Excerpts from 'Touching Hydrogen Future': Kazakhstan, 2049
By 2049, Kazakhstan will have unlocked its hydrogen potential, connecting it to the global hydrogen economy. However, the country’s transformation from a major fossil fuels exporter to a Eurasian green hydrogen leader is yet to continue. As a captain atop a “desert ship,” you will enjoy being a part of a future camel caravan experience through the hydrogen silk roads and hubs, witnessing how hydrogen transforms Kazakhstan beyond one’s imagination.
Hydrogen silk roads and hubs
For centuries, fame and fortune were to be found in the west – in the New World of the Americas. Today, it is the east which calls out to those in search of riches and adventure. Sweeping right across Central Asia and deep into China and India, a region that once took centre stage is again rising to dominate global politics, commerce, and culture” (Frankopan, 2015).
The young camel looks awestruck. The proud animal resembles a majestic monument not bothered by the winds sweeping through the rolling steppes. Only eyes are moving, mesmerised by the far-away trains flying like enormous metal brown arrows in the grass. These cargo trains are carrying “green gold”1 – clean hydrogen – to Europe, the continent on a mission to liberate itself from fossil fuel dependence.
It is September 1, 2049. I am travelling through Kazakhstan, with stops at the hydrogen hubs near the Caspian Sea and onwards to Astana, where I will present my analysis of the country’s contribution to building a global hydrogen economy.
Intermezzo on Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest landlocked country. It is bordered by Russia to the north, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to the south, Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea to the west, and China to the east. The country has a population of 18.7 million, a land area of 2,717 300 square kilometres, and a coastline of 1,894 kilometres on the Caspian Sea2.
Figure 1. Kazakhstan in Asia
Flashback to childhood & hydrogen silk roads
It’s the day before my business meetings begin, and I’m patiently waiting for my camel to rejoin the group on the overnight trek near the Caspian Sea. It’s a thrill to relive my early childhood days when I rode camels with my parents in southwestern Kazakhstan. In school, I was captivated by geography and history and always wanted to visit the sites of ancient civilizations. I wanted to explore the legendary Great Silk Road, envisioning my ancestors travelling and conquering Eurasia. Peter Frankopan describes the road as,
a network that fans out in every direction, routes along which pilgrims and warriors, nomads and merchants have travelled, goods and produce have been bought and sold, and ideas exchanged, adapted and refined. They have carried not only prosperity, but also death and violence, disease and disaster. In the late 19th Century, this sprawling web of connections was given a name by an eminent German geologist, Ferdinand von Richthofen (uncle of the First World War flying ace the ‘Red Baron’) that has stuck ever since: “Seidenstraßen” – the Silk Roads3.
On the territory of modern-day Kazakhstan, the Great Silk Road started at the borders of China. The primary route ran through Semirechye, in south Kazakhstan, the cities of Sairam, Yassy, Otrar, Taraz, Central Asia, Persia, the Caucasus, and continued on to Europe. The first president of Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev, proclaimed that “the unique geographical location of Kazakhstan – at the very centre of the Eurasian continent – has contributed to the emergence of transit corridors between different countries and civilizations since ancient times4.”
In the 21st century, given its geographic location and sheer longitude, the country has played a pre-eminent role in forming the so-called New Silk Road5. For example, in September 2019, President Tokaev noted that five railway lines and six international auto routes enabled the delivery of goods from China to Europe and back, through Kazakhstan, in 15 days. Shipments by sea took two to three times longer. He proclaimed that the national programme of infrastructure development, Nurly Zhol, coupled with China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, would revive the former greatness of the Great Silk Road. The One Belt, One Road initiative was launched during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Astana in September 2013, spotlighting Kazakhstan’s key role in China’s Central Asian strategy to develop overland trade routes with the European Union6.
Furthermore, geopolitical events of the 2020s highlighted the importance of multiple transit routes through Eurasia as crucial components of energy security and economic growth for the nations connected by the New Silk Road. For instance, the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, also known as the Middle Corridor or the Iron Silk Road, became especially important for Kazakhstan. It provided various links from Xian, in China, to Istanbul, in Turkey — through Kazakhstan by rail; by sea from Baku, in Azerbaijan, across the Caspian Sea; and by rail through Georgia7.
