How to Make Green Hydrogen Work for Africa
As the continent prepares to invest in the rapid development of green-hydrogen infrastructure, the challenge will be to avoid the creation of another extractive industry. African leaders must scale up their renewable-energy capacity in such a way that it puts the needs of local communities first.
NAIROBI – Efforts to build the nascent green-hydrogen industry in Africa are underway, most notably in Namibia’s Tsau Khaeb National Park. In May, the Namibian government signed a feasibility and implementation agreement with Hyphen Hydrogen Energy for a green-hydrogen production and supply project close to the coastal town of Lüderitz. In June, the government agreed to take a 24% equity stake in the $10 billion project, whose value is nearly equal to Namibia’s GDP.
Once fully operational, the project is expected to produce 350,000 metric tons of green hydrogen per year and create 3,000 permanent jobs (in addition to 15,000 temporary construction jobs). It could position Namibia as a major producer of low-cost green hydrogen. But important questions remain about the project’s local value addition and how to avoid the creation of another extractive industry.
For decades, African countries have invested billions of dollars in fossil-fuel energy systems, and yet 600 million people on the continent remain without access to electricity. Even as global warming destroys ecosystems, undermines food security, and worsens water scarcity, Africa still relies heavily on fossil fuels; renewables account for only about 21% of electricity generation. But the rapidly escalating climate crisis implies an urgent need to reorient the continent’s energy system away from oil and gas.
A rapid rollout of renewable energy could be transformative, helping Africa meet the twin challenges of climate change and underdevelopment. But to ensure electricity access for all, such systems must be environmentally sound and socially inclusive. Ironically, the continent’s limited energy infrastructure means that African countries can leapfrog past fossil fuels (thus avoiding stranded assets as the world shifts to renewable energy) and build a green economy that is based on renewables and designed to meet their needs.
Low-cost green hydrogen can expand energy access on the continent and accelerate the shift toward renewables. And by creating local value chains, generating green jobs, and transferring technology and knowledge, it could also contribute enormously to the development of producer countries.
But, to reap these benefits, the development of green hydrogen in Africa must primarily serve African interests. That means the processes and policies for generating and using green hydrogen must comply with the standards set out in the Sustainable Development Goals, the ambitious global targets introduced by the United Nations in 2015. They must also meet the objectives of the Paris climate agreement and the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
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Such projects must also maintain ecosystem integrity, promote decent work and economic prosperity, boost social inclusion and cohesion, and respect human rights. Crucially, these objectives can be met only by gaining broad public acceptance: the free, prior, and informed consent and participation of potentially affected communities.
Good governance and transparency in developing green hydrogen could change power relations between the developed world and African countries. Instead of falling into the trap of “green colonialism,” these countries could build equal partnerships that address head-on issues of equity and ownership, inclusion, resource competition, and displacement.
To be sure, green-hydrogen projects pose significant risks. Chief among these are land-use conflicts, forced resettlement, expropriation, and other potential human-rights violations. There are also environmental concerns, including the fact that production requires large amounts of freshwater. Given that one in three Africans faces water scarcity, developing this energy source could compound the problem, and may even cause or exacerbate conflicts, especially in Africa’s driest regions.
Moreover, large-scale plants, as well as export infrastructure, could damage fragile ecosystems, destroy protected areas, and endanger marine life. This is especially true if desalinated seawater is used in hydrogen production, and the resulting brine is released, untreated, into local bodies of water.
But the biggest concern is that green hydrogen produced in Africa could be exported elsewhere. This would defeat the purpose of developing renewable-energy capacity on the continent. Instead of expanding electricity access and boosting climate resilience, this new industry would merely be the latest in a long line of energy injustices. Moreover, it would be wasteful: converting hydrogen into derivatives like ammonia – which are more suitable for transport – can result in 13-25% energy loss, while transportation itself requires high energy inputs.
Green hydrogen can fuel economic growth and prosperity for producer countries. But to realize the potential of a hydrogen-powered economy, African leaders must ensure that the industry is structured to achieve a just energy transition on the continent and serve the needs of local communities, not foreign interests.