By Isaac Otolo
Considerable progress has been made to generate energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower. However, their intermittent nature resulting from environmental and seasonal cycles has limited their efficiency and reliability.
As such, the transition to clean energy has been slow, especially for industries and transportation sectors which still rely on fossil fuels whilst accounting for more than a third of global final energy demand. However, we believe hydrogen is set to change the narrative as it can be used to decarbonize sectors that are difficult to electrify.
Hydrogen is a chemical element found in chemical compounds such as water and methane. Generating hydrogen from these compounds requires a large amount of energy as input, making efficient and low-carbon production of hydrogen a key challenge.
Depending on the production methods, hydrogen can be categorized into grey, blue, and green hydrogen.
Currently, a significant amount of hydrogen comes from grey hydrogen which is produced from fossil fuels and releases CO2 into the atmosphere.
According to the World Economic Forum, global hydrogen production in 2020 was around 90m tonnes and produced from fossil fuels resulting in the production of 900m tonnes of CO2.
Building a clean and cost-effective energy system will require replacing grey hydrogen with green and blue hydrogen which requires extra clean electricity to produce.
Despite Africa accounting for less than 4% of the world’s CO2 emissions, it is vulnerable to the impacts of global warming threatening livelihoods.
Therefore, Africa should be at the forefront of charting a path to a net zero future whilst supporting its economic development.
Africa has all the necessary elements: abundant renewable energy sources, land availability and easy access to water that gives it a competitive advantage to produce green hydrogen.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), sub-Saharan Africa holds the greatest green hydrogen production potential, with values ranging between 458m GWh and 345m GWh.
Countries in the Northern, Southern and Eastern parts of Africa have sufficient solar and large untapped hydropower potential estimated at over 250 GW, mainly harnessed through dams located along major rivers.
South Africa and the DRC have minerals such as nickel and platinum metals which are important for manufacturing electrolyzers.
There has also been a strategic push from multiple stakeholders from European countries that have acknowledged the potential to produce cost-effective green hydrogen in Africa.
Despite its potential, the production of green hydrogen in Africa will face challenges. One of the major challenges is the high cost of production.
This is due to the fact that green hydrogen produced using electricity from an average renewable energy plant would be three times more expensive than grey hydrogen.
Furthermore, adopting expensive green hydrogen technologies for end uses will add to the production cost.
Furthermore, most countries do not have laws or policies regulating the production, storage, and distribution of green hydrogen which is a key obstacle for potential investors.
The supporting infrastructure including the transport, conversion and storage of hydrogen is critical to the uptake and viability of green hydrogen in the whole energy sector.
However, according to Energy Monitor, the associated costs could be three times higher than the cost of green hydrogen production.
In addition, producing green hydrogen using electricity might come at the expense of expanding local access to meet socioeconomic needs.
There are also increasing levels of water scarcity across Africa, which might slow down the production of green hydrogen as it requires significant water demand capacity.
Upskilling will also be key since the hydrogen value chain and its associated technologies are emerging sectors and the skills gaps must be addressed to enable wide-scale deployment of these key technologies.
Africa has made progress in embracing green hydrogen due to its benefits to the power system, diverse industry-wide uses and decarbonizing the food chain.
South Africa, Morocco and Egypt’s green hydrogen projects are in the feasibility and planning phases while Namibia and Angola are in the early stages of project development.
Countries like Zimbabwe, Egypt and South Africa are in the process of implementing 100 MW, 165MW and 3.5MW electrolysers respectively.
In May 2022, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania founded the Africa Green Hydrogen Alliance to make the continent a front-runner in the development of green hydrogen driving the exit strategies for fossil fuel and coal while simultaneously ensuring a secure supply of clean energy.
To establish the supply and distribution of infrastructure from production, storage, transport, and end-user facilities through public and private sector partnerships, we need to increase the momentum in developing green hydrogen energy.
This requires establishing and implementing long-term policies that create hydrogen demand certainty and de-risk private sector investments.
Legal frameworks for hydrogen are vital to support the whole value chain and ensure hydrogen is part of an integrated clean energy roadmap at the national level.
To strengthen research and the development of sustainable technologies that can be easily adopted in Africa, the continent can leverage international collaboration and pursue synergistic initiatives with countries that have expertise in clean-tech innovation.
This approach will also help to attract direct foreign investment. By accelerating opportunities for Africa in global markets, the continent can position itself as a leader in sustainable technology.
With contributions from Halimah Kemboi and Moses Kombo. The authors are Transaction Services Advisors with PwC.
Cover photo: Pixabay