How hydrogen can transform Africa's reliance on expensive imported energy

The low-carbon fuel could pave the way to energy independence for the continent

Anglo American unveiled the worlds biggest green-hydrogen powered lorry at a platinum mine in South Africa, where it aims to replace a fleet of 40 diesel-fuel vehicles that each use about a million litres of the fossil fuel every year. Bloomberg
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Mobile phone technology enabled Africa to leapfrog fixed-line telephones and revolutionise communication on the continent. Now, hydrogen may do the same, freeing African countries from the imported energy that drains many of their economies.

For sub-Saharan Africa, which is almost entirely dependent on imported petrol and diesel, hydrogen could be the path to energy independence. Currently, even oil producers such as Angola and Nigeria are reliant on imported refined fuels.

“Africa can leapfrog some of the legacy technologies of the West, such as fossil energy,” says Benedikt Sobotka, chief executive of global mining company Eurasian Resources Group.

“For the most part, African resources have gone to benefit the West; a smartphone contains maybe $1 of cobalt but retails for $1,000. Hydrogen is the opportunity for African countries to use their resources for their own benefit.”

Hydrogen is typically harvested from natural gas or water molecules, and split using electricity in a process known as electrolysis. It can be used to generate electricity using a fuel cell to power homes, vehicles and other energy dependent processes.

Because African countries are so dependent on imported fuel, transport costs are among the highest in the world — moving a container in West Africa by road costs more than twice what it would in the US, a study by the Trade Law Centre (Tralac) in Stellenbosch found.

The disparity is even worse for landlocked countries that must transport everything overland. The global average for the cost of transport is about 5 per cent of the value of a containers’ contents. For these countries, however, it is nearly 50 per cent, Tralac found.

Many people in Africa rely on petrol and diesel not just for transport but also to power generators for electricity, says Demetrios Papathanasiou, global director of the World Bank's energy and extractives global practice. The farther away from the coast one moves, the more it costs to transport fuel to where it is needed, he says.

“Moving fuel is very expensive because there are very few pipelines. Instead, it goes by truck, while hydrogen can be produced remotely.”

Hydrogen can be produced almost anywhere, removing the need for long logistical chains. Electricity can be harvested from sunlight through solar panels, from hydro dams or wind farms and used to power the electrolysis process.

“This technology can substantially change Africa quite quickly,” Mr Papathanasiou says. “We are looking to deploy these technologies as fast as possible. It is a way for Africa to develop an entirely new category of equipment that will run on hydrogen.”

Interest in hydrogen energy technology has also soared in Europe, which is currently experiencing an energy crisis triggered by the Russia-Ukraine war.

“Europe is looking at hydrogen with renewed urgency. The World Bank has tracked projects in 12 different countries now, with more on the way.”

The potential for hydrogen exports could well be the kick-start countries need to put in place production facilities that will eventually support their own needs.

Angola for instance, is about to become a supplier to Germany after state-owned energy company Sonangol signed a deal to build a hydrogen plant with the help of German engineering companies.

In the meantime, South Africa has already experimented with running remote villages on hydrogen generators. Some mining companies are also exploring the possibilities of using hydrogen.

We don’t need to go overseas to find the expertise and technology — we can do it right here
Duncan Wanblad, chief executive, Anglo American

The country has a dedicated “road map” to develop its hydrogen potential, as do Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Namibia.

Practical examples of hydrogen use are already beginning to appear. In May, diversified mine company Anglo American launched a prototype fuel-cell-powered lorry, which is capable of carrying nearly 300 tonnes of ore.

“This is a game changer for us,” says Anglo chief executive Duncan Wanblad.

The vehicle is one of the largest in the world and integrating a fuel cell would prove how good the technology is, as well as display South Africa’s support for the concept.

Fuel cells and hydrogen will help Anglo to eliminate more than 80 per cent of its diesel emissions at various mines around the world, Mr Wanblad says.

The company operates large copper, platinum and other mineral deposits in South Africa, Australia and South America.

“We don’t need to go overseas to find the expertise and technology — we can do it right here. We managed to build and develop this vehicle right here, in Limpopo province, in South Africa.”

Updated: June 24, 2022, 6:00 AM