Wake-up call

19th February 2021 By: Terence Creamer - Creamer Media Editor

Wake-up call

It is positive that South Africa has been working on a hydrogen strategy since 2007. It is equally positive that this work has started to deliver solid thought leadership regarding the production and export of green hydrogen and tradable green-hydrogen derivatives such as ammonia, kerosene, methanol and green steel and cement.

It is triply positive that Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Dr Blade Nzimande seems to have fully grasped South Africa’s unique competitive advantage in this area, which he summarised as follows during a recent webinar: “[South Africa’s] exceptional wind and solar natural resources, which together with abundant low-cost land, 50 years of experience in the commercial production of synthetic fuels using the Fischer-Tropsch process, and good shipping access to the rapidly growing international markets of the European Union and the Far East, including China and Japan, should position us as a key role-player in renewable hydrogen and green powerfuels, both locally and internationally.”

That is where the good news ends, however.

Despite South Africa’s pioneering hydrogen efforts, the country still lacks an overarching hydrogen-economy policy. Domestic hydrogen efforts remain mostly (with some happy exceptions in the platinum-mining sector) high-level and academic.

This is concerning, as nearly 20 countries have released hydrogen strategies that outline commercial plans to either produce or import green hydrogen to help them decarbonise the hard-to-abate sectors of land and sea freight transportation, aviation, as well as steel, fertiliser, chemicals and cement.

Australia, for instance, has already declared its green hydrogen “superpower” intentions and is pushing ahead with various large-scale renewable-energy projects to support the development of electrolysers that will use that clean electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

While it is pleasing that Nzimande is ready to embrace green hydrogen and is supporting the development of a ‘Hydrogen Society Roadmap’, it is disappointing that this is not being driven far more forcefully by Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel, as green hydrogen should already be at the very centre of South Africa’s industrial strategy.

Can Patel point to another beneficiation opportunity that has the potential to unlock yearly exports of more than $100-billion? Because that’s the export potential that exists if South Africa were to move aggressively to beneficiate its wind, solar and land resources (along with some platinum group metals) to produce green hydrogen and tradable derivatives to service a market that Goldman Sachs expects to reach $10-trillion by 2050.

Likewise, the reticence of Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe to drive home South Africa’s almost unrivalled potential to produce enough renewable energy not only to end load-shedding once and for all, but to provide the platform for a larger clean power-to-X industry, is beyond disappointing.

All is not lost, however. Given the long lead times needed to build the infrastructure, industrial and logistical capacity required to unlock this opportunity, it is definitely not too late.

The only urgent ingredients are political will and policy direction. Once in place, everything else will follow.