Hydrogen: A Viable Future Energy Source for Africa?


The key reasons for hydrogen’s explosive growth are two-fold, its green credentials and its rapidly increasing affordability.

Despite recent advances in battery technology, electrical energy remains difficult to store at scale for significant lengths of time. In many cases, the most effective option is still chemical storage, which is where lightweight, energy-dense hydrogen comes into its element – no pun intended!

Pure hydrogen can be used in direct combustion, as an industrial feedstock and in fuel-cells. What’s more, it can be transported just as easily as LNG, including via virtual pipelines, which makes it a potentially attractive option for Africa’s energy transition.

Green Credentials

Currently, the majority of hydrogen produced globally is termed grey hydrogen. The production process typically involves the treatment of coal or natural gas and emits between 9-20 kilograms of carbon for every single kilogram of pure hydrogen produced.

The real potential for the growth of hydrogen use in the energy transition lies in green hydrogen, the creation of which creates zero carbon emissions. Green hydrogen could solve issues related to the intermittent supply of solar or wind energy, as it is produced through the electrolysis of water, a process which can utilise excess electricity from renewables projects. Plus, it could play a role in overcoming Africa’s limited grid capacity, as it is approximately six times lighter to transport than equivalent amounts of petroleum and has no expiry date if stored correctly. 

Affordability

For hydrogen to be adopted as a viable, sustainable energy source across Africa, production will need to become significantly more affordable. According to PwC’s recent report “Unlocking South Africa’s hydrogen potential”, green hydrogen is still approximately twice as expensive to produce as grey hydrogen. However, advances in electrolysis technology, plus increasing economies of scale, mean that green hydrogen is becoming increasingly cost-competitive and will likely continue to do so.

Application

What real-world examples are we seeing of hydrogen projects being implemented in Africa? The reality is that most are still very much in their infancy.

DII Desert Energy, an organisation which acts as a market enabler for renewables projects in the desert areas of North Africa and the Middle East, launched the MENA Hydrogen Alliance earlier this year. The aim of this scheme is to accelerate the development of value chains for green molecules in the region through public-private sector collaboration.

Additionally, together the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research – Germany being a big state player in green hydrogen investment – recently launched a project dubbed H2Atlas-Africa. The aim of this initiative is to identify locations in the west and south of the continent that are suitable for the production of green hydrogen, both from a scientific and an investment perspective. The findings of the project will be used to create a roadmap for the establishment of a green hydrogen economy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So, will 2021 be the “year of hydrogen”? Perhaps it’s too soon to tell, but there’s no doubt that the gas has captured the attention of both energy companies and investors across the globe, as they seek to secure a stake in this promising future energy source.
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