In the vast expanse of China’s Ningxia Hui autonomous region, an extraordinary transformation is underway. Rows of photovoltaic power panels, glistening in the sunlight, stretch as far as the eye can see across once-desertified land. What may seem like just another solar energy station is, in fact, a crucial part of the Ningdong Energy Chemical Industry Base’s grand vision.
This base, which has been a significant consumer of coal and emitter of carbon dioxide, is now at the forefront of China’s mission to revolutionize its coal-to-chemical industry and embrace clean energy alternatives.
The crown jewel of this transformation is a solar energy facility with a staggering installed capacity of 500,000 kilowatts. This facility, connected to the national grid in June, represents just one facet of a demonstration project aimed at hydrogen production and carbon emissions reduction.
Developed by the CHN Energy Investment Group, this ambitious project, set to be completed by year-end, includes two hydrogen production plants, capable of producing 20,000 standard cubic meters of hydrogen per hour. Additionally, the project encompasses two hydrogen refueling stations, hydrogen pipelines, and a fleet of heavy-duty trucks powered by this clean fuel.
Tao Shaohua, head of the management committee at the base, explains, “We are developing new advantages. That is, using clean energy to replace fossil energy, and especially to replace coal with hydrogen made from renewable energy to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions in the industry.”
Beyond transitioning from coal to hydrogen in production, the base is making strides in hydrogen-powered transportation and the manufacturing of hydrogen-related equipment for the storage and transportation of liquid hydrogen.
This demonstration project is just one of several hydrogen initiatives at the Ningdong base. In April 2021, the Ningxia Baofeng Energy Group inaugurated a hydrogen plant powered by a 200-megawatt solar power station. By employing electrolysis to produce hydrogen from water, this plant annually yields 600 million cubic meters of green hydrogen, equivalent to replacing 800,000 tons of coal and mitigating 1.4 million tons of carbon emissions.
Looking ahead, the base has ambitious goals. It aims to increase its green hydrogen production capacity to 80,000 tons by 2025, curbing coal consumption by 900,000 tons and reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 2 million tons. By 2030, these figures are projected to soar to 300,000 tons of green hydrogen, a saving of 3.6 million tons of standard coal, and a reduction or utilization of 9 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
The impact of green hydrogen in this industry is clear: for every ton of green hydrogen replacing coal-derived hydrogen, 10 to 11 tons of standard coal are saved, and 25 tons of carbon dioxide emissions are averted.
Despite these promising developments, Zhao Rui, deputy general manager of Ningdong New Energy Industry Development, emphasizes that many of the hydrogen projects at the base are still small-scale, designed for demonstration purposes.
One significant challenge is the intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, which doesn’t always align with the base’s continuous chemical production needs. While power storage could address this issue, it remains costly.
Pumped storage, a cost-effective energy storage method, is not feasible in Ningdong due to geographical constraints. Pumped storage typically involves transporting water to higher elevations during periods of surplus power, then using it to generate electricity during peak demand.
Nevertheless, Zhao remains optimistic, noting that recent fluctuations in the price of key materials like polycrystalline silicon, a vital component of solar panels, have created favorable conditions for the hydrogen industry’s growth.
In addition to green hydrogen initiatives, the Ningdong base is pioneering a carbon capture, utilization, and storage project (CCUS), expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 3 million tons annually. This CCUS project will capture emissions from a coal liquefaction plant and store them underground, equivalent to planting 27 million trees or banning civilian car use in Ningxia for two years.
Ordos, in Inner Mongolia, is also making strides in green hydrogen, with projects set to produce significant quantities of this clean fuel using solar and wind energy.
At the national level, China is emphasizing the green transformation of the coal-to-chemical sector. New coal-to-chemical projects will be strictly controlled, with a focus on coupling modern coal-to-chemical operations with renewable energy, green hydrogen, and carbon capture projects. This holistic approach aims to accelerate the sector’s growth in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner.
As China takes ambitious steps towards a greener future, the transformation of coal-to-chemical industries into hydrogen-powered, low-emission hubs signifies a monumental shift towards sustainability and reduced carbon emissions.