• Clean sweep

    Green hydrogen holds vast economic benefits for the continent, in addition to being kinder to the environment

    Clean sweep

    The green-hydrogen hype in Africa is slowly developing into a reality. The continent’s potential as a central player in the production of climate-friendly ‘wonder fuel’, AKA green hydrogen, has long been promoted since Africa possesses some key ingredients in its manufacture.

    It has the ample solar radiation and wind necessary for renewable energy (the green component of green-hydrogen production, which powers the electrolyser that splits water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen).

    In addition, in the case of South Africa in particular, it has an abundance of platinum group metals (PGMs), which are used in the manufacture of proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolysers as well as PEM fuel cells.

    Speaking at a recent forum on the hydrogen economy in Johannesburg, ministerial adviser and the green-hydrogen lead in the Presidency Masopha Moshoeshoe said that South Africa was ‘well positioned through our energy resources in terms of both solar radiation and onshore wind, our lengthy coastline and ability to desalinate water for hydrogen production, our proximity to both the European and Asian markets, and having places like the Northern Cape, which are significant land masses’. Noting that in Europe and countries such as Japan are being forced to turn elsewhere to source green hydrogen as they do not have the capacity to meet the green energy demand to produce the fuel, Moshoeshoe emphasised that competition to become the world’s primary source of green hydrogen is heating up, with interest coming from Chile, Australia, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

    ‘The African case is slightly different because we have different entry points into this market, such as North Africa, which can pipe green hydrogen into Europe because of its proximity, whereas South Africa needs to be able to produce hydrogen carriers and be able to produce value-added products.’

    As far as competition is concerned, South Africa would do well to also keep an eye on developments a bit closer to home.

    Across the border, Namibia’s plans to become a serious player in the green-hydrogen field are in full swing – largely with the support of Europe with which it has established a strategic partnership to develop the industry.

    Namibia views hydrogen as a catalyst to drive its own industrialisation and broader economic prosperity by using excess renewable energy produced in the green-hydrogen process to become more energy independent.

    In early May 2024, Namibia hosted Belgium’s King Philippe, who toured a site near Walvis Bay where Belgian shipping firm Compagnie Maritime Belge (CMB) is building a US$30 million green-hydrogen plant to supply green-hydrogen shipping fuel for its ships as early as the fourth quarter of this year. Cleanergy Solutions Namibia, a joint venture between CMB-TECH and Namibia’s Ohlthaver & List Group, could see an investment of US$3.5 billion over five years, and the project is expected to eventually expand to include an ammonia terminal at Walvis Bay and a 250 000 ton-per-year ammonia plant powered by a solar PV field in the Namib desert.

    CMB is also ultimately hoping to use the facility to fuel other passing vessels. ‘The port of Walvis Bay will also be in a unique position in Africa; our project will enable them to offer low-carbon logistics supply chains to their customers. This will pave the way for attracting additional logistics flows and investors,’ says Alexander Saverys, CEO of CMB. As part of the project there are also plans to develop Africa’s first hydrogen-fuelled ship and to set up a green-hydrogen academy to transfer hydrogen skills to Namibia’s workforce.

    In Lüderitz, construction on the US$10 billion Hyphen hydrogen project – a joint venture between German energy group Enertrag and Nicholas Holdings – is expected to start at the beginning of 2025, with commissioning of the first phase a year later. Namibia Mines and Energy Minister Tom Alweendo has described the Hyphen project as ‘the first building block in realising Namibia’s ambitions to incubate a thriving synthetic fuels industry’.

    The German government recently designated the project as a strategic foreign project, which means it is eligible to receive targeted support.

    The plant, to be built on a 4 000 km² site in the Tsau ||Khaeb National Park, will produce 350 000 tons of green hydrogen and 2 million tons of green ammonia a year before 2030, mostly for export. According to Energy, Capital & Power, the plant will create 15 000 jobs during construction and 3 000 permanent positions.

    Meanwhile, French independent power producer Hydrogène de France (HDF) Energy also expects to start producing green hydrogen at its US$178.4 million Renewstable Swakopmund facility this year. The plant, which includes an 85 MWp solar power plant, will primarily supply electricity to local communities, but its green-hydrogen unit and fuelling station will serve as a demonstrator for green mobility.

