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A mega solar and wind project for Western Australia

The 15 GW Asian Renewable Energy Hub has been recommended for approval by environmental authorities in the Pilbara region. The project was originally intended to export clean energy to Jakarta and Singapore via subsea, high voltage DC cables but its focus has shifted to domestic industrial consumers.

Australia’s largest renewables project has got a step nearer after being recommended for approval by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) of the state of Western Australia, subject to conditions.

The Asian Renewable Energy Hub (Areh) – which could feature up to 15 GW of solar and wind generation capacity – would supply the Pilbara region and develop a green hydrogen manufacturing hub for domestic use and export to Asia.

The mega project, which has been in the planning stages since 2014, was unveiled in 2017 as a 6 GW hybrid plant. Since then, the proposed facility’s generation capacity has been scaled up to 9, 11 and last year 15 GW. The original plan was for the project to export clean electricity to Jakarta and Singapore via subsea, high voltage DC cables, but focus has shifted to domestic industrial consumers, with more than half the output from Areh allocated to the Pilbara region. Potential energy consumers include mines and mineral processing companies as well as the anticipated large scale production of green hydrogen.

Recommendation

On Monday, the Western Australia EPA recommended environmental approval for the project, subject to conditions including managing and monitoring impacts on migratory birds and consultation with stakeholders including landowners. “The EPA has completed its assessment of NW Interconnected Power Pty Ltd’s proposal to construct and operate a large scale renewable energy project with an expected operational lifespan of 50 years,” EPA chair Tom Hatton said, referring to the Adelaide-based consortium behind the plan.

The largest renewables project the state’s environmental watchdog has ever assessed, Areh would feature a 2 GW solar farm and up to 1,743 wind turbines, according to the latest numbers released on Monday. The solar panels and turbines would be replaced halfway through the project’s life and the planned facility would also feature14km of transmission lines to the coast and four high voltage, direct current (HVDC) subsea cables.

NW Interconnected Power comprises Australian renewables developer CWP Energy Asia, Massachusetts-based peer Intercontinental Energy, Danish wind turbine giant Vestas and Australian investment banking giant Macquarie. With Vestas lined up to supply the wind turbines, the search for a solar partner goes on for the Areh scheme.

Environmental concerns

The proposed project would cover a vast on and offshore development envelope of 662,400ha some 220km east of Port Hedland. One of the issues the EPA considered was the need to permanently clear 11,962ha of vegetation – 1.81% of the development envelope. The authority also assessed the potential impact of the construction and operation of the four subsea cables on benthic communities and habitat and marine environmental quality and fauna.

“Fire management was also considered a key issue, with a staged fire management strategy proposed to monitor the potential impacts and benefits of a landscape-scale prescribed-burns program,” said EPA chair Hatton.

With the proposed wind turbines 26km from Eighty Mile Beach and 13km from Mandora Marsh, the EPA believed any impact on migratory birds would be manageable given the distance from habitats designated ecologically important ‘Ramsar wetlands’ – in reference to the Iranian city where the relevant environmental treaty was signed. The Western Australia environmental watchdog recommended detailed measures to mitigate related risks to regional flora and fauna.

Habitats

The project site is home to numerous species including the threatened black-footed rock-wallaby and the bilby marsupial as well as bats, reptiles, scorpions and land snails. The EPA said it considered every species in making recommendations. A detailed plan was also drawn up related to the waters under which the subsea cables would pass, which host turtles, whales, dolphins and sawfish. The plan relates to use of a hydro-plough or similar ‘low impact’ installation technique.

The EPA verdict will be open to public appeal until May 18 with respondents able to register opposition at appealsconvenor.wa.gov.au. The final decision for approval of a project whose developers want to reach financial close next year rests with Stephen Dawson, environment minister for Western Australia. If approved, construction would be due to start by 2024-25.

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