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INSIGHT: Thar Coal to Hydrogen For Middle East Renewables Export

The energy transition is good news for Pakistan, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Renewables could become a new source of export income, growing even as income for the Mideast countries from hydrocarbons declines; Pakistan’s Thar coal — close to the region, has the hydrogen to add value to the supply chain

IRSHAD SALIM – Thar coal reserves have the contour of a ‘Hydrogen province’ and ground zero for a potential ‘Hydrogen Road’ amid reports of brown coal being exploited in Australia beyond its conventional use for fossil power.

Its brown coal (Lignite) reserves – presently being mined in the country to produce power and gas, could also be a huge source for green hydrogen – just as being done by Japanese companies with Australia’s brown coal deposits.

In the emerging ‘green ecosystem’ in the region exploiting it for hydrogen could therefore be a home run – studies and steps  in the present may therefore help as it is widely agreed that a post-carbon future will be much more electrified.

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) foresees the share of electricity rising from 20% of final energy consumption today to almost 50% by 2050. Renewable power will provide the bulk of it, with conversion of the transport sector and the heating and cooling of buildings to electric power.  

To help facilitate this change, IRENA sees a significant role for hydrogen as a store and means of transporting excess renewable energy, as well as a feedstock for industrial processes. The agency calls for getting started by finding niches where it makes sense to support commercial-scale hydrogen pilot projects.

If coal-to-hydrogen from Thar is considered, the probability that its total expected value not just as ‘fossil fuel’ but as “enabler of green energy” could exceed expectations.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its landmark report on hydrogen last year, also sees it as a leading low-cost option for short- and long-term storage of renewable energy. Therefore, building on existing infrastructure and launching international shipping routes for hydrogen (land and sea) could scale up clean hydrogen use and trade.

Pilot Projects

This work is said to have begun now. At least two pilot projects in Asia are of interest, which may be harbingers of new opportunities for Pakistan closely linked Middle East via sea and with Central Asia via land/future pipeline route.

Japan’s Kawasaki is said to be now advancing on ways to produce and ship hydrogen from brown coal (in Australia) over long distances to Japan.

In its project, the ‘cryogenic’ method is being used to move liquid hydrogen at very low temperature. Hydrogen production from ‘brown coal,’ (lignite) with gasification and gas refining in Latrobe Valley in the state of Victoria, and liquefaction and loading at Hastings near Melbourne is being done.

Shipment will occur on a new liquefied hydrogen carrier – the world’s first. The vessel will traverse a nearly 6,000-mile journey to Kobe Port in southern Japan, where a special storage tank will maintain the fuel at minus 253 degrees C (minus 423 F), which is 91 degrees C below that of liquid natural gas (LNG at minus 162 C).

The stored hydrogen will be combined with natural gas to fire a turbine supplying heat and power to an area near the port. Kawasaki has developed a gas turbine that can run entirely on hydrogen fuel.

By doing so, Kawasaki is creating a ‘Hydrogen Road’ connecting Australia (which has abundance of coal) to Japan.

Earlier in 2018, Energy giant AGL announced plans to pressurize the hydrogen and ship it off to Japan for their upcoming Olympic showcase.

Potential of Thar coal as hydrogen

With the two developments, ‘Hydrogen Road’ (a new shipping route for hydrogen) is close to becoming a reality.

The thought-process utilized with Australian brown coal makes a strong case for Thar’s brown coal also.

Across the Arabian Sea, key players are racing to produce solar and wind energy for local consumption and for export to other MENA countries and Europe.

Hydrogen produced from Thar coal and shipped to (for example UAE, Saudi Arabia) for storing clean energy these countries are producing (and wanting to export) could be a winner — the Middle East carries the region’s vast potential stores of renewable energy.

Japan, for instance, one of the largest importers of the Middle East’s energy, is planning to deploy hydrogen as a clean energy source on a large scale by 2030. It’s conceivable that a Hydrogen Road could open in the shipping lanes to the Middle East, carrying the region’s vast potential stores of renewable energy to Japan and other East Asian and Central Asian countries.

Geoeconomy of Thar Hydrogen

Utilizing Thar coal for producing hydrogen in partnership with one of these countries (Japan as buyer and UAE or KSA as seller) would make economic sense for Thar coal as hydrogen source to store, ship renewables.

A Hydrogen Road from Thar to Mideast could also add value to the Hydrogen Road from Mideast to Japan as well as other countries in the region — for shipping renewables.

Thinking aloud, Saudi Aramco could be a viable partner for such a gigantic and economic venture. The oil giant has been stepping into downstream projects, such as petrochemicals, renewables, strategic storages, etc. worldwide.

China, despite its vast coal reserves, may also look at it if hydrogen produced from Thar can be liquefied and exported to its eastern neighborhood (Central Asia), Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries — even Europe.

The author is a business consultant and analyst based in Islamabad. Email: [email protected]