Private investors, such as Wagenborg Deniz LLP, contributed to the Middle Corridor’s viability by offering an alternative to the existing cargo route through Russia - using barges to transport cargo trains across the Caspian and Black Seas.
Thus, with its partners connected by the New Silk Road, Kazakhstan solidified its position as a premier trade and logistics hub in Eurasia.
Decades ago, my parents and I stopped on camel trips to observe passing trains. Back then, the cargo trains were full of “black gold” (fossil fuels) from Kazakhstan’s abundant stock of natural resources.
Now, in 2049, the New Silk Road had also become the Hydrogen Silk Road, connecting Kazakhstan’s hydrogen developers with European and Asian hydrogen importers.
Hydrogen hubs concept coming to Kazakhstan
The following day, I woke up to a glorious sunrise, eager to start my visits to hydrogen hubs in the Mangystau Region. I drafted the beginning of my presentation before the rest of the camel trekking group woke up:
Kazakhstan has historically been known as Central Asia’s largest energy producer and fossil fuels exporter. In 2020, oil and gas industries and related sectors represented 17 percent of the GDP, with oil providing most of the country’s export earnings and serving as the key source of government revenue. Coal accounted for nearly half of the country’s energy supply, more than 70 percent of its electricity generation, and over 20 percent of its final consumption8.
Then, a few decades ago, Kazakhstan set out ambitious clean energy transition plans. In 2012, the government launched the ‘Kazakhstan 2050’ national strategy, which called for the country to generate up to half of its energy consumption from ‘alternative and renewable’ sources. In 2016, Kazakhstan ratified the Paris Agreement. In December 2020, President Tokaev announced the country’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060. And in September 2021, the Kazakhstani government presented a draft ‘Net-Zero Carbon Emissions by 2060’ strategy9.
In the same decade, Kazakhstan realised the importance of hydrogen energy in meeting its national decarbonisation goals. For example, President Tokaev tasked the government with prioritising hydrogen and creating the Hydrogen Energy Competence Center at KazMunayGas National Company10. In June 2022, a Green Hydrogen Alliance was created, with the participation of companies from Kazakhstan, Germany, Italy, and Spain11. By 2049, hydrogen served as a bridge to Kazakhstan’s decarbonisation strategy, focused on expanding renewable energy sources. This clean energy solution has started to decarbonise different high-emitting sectors, such as energy, transport, and industry. It is also playing a vital role in balancing intermittent electricity generation from renewables, grid stability, and electricity demand12.
I snap back from thinking about my presentation. The main focus of my trip is on green hydrogen hubs, although Kazakhstan has explored the possibility of producing blue hydrogen from gas and coal13. I am especially interested in learning about the transformation of southwestern Kazakhstan, previously known as an oil and gas hub, into a coastal green hydrogen hub14.
Thirty years ago, my visit to the Norddeutsches Reallabor project — a consortium of over 50 northern German partners from business, science, and government that attempt “holistic system integration” through sector coupling with green hydrogen — served as one of the main inspirations for my research concept, which could be selectively applied in the US coastal regions15. I am eager to explore whether a Kazakhstani coastal green hydrogen hub, like the ones in Europe and the USA, has served as a solution for building a hydrogen economy, especially in its early stages. I complete my discovery by exploring two amazing projects.
Amazing future of hydrogen – what do big and bigger projects mean for Kazakhstan?
My visits to Hyrasia One16 and Fortescue Future Industries’ (FFI’s)17 projects exceeded my expectations, so I added the following notes to my presentation:
Kazakhstan has always had substantial renewable energy potential18, much of which was developed over the past 30 years. In 2021, the technically feasible wind potential was estimated at 920 billion kWh/year. Nearly half of Kazakhstan has wind speeds of 4-5 metres/second at the height of 30 metres. The most significant wind potential lies in Western Kazakhstan, the Atyrau and Mangystau regions near the Caspian Sea, and the northern and southern parts of the country. In 2021, the potential for solar energy development was at 2.5 billion kWh/year. The country usually has an average of 2,200-3,000 hours of sun out of 8760 hours per year19.
The picture below shows the rich solar and wind potential of Kazakhstan.
