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Patagonia’s embarassment of riches

Destination número uno for a new wind energy gold rush

Beautiful, breezy, and brimming with potential, South America’s Patagonia region has more wind energy than it knows what to do with; the northern hemisphere has a few ideas.

That the North Sea is rich in wind energy resource is well known, and its waters are now a blitz of new turbine installations, floating and fixed. This January, the first phase of the ScotWind auction made room for 17 more projects off the Scottish coast, which will add up to 25GW of capacity, more than half the energy demand of the entire UK.

The same is at the opposite end of the Americas. In southern Patagonia, average wind speeds reach 12m/s, an embarrassment of wind energy riches. But unlike Northern Europe, it is sparsely populated, and the local requirement for energy is not huge. Urban centres lie far away from potential wind energy sites – mostly.

Hold on tight

Punta Arenas is one of the Southernmost cities in the world. The wind in this remote city is so fearsome that there are tales of city officials stringing ropes between buildings to help pedestrians stand upright.

This is because Patagonia is much further south than other landmasses, comprising of remarkably flat geography and few trees, and is in a near-constant state of being bombarded by winds from the Antarctic.

Not far from here, in September 2021, Enel Green Power and its partner HIF broke ground on a new hydrogen electrolysis plant. The name of this idea is ‘Power-to-X’ – using Patagonia’s wind energy riches to power the rest of the world, by exporting their electricity, in effect, in liquid form.

As Engineering At Sea has previously discussed, liquid hydrogen (LH2) may be a pain to generate and store. The electrolysis process wastes about 20% of the energy that goes into it; it has to be stored at very high pressures, or very low temperatures (-252.87°C) – or more likely, a combination of both; and tanks suffer from boiloff. But despite this, it is still a lot more efficient to turn wind energy into LH2 and carry it across the world than it would be to do the same with, say, a giant lithium battery.

According to a 2020 presentation made by Dr Daniel Chatterjee of Rolls-Royce, Patagonia has so many orders of magnitude greater wind resource than Northern Europe, that even including the energy involved in transport, it would be more efficient for Northern Europe to use LH2 made in, and carried from, Patagonia than to make and use its own.

Basic stuff

But calculations detailed in a special report by ReCharge News indicate that the economics only work if the LH2 is converted into ammonia. Engineering at Sea has discussed the pros and cons of ammonia before, but the main advantage is that a single molecule (NH3) contains more hydrogen than a molecule of hydrogen (H2), making it far more energy-dense. The boiling point is also much higher, at -33⁰C, making it easier to transport.

Hydrogen, then, probably won’t be carried across the world in pure liquid form, as the cost of doing so would more than double the sale price. That MOL subsidiary Phoenix Tankers last year ordered the world’s largest ammonia carrier at 87,000dwt, is probably no coincidence. In February, MOL also concluded a concept study on an ammonia floating storage and regasification unit (FSRU).

However it may come, Europe is already prepared for this hydrogen windfall, at least if the Port of Zeebrugge – currently merging with Antwerp to form the Port of Antwerp-Bruges – is to be believed. It has large gas import infrastructure ready-built, and only minor retrofits would be needed. Late last year, the two ports signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Chilean Ministry of Energy to cooperate in bringing about a Chile-Europe renewable hydrogen trade.

It is unlikely that Europe will be the only taker. Japan has launched an off-the-wall plan to co-fire ammonia with coal at two of its power plants. Australia’s Fortescue Future Industries (FFI), meanwhile, is already investing $8.4 billion in a green hydrogen production facility in Argentina, targeting an annual output of 2.2m tonnes for export by 2030.