HomeRegional NewsAfricaHydrogen is hot air or hot energy, depending on where you stand

Hydrogen is hot air or hot energy, depending on where you stand

Whether the hydrogen economy turns out to be a whole lot of hype or the hope for Africa to create clean energy for all would depend very much on whether the continent’s various governments actively put measures into place to take advantage of the proposed energy value chain.

Speaking on an Enlit Africa and ESI Africa roundtable online, various speakers spoke about their hope for South Africa, and indeed the continent to take advantage. The panel also reminded the audience that, like any energy system, it would take a while before any actual benefits would be repeated.

Craig Morkel, representative of the Southern African Oil and Gas Alliance, said: “We cannot simply flip a switch from fossil intensive pathways to green hydrogen and renewable energy immediately. There needs to be a transitional phase that incrementally increases our use of green technologies.”

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Morkel sees gas, such as LNG, as a transition fuel that could replace coal in the next few years, and which itself could be replaced by hydrogen down the line. He reminded participants that the ultimate objective of investing in hydrogen is to decarbonise energy systems to net zero by 2050.

“It’s not [possible to achieve] net zero carbon tomorrow. How do we reduce greenhouse gases over this period of time? We should be colour blind, not carbon blind, no matter if it is grey, green or blue, as long as it is better than what we have right now,” said Morkel.

Professor Tariq Kahn, director of CPUT’s Energy Centre, displayed a little more skepticism around blue hydrogen’s potential, reminding everyone that nitrous oxide is a potential side product being sidelined in discussions around carbon capture technologies and the wonders of using hydrogen as an energy source.

He mentioned a study which showed burning hydrogen enriched gas in an industrial turbine leads to six times the amount of nitrous oxide being released into the atmosphere than methane released when using the coal based procured.

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Kahn was more  positive about the potential of green hydrogen to meet the world’s need for clean energy, but pointed out a key current challenge remains cost of production and transport. Also, while renewable energy sources could be an amazing sustainable solution for South Africa, considerable work must still take place to connect communities in remote spaces to an energy grid of any kind.

According to Kahn the legacy that underpins South Africa’s electricity grid, which emanates like a “star from the north” where most of the country’s energy generation happens to the ports and industrial hubs on the coast. As such, with an extremely long network of power lines, SA’s power grid was never designed to take energy to where the people actually live. “It’s an inheritance from apartheid and though we talk about upgrading the network, the grid didn’t factor the entire population into its load. Getting that smart grid ready is another aspect.”

“So, we need to look at power flow and costing and adding new generation capacity. We have a situation where adding green hydrogen to the network could be the very transformation we need,” Kahn speculated.

Morkel addressed another challenge, stating that South Africa was already sending money out of the country through the current wind and solar projects where the components and technologies used are from outside the country. Local manufacturing of RE components died once the REIPPP programme stalled in 2014 and he questioned whether the same thing would happen if the country started creating and exporting hydrogen.

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The hydrogen economy is already here, in decentralised form

“When it comes to local content for electrolysers and eventually fuel cells there is amazing IP being developed by institutions in South Africa. The question then should be – what is the opportunity for intellectual property to become commercialised and acceptable to financiers as a mature technology?” asked Morkel.

Dr Sivakumar Pasupathi, director of HySA systems competence centre at the University of the Western Cape, said the country was already creating new IP in the hydrogen space through innovations in fuel cell technology.

HYSA systems’ first five years was about setting up infrastructure and their second phase was around piloting projects. They are now in their third phase of commercialisation. “There is the hydrogen powered school in Ventersdorp, the nature reserve at UWC and installations at data centres for Vodacom and MTN,” he explained.

Pasupathi was adamant that the global hydrogen economy was not just a pipe-dream that would evolve overtime but is already gaining traction in various places around the world: “Morocco is getting ready to export hydrogen. If we [South Africa] don’t do it now, we’re missing the boat. We need to do it in the next five years, to start selling to countries like Germany and others.” ESI

Access the Roundtable Hydrogen – Hype or Africa’s Hope recording

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Theresa Smith
Theresa Smith is a conference producer for Clarion Events Africa.