Hydrogen energy: Is Africa really prepared for the transition?

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Hydrogen energy: Is Africa really prepared for the transition?

Many developed economies have put their money where their mouth is by actively supporting and investing in the development of a wide range of technologies to produce hydrogen economically. This begs the question: Is the hype surrounding hydrogen energy as a clean fuel well-deserved?

A new report published by Earthjustice, a U.S-based environmental legal organization, stated that the hype around hydrogen has reached the point where it threatens funding for genuinely clean energy.

Titled “Reclaiming Hydrogen for a Renewable Future”, the study goes on to reveal that in the U.S alone, roughly 75 million metric tons of hydrogen are now being produced annually in ways that contribute to the climate crisis rather than help solve it.

“If hydrogen backers in the oil and gas industry want to make the case that hydrogen is a climate solution, they should start by decarbonizing these production processes,” the report says.

Among the strong points of hydrogen highlighted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) include its versatile nature, the potential to help tackle various critical energy challenges as well as strengthen renewables to provide an even greater contribution. However, the report acknowledges that clean, widespread use of hydrogen in global energy transitions faces several challenges mainly in terms of production.

Hydrogen in its different shades 

Gray hydrogen. This is the most common form of hydrogen produced by using steam and pressure to break the hydrogen-carbon bond in methane or natural gas. During the process, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere; as such, this form of hydrogen has been described as a climate killer.

In fact, the IEA has it that current hydrogen production emits as much carbon equivalent to all emissions from the U.K. and Indonesia combined.

Blue hydrogen. This type of hydrogen is derived through the same process as gray hydrogen, with the addition of carbon-capture technologies to reduce its climate impact.

While this seems to be a slight improvement, a growing body of research indicates that this method, even if it can successfully capture almost all of the resulting carbon emissions, would still leave the climate in a worse shape.

Green hydrogen: This form of clean hydrogen known as green hydrogen is produced by separating water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis. Rather than using fossil fuels, renewable energy is used to power the entire process.

According to the report from Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign, less than 1% of the world’s existing hydrogen energy production is now made using renewable energy.

Where is Africa in this debate?

To join the arguments around hydrogen energy in the African context, there’s a need to consider the rate of energy access in the continent. The African Energy Outlook 2020 report shows that 770 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity.

Africa, unlike other continents, still has a high rate of energy poverty despite its abundant natural resources. To address this, more efforts are concentrated to achieve a just energy transition, supporting renewable energy adoption with a balanced use of natural oil and gas.

The process of hydrogen production is costly. One reason for this is because it never appears alone but in combination with other elements. Separating hydrogen from these other elements is an expensive undertaking.

While hydrogen energy projects are underway in a few countries in Africa- for example, Egypt, Namibia– it need not threaten just energy transition efforts by siphoning resources away from solutions that would provide underserved communities with energy access.

In the future, green hydrogen may well help the continent carry renewable energy into the toughest corners of the energy system. In the meantime, how ready is Africa?

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