Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and is key to achieving the world’s climate changes commitments. In SA, green hydrogen has the potential to link the country’s mineral resources with its renewable energy endowment to enable the reindustrialisation of the country’s economy while simultaneously creating jobs, attracting investment, reconfiguring underdeveloped, rural provinces and enabling a just transition from fossil fuels.

A recent Infrastructure South Africa event in partnership with Business Day Dialogues convened a panel of experts to discuss whether hydrogen will in fact play a role in SA’s transition to a low-carbon economy, whether green energy hydrogen can provide energy security, plans for green hydrogen production, how it will be used and how it will benefit both public and private sectors.

“I’m very excited about green hydrogen,” said Patricia de Lille, minister of Public Works and Infrastructure. SA has wind, sun and wide-open spaces in the Northern Cape, and has already started to exploit these assets to create green hydrogen, along with private sector partners such as Sasol and Anglo American.

The National Spatial Development Framework emphases hydrogen production and funding is already in place for project preparation, reported De Lille.

Dr Kgosientho Ramokgopa, head of Investment and Infrastructure in the office of the President and head of Infrastructure SA, called green hydrogen a “pristine opportunity” to position SA globally for the future, to reindustrialise the country and grow its economy. Private sector finance is increasing, with R300 million in the pipeline for hydrogen projects and the State will ensure that policies are in place to allow the private sector to take these projects over, he said.

The aim is for SA to be a low-cost exporter of green hydrogen-derived products, but, said Joanne Bate, COO of the Industrial Development Corporation of SA, it is also about building local industry to provide the component parts, and providing training in technology for the manufacture and commercialisation of hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysers, not just in SA but in the whole region. SA must move fast to increase its level of agility in a competitive world, with finance driving a Just Energy Transition, and development finance institutions actively engaged to unlock funding.

Priscillah Mabelane, executive vice president of Sasol, revealed that Secunda is working with Germany and with companies in SA to produce green hydrogen, with the goal of creating a sustainable aviation-fuel hub and a global green-hydrogen hub in Boegoebaai, Northern Cape. Although government must play a pivotal role, she said private sector input is essential. Mabelane called for integration rather than fragmentation, and for a co-anchor in government to bring all the parties together in co-operation.  “This is SA’s opportunity to lose; let’s make sure we don’t.”

What SA needs, said Kaashifah Beukes, COO of Freeport Saldanha, is the establishment of a sustainable national network around green hydrogen production by matchmaking entrepreneurs with customers, and with local and national government, to encourage innovation. With the development of a project, she continued, comes a need for infrastructure. A key priority is to establish a relationship of trust with local communities and society at large so that they understand the project and its possibilities. Community programmes, such as a contractor-development initiative, must be put in place to help build and upskill local workforces. At the other end of the scale, the Sol Plaatje University in the Northern Cape must offer students technology courses to enable the province to become a renewable energy centre. “We must be facilitators of this initiative,” said Beukes.

To watch the discussion, click here