobs.”
The idea is that reliable access to such cheap, clean energy will promote mineral processing in the Pilbara itself – as well as entice other energy intensive manufacturers to the region.
AREH is a 668,100ha site between Port Hedland and Broome.
What makes that particular site so attractive is that it tends to be windy at night and sunny during the day – balancing out electricity generation peaks and troughs.
Approval has been granted for up to 1743 wind turbines and 37 55MW solar arrays to be built within its bounds. Four high-voltage cables will carry some of that electricity offshore, and 37 sub-stations will distribute the flow.
A desalination plant will process seawater for the hydrogen and ammonia production facilities.
Construction work is scheduled to begin next year. The first electricity is expected to start flowing in 2025.
Once fully developed, BP hopes it will help it secure a 10 per cent global share of the hydrogen fuel market.
“AREH is set to be one of the largest renewable and green hydrogen energy hubs in the world and can make a significant contribution to Australia and the wider Asia Pacific region’s energy transition,” says BP executive vice president Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath. “It will also serve as a long-term clean energy security contributor in the Asia Pacific, helping countries such as South Korea and Japan to decarbonise.”
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Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.
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