    Just 20 km across Namibia’s southern border lies Boegoebaai – a small speck on the map of South Africa’s West Coast that is set to become central to the country’s own hydrogen ambitions. A pre-feasibility study has reportedly indicated that the site – in South Africa’s least populous province, the Northern Cape – has the potential to be technically and economically viable as a multi-investor green-hydrogen special economic zone, and a financial adviser has been appointed to assist developer Sasol to seek potential co-investors in the hydrogen hub.

    While Boegoebaai already has an established (not green) hydrogen production plant, the expanded development is expected to include 60 000 ha next to the existing plant. The proposed project also entails the development of a deepwater port and infrastructure for the export of green hydrogen to Europe.

    While Namibia appears to have locked in support from Europe for its green-hydrogen ambitions, South Africa is looking further east. In March 2024, the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) announced it was working on a partnership with Japan that could inject ZAR3 billion into the country’s green-hydrogen economy over the next three to five years.

    The Hydrogen Corridor initiative plans to establish routes for freight trucks powered by hydrogen, connecting Limpopo to Gauteng and Gauteng to KwaZulu-Natal

    ‘It is an opportunity we cannot afford to waste,’ said SANEDI head Sampson Mamphweli, while hosting the president of the Japanese External Trade Organisation and representatives from more than 30 Japanese companies.

    In November 2023 Japan had hosted a South African delegation led by Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande, resulting in a memorandum of co-operation between the two countries. That visit has already resulted in two co-operation deals being signed. Hive Hydrogen Energy and Japan’s Itochu are co-operating on Hive’s green ammonia export project in Coega in the Eastern Cape.

    The plant, which will feature 3.6 GW of solar PV and onshore wind, is expected to be operational by 2028, producing green ammonia, green hydrogen and potentially also ammonium nitrate for export.

    Itochu is also partnering with Sasol to explore the development of green hydrogen and green ammonia projects for shipping fuel and power generation.

    On its visit to South Africa in March, the Japanese delegation visited researchers at the University of Cape Town who have been developing membrane electrode assemblies (MEAs) that Japanese companies want to use in their products at an industrial scale. An MEA is essentially an assembled stack of the PGM-containing PEMs.

    ‘Getting Japanese companies to work with us on catalytic projects such as these, will allow our hydrogen economy to take a quantum leap forward,’ said Mamphweli. ‘Collaboration with Japan is invaluable in helping us understand what is required to stimulate the hydrogen economy.

    ‘Our goal is to develop a value chain that starts with the mining of PGMs and ends with established industries that supply technology and products for local use and export. We want to build the hydrogen sector on local beneficiation of our platinum group minerals.’

    Meanwhile, Bambili Energy, one of the partners in developing the Hydrogen Corridor, another the catalyst project identified in South Africa’s hydrogen society roadmap of 2021, has agreed to build a bespoke 2 MW hydrogen fuel-cell power system to provide electricity to Anglo American’s headquarters in Rosebank, Johannesburg. The fuel cells will be manufactured using platinum from Anglo American subsidiary Amplats.

    Anglo American, along with SANEDI, the Department of Science and Innovation, and energy and services company Engie are also collaborators in the Hydrogen Corridor project, which envisages setting up corridors for hydrogen-fuelled trucks carrying freight from Limpopo to Gauteng and from Gauteng to KwaZulu-Natal, with support infrastructure such as hydrogen-production hubs and science centres.

    Most of the green-hydrogen development in Africa is concentrated in the north – Morocco, Egypt and Mauritania – which makes sense, considering their proximity to Europe. Djibouti too has entered the fray, with Bulgaria-based CWP Global reportedly planning to build a 10 GW green-hydrogen hub in the small East African country.

    CWP Global is also active in Mauritania, where it is developing the US$40 billion Aman project. The largest green-hydrogen project in Africa, it will have a 15 GW electrolyser capacity, powered by 30 GW of combined solar and wind. Mauritania’s deep-sea ports and its proximity to Europe make it a favoured destination for foreign investment in green hydrogen.

    Egypt, meanwhile, is reportedly working on more than 20 MoUs with major companies in the green-hydrogen sector, with US$83 billion worth of projects in the pipeline.

    The global green-hydrogen industry offers significant opportunity for those African countries with enough sun-drenched land, water, minerals and other infrastructure such as ports. Through careful planning, it offers the potential not only to earn foreign revenue through export but also develop the continent’s broader economy.

    By Robyn Leary
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images