Hyrasia – Mangystau region
Hyrasia One, a subsidiary of Swedish-German company SVEVIND Group, developed one of the world’s largest green hydrogen production facilities in the Mangystau region of southwestern Kazakhstan. The energy from the wind and sun is transported to a facility close to the coastal city of Kuryk to produce green hydrogen via water electrolysis. The project uses a desalination plant with 255,000 cubic metres per day, a photovoltaic and wind facility with a combined capacity of 40 gigawatts, installed in the vast steppes of the Mangystau20 region. The annual output of 120 terawatt-hours is used to supply an industrial park of electrolysers on the coast of the Caspian Sea, with an overall capacity of 20 GW. Since the 2030s, Hyrasia One has produced up to 2 million tonnes of green hydrogen or 11 million tonnes of green ammonia annually. This is equivalent to one-fifth of European green hydrogen imports planned for 2030. The project implementation created 3,500 jobs during construction and nearly 1,800 new permanent jobs during the phased commissioning of the facilities21.
Fortescue’s green hydrogen projects in the Atyrau and Mangystau regions
I am fascinated by the magnitude of Fortescue Future Industries’ green hydrogen production and renewable energy projects. In 2022, the Kazakhstani government and FFI signed a framework agreement on the sidelines of the UN’s COP27 climate summit to explore projects in various regions of Kazakhstan, including Mangistau and Atyrau22. All of these projects, primarily Hyrasia One, use transportation options for global and domestic customers via 1) hydrogen pipelines or blending with LNG, 2) ship (ammonia and, possibly, hydrogen), and 3) rail or road (ammonia)22.
More importantly, these coastal green hydrogen hubs also transport green hydrogen to their European and Asian customers through railroads and barges via the Caspian and Black Seas. These monumental projects use titanium-based hydrogen alloys23 created with readily available metals in Kazakhstan. The country has vast reserves of chrome, manganese, iron, and titanium ores, which are used to develop hydrogen storage at affordable prices, versus those produced with rare earth metals25. By 2049, the proliferation of Kazakhstani’s green hydrogen hubs enabled the transformation of the New Silk Road into the Hydrogen Silk Road, linking Kazakhstan’s green hydrogen developers with the hydrogen markets in Europe and Asia.”
I am pleased with my visit to the Kazakhstani Caspian Sea coast. Sitting aboard a hydrogen-fuelled plane — yes, Airbus delivered on its 2035 promise — on the way to Astana, I am writing my last presentation notes. I am full of memories, feelings, and new perspectives on the development of the hydrogen economy in Eurasia. It’s a journey with landscapes and views that most people can only see in the movies. I also wonder if my camel misses me since I already miss tracing the Hydrogen Silk Road with him.
Figure 2. Astana, Kazakhstan.
With almost 30 years in the rear-view mirror, I can confidently proclaim that Kazakhstan and its global partners unlocked the country’s hydrogen potential and connected it to the global hydrogen economy. However, the country’s transformation from a major fossil fuels exporter to a Eurasian green hydrogen leader continues. Kazakhstan still faces limitations, such as relatively scarce water resources and the need to continue transforming its energy regulation system and tariff-setting system to improve energy efficiency, upgrade its technological base and phase out coal26. Kazakhstan needs to focus on building its local hydrogen economy by using revenues and knowledge transfer from global hydrogen export27. In doing so, Kazakhstan will decarbonise its emissions sectors and achieve its carbon neutrality goals. I am excited since, during my journey through the Hydrogen Silk Road and hubs, I witnessed how hydrogen is already transforming Kazakhstan beyond one’s imagination.
I am done with my presentation as I arrive at the Nur Alem Museum of Future Energy in Astana28. I smile as I see familiar faces from the global hydrogen network involved in Kazakhstan’s decarbonisation. After viewing eight floors dedicated to various clean energy technologies, we are invited to the opening of a new addition to the museum, “Hydrogen in Kazakhstan.” Everyone is ready to hear about Kazakhstani progress towards carbon neutrality. The president of Kazakhstan looks at the sea of people in front of him and opens the forum with a quote by Alan Kay29:
“Dear guests, supporters of Kazakhstani decarbonisation. The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Thank you all for inventing our future with us….”
Where did I hear this quote before?
