Hydrogen gas - clean, flexible, future-proof

Why hydrogen?

Green hydrogen, which can be produced by renewable energy and water sources, is a technology that is gaining traction around the world and in South Africa. But it has also attracted criticism, regarded by some as mere hype rather than a truly sustainable energy solution. It is important to understand both the opportunities and challenges associated with the potential widespread adoption of hydrogen gas.

Hydrogen is clean, flexible and energy-efficient. It is the most abundant element in the universe and is present in nearly all living things. However, pure hydrogen is scarce, existing mostly combined with oxygen in the form of water. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, unlike petroleum which is a primary energy source. In order to be converted to a fuel, it must first be obtained through energy-intensive processes that generally rely heavily on fossil fuels and electricity. This is either through a process called steam reforming, that uses methane or via electricity, through electrolysis. Even if renewable energy is used in the electrolysis process, the energy content that comes out is less than that which goes in, leading critics to argue that hydrogen is a waste of renewable energy.

Once hydrogen is obtained it can be burned directly or mixed with oxygen in a fuel cell, similar to a battery. The subsequent reaction produces electricity and heat. The benefit of hydrogen is that the only waste is water, and it is far more energy-dense than a battery.

Vijay Vaitheeswaran, The Economist’s global energy and climate innovation editor, explains that while there are many applications for which electricity remains the best, most efficient solution, it is in heavy industry where hydrogen could find a significant niche. This position is underscored in a McKinsey report which says that while hydrogen use remains limited to very specific situations, such as oil refining or ammonia production, this is rapidly changing. Increased investment in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, whose costs are decreasing, combined with the technological and industrial evolution of electrolysers, has seen a significant drop in the cost of green hydrogen production. The McKinsey report states that in order to meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement (of a reduction of CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050), green hydrogen is the only solution that will enable the decarbonization of industries such as steel and fertilisers – some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters. 

Across the globe, there are more than 350 large-scale projects currently underway, with the projected total investment in the hydrogen sector amounting to an estimated US$500 billion. Europe accounts for half of this investment with projects planned along the value chain until 2030. 70% of the investment would be for renewable energy necessary for “green” hydrogen. 

In South Africa, as well as forming the “bridge” from fossil fuels to renewables, hydrogen holds promise in terms of export potential. The Daily Maverick highlights a report commissioned by the EU Delegation to South Africa from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in 2020, which indicated that South Africa could generate power fuels based on renewable hydrogen, exporting these to Northwest Europe and the Far East, at costs competitive with other renewable-rich countries. 

With the World Economic Forum naming green hydrogen as one of the top ten emerging technologies in 2020, it appears that the gas is here to stay. It is up to capable countries like South Africa to find innovative ways to drive the adoption of transitionary sources of energy, using a strategy that sensitively balances economic growth with a sustained and green planet.


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