Africa has approximately 600 million people without access to clean, reliable, and affordable electric power (80% of the global total). On the flip side, the continent has some of the fastest growing economies in the world. Countries like Egypt and Ethiopia have recorded more than 6% annual growth in gross domestic product (GDP) with the average growth at the continent expected to be past 5% in 2022. Like everyone else, the continent suffers the adverse effects of global warning.
Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical element available in nature. It is a zero-emission energy source whose by-product is water vapour. It has no carbon footprint; thus, it offers excellent promise as an energy source in a net-zero world. Hydrogen has been used to power cars and airplanes for more than a century.
There are many ways in which hydrogen is produced. Grey hydrogen is generated using fossil fuels. Blue hydrogen is produced using natural gas coupled with carbon capture technology. Pink hydrogen is generated using nuclear energy as the source of power. On the other hand, yellow hydrogen is produced using solar power.
Green hydrogen is produced through electrolysis using renewable electric power—splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules with no carbon or other harmful by-products. This is more costly when compared with the other shades of hydrogen. However, it offers the best chance of using variable renewable energy as one form of storage and penetration of hard to electrify sectors. The overarching objective is to move from grey and blue toward green hydrogen. Africa has huge solar, hydro, wind, and geothermal renewable energy potential, estimated at 10,500 GW.
Opportunities and Challenges
The utilization of green hydrogen to decarbonize transport and heavy industries has been growing rapidly. Some estimates suggest that by 2050, the world will require approximately 3,000 GW of wind, solar, and other renewables for power hungry hydrogen production. This will enable a departure from the current scenario where the production process is carbon intensive using natural gas and coal among other sources.
Europe, for example, is an energy intense economy, thus it may require importing much of its needs. This could be an opportunity to expand renewables in Africa for local use as well as green hydrogen production. Sahara and other deserts have huge solar and wind potential that can be harnessed in this direction. Pipelines should be revamped for transport of hydrogen from North Africa across to Europe.
Once produced, green hydrogen can be turned to other forms, such as ammonia and methanol, to allow for storage and transport through the existing infrastructure including tanks, ships, and existing pipelines. Depending on usage, the converted hydrogen does not necessarily need to be converted back to hydrogen, that is, ammonia can be used directly in the chemical industries and methanol can be directly converted to power steel manufacturing.
We have the opportunity to use green hydrogen to reach net-zero for harder to electrify sectors such as heavy industrial processes, chemical production processes, and energy intensive industries such as cement manufacturing, aviation, and shipping. Machinery makers must be roped in for better success of the envisaged hydrogen economy.
Hydrogen as a fuel is a reality in countries like the U.S., Russia, China, France, and Germany. Japan is aspiring to become a hydrogen economy. The European Union is planning to install 40 GW of green hydrogen electrolysers and produce as much as 10 million tonnes of renewable hydrogen by 2030.
Technical and Financial Viability
The transport sector accounts for at least 30% of global energy consumption. Full electrification and green hydrogen provides the best opportunities for zero emissions in the sector. Personal cars, buses, trains, trucks, space craft, and planes are huge in terms of energy needs.
The available production systems are still very expensive and complex, thus presenting the cost-benefit and scalability challenge. Cheaper production technologies will go a long way in this direction. Retrofitting within the existing industrial complexes is not making it any easier coupled with low current demand levels.
Green hydrogen coupled with accelerated harvesting of renewables should provide Africa with an optimal way to catapult to net-zero emissions. This is besides good earnings by exporting the same to the international market. Projects such as Ethiopia’s 6,450-MW renaissance dam, Morocco’s 580-MW solar project, and Kenya’s 310-MW wind farm in the north are good examples in this direction. The excess green energy should be used to produce green hydrogen as one form of storage.
The medium-term target is to drive green hydrogen production cost to below $2/kilogram so as to competitively support heavy carbon sectors—steel, chemicals, shipping, and transport—of the economy in a more sustainable manner.
Legal and Regulatory Environment
The continent has lagged behind in the development of hydrogen infrastructure for fast and widespread adoption. The legal and regulatory framework is also lacking in many African countries.
We need to have proper systems to ensure that the local communities benefit from these projects. Lessons learned from the oil extraction business need to be put into good use. Issues like proper compensation of labor and environmental degradation need to be well taken care of.
Innovative policy frameworks by governments and policymakers will go a long way in accelerating growth and uptake of green hydrogen. Incentives toward research on cheaper production technologies and increased uptake, better funding terms, and regional and continental cooperation will be critical.
Expansion of grid fed renewable energy projects should be done in this direction. Incentives such as grid energy off-peak tariffs for use in the production of green hydrogen energy will follow almost naturally. This is expected to spur the growth of power-to-gas renewable hubs across Africa and indeed the world. Provision of equal market conditions for all fuels for fair competition in the energy space will go a long way in accelerating growth of green hydrogen economies.
Research, funding, and innovation in the green hydrogen space are best handled by way of mutual cooperation since the same is capital intensive. The European and Nordic power pools provide a good example in this regard. Both have working goals of harmonizing power markets with the aim of creating a big market with closer connection of power markets to improve efficient use of energy across national borders.
Closer cooperation at the regional level by way of regional power pools such as the West, East, and Southern Africa power pools will go a long way in speeding up serious cost-effective projects for the benefit of the general population. Revamping of the regional power pools to increase the economies of scale and harmonization of wholesale power markets will go a long way in this direction.
The falling costs of renewable energy generation, battery storage, and electrolysis techniques have boosted the expected growth of green hydrogen production as the next big thing in the decarbonization agenda. We still have low numbers of trained, skilled, and experienced workforce personnel in the hydrogen production space. This may slow down the expected boom in the industry.
Green hydrogen is still expensive to store and transport being a highly flammable product. Heavy investment in pipeline networks and other forms of transport will be the medium- to long-term solution. The current green energy production and transport process wastes approximately 50% of the energy invested in the electrolysis process, conversion, and transport chain.
National initiatives such as the South Africa hydrogen program will produce valuable lessons and learning curves for replication. This is in areas such as capacity development, innovations, research funding, lowering the cost of production, and feedback from key industry and transport players. Nigeria, Namibia, Morocco, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have established a similar project. International partnerships such as the Germany-Africa partnership for green hydrogen will go a long way in complementing these efforts.
The production of green hydrogen is still a water intensive process currently. To produce one kilogram of green hydrogen, up to nine liters of water is required. This is expected to improve as the electrolysis process becomes more refined.
The process of electrifying the entire energy ecosystem is more expensive than combining energy generation with low-carbon fuels. This is why the potential of green hydrogen cannot be over emphasized.
High technology costs, lack of adequate international supply chain, and lack of awareness impact the commercialization, infrastructure development, and demand creation of hydrogen-based technology. Green hydrogen, in conjunction with grid-scale battery storage, can act as a solution to this problem. Such a solution will reduce renewable energy curtailment and allow maximum utilization of renewable energy sources.
In conclusion, the continent can reap big rewards from conversion of renewables potential to green hydrogen to spur economic growth, export earnings, and in the race toward net-zero emissions. A lot needs to be done; however, the longest journey starts with a single step.
—Mutegi Mbae, PhD, PE, CEM is the acting regional manager for Nairobi at Kenya Power.