South Africa's second two-day Green Hydrogen Summit, which was held in Cape Town from Monday and will end on Tuesday, showcased the country's aspirations to become a global production hub and investment destination for green hydrogen (GH2).
However, amid this ambition, environmental and people concerns have emerged regarding the rapid rollout of GH2 projects and their portrayal as a silver bullet response to climate change and a just energy transition.
A loose coalition of civil society and community-based organisations known as H2 Watch SA - which includes Earthlife Africa, the Economic Justice Network, Kuthala Environmental Care Movement, Green Connection, groundWork, Mining Affected Communities United in Action (MACUA-WAMUA), Southern African Faith Communities' Environment Institute (SAFCEI), Natural Justice, WoMIN, and Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) - have signalled that they are gearing for a fight.
At the heart of the summit, officials from the Western, Northern, and Eastern Cape regional administrations inked a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the aim of bolstering South Africa's green hydrogen economy.
Dr Harry Malila of the Western Cape Government, alongside Mbulelo Sogoni and Justice Bekebeke from the Eastern and Northern Capes, respectively, signed the MOU, reflecting a united commitment to GH2 development.
Speaking at the Summit on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted the potential of green hydrogen, projecting its contribution to the country’s GDP by 2050 and its role in creating job opportunities.
"The prospective hydrogen economy might augment our GDP by 3.6% come 2050 and manifest roughly 370,000 jobs," Ramaphosa said.
However, he acknowledged the challenges in a country grappling with high unemployment rates.
With a focus on innovation, investment, and sustainable practices, Ramaphosa is aiming for South Africa to position itself as a global leader in the green hydrogen revolution.
GH2, produced through the electrolysis of water using renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, is considered a clean and sustainable energy medium.
Its potential applications span from fuel cells to industrial processes, offering a promising solution for mitigating carbon emissions in sectors like long-haul transport and steel manufacturing.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has highlighted hydrogen's role in long-term energy storage, facilitating the integration of renewable energy into the electricity grid.
Kgosientsho Ramokgopa, South Africa's Electricity Minister, outlined the three province’s key objectives, which include nurturing the GH2 industry, streamlining infrastructure and logistics, boosting trade, and fostering human capital development.
Ramokgopa said: "This tripartite alliance envisions a cohesive plan to tap into the green hydrogen potential in the region."
The collaboration highlights the development of an interprovincial strategy, sharing infrastructure, promoting green hydrogen projects through financing and marketing, and increasing public awareness.
However, concerns raised by H2 Watch SA revolve around the potential drawbacks and implications of GH2 projects.
On Climate Change, H2 Watch SA raised the possibility that GH2 projects could inadvertently serve as a back door for fossil gas expansion.
The impact of GH2 emissions when combusted, could potentially exacerbate global warming through chemical reactions with other greenhouse gases.
The efficiency of GH2 as an energy carrier compared to electrification in certain applications.
Ulrich Steenkamp of Earthlife Africa expressed concerns, saying, "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."
On economic development, H2 Watch SA pointed out that the competition South Africa faces in the global GH2 market is dwarfed in comparison to what other countries are making in terms of significant investments.
Yegeshni Moodley from groundWork cautioned, "Respecting the rights of local communities and creating spaces for meaningful participation is critical in GH2 project developments."
H2 Watch SA also has concerns on the affect GH2 would have on the country’s land, water, and electricity resources.
– The potential strain on water resources in GH2 production.
– Uncertainty about electricity pricing and availability in South Africa's GH2 projects.
– The risk of land conflicts and harm to marine life due to desalination.
Nuchey van Neel of WoMIN highlighted the need for community involvement, saying, "Communities whose livelihoods are being gambled with have been ignored or very strategically steam-rolled by decision-makers."
In a separate development, several prominent South African companies have embarked on a pilot project to introduce hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) and the necessary hydrogen refuelling infrastructure to the country.
Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), BMW Group South Africa, and Sasol have joined forces in this endeavour, with BMW supplying the FCEVs and Sasol producing green hydrogen and the mobile refuelling apparatus.
The fleet, including the BMW iX5 Hydrogen model, will traverse South African roads as part of a global test to evaluate its real-world performance.