Green Hydrogen – A viable option to transform Africa's energy sector?

With each passing day, global alarms ring louder about the looming specter of climate change which threatens the planet’s future. In a race against time, the momentum is picking up for exploring innovations that will reduce humanity’s carbon footprint, especially in the energy sector. This is not surprising as the sector (electricity, heating/cooling, and transport) is the largest contributor to Global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions at 73 per cent.

For many African countries, the question is not how to reduce their carbon footprint because the continent’s overall contribution to GHG emissions is very low at less than 4 per cent. Instead, the innovation they are looking for is how the continent can sustainably harness its existing resources to meet growing demand for energy for economic development and to lift citizens out of poverty while following a sustainable path to a net-zero future. 

To strike this balance, some African countries are looking towards green hydrogen as a potential technology to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, accelerate access to electricity for millions of Africans by increasing the exploitation of renewable energy resources, and to meet their global climate commitments. In 2021, Namibia announced an estimated US$9.4 billion green hydrogen project, scheduled to enter production in 2026. The initial target is to generate 2 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity that will ultimately be available for regional and global markets. 

The $8.5 billion promised at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) to support South Africa’s just transition towards a low emission development path specifies a goal to “develop new economic opportunities such as green hydrogen.” In February 2022, South Africa announced plans to support a pipeline of green hydrogen projects worth about $17.8 billion over the next decade. Similarly, Kenya, Morocco, and Nigeria are at various stages of developing plans to integrate green hydrogen into their energy mixes.

There is indeed a global race to develop green hydrogen and for the first time, Africa is on the starting line with developed countries. Governments around the world are promoting projects for domestic and export markets of green hydrogen and billions of dollars are expected to be invested over the next few years. According to consultancy Accenture, the US has a hydrogen roadmap. Germany planned to invest $10.6 billion, while France and Portugal each put forward a figure of $8 billion. Britain plans to spend $16.6 billion, Japan $3 billion and China (already the leading green hydrogen producer) will invest $16 billion by 2020 to make their industries greener. In South Korea, government-backed business consortia in 2021 pledged to invest a total of $38 billion to boost the country's hydrogen economy by 2030, following the enactment of a hydrogen law.

The use of hydrogen as a fuel is not a new concept. It is currently widely used in different applications such as fuel for cars, refining petroleum, treating metals, producing fertilizer, and processing foods. Hydrogen releases a significant amount of energy when used as a fuel, almost three times what can be obtained from diesel or gasoline. 

Hydrogen is produced by splitting water by electrolysis. This is a process that uses electricity, a conducting fluid, and a metal catalyst (usually platinum) in a fuel cell. Electrolysis involves using electricity to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen released can be used as fuel, or mixed with oxygen to create oxyhydrogen, which is used for welding in the industry, or inhalation therapy against COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases. The added value is that the final products (hydrogen and oxygen) don’t release carbon or other GHGs. 

The problem is that hydrogen is an energy carrier and not an energy source, and like electricity, can carry energy but needs a power generation source such as fossil fuels or renewables to create it.  Therefore, extracting hydrogen into a useable form needs another form of energy, and a lot of it. The various color designations that one hears associated with green hydrogen come from the process and the power sources used to generate it. For example, black/brown hydrogen is produced from coal, and grey/blue hydrogen is derived from methane. Both these processes use fossil fuels and release GHGs.  To be considered green, the electricity required for the process should mostly come from renewable power sources such as solar, wind and geothermal.  

So, why spend energy to produce energy? Green hydrogen, being an energy carrier, would act like a battery that allows the storage of excess energy created by renewables like solar and wind during their peak cycles. It would reduce the intermittency of renewables that cannot generate power at all hours of the day, ensuring a sufficient and continuous supply of power for grids. This is what makes green hydrogen attractive on the frontiers of decarbonization, the promise of significant usable energy without contributing to climate change. 

Like many investment decisions, the question is whether it is worthwhile to dedicate part of Africa’s very limited resources to developing green hydrogen as a viable solution for Africa’s energy deficit. It comes down to the cost, risk, and reward matrix. To answer this question from an African perspective, one must first look at the maturity of the technology itself. 

The vision of green hydrogen, while very promising from a technology point of view, comes with many caveats for African countries, the obvious one being economic viability. Financing should first be available to develop the continent’s vast potential for renewable energy and maybe even capitalize on its endowment of the minerals needed to manufacture fuel cells. Moreover, once produced, hydrogen, green or otherwise, is very unstable and flammable at room temperature and pressure. 

These caveats however should not dissuade Africans from producing green hydrogen but require visionary leadership, aspirational policy-making and significant additional investments to:

i)    Create collaborative innovation platforms to strengthen research and the development of sustainable technologies that can be easily maintainable from Africa to continuously improve the competitiveness of the sector;
ii)    Build the hydrogen energy infrastructure to support H2 production and efficient storage, transport and refueling facilities;
iii)    Communicate on the value of green hydrogen and promote its use in the productive sectors; 
iv)    Establish or improve the legal frameworks for hydrogen to support the whole value chain.
Finally, the ground must be prepared to create a specialized workforce and invest in related infrastructure to be a first-mover as the technology matures. While there may be voices that tell Africans that green hydrogen is too aspirational given the continent’s myriad of priorities, the words of Madiba remain true, “it always seems impossible until it's done.”

Written by: Bitsat Yohannes, Programme Management Officer and cluster lead for Energy and Climate at the Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA), with contributions from Dr. Arona Diedhiou, University Grenoble Alpes, France; Vice-Director Climate Nexus Lab., Côte d'Ivoire