Australia vetoes $36 billion Asian renewable energy project

The Australian government has rejected plans for a $36 billion wind, solar and hydrogen project in a remote area of Western Australia, citing environmental concerns.

The decision effectively leaves what would have been one of the world’s largest green energy projects in limbo.

The renewable energy hub was initially expected to go through fast approvals processes toward its target of first exports by 2028 as it would bolster the nation’s ambitions to become a world-leading exporter of hydrogen.

Australia unveiled a national hydrogen strategy with a goal of commercial exports by 2030, and the fuel is one of five priority technologies in its road map to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

However, in a 15 June decision, environment minister Susan Ley ruled that the project, the Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH), “will have clearly unacceptable impacts” on internationally recognised wetlands and migratory bird species.

The AREH project, located in the state’s Pilbara region, was initially designed to build 15 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity, eventually to be expanded to 26 GW and produce green hydrogen and ammonia for export.

6,500 square kilometres of land in the East Pilbara region of Western Australia were selected to accommodate 26,000 MW of wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels.

The government had awarded the project fast-track approval status last September, touting the jobs, clean energy for local industry and large-scale export opportunity that it would bring.

AREH is being developed by privately owned InterContinental Energy, renewables developer CWP Energy Asia, global wind turbine manufacturer Vestas and a Macquarie Group fund.

The environment minister cited the expansion plan in the rejection decision. The project’s original plan won environmental approval last December.

The proposed enlargement came with a port facility for ammonia; a town that would be home to 8,000 people including project workers; expanded solar arrays; ammonia, hydrogen and desalination plants and storage facilities; and a pipeline route for transporting ammonia, seawater and brine through wetlands.

“We are now working to understand the minister’s concerns, and will engage further with the minister and her department as we continue to work on the detailed design and engineering aspects of the project,” the AREH consortium said in a statement.

The project, on the drawing board since 2014, originally planned to generate wind and solar power and transmit it via an undersea cable to Asia, but last year changed plans, aiming to use clean power to split water to produce hydrogen and ammonia for export.

Australia’s Clean Energy Council on Monday said it expects the government will work with AREH to assess and address any environmental impacts.

“If the government is to be taken seriously on developing a hydrogen economy, companies prioritising genuinely zero emissions projects should be assisted to reach a final investment decision,” said Dan Gocher, climate and environment director at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

Australia unveiled a national hydrogen strategy with a goal of commercial exports by 2030, and the fuel is one of five priority technologies in its road map to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

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