Hydrogen

Green hydrogen economy is a technology game-changer for South Africa

Stanley Semelane

Stanley Semelane is senior researcher, Climate Services, with the CSIR’s Holistic Climate Change Impact Area, where he is responsible for supporting climate change finance as well as the mitigation and adaptation measures for a just transition in South Africa. He has an MSc in engineering from Wits University and is completing his PhD in energy studies at the University of Johannesburg. He has previously worked at the Central Energy Fund, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa and as a deputy director responsible for Sustainable Energy in the Eastern Cape government.

Sub-Saharan Africa is endowed with renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower. I have previously highlighted the variable nature of renewable energy technology and the costs associated with storage as a major barrier to accelerating the adoption of renewables. Furthermore, a few weeks ago I indicated that there is a need to boost investor confidence as we write a new chapter in the South African renewable energy sector.

For this reason, we ought to reimagine what a South African just energy transition future should resemble. Which energy technologies can advance the objectives of a low carbon economy and decarbonisation? Can we have a decarbonised future based only on the energy technologies encircled in the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP)? What role can green hydrogen play in the just energy transition?

Many scholars recognise hydrogen as a major enabler for accelerating the decarbonisation agenda and, as a result, achieve the Paris Agreement objectives. Does this mean we are likely to see green hydrogen investments forming part of the energy transition future?

Technically, hydrogen is a proven technology energy source that has existed for many years. However, the renewable energy resources available in South Africa, together with the minerals petrochemical industry that exists, provide a unique value proposition for advancing the hydrogen economy.

Likewise, hydrogen can be deployed for various applications across the energy sector, for example, electricity generation, fuel cell electric vehicles and storage systems. This is a possible game-changer on how energy technologies could be deployed in South Africa and broader sub-Saharan Africa.

Is South Africa or sub-Saharan Africa ready for the hydrogen economy development? Do we have the required skills to advance a rapid hydrogen economy in a “just” manner? A hydrogen economy and jobs study conducted in the US shows a huge potential for green hydrogen-related sector employment opportunities. However, from the skills perspective, South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa might not be ready to fast-track the hydrogen economy.

Critics of the South African renewable energy sector have always argued that most of the coal value chain sector jobs would be replaced by freely available resources (wind and sun). Equally, a bigger share of renewable energy employment is associated with the construction phase, which only exists for 15 to 24 months per project. At most, the full-time renewable energy employees responsible for operations and maintenance account for about 19% of the South African renewable energy employment, in some instances, the renewable energy operations and maintenance creates about 3% to 5% of employment opportunities.

This makes the principle of just energy transition critically important, particularly for hydrogen development. Globally, many countries have committed to advance the adoption of hydrogen, however, South Africa is one of the few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that is doing research for hydrogen economy development.

The major distinguishing factor of hydrogen is its “durability —a key performance factor… in terms of a fuel cell system lifetime that will meet application expectations”. The durability targets for stationary and transportation fuel cells are estimated to be 40,000 and 5,000 hours, respectively, under unfailing operating conditions. This combined with electric vehicles that would be enabled mainly by distributed solar PV charging infrastructure provides a paradigm shift in how the energy sector will continue to transition.

At this stage, South Africa does not produce hydrogen components nor considerably process hydrogen material or assembly hydrogen components except for research purposes. Nevertheless, internationally, interest in hydrogen implementation as an accelerator for the decarbonisation agenda continues to gain momentum.

Last week, we saw Sasol’s plans to acquire 900 megawatts of renewable energy which will also include green hydrogen investments. Hydrogen can be utilised as an energy storage vector between periods of energy deficit and surplus. As such, fuel cells could be used to produce energy from the stored hydrogen, in which hydrogen is reacted through an electrochemical process.

What do these inevitable energy transition developments mean for those dependent on the coal economy? Are our institutions of higher learning ready and already preparing graduates who will provide skills needed in the green hydrogen economy?

The fundamental barriers to advance the hydrogen economy thus far have been setting up an enabling regulatory environment that would advance hydrogen adoption. We currently have no targets for hydrogen development although research work has been done in the area of hydrogen technologies.

Currently, from the policy standpoint, hydrogen is enabled by direct procurement of power from renewable energy independent power producers, though, the IRP is silent on hydrogen. This means that we are likely to lose out on localisation opportunities that could be derived from the hydrogen economy.

The renewable energy resources available in South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa resolutely position the continent as a potentially major role player in green hydrogen development. As such, increasing the green hydrogen benefits throughout the value chain will promote just energy transition and inclusivity. 

This is an area that urgently needs attention as it has the potential to contribute to the most-needed energy diversification options that will ensure South Africa reduces its carbon emissions while sustainable development is stimulated. The country’s just energy transition should be all about inclusivity and making sure that environmental sustainability and social equity are achieved. DM

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