Green energy is now a key element of many political agendas. National and international strategies aim at decarbonisation through the enhancement of electrification systems, but many of them still face problems of efficiency and secondary environmental impacts.
It is in this context that hydrogen is calling attention, identifying itself no longer as a competitor but as a worthy companion to electricity, in all those sectors where carbon emissions could remain high or where electrification is excessively difficult and expensive, such as in the heavy industry, aviation, shipping, or long-distance transport, hydrogen can play a strategic role.
However, in order to be truly effective in the struggle against climate change, hydrogen must have one characteristic: it must be fully sustainable. However, not all types of hydrogen represent a valid alternative: blue hydrogen, obtained through chemical processes that mainly use natural gas or oil, produces significant CO2 emissions and causes potential damage to the environment, certainly not lower than those attributed to traditional fossil fuels. That’s where the green one comes into play. it is produced through electrolysis, a process by which it is possible to split water into hydrogen and oxygen through the passage of electricity produced from renewable sources. It has virtually no environmental impact and it can be effectively matched with all types of renewable energy sources.
Green hydrogen can be a real game changer especially in Africa, a continent with an increasing need for energy; it seems to wink at the enormous renewable potential of the continent, especially in terms of wind and solar energy, strategic for the production of H2. Renewable hydrogen can have a strong impact on reducing the dependence of many African countries on the use and import of fossil fuels, an issue of primary importance especially in many subSaharan states. Enlisting hydrogen in the battle for sustainable African energy development appears therefore to be a viable and effective path.
However, in order for green hydrogen to bring about a meaningful transformation, institutions, companies, and actors involved in Africa's energy transition must respect two key conditions. The first is one is that production must take place within national borders: on the contrary, importing renewable hydrogen from third countries simply means replacing an imported energy product with another. The second is that the destination of the produced hydrogen is Africa itself, in order for it to be able to support the sustainable development of the continent’s growing economic sector.
The way to go is clear and RES4Africa wants to make its contribution in following it: for this reason, in October, it inaugurated the Green Hydrogen Working Group, a new stream of work that responds to the necessity of fostering knowledge, technical and human capacities, while stimulating the creation of multi-stakeholder partnerships to analyse the current status quo of Africa’s green hydrogen sector, formulating specific advocacy proposals for a just energy transition in the continent.
Green hydrogen represents a potential booster for African energy transition. However, it is only satisfying the set of preconditions we mentioned, that it can be harmonically and effectively developed: more than ever, we have to work together, think big, and act smart so that Africa's energy transition is fully green.
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Roberto Vigotti is the Secretary General of RES4Africa Foundation, a European think tank gathering 34 stakeholders from the clean energy value chain to accelerate Africa’s RE transition. Previously, he spent 35 years in Enel Power R&D Division and served for 12 years as the chair of the Renewable Working Party of the IEA