Africa well positioned to benefit from green hydrogen

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By Mark Venables and PJ Conroy

This month the world’s largest hydrogen fuelled mining trucks were unveiled in South Africa, marking a significant milestone in the continent’s shift towards renewable green energy.

Mining giant, Anglo American, says the trucks can carry 315 tonnes of ore each, and will use power harnessed from a solar plant to extract hydrogen from water. Hydrogen does not emit climate-warming gases. Using solar power also means there are no carbon emissions.

“Because hydrogen is light, storable, and energy-dense, and produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases, it is a viable energy source for the future” says Paul Sinclair, vice-president of Green Energy Africa Summit (GEAS).

“There are encouraging signs that it is on the cusp of significant cost declines and widespread global growth, according to the IEA’s Global Hydrogen Review 2021”, he says.

“We expect hydrogen to be a key topic of discussion and potential investment ahead of the Green Energy Africa Summit in Cape Town this October,” says Sinclair. Long term investors will be encouraged by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report that Africa could meet nearly a quarter of its energy needs from Indigenous and clean renewable energy by 2030.

Challenges for green hydrogen

Not all hydrogen extraction is the same. Almost all hydrogen produced today comes from fossil fuels without carbon capture, resulting in close to 900 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, equivalent to the combined CO2 emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia.

However, so-called green hydrogen is produced from renewable energy, like solar power, through an electrolysis process that is climate friendly. This means producers need access to low-cost and plentiful amounts of renewable energy. Given the abundance of sunlight across Africa this gives the continent a competitive advantage.

The ability to produce hydrogen from renewables is therefore an opportunity for African countries to replace fossil fuel-based production, which in many cases depends on imports. This is particularly important for landlocked countries that face additional challenges in distributing fertiliser and securing the natural gas needed to produce it.

Modern renewables amounting to 310 GW could provide half the continent’s total electricity generation capacity. This corresponds to a sevenfold increase from the capacity currently available.

However, most African countries will still rely on hydrocarbons to power their economies for the foreseeable future as part of a just energy transition to renewables over time. According to the United Nations an estimated half-a-billion Africans live below the poverty line on less than $1.90 per person per day. Tens of millions have no access to power, meaning countries cannot lift themselves out of poverty without exploiting their natural oil and gas deposits.

However, the first steps have been taken as displayed in South Africa. Natascha Viljoen, CEO of Anglo American’s PGMs business says they have proven the case for green hydrogen.

“The opportunity to create new engines of economic activity through hydrogen has been validated through this feasibility study with our partners,” she said, adding that “These include investing in innovative ventures and enabling technologies, as well as forging wide-ranging collaborations across industry, to fully harness the transformative potential of green hydrogen for our economy in South Africa.”

Says Paul Sinclair, “What we are seeing is tangible progress in renewables as Africa transitions from hydrocarbons over the long term. However, each country will have to access which energy mix most meets the needs to deliver to their citizens. Anglo American has certainly proven that green energy is a viable option”.

About Green Energy Africa Summit

Green Energy Africa Summit, taking place on 4-5 October 2022 in Cape Town, is the global platform for stimulating deals and transactions across the African energy sector. The event brings together governments, national regulator and utility companies, independent power players, investors, financial institutions and service providers. The summit will drive deals and investment into energy projects, provide energy access and solutions for the continent and shape the future of Africa.

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