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South Africa’s quest for a transition to a Hydrogen energy economy

A Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

A Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

Published May 3, 2022

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By Ambassador Bheki Gila

Hydrogen, with all its accidental innocence, has hit turbulence of an unpreferred kind. It has to explain itself to a diverse audience, some of whom strenuously disbelieve of its hype. How indeed does hydrogen propose to accomplish all its claims of environmental friendliness and cost efficiencies simultaneously so widely touted in the global warming public space? A powerful figure like billionaire Elon Musk is not convinced. He calls hydrogen fuel cells mind-boggingly stupid. In this ensuing heat, a comparative cost versus benefits calculus requires a much broader analysis than its current focus. In all honesty, the intellectual reach of electric cars versus a hydrogen fuel cell debate is alarmingly shallow.

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Perhaps this question or its affront by the herculean Musk presents an opportunity to look at the core of hydrogen’s meritorious claims or in the alternative, the inadequacies of its exuberance. But first things first. Hydrogen made its debut entrance into the energy world stage through the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. The Nazis wanted to use a Zeppelin type airship, the biggest ever, fuelled by 280 000 cubic meters of hydrogen to cross the Atlantic. It combusted into a fiery ball when it landed in Lakehurst, New Jersey in a blaze that killed 35 passengers.

A significant time has passed since that fateful morning of the 6th of May, and a spread of technological advances have re-focussed both the safety and versatility of usages of hydrogen. Therefore a new era of hydrogen energy is upon us and those economies that have taken adequate steps to prepare for this generational transition stand to benefit tremendously. Namibia has become one of them.

From both extreme ends of the hydrogen utility debate, the most value laden aspect is its colour coding, predicated largely on its source. There are mainly grey, blue and green categories, and in some specially defined cases, other pastel coloured ones too. Grey hydrogen results from a steam methane reforming process associated with refining fossil fuels. Blue hydrogen too, derives from fossil fuel processing with the singular advantage that the carbon dioxide emitted through the process, is captured and sequestered. And most importantly, green hydrogen which commands all the attention is made through an electrolysis process using renewable energy.

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Namibia is leading the green hydrogen technological advance which will pioneer the African continent’s energy innovation capabilities. On this path, they have a significant advantage over their South African neighbours. Not only do they have the plans, the market segmentation focus and the backing of the entire political establishment, they also have what has largely eluded the South Africans for twenty eight years. This is the political willpower to undertake national projects sufficiently backed by a dedicated administrative machinery to execute them. Where such projects could be identified, not excluding manufacturing some parts of the hydrogen fuel cell, especially considering that South Africa has the majority of the earth’s platinum reserves, the execution of such projects would inevitably be marred by the internecine discordance within the ruling establishment. It would not even be ruled out that any other successive administration could some day unilaterally cancel the project for little or no reason, without fear of public censure.

What this means for South Africa is that the country must invest aggressively in the accessing of water through desalination mechanisms that would permit for both the supply of portable water for human consumption and the rest for electrolysis. Without so much water, the ambition of promoting the production of green hydrogen will be rudely attenuated. We would have to invest large sums of capital which the country does not have in the transportation and storage of the molecule for the purposes of accessing the automobile and light industrial markets. If this proves to be a tall order for our administration, a unique opportunity occurring by happenstance can be exploited for a nobler and greater objective. This is the reduction of the carbon dioxide and the emission of other greenhouse gases churned out by Africa’s largest polluter. South Africa already produces a lot of hydrogen from its many crude oil refineries, what is vilified as grey hydrogen. Hydrogen of whatever colour, mixed with carbon dioxide, produces methanol, a useful fuel for ships as mandated by the International Maritime Organization from the 1st of January 2020. With premium maritime real estate straddled across two oceans, South Africa has an advantage of 14 000 ships calling on its shores every month.

On our march to an energy future dominated by hydrogen, instead of diesel, Eskom would be sufficiently lit by methanol which is locally produced, not imported and unlikely to run short of supplies anytime. The convertibility of diesel consuming power plants to a methanol dietary staple, is according to most analysts, the easiest transition to make.

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Namibia may be far advanced in its plans to roll out the green hydrogen production, but South Africa already has hydrogen potential. With adequate political resolve and a regulatory structure made up of an admixture of incentives and penalties, the estimated 700 state owned enterprises can cobble together the necessary infrastructure to produce methanol in the shortest possible timeline, allowing South Africa to meet its global greenhouse gas emission reduction targets as they do.

Like a deer, it is easy to be entranced by light of a speeding oncoming vehicle. The intensity of the discourse on electric cars as opposed to their nascent competitors, the hydrogen fuel cells, has concentrated all our resourceful energies to the exclusion of all else. We should tread lightly on both sides of that debate. Green hydrogen is way too expensive from source to market, and finds the continent without the necessary infrastructure and therefore unprepared for its social wide applications. As for electric cars, so much cobalt will be required for the batteries. So far, most of it comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which has lost millions of its citizens in wars inspired by the military superpowers for the dominance of that mineral. It is ghastly to contemplate what would be the further human toll when far greater amounts are suddenly required.

There are a diversity of opportunities which would permit the deployment of hydrogen and still justify its cost. In this wise, South Africa already has the two basic ingredients it can put together and end up with a product that help it achieve net zero status.

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All that is needed is for the policy makers to consider treating hydrogen not as an energy source, but as an energy storage. With this approach, the hydrogen potential will be mind-boggingly infinite.

Ambassador Bheki Gila is a Barrister-at-Law

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