This article is an excerpt from Touching Hydrogen Future: Tour around the globe. illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.
1 Author has included an assumption that hydrogen transport in trains has been made feasible, either in compressed, liquefied, or other derivative form. IEA TF researches inter alia Hydrogen storage in “Magnesium- and intermetallic alloys-based hydrides for energy storage”; “Complex hydrides (borohydrides, alanates, amides/imides-systems, magnesium-based compounds, reactive hydride composites” and as “Ammonia and reversible liquid hydrogen carriers”, see Task 40: Energy Storage and Conversion Based on Hydrogen - IEA Hydrogen
2 Devonshire-Ellis, C. (2021). Kazakhstan: The Belt and Road highway to Europe and Central Asia. Silk Road Briefing and International Energy Agency (IEA) (2022). Kazakhstan 2022 – Energy Sector Review.
3 Frankopan, P. (2016). The Silk Roads. A New History of the World. Bloomsbury, London, p. xvi.
7 Tavsan, S. (2017, October 31). “Iron Silk Road” threatens to sidetrack Russia. Nikkei Asia and Lillis, J. (2022, May 11). In Turkey, Kazakhstan’s president talks about trade and China transport. Eurasianet.
9 Zholdayakova, S., Abuov, Y., Zhakupov, D., Suleimenova, B., and Kim, A., (2022, October). Toward hydrogen economy in Kazakhstan. Working Paper No.1344. Asian Development Bank Institute and Ni, V. (2022, January 18). Opinion: net zero a remote prospect for unsettled Kazakhstan. The Third Pole.
10 Zholdayakova et al., (2022).
12 Zholdayakova et al., (2022).
13 Zholdayakova et al., (2022).
14 A green hydrogen hub is a “regional network consisting of the production, end-use, and connective infrastructure needed to produce, transport, store and use clean hydrogen in a functional regional market” (Kent, 2022, p.1).
19 USAID (2020). Investors’ Guide to Renewable Energy Projects in Kazakhstan, USAID, and Ministry to Energy of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Nur-Sultan.
20 Wikipedia (2023). Mangystau region. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mangystau_Region
21 Hyrasia One (2022). Green energy for the energy transition and decarbonization of industry and Spasic, V. (2022, November 2). EU eyes green hydrogen that Hyrasia One plans to produce in Kazakh steppes. Balkan Green Energy News and Lillis, J. (2022, October 28). Kazakhstan: oil-rich west to become green hydrogen hub. Eurasianet and Astana Times (2022, October 27). Kazakhstan and EU to build a hub for green hydrogen production and distribution.
22 Fortesque (2022, November 22). Fortescue Future Industries joins forces with Kazakhstan to explore unlocking its green energy potential. Fortescue. www.fmgl.com.au/in-the-news/media-releases/2022/11/10/fortescue-future-industries-joins-forces-with-Kazakhstan-to-explore-unlocking-its-green-energy-potential
24 Author has included an assumption that hydrogen transport has been made feasible in alloy form. IEA TF researches inter alia Hydrogen storage in “Magnesium- and intermetallic alloys-based hydrides for energy storage”; “Complex hydrides (borohydrides, alanates, amides/imides-systems, magnesium-based compounds, reactive hydride composites”, see Task 40: Energy Storage and Conversion Based on Hydrogen - IEA Hydrogen
26 Zholdayakova, S. (2021). A Proposal for Water Transportation by a Hydrogen Energy System -A Feasibility Study for Kazakhstan. Proc. Schl. Eng. Tokai Univ., Ser. E. and PwC (2022, October 31). Energy transition in Kazakhstan – Back to the Sustainable Future.
About the author
Dr. Venera N. Anderson is a global strategy advisor on sustainability and climate issues. She creates and implements innovative solutions that address the world’s most pressing issues, such as climate change, economic development, and humanitarian challenges. She is a member of the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council. Venera is a co-author of the "Touching Hydrogen Future" book (2nd edition). She is also an International Expert at Women in Green Hydrogen, a global network which strives to increase the visibility and amplify the voices of women working in the green hydrogen sector, and a Speaker at Tech Up for Women and the Wall Street Green Summit about her vision for coastal U.S. green hydrogen hubs.