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A hydrogen economy may fuel a more solid development drive in Southern Africa


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

A convergence of interests between Japan and Southern Africa presents a unique opportunity for mutual cooperation and economic expansion by seizing the initiative to play a prominent role in defining the global hydrogen economy. This will require strategic cooperation and a shared commitment to a sustainable future.


Some in Southern Africa’s energy sector, including Namibia and South Africa, are exploring the potential benefits of embracing a hydrogen economy, primarily driven by green hydrogen, a clean and natural energy source. Recent interest in this arises from the global push for sustainable energy options.

Green hydrogen can be produced by electrolysing water into hydrogen and oxygen using energy from green sources like the sun, water, and wind. This process is deemed  “green” because it does not make greenhouse gases. When hydrogen fuel is burned, it turns into water instead of carbon dioxide, as happens when fossil fuel is burned. Of particular value in the move towards a sustainable energy system, green hydrogen can be used in hard-to-decarbonise areas like heavy industry and transportation.

The abundant sunlight and Platinum Group Metals (PGMs) in Southern Africa necessary for producing green hydrogen offer the region a comparative economic advantage. Southern Africa is a prime location for solar energy production due to its high solar radiation levels. Most of South Africa has more than 2,500 hours of sunshine per year. The average daily amount of sunlight is between 4.5 and 6.5 kWh/m2. The average yearly 24-hour solar radiation in South Africa is 220 W/m2, which is higher than in many parts of the US (about 150 W/m2) and the European Union (about 100 W/m2).

Catalysts speed up the process at the anode, where water is oxidised to make oxygen and protons, and at the cathode, where protons make hydrogen. Anode catalysts are usually made of iridium or ruthenium oxide, while cathode catalysts are made of platinum, which are all PGMs. South Africa produces between 80 and 85% of the world’s iridium and 75% of the world’s platinum. Because PGMs and plenty of sunlight produce hydrogen, Southern Africa is an excellent place to invest in the hydrogen economy. Namibia is also taking advantage of this opportunity, and in May 2023, it reached an agreement with Hyphen Hydrogen Energy on a deal worth $10-billion.

Hydrogen is a flexible form of energy that can be used in many different ways. Fuel cells that run on hydrogen mix hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat, and water. These fuel cells are used in cars, power plants, cell phones, and computers. In an internal combustion engine, hydrogen is burned like petrol — producing only water vapour instead of carbon dioxide from petrol, and making it a direct replacement for this fossil fuel.

Hydrogen is an energy storage medium. Electrolysis, which is the process that uses electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, can use excess electricity from sources like hydropower plants, the wind, or the sun to generate hydrogen that can be stored and used when there is a greater electricity demand or when renewable energy sources are not producing as much energy. Also, hydrogen can be used to provide heat and can be mixed with natural gas to lower the amount of carbon dioxide released by heating systems.

Hydrogen is a clean and renewable energy source, but it requires plenty of energy to produce, especially when natural gas or other fossil fuels are used. If produced from renewable energy sources, hydrogen can be a stable energy source. Electrolysis has an efficiency between 60 and 70%. But the efficiency of the process depends on the technology and power source that is used.

Japan and Southern Africa have distinct socioeconomic and geographical characteristics and have shown interest in the hydrogen economy. Highly industrialised Japan has led the world in developing and applying hydrogen technology. Several factors influence Japan’s interest in hydrogen as a primary energy source. Due to its limited domestic energy resources, Japan relies heavily on imported fossil fuels. This reliance makes Japan vulnerable to fluctuations in the global energy market. Additionally, Japan is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to become carbon neutral by 2050. The hydrogen economy offers a means to achieve its goals.

Japan’s plan for hydrogen includes producing, storing, transporting, and using it. Significant investments have been made in research and development, infrastructure, and public-private partnerships. In addition, Japan has advanced fuel cell technology, with Toyota leading the way in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The high cost of producing hydrogen, especially green hydrogen through electrolysis, is one of the biggest challenges. Another is that there is no good network for distributing hydrogen.

Strike while the iron is hot

Given its abundant natural resources and developing economies, Southern Africa presents different opportunities. The region has enormous potential for renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, which can be used to produce green hydrogen. Countries like South Africa have already initiated research into the hydrogen economy to resolve energy security, reduce carbon emissions, and stimulate economic growth.

Southern Africa could be a significant exporter of green hydrogen because it has plenty of green energy sources and is strategically located. However, the region faces significant obstacles. At this point, there is a shortage of hydrogen production, storage, and distribution infrastructure. In addition, the Southern African region is hindered by the high initial investment required for hydrogen technologies.

Although Japan and Southern Africa are at different phases of economic development, these countries recognise the potential of the hydrogen economy. Japan is well-positioned to dominate hydrogen utilisation, especially in the transportation and residential sectors, due to its advanced technology and industrial capacity. Southern Africa has the potential to become a significant participant in the production of green hydrogen due to the abundance of the necessary resources. This convergence of interests presents a unique opportunity for mutual cooperation and economic expansion. Japan and Southern Africa can play a prominent role in defining the global hydrogen economy through strategic cooperation and a shared commitment to a sustainable future. DM


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  • Chris Skinner says:

    The hydrogen economy idea has some serious challenges, and could well be a dead duck. A quick search on the internet and here’s an extract from Wikipedia:
    The idea of hydrogen economy has been heavily criticized from the moment it was proposed. The main issues with the H2E scenario are as follows:[17]

    The human civilization does not have a clean, energy-efficient and low-cost source of H2. The current production methods either produce a large amount of carbon dioxide per kW than direct burning of coal, or are more expensive or are less energy efficient.
    Storage of H2 within a transportation vehicle for its own motive power faces cost and safety issues.
    Conversion of H2 into electricity in fuel cells have a low (ca. 60%) energy efficiency, with issues of durability and cost remaining unresolved.

    • Michele Rivarola says:

      Using petrol in a half full tank is no less dangerous given the amount of vapour in the tank. Green hydrogen is one of the many solutions to a low carbon economy given that there many more applications than the mere use in tractive industries. Assuming that hydrogen is to be used only as a substitute for liquid fuels is having no understanding or a very limited appreciation for its use (from steel making, to fertilisers, energy storage etc. etc.). Rather than finding cannot do reasons (which are a favourite red herring of fossil fuel supporters) there are many more can dos. As for the criticism of the hydrogen economy one needs to appreciate where it comes from and who the sponsors of the critics are.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Interesting. Thanks. And one other seeming problem ignored by the writer (much like those pushing for fracking in the Karoo) is the need for a lot of water to be broken down to produce hydrogen. Fair enough, I suppose at the coast they could use seawater (getting rid of the sodium chloride etc might be a little difficult) but not in the Karoo, for either solar or wind power. Which part of “it’s a semi-desert” didn’t he understand?

  • Paul Barratt says:

    This is an important and good news story. In my opinion we need to whip up much more enthusiasm for the hydrogen economy and the renewables to be installed at Komati Power Station. If we keep focused on these, and maintain transparency and momentum, they will be watershed events in our history.

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