Green hydrogen is being touted as Africa’s next great resource – and therefore, as history will tell us, it’s next great export, too. The continent has no shortage of sun and wind – what else will it need to develop green hydrogen at scale in this decade?
Africa has abundant energy resources for green hydrogen development, but it will also need enabling conditions, huge financing, and technical supports to be able to leverage these potentials for the production and transportation of green hydrogen competitively.
Several African countries, especially around the Northern and Southern Tropics, have excellent solar (average daily potential of 4.49 kWh/kWp) and wind resources (180,000 TWh per year) for potential green hydrogen production. Africa also has large untapped hydropower potential, estimated at over 250 GW, mainly located along the Congo and Nile rivers. Countries like South Africa and the DRC have an abundance of mineral resources essential for producing clean hydrogen and other renewable energy technologies. South Africa’s unique endowment in platinum group metals – an important mineral for manufacturing electrolyzers – gives it a particular advantage in the growing green hydrogen market.
However, despite these abundant renewable energy resources many countries in Africa still face daunting energy-related challenges. More than 640 million Africans have no access to electricity, placing the electricity access rate on the continent at just over 40% – the lowest in the world. Per capita consumption of energy in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) stands at just 180 kWh, compared to 13,000 kWh per capita in the US and 6,500 kWh in Europe. Moreover, renewables remain at an early stage of development, accounting for only 20% of the African power mix (consisting of 15% hydropower and 5% from other renewable energy sources). Given this reality, any capacity additions for the production of green hydrogen raise the question of whether they are coming at the expense of expanding access to renewable energy supply for local users, both to meet socio-economic needs and enable clean industrial development on the continent. Furthermore, the production of green hydrogen comes with significant demand for water. Given the increasing levels of water scarcity across large parts of Africa, this raises additional questions regarding the sustainability of green hydrogen production in these regions.
How far along are the most promising projects?
Most of the potential green hydrogen projects are in the feasibility study and planning phases (in the case of South Africa, Morocco and Egypt) or in early stages of project development (in the case of Namibia and Angola). To give a few specific examples, we can look at the $10 billion Hyphen Hydrogen Energy project in Namibia, – an investment equivalent to the country’s annual GDP. At full capacity, the project is expected to generate 300,000 tons of green hydrogen per annum for domestic use and for export. The large-scale project will require 5 GW to 6 GW of renewable generation capacity and 3 GW of electrolyzer capacity, estimated to cut 5 to 6 million tons of CO2 every year.
A similar project in Angola from the state-owned oil company Sonangol in conjunction with German companies Conjucta and Gauff Engineering is looking to develop 280,000 tons of green ammonia for export to Germany by 2024. Germany is also expecting production of green hydrogen and its derivative products from projects in the works in Morocco.
South Africa published its hydrogen society roadmap in early 2022. The country aims to deploy 10 GW of electrolyzer capacity by 2030, producing 500,000 tons of green hydrogen every year. Hopefully, the commitment of $8.5 billion from the US, UK, France, Germany and the European Union at the recent COP26 in Glasgow will spur developments in the green hydrogen sector.
In Mauritania, a framework agreement was signed between the government and Chariot Ltd to guide the next steps for the ambitious 10 GW green hydrogen project known as Project Nour. Chariot has already signed an agreement with the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands for the import of up to 600,000 tons of green hydrogen per annum from the proposed project.
With so many Africans lacking access to electricity, is green hydrogen looming as yet another valuable African resource to be exploited and exported?
There is a risk of relegating energy access pursuits in the race for green hydrogen production in Africa. African countries should see that the role of green hydrogen for climate neutrality is secondary to direct electrification based on renewables deployment. It is important that the green hydrogen projects are not developed at the expense of progress in energy, water and food access in the continent. Green hydrogen projects should be additional, in the sense that they add value to already existing pursuits of energy security and transition, along with improved water supply through desalination for others’ use in agriculture, drinking and sanitation. Certain percentages of produced green hydrogen should also be used domestically to advance energy security and green industrialization.
Namibia seems to have taken a strong export perspective. Its SCDI Hydrogen Project is one of the continent’s most ambitious. Will the global market be ready for it?
Countries like Germany have expressed interest in importing about 50% of their green hydrogen needs. Such countries who are ready and willing to import green hydrogen can be a ready market for Namibia’s green hydrogen. It is however important that the production of green hydrogen in African countries is both cost effective and sustainable so as to compete favourably with potential green hydrogen export from other countries like Chile.
Key to transporting green hydrogen over long distances is pipeline infrastructure – some natural gas pipelines between North African nations and Europe currently exist. Are there plans for more?
Yes, there were plans for the construction of the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline which was supposed to be an extension of the West Africa Gas Pipeline (WAGP) to Europe (Spain) through Algeria. But this plan did not work out, so the pipelines are now planned to remain in the continent, but not to reach Europe. In its replacement, the Nigeria-Moroccan Gas Pipeline is currently underway to transport gas from Nigeria to Europe through Morocco. The pipeline is still under construction and is expected to be finished in 2046. It makes sense to construct the pipelines to be able to transport hydrogen to Europe as well.
In May, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania founded the Africa Green Hydrogen Alliance to make the continent a front-runner in the race to develop green hydrogen. What role will intra-African collaboration play in this market?
It will allow for complimentary cooperation in green hydrogen projects. Such collaboration will also allow for sharing of know-hows and best practices for green hydrogen production in the African context. Further, countries could cooperate to balance out peculiar risks for green hydrogen production at competitive prices. For instance, countries with huge solar potential but with water constraints or political instability (like Niger and Mali) could partner with neighbouring countries with more abundant water supply and security.
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