While the prospects are exciting for the continent, governments and companies must ensure that the native populations get access to the alternative energy sources.

Discussions about climate crisis have often portrayed – and rightly – the African continent solely as a victim and even an innocent bystander, particularly as it contributes under 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

Yet, as the world scrambles to find new sources of cleaner energy, it is getting harder to ignore Africa’s phenomenal potential in aiding the climate crisis and delivering cleaner energy.

From solar energy from the Sahara Desert to vast onshore wind levels, Africa has much potential to convert this into green hydrogen, with climate researchers going as far as arguing it is the key to producing cleaner energy.

At the same time, there are pitfalls over whether African countries can fully utilise this energy potential to benefit their own populations and whether development projects could be ‘extractivist’ in nature.

Case for green hydrogen

Green hydrogen has been tipped as a new renewable energy that can solve the climate crisis due to its cheapness, ease of storage and lack of polluting gasses. It can be tipped to replace coal, oil and gas in all their uses, with double the production for cars than diesel while only releasing water vapour. 

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is already used for various purposes such as fuel for cars, treating metals, producing fertiliser and processing foods.

On Earth, it requires energy to separate as it doesn’t appear pure in nature. So, to fully extract hydrogen in its purest form, it calls for the process of electrolysis, which sends a strong electrical current through a tank of water (H2O) and splits the molecule into its two elements (hydrogen and oxygen).

If the electricity comes from renewable sources such as solar or wind, hydrogen production through electrolysis creates no greenhouse gasses, making green hydrogen renewable. And given Africa’s abundance of solar and wind energy, the continent has the perfect natural potential to create green hydrogen.

Indeed, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its Africa Energy Outlook 2022 report that Africa’s rich renewable resources are crucial for unlocking this potential. Due to this potential, the continent can produce 5,000 megatonnes of hydrogen per year at less than $2 per kilogramme, which is equivalent to the world’s total energy supply, the report stated.

The IEA’s report also said that by 2030, Africa could produce 80 percent of its required energy from solar, wind, hydropower and other renewable energies.

Continental developments

Various projects to produce and eventually export green hydrogen are already underway this decade. South Africa is tipped to be one of the continent’s leaders in green hydrogen energy due to its excellent solar, wind and precious metals resources. In February 2022, South Africa announced a pipeline of various green hydrogen initiatives valued at around $17.8 billion until 2030.

On November 27, the country hosted a green hydrogen summit in Cape Town, in which President Cyril Ramaphosa hosted several world leaders, ambassadors and high commissioners. Ramaphosa stated that “South Africa is determined to become a world leader in green hydrogen”. At the same time, he cited estimates that the country has the potential to “produce 6 to 13 million tons of green hydrogen and derivatives a year by 2050”.

His announcement came after South African petrochemical giant Sasol and steelmaker ArcelorMittal announced exploration projects for green hydrogen in October, along with a hydrogen production hub in Saldanha Bay and extraction from the North Cape region. In September, Sasol also announced a partnership with Japanese company Itochu to explore green hydrogen export projects and supply chains in the country, with the latter pledging to give grants for such projects.

The country is also aiming to supply European markets. In January 2022, it signed a memorandum of agreement, under which the Port of Rotterdam will act as a “demand aggregator for green hydrogen in Europe”. Other European countries like Germany have eyed cooperation with South Africa in this space.

Investments would undoubtedly be critical, as South Africa said it will need around $250 billion by 2050 to meet its long-term hydrogen production goals.

Other countries, including Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya, are also at different stages of building initiatives, which aim to come into place over the next decade. In 2021, Namibia and Botswana also signed a memorandum of intent with USAID to build a mega solar plant to produce green hydrogen.

North African countries also seek to harness their supreme solar energy capabilities through the African continent.

During COP27 in November 2022, the United Arab Emirates energy company Masdar stated in a report that Africa could capture up to 10 percent of the global green hydrogen market by 2050. 

It particularly gave credit to Morocco, stating that the North African country is expected to produce green hydrogen at less than $2 per kilogram in 2030 and less than $1 per kilogram in 2050. In addition, the report said Morocco’s green hydrogen industry could create nearly 4 million extra jobs and add $60-120 billion to the continent’s GDP by 2050 – a considerable feat, considering the country’s GDP in 2021 was just over $132 billion.

While Rabat established its first green hydrogen production system in September 2022, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report stating that Morocco is forecast to have the third cheapest green hydrogen production in 2050.

British TuNur has pledged to invest $1.5 billion in a power plant in Tunisia, which will aim to give the country the capability to export solar energy. It’s a huge investment considering the country’s GDP currently amounts to around $40 billion. Like Morocco, Tunisia has announced its own green hydrogen strategy in 2022, which it would aim to forward by 2024.

Mauritania has partnered with the multinational company Chariot Energy to focus on Project Nour, which aims to capitalise on Mauritania’s world-class access to wind and solar energies, to make the country one of Africa’s cheapest global exporters of green hydrogen.

Pitfalls to consider

These are a few of many exciting projects occurring across Africa. While there are concerns over other factors, such as bureaucracy in particular governments, which could stall projects, the investments themselves may not aim to benefit the local populations.

In some countries, electricity access rates are often very low, with 24 countries having below 50 percent access. Thus, governments and investors need to improve domestic infrastructure to ensure that people across the continent can fully benefit from these energy shifts.

Moreover, it is still in the early stages of development, as the IEA noted, Africa has 60 per cent of the world’s best solar resources but only 1 per cent of current solar generation capacity.

Pipelines are currently aimed at exporting natural gas from West and North Africa to Europe, particularly as Algeria is a supplier of natural gas – a fossil fuel. However, the pipelines would need to be repurposed and could be used to transport hydrogen.

Crucially, some observers have raised concerns over some projects essentially being ‘extractivism’ in nature, meaning Africa’s local resources could aim to benefit global markets outside of the continent at the expense of local populations. Moreover, substantial debt could be incurred by African governments because of some of the investment projects.

There are certainly positives, but while investment is obviously vital, actors should ensure that broader infrastructure developments are made to ensure that ordinary civilians can also benefit, especially given the more comprehensive climate vulnerability of the continent. 

If done ethically, it could see the global and African economies becoming more intertwined, and it could positively contribute to the continent’s economic growth.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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Source: TRT World