Africa's maritime hydrogen highways could enrich the continent and save the world

Global hydrogen demand is forecast to reach 500-680 million tonnes by 2050, which will go a long way in de-carbonising the planet

The Green Pioneer moored in Dubai. The ship will make its first ammonia-powered voyage in February. Fortescue
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At Cop28, green hydrogen has featured prominently in talks about renewable energy. As discussions veer towards embracing cleaner energy sources, the African continent is poised to become the world’s leading green hydrogen producer.

Africa has the potential to generate a trillion dollars’ worth of green hydrogen by 2035. As hydrogen's rising role in the global energy transition meets Africa’s growing supply capacity, maritime highways are being formed to transport this climate-smart energy carrier from Africa to Europe and Asia.

European and Asian nations have already made multibillion-dollar commitments to green hydrogen strategies to achieve energy transition, and they are now looking to Africa as one of the main suppliers. Africans themselves are eyeing the continent’s potential to power their own development and regard exports as a means of developing renewable energy infrastructure that will also serve domestic needs.

Why has green hydrogen risen to prominence as a component of the global energy transition? For one, it differs from conventional industrial hydrogen, which is produced from natural gas, emitting large volumes of carbon dioxide and earning the label “grey” hydrogen.

When a carbon capture mechanism is used, the resulting lower carbon footprint hydrogen is termed “blue” hydrogen. Instead of using natural gas, green hydrogen is produced by using electricity generated from renewable sources to split water into its hydrogen and oxygen components, creating a virtually carbon-free (hence, “green”) energy carrier. Reversing the process in a fuel cell by recombining green hydrogen and oxygen back into water generates electric current, providing on-demand, climate-smart power.

Major Asian economies could turn to Africa’s green hydrogen to fuel their power plants

The most cost-effective way to store and transport green hydrogen is in the form of green ammonia. Since ammonia is a basic input for fertiliser production (70 per cent of global ammonia consumption is for fertilisers) there is already demand for green ammonia.

The importance of making fertiliser with natural gas-free ammonia became clear when Covid-19-related supply shocks in 2021 caused a 400 per cent jump in European natural gas prices, which subsequently shot up the cost of fertilisers. As gas prices skyrocketed further as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war, ammonia and fertiliser plants were shut down in the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Poland. Understandably, Europe sees investing in green ammonia as a must in order to ensure resilient, sustainable agri-food production.

Green hydrogen can also be a fuel or an electricity source for manufacturing processes, including metals processing. In 2023, Sweden opened Europe’s first green steel production plant. Similarly, green steel complexes are under construction in Spain, France and Germany, as well as South Korea and Japan.

As discussions at Cop28 have emphasised, meeting global 2050 climate targets is non-negotiable. It will require 6.5 billion tonnes of materials – 95 per cent of which will be steel, aluminium and copper. In 2021, the UAE initiated the world’s first green aluminium production when Emirates Global Aluminium produced its trademark CelestiAL aluminium using power from the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park. Solar and wind power from Africa transported as green ammonia would enable European and Asian aluminium manufacturers to do the same. Germany’s metals giant Aurubis has started trial copper wire production powered with ammonia.

Major Asian economies could turn to Africa’s green hydrogen to fuel their power plants. Already Asia’s coal-burning regions are moving towards “co-firing”, using both ammonia and coal in coal-fired power plants. Japan is conducting co-firing test runs with a mix of 20 per cent ammonia and 80 per cent coal.

Japan eyes moving to a 50-50 mix during the 2030s on the way to phasing out coal in favour of 100 per cent ammonia by the 2050s. Japan has signed bilateral agreements to develop an East Asian fuel ammonia ecosystem, including with Indonesia – which burns coal for 62.5 per cent of its power, Singapore – which aspires to be a hydrogen trading hub, and Thailand. To decarbonise by pivoting to fuel ammonia, Asia will need to import African-produced green ammonia.

Africa’s ability to become a green hydrogen powerhouse is due primarily to its deserts. The Sahara, covering 10 nations in North Africa and the Sahel region, possesses the world’s largest solar resources. The solar energy striking the Sahara is 7,000 times greater than the power requirements of the EU at any given moment. Africa’s enormous solar resources are supplemented by vast wind power resources.

Morocco and Egypt are the early leaders in Africa’s drive for green hydrogen. Morocco began its development of green hydrogen production in partnership with Germany in 2018, and it has since moved on to multiple private sector development projects, involving investments from the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal and the EU.

Its largest green ammonia project to date, the Irish-Portuguese Hevo facility, is slated to have an initial annual capacity of 183,000 tonnes by 2026. With the country’s total production of green ammonia rising to 1 million tonnes by 2027 and reaching 3 million tonnes by 2032, Morocco could export 1-3 million tonnes annually.

Egypt, Africa’s second-largest natural gas producer, is the world’s seventh-largest producer of conventional ammonia. Cairo aims to use part of Egypt’s solar and wind power generation capacity to capture 5-8 per cent of the global commercial market for green hydrogen. Egypt has signed framework agreements to build green hydrogen plants with the renewable energy subsidiary of Australia’s iron ore producer Fortescue along with firms in India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the UK and France. The agreement signed with a Masdar-led consortium is ambitious, committing to build two green hydrogen plants.

Mauritania is the green hydrogen powerhouse of the Sahel. Possessing solar and wind resources similar to its North African neighbours, Mauritania’s population is seven times smaller than Morocco and 20 times smaller than Egypt. Sparsely inhabited Mauritania can more easily serve export markets while using the same infrastructure to provide for the needs of its own five million citizens. Firms from the UAE, Egypt, Germany, France and the UK have invested in constructing green ammonia plants in the country while the Port of Rotterdam has already signed an MoU with one of those Mauritanian facilities to offtake up to 600,000 tonnes of green hydrogen annually.

South of the Sahel, Namibia has become Africa’s green hydrogen leader, enjoying strong German and EU support. With 2.7 million citizens, sparsely populated Namibia, like Mauritania, can satisfy its own domestic needs while supporting a robust export market. South Africa aspires to leverage its pre-existing mining export industries to develop a green hydrogen export sector, perhaps forming a southern Africa green hydrogen hub with Namibia. Centred on a cluster of key projects, the largest is slated to produce 780,000 tonnes of green ammonia annually.

In East Africa, Kenya holds the potential to lead green hydrogen exports to European and Indo-Pacific markets. Beyond solar and wind, Kenya is the world’s seventh-largest geothermal power producer and has signed an agreement with Fortescue’s renewable arm to create a green ammonia plant powered by geothermal energy.

By 2050, global hydrogen demand is forecast to reach 500-680 million tonnes. Global trade in hydrogen by 2050 is projected to generate more than $280 billion in annual export revenues. Beyond helping to de-carbonise the planet, African nations and their international partners leading the creation of Africa’s green hydrogen highways to Europe and Asia will stand to reap enormous economic rewards.

Prof Tanchum would like to thank Emilija Zebrauskaite for her research assistance.

Published: December 13, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: December 14, 2023, 3:02 PM