A group of South Africa’s large private sector companies will be collaborating on the launch of a pilot fleet of hydrogen vehicles in the country in a bid to drive the green hydrogen economy.
Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), BMW Group South Africa and Sasol yesterday signed a collaboration agreement that will bring hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and supporting hydrogen refuelling technology to South Africa.
In terms of the agreement, BMW will provide the hydrogen FCEVs, while Sasol will supply the green hydrogen and mobile refueller.
These vehicles will operate on South African roads as part of an international trial to gather data on how the BMW iX5 Hydrogen performs in real-world conditions, after four years of development work.
The iX5 Hydrogen, which is based on the company’s popular X5 SUV model, uses a fuel cell system to convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity, which is used to power the car’s electric motor, and only emits water vapour.
Amplats, which provides platinum group metals (PGMs) used in FCEVs and has been investing in hydrogen technologies for many years, will work closely with BMW and Sasol to help develop a local green hydrogen mobility ecosystem.
BMW Group South Africa CEO Peter van Binsbergen said they believed that South Africa – with its abundance of raw materials and sound infrastructure base – was ideally placed to deliver on the green hydrogen (GH2) economy’s promises.
“One technology on its own will not be enough to enable climate-neutral mobility worldwide. As a versatile energy source, hydrogen has a key role to play on the road to climate neutrality,” Van Binsbergen said.
“Soon, with collaborators Sasol and Anglo American Platinum, we will be able to demonstrate the technical maturity of BMW’s fuel cell electric vehicle drive system, underscoring its potential for the future.”
The agreement, which was signed at the 2023 South African Green Hydrogen Summit in Cape Town, is a significant step towards accelerating the uptake of FCEVs and the establishment of related infrastructure in the country.
Sasol executive vice-president for the energy business Priscillah Mabelane said the agreement demonstrated their commitment to revolutionising the energy sector as they recognised the urgency of addressing climate change.
“We produced our first batch of green hydrogen at our Sasolburg facility in June and in 2024 we will ramp this up to commercial scale when a 69MW wind farm, situated in the Eastern Cape, comes online,” Mabelane said.
Green hydrogen, which is created from renewable energy sources, is a source of electricity for use in fuel cells to power heavy-duty transport, aviation, shipping as well as industrial processes in making steel, cement and chemicals.
For South Africa, which is the largest supplier of platinum group metals (PGMs), the use of green hydrogen in the auto sector is an important development that could generate demand of up to 5 million ounces of PGMs a year if hydrogen fuel cells are used in 10% of the global car market.
Growing the market for hydrogen-fuelled mobility solutions is a key pillar of the South African government’s green hydrogen economy strategy, which will lower carbon emissions, unlock investment, create jobs, and drive demand for critical metals and raw materials, including PGMs.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who appeared virtually at the summit, said it had been estimated that the hydrogen economy had the potential to add 3.6% to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050 and about 370 000 jobs.
Ramaphosa said some 64 countries accounting for 89% of global emissions had announced net zero targets by 2050, and thus it was anticipated that global green hydrogen demand will increase sevenfold by 2050.
“If investment is significantly scaled up, green hydrogen can deliver the equivalent of more than one third of Africa’s current energy consumption, increase our collective GDP, improve our clean water supply and empower our communities,” he said.
In June, South Africa concluded a heads of agreement with the intention to launch the SA-H2 Fund, a blended finance fund aiming to secure $1 billion in funding that will facilitate the development of a green hydrogen sector.
However, a loose coalition of civil society and community-based organisations called H2 Watch SA yesterday said they were deeply concerned with green hydrogen projects being fast-tracked across the country.
Earthlife Africa’s Ulrich Steenkamp said GH2 was being framed as a silver bullet response to climate change and Just Transition when it was not.
“Our biggest issue with the green hydrogen industry at the moment is the fact that it might also give a back door for fossil fuel industries to perpetuate,” Steenkamp said.
“Many of these GH2 infrastructure plans involve extending the lifespan of natural gas and the construction of pipelines which will have various environmental, social and economic impacts on the country and hosting communities.”