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How Africa could become a global hydrogen powerhouse

Africa’s abundant solar and wind energy could make it a global hub for producing low-carbon hydrogen, the IEA says, but its residents still face access challenges.

ground mounted solar power plants in zimbabwe africa

Ground-mounted solar power plants in Zimbabwe. Image via Shutterstock/Sebastian Noethlichs.

Africa could supply the whole world with affordable low-carbon energy in the form of hydrogen, a new report suggests.

In its Africa Energy Outlook 2022, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says Africa’s rich renewable resources — particularly solar energy, but also onshore wind — are the key to unlocking this potential.

Africa could produce 5,000 megatonnes of hydrogen a year at less than $2 per kilogram — equivalent to "global total energy supply today," the IEA says.

Africa could produce 5,000 megatonnes of hydrogen a year at less than $2 per kilogramme. Image: Africa Energy Outlook 2022, IEA (p154)

Africa could produce 5,000 megatonnes of hydrogen a year at less than $2 per kilogram. Image: Africa Energy Outlook 2022, IEA (p154).

Is hydrogen a sustainable option?

Hydrogen is an abundant and energy-rich gas that occurs naturally in water and fossil fuels such as natural gas, coal and petroleum, explains the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Hydrogen can be used as a fuel by separating it from these sources.

When renewable energy — such as sun or wind — is used to power the separation of hydrogen from oxygen in water molecules, the hydrogen produced is classified as carbon-free "green hydrogen."

When hydrogen is used as a fuel, the only waste element it produces is water. This makes it better for the planet than burning fossil fuels, which contribute to global warming by producing carbon dioxide, and to air pollution.

Africa’s big hydrogen potential

Africa has one of the world’s biggest potentials for producing hydrogen from low-cost renewable electricity, the IEA says. Africa has 60 percent of the world’s best solar resources, but only 1 percent percent of current solar generation capacity.

Wind power is also a big resource. Arid and semi‐arid areas are ideal for wind and solar, the IEA says, especially in North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa.

By 2030, Africa could produce 80 percent of the new power generation it needs from solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal and other renewable energies, the IEA says.

The falling cost of both solar units and hydrogen production is predicted to further increase Africa’s hydrogen potential. In the IEA’s model, this results in Africa’s $2-per-kilogram hydrogen being up to half the price of hydrogen from the rest of the world.

Hydrogen could help the 600 million Africans who don't have access to electricity. Image: Africa Energy Outlook 2022, IEA (p35)

Hydrogen could help the 600 million Africans who don't have access to electricity. Image: Africa Energy Outlook 2022, IEA (p35).

Africa’s energy challenges

About 600 million people — 43 percent of Africa’s population — don’t have access to electricity. Most of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries including Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda will be on track for full access by 2030, the IEA predicts in its Sustainable Africa Scenario.

This is mostly achieved by extending national grids, it says. In rural areas — where most people without access to electricity live — solar mini-grids and standalone systems are the most viable solutions.

To reach universal access to affordable electricity by 2030, Africa will need to connect 90 million people a year, the IEA says. This is three times the rate of recent years.

Hydrogen is seen as one of the answers.

How is hydrogen used in Africa today?

Hydrogen is used in industry to make fertilizer based on ammonia — a common crop nutrient — and to refine oil in North Africa and Nigeria. This hydrogen is mostly extracted from natural gas and coal and is not low-carbon, the IEA says.

But in the IEA’s model of future energy use in Africa, strong policy support and infrastructure investment trigger "rapid growth in the production and domestic uptake of low‐carbon hydrogen."

By 2030, this leads to "significant potential" to export to demand centers in Europe.

The IEA notes that a number of low-carbon hydrogen projects are already underway or under discussion in Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia and South Africa.

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