Developing a hydrogen economy fueled by renewable energy across Africa could support global efforts to reduce emissions and create resilient and sustainable growth in the region.
There is reason to be optimistic about the role of hydrogen in Africa’s energy transition; what is needed now is for optimism to turn into concrete action.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, almost 600 million people across Africa still do not have access to electricity.
Many regions that have electricity suffer from blackouts and high energy costs – a significant barrier to economic development.
And much of the continent’s electricity needs are still met by fossil fuels, and this is expected to continue for at least the next decade.
Solving this energy trilemma – providing more reliable energy to more people, keeping that energy affordable, and at the same time reducing dependence on carbon-emitting energy sources – will pave the way for industrial development and prosperity in the decades to come.
Hydrogen, and building a strong hydrogen economy, could be the cornerstone of this process. If we unlock this potential, the African continent could offer a model of green industrialization, where economic growth and decarbonization go hand in hand.
Africa abounds in natural resources. It is the continent with the greatest solar energy potential in the world.
To date, however, only five gigawatts of solar power – less than 1% of the global total – has been installed on the continent.
The IEA predicts that by 2040, solar power could overtake hydroelectricity and natural gas to become the largest source of electricity in Africa in terms of installed capacity, along with wind power.
If this growth in renewables does materialize, then we need to consider how we can use it for economic development across the continent.
We also need to consider whether we should adopt the model of building high-voltage transmission lines and sending the generated electricity to demand centers.
If the supply is stable, it makes sense. But given the inherently intermittent nature of renewables, this would be very costly for consumers.
This is where the case of hydrogen comes in. Hydrogen is an ideal storage medium for renewable energy, and it has the potential to serve as an alternative fuel for process heat once the supply system exists to accommodate it.
This could be particularly effective in sub-Saharan Africa where the production of green hydrogen could enable energy markets to be more self-sufficient.
Local industries could also benefit from producing hydrogen, or ammonia, with green electricity, using it as an alternative to fossil fuels.
In North Africa, which is geographically much closer to the centers of demand for low-carbon fuels for existing industries in Europe, hydrogen can be exported by pipelines or as ammonia, as a carrier of hydrogen, and can still be competitive if we take into account the competitive cost of electricity produced from renewable energies.
Hydrogen also has the potential to serve as a carbon-free fuel for sectors like steel and cement – those heavy industries that enable continued infrastructure development and economic growth in the region.
Some countries, such as Namibia, could thrive in future low-carbon metals markets.
By using green hydrogen in direct reduction plants to move up the value chain, industries could become exporters not only of ore, but also of green iron and steel, thereby strengthening the industrial base and enabling development. long term sustainable.
Realizing the potential of hydrogen
However, there are still several hurdles to overcome if we are to realize the potential of hydrogen, and not just in Africa.
Besides the need for renewable energy, the main barrier to renewable hydrogen is the cost of electrolyzers.
The shortage of large-scale facilities resulted in an underdeveloped supply chain, which made equipment and production relatively expensive.
We also need hydrogen demand, especially from high-volume industries like mineral processing, transportation, as well as power generation, to drive hydrogen production.
In other parts of the world, successful hydrogen projects have several factors in common.
First, an appreciation and a new approach to partnership and collaboration.
We have seen that a cluster approach – between technology providers, energy companies, investors, research institutes and governments – enables true sector coupling and integration of the entire energy value chain. hydrogen, from production to transport, storage and use.
Second, successful projects use technology and infrastructure that is available now and can be future-proofed.
This includes the conversion of existing large-scale gas turbines and the use of complementary technologies such as heat pumps or carbon capture.
Third, they can rely on clear, long-term policy and regulatory environments that encourage the shift to low- or zero-carbon technologies with upfront public funding, and ensure investor confidence and security.
Fourth, they have viable business cases and the ability to attract funding. Much more needs to be done to explore viable new financial models for low-carbon solutions to reduce risk and accelerate adoption, but momentum is building.
And finally, and probably most crucial, the adoption of hydrogen and other low-carbon technologies requires people who can deliver it.
Thus, the development of jobs and skills will have to be put forward more to materialize these projects and the vision of a hydrogen society.
Kentaro Hosomi is Regional Manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa Region, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries