05/08/2023 | Hydrogen Innovation
Throughout Europe, the case for hydrogen has never been more compelling in terms of the quest for cleaner fuels and reduced dependence on Russian oil and gas. That’s why a recent fact-finding trip to one of southwest Africa’s most sparsely populated countries not only represented a significant step in Germany’s transition but an innovative example of international co-operation on one of the biggest issues affecting the planet. The trip involved a delegation from two Frankfurt-based institutions, DECHEMA and the Institute for Social-Ecological Research, and represented the second part of a two-and-a-half-year project designed to not only benefit both countries but bring significantly wider advantages.
The long-term goal is to promote the production of green hydrogen in Namibia, taking advantage of the country’s natural resources with a view to exporting it to Germany in a cost-effective way. It’s the latest initiative to win the financial backing of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research who are keen to expand international hydrogen partnerships to supplement the shortfall within the country’s own capabilities. In other words, it’s an ideal marriage between a European government keen to bank on green hydrogen’s potential to supplement its energy transition plans and an African republic with an abundance of key elements such as wind and sunshine looking for serious international investments to reinvent itself as its continent’s first green hydrogen provider.
In the fight against climate change, hydrogen made with renewable electricity is a key tool for decarbonising problematic emission sectors such as heavy industry and aviation. Germany’s National Hydrogen Strategy has underlined its own ambitions to become a global leader in associated technologies, faced with the fact that its demand for the power source will rise to between 90 and 110 terawatt-hours (TWh) by 2030.
As for the level of investment involving Namibia, the government in Windhoek estimates it will need up to €181 billion by 2040. But the returns are potentially huge. Ministers estimate a strong hydrogen industry could contribute the equivalent of €5.5 billion to the country’s GDP. The first visit by the German delegation took place in December last year over two weeks which saw ISOE delegates discuss areas such as transformation management and social and ecological impacts, as well as more localised issues involving land-use conflicts. The focus of the DECHEMA team was the technical aspects of hydrogen production, market development and water management.
The project supports Namibia’s long-standing plans to become a serious exporter of Green Hydrogen by 2025, a natural progression for a country known to be the driest in the sub-Saharan region and one that has the potential to capture around 10 hours of strong sunlight per day for 300 days per year, according to its president, Hage G Geingob. A key ingredient here is water, something that can be found in abundance along the South Atlantic coast, but in a country that has suffered appalling droughts. And that means building a sufficient number of desalination plants, a subject in which DECHEMA project co-ordinator Dr Daniel Frank has considerable expertise.
"Namibia is a comparable small economy at the moment," he said. "There are no major industries there. They have a steady mining and fishery sector but only little production industry and they hope that hydrogen development can have a very positive influence, create jobs and make it a sustainable haven for renewable energy production worldwide. Even the latest oil and gas findings can contribute to that, as they will bring in assets to the economy from which they could fund the hydrogen development."
But he added: "The people there are still sceptical. It can either be something that does work or it can also be something the government promises but ends in total chaos. We have to get the message across that it can actually be beneficial if it’s done properly."
The cynicism to which he alludes has been actively voiced at local and national level. Namibia’s official opposition PDM party has raised many questions about who would benefit, while regional leaders have claimed there is a lack of transparency. Nonetheless, from Germany’s point of view, the issue is far simpler. Economics and climate minister Robert Habeck has gone on the record with the simple message: "There is hardly a better place on earth to produce green hydrogen using wind and solar energy." And Rainer Baake, the former energy state secretary he appointed as special emissary for energy co-operation with Namibia, was clear that such a co-operation brings mutual advantages, adding: "It is a real win-win situation."
President Geingob made no secret of his country’s ambitions in his debut address to the World Economic Forum. Recognising the "well known" fact that there is not enough clean electricity to meet global demand and citing the IEA’s Net Zero 2050 report which noted that "hard-to-abate sectors such as cement, steel and chemicals, road trucking, container shipping and aviation, will need green hydrogen if the world is to remain on course to achieve climate neutrality by 2050." He added: "Namibia is better-positioned resource-wise, as well as having the political will to answer that clarion call.
To produce far more green hydrogen competitively, a country would need world-class transmission infrastructure, international port facilities, world-class wind and solar resources, access to sustainable sources of clean water - without displacing existing consumers - lots of land and a conducive legislative environment. These are all ingredients that Namibia has. Already, our country is now home to the largest desalination plant in Southern Africa, meaning that now the conditions for producing abundant clean water in a desert country are conducive.”
In practical terms, three hydrogen valleys will be created: from Kharas in the south, the central region near the port of Walvis Bay and Kunene in the north. The first steps began in 2021 with the launch of the Southern Corridor Development Initiative.
The country also has aspirations to develop an integrated green ecosystem throughout all of Southern Africa by means of green transport corridors and shared infrastructure, such as ports, pipelines and transmission networks.
Excess power exports into the Southern African Power Pool could further boost energy security and bring down the region’s energy costs. And if studies such as the ongoing DECHEMA-backed one succeed in demonstrating the feasibility of hydrogen production and export, the concept could be transferred to other regions. This would create a basis for the worldwide development of the hydrogen economy. Green Hydrogen would thus make an important contribution to climate neutrality as well as to the socio-economic development of the Global South. All of which is encouraging for DECHEMA and their Project GreeN-H2-Namibia.
Dr Frank added: "I’m enormously eager to work on this project and co-ordinate the activities here because I think we can contribute a lot to the development within Namibia and it’s more of a personal goal - l support the Namibian economy and their people to thrive”. In terms of international collaboration, it can lead to greater acceptance of German activities, demonstrating that not all Germans want to dictate their ideas, but listen carefully to their counterparts. He said: "A lot of people don’t have any idea what a hydrogen economy can bring to Namibia. It’s a simple question of 'we need this – we have that'. This could bring tremendous wealth to Namibia."
The recent visit saw the DECHEMA and ISOE delegations accompany German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Bettina Stark-Watzinger and involved trips to Cape Town and Windhoek where they were welcomed by President Geingob. At the State House, the Federal Minister handed over grants for four BMBF-funded pilot projects with almost €30 million as part of the German-Namibian Hydrogen Partnership. The projects deal with the production and use of green hydrogen and will present initial results by the end of the year. The minister also launched the Youth for Green Hydrogen Scholarship Program which enables young Namibians to combine their education with stays at German universities. In the first round, 64 master’s scholarships were awarded.
Dr Frank met the Premier of the Western Cape, Alan Winde, to discuss to what extent the results from the GreeN-H2 Namibia project could also be used for the Western Cape Province. Further discussions on a possible collaboration are to follow. In particular, the water requirement for the production of hydrogen will play a role. He said: "Without water, there is no hydrogen; we are experiencing this in Namibia and the Western Cape in particular. We also want to create synergies here, since much of our work is also transferable to other regions - we will continue to expand the co-operative idea of our activities."
Berlin is also in talks with other countries about becoming potential suppliers, including Chile, Morocco and Canada. In October, the first hydrogen test delivery arrived at the port of Hamburg from the UAE, at least in the derivative form of ammonia, one the economy ministry called "an important step in the intended development of a comprehensive hydrogen value chain." The ammonia will be used by multi-metal producer Aurubis for test runs for the climate-neutral conversion of gas-intensive copper wire production, "thus replacing fossil fuel in the long term."
It follows a visit to Abu Dhabi earlier in the year by economy minister Robert Habeck. In terms of cost alone, the International Renewable Energy Agency has identified China as the cheapest place to produce green hydrogen in the long term. Chinese producers could be delivering at a levelised cost (LCOH) of just over $0.65 per kg by 2050, slightly ahead of Chile.
Namibia is likely to be relatively expensive in comparison, with costs of $1.20-1.90/kg, although some observers suggest this could be related to IRENA’s (International Renewable Energy Agency) view that much of the country is "not eligible", thanks to water and other constraints - despite the relative low cost of desalination.
With Namibia’s capacity to generate solar power in particular, the country has the potential to be at the forefront of green hydrogen development and progress towards greater energy independence. Its environmental attributes were the driving force behind a joint venture launched last year to build the country’s first green hydrogen production plant. Planned as a demonstration hub for hydrogen applications, it is being built in the Erongo region by The O&L Group and CMB.TECH under the umbrella of Cleanergy Namibia. This is the first development of its kind on the continent.
The two companies say that, if all goes well, a larger scale plant will follow, possibly using ammonia as transport fuel. The aim is to produce green hydrogen from solar power and distribute the clean fuel to applications such as trucks, trains and ships. O&L Executive Chairman Sven Thieme said it could be the first step in creating an entirely new industry in Namibia enabling knowledge transfer into the country, upskilling opportunities and creating employment.
On a wider level, DECHEMA and the European Desalination Society are launching the International Conference on Desalination for the Green Hydrogen Economy after an agreement was signed between DECHEMA’s Executive Director Andreas Förster and EDS’s president Ursula Annunziata.
Another African country working to establish itself as a low-cost energy exporter to Europe is Morocco, which has established its first green hydrogen system, thanks to a joint initiative between the Institute for Research in Solar Energy and New Energies and the Mohamed VI Polytechnic University. It was launched as a micro-pilot system aiming to produce carbon-free hydrogen from an electrolyser and solar photovoltaic panels. The project is part of "Power-to-X", a sustainable programme for synthetic fuel production and long-term energy storage, set to promote sustainable mobility in the country. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects it to have the third lowest cost of green hydrogen by 2050.
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