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Is South Africa at the core of our sustainable energy future?

As part of the global drive towards creating a net-zero carbon economy, South Africa may hold the key raw materials and renewable energy generation potential to produce green hydrogen.

But this will require significant investment into cost-effective renewable energy, the infrastructure needed to produce green hydrogen and the logistics needed to store, transport, and export the green hydrogen to the world’s largest predicted consumer regions of Europe, Asia and North America, writes CHANTELLE KOTZE.

Green hydrogen is a clean source of energy that is produced by splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen through a process of electrolysis using renewable sources of energy which is consumed in fuel cells to generate power using a chemical reaction rather than combustion, producing only water and heat as by-products.

South Africa has an abundance of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and a rich endowment of the platinum group metals used in the electrolysers needed to produce green hydrogen, which positions South Africa at the forefront in building a global, green hydrogen economy. This unique opportunity can be leveraged to boost the southern African country’s economy.

The country’s ability to capitalise on this could not be better following South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s June decision to increase the licensing threshold for embedded generation projects from 1 MW to 100 MW without the need for a license. While this will not only assist in achieving national energy security and reduce the impact of loadshedding, it is expected to unlock significant investment in new energy generation capacity in the short to medium term.

During a virtually-held fuel cell and hydrogen conference, hosted by Nedbank CIB and moderated by Nedbank CIB analyst Arnold Van Graan, Switzerland-based energy transition consultancy E4tech director Professor David Hart said that despite the difficulties in 2020 as a result of COVID-19, there was still an increase in fuel cell shipments that took place, dominated by fuel cell shipments for the transport sector.

While fuel cells have been predominantly used in light duty applications, we are seeing an increase in the use of fuel cells in heavy-duty applications such as heavy-duty vehicles, including busses and trucks, driven by air-quality regulations and reductions in costs, says Hart, noting that heavy-duty trucks and busses have few other options to hit emissions targets.

Even heavier duty applications, in mining, rail transport and shipping, which have previously been dismissed as too difficult or too long-term to execute, are under development, says Hart.

The South African opportunity

Also speaking during the conference was metals service provider Isondo Precious Metals CEO and Founder Vinay Somera, who has 30 years of experience within the PGMs industry, having also helped create and build platinum refiner Impala Refining Services (IRS), a subsidiary of PGM miner Impala Platinum.

Somera said South Africa has all the tools to become a leader in the green hydrogen sector, as a strategic pathway to drive economic growth and job creation and is strategically positioned to leverage two opportunities, firstly, becoming a green hydrogen supplier and secondly, industrialisation across the PGM component value chain as required by the hydrogen sector.

Further unpacking the first opportunity, UK Hydrogen Hub chairperson and EnAcumen CEO Kevin Fothergill, who serves as technical consultant to Isondo Precious Metals, said South Africa has some of the best renewable energy potential in the world for solar and wind energy.

“The total area of high solar irradiation in South Africa is approximately 194 000 km2, including the Northern Cape Province – one of the best solar resources in the world,” said Fothergill.

However, many of the centres of energy demand are some distance from the best generation locations and would require significant investment in the transmission and distribution of hydrogen to where it is needed, investments which Fothergill believes should be made.

The energy storage capability of hydrogen can be used to bridge the gap between low demand and high renewables and low renewables and high demand, he says.

The second opportunity, which is the industrialisation opportunity that lies within using South African-mined PGMs the green energy revolution, is the localisation of the entire green hydrogen supply chain, Somera says. This entails the localisation of renewable energy production, green hydrogen production, energy storage deployment, electricity generation and PGM recycling, could greatly assist with the reindustrialisation of South Africa.

Somera outlined Isondo’s plan to establish membrane electrode assembly (MEA) manufacturing capability in South Africa at the OR Tambo special economic zone.

The MEA is at the heart of the fuel cell or electrolyser stack, and includes the membrane, the catalyst layers, and gas diffusion layers.

Isondo has already broken ground at its manufacturing facility where it plans to produce 3, 5 or 7-layer MEAs for fuel cell and electrolysers applications.

While Van Graan said that it remains to be seen what role South Africa will play in the commercialisation of the green hydrogen economy, the country remains in a favourable position to capitalise on the opportunities presented by the nascent green hydrogen sector.

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