The hype and hope for green hydrogen from the Sahara Desert
The energy of the desert is back. As the European Union targets a green hydrogen boom as part of its plans to meet decarbonization commitments and rebuild economies ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, North Africa has become a possible source for an important part of the future hydrogen of Europe. to supply.
A 2020 version of the European Commission’s hydrogen strategy referred to a proposal that the EU could meet part of its future supply from neighboring countries such as Ukraine, as well as desert regions of South Africa. North, which offer both enormous renewable energy potential and geographic proximity.
The idea originated in an article published in March by the Hydrogen Europe trade organization outlining the â2 x 40 GW Green Hydrogen Initiativeâ. According to this concept, the EU by 2030 would have put in place 40 gigawatts of national capacity of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers and would import an additional 40 GW from electrolysers in neighboring regions, including the deserts of South Africa. North, via refurbished versions of gas pipelines which already connected to Europe.
If this sounds like a familiar idea, it’s because it’s not entirely new. A little over a decade ago, a similar plan had its heyday when a coalition of industrial companies and financial institutions joined forces to promote what was dubbed the Desertec Concept. At one point, RWE, Siemens and First Solar were all involved. The idea behind Desertec was that up to 20% of Europe’s energy needs could be met by huge solar and wind panels located in the Sahara, brought into the block via a high-voltage trans-Mediterranean power grid.
For a few years, Desertec generated hyperbolic headlines about the Sahara ultimately providing clean energy for the whole world. But the venture ultimately failed amid criticism that it had been an excessively costly boondoggle underpinned by outdated notions that Africa’s natural resources were within reach of the rest of the world.
However, this idea now seems to have found a new lease of life, this time as the possible answer to Europe’s renewable hydrogen needs. Part of the thinking goes back to the organization inherited from the Desertec initiative, Dii, which addressed the proposal in a North Africa-Europe hydrogen âmanifestoâ document released last year. One of the authors of this manifesto also co-authored the initiative document 2 x 40 GW of Hydrogen Europe.
Underestimating the potential of renewable energies in Europe
Perhaps due to Desertec’s decidedly mixed legacy, the idea of ââa renewable hydrogen highway between Europe and Africa received mixed reception, drawing similar objections to its predecessor, mainly in terms of cost and practicality.
According to AurÃ©lie Beauvais, policy officer and deputy director general of the trade body SolarPower Europe, the idea of ââan EU-Africa hydrogen mega-project is a kind of “chimera” based on what she says is a misconception that Europe lacks abundant renewable energy resources. .
“This is based on a somewhat prehistoric view that you have only sun in the south and you have only wind in the north, whereas [inÂ truth] resources are much better distributed, âBeauvais said, citing a study by SolarPower Europe and Finnish University LUT published earlier this year showing that Europe’s renewable energy potential isâ immense â.
âThe EU seriously underestimates its renewable electricity resources,â she added.
Concern that Europe will not be able to meet its envisaged future demand for renewable hydrogen with domestic resources overlooks the innovative potential of decentralized solutions, says Beauvais. With these types of innovations, renewable hydrogen could be both produced and consumed locally “without the need for huge factories or huge pipes”.
“We are at the start of a revolution, so this is a time when we must encourage technology and innovation, and decentralized hydrogen production is very interesting because it does not require the same amount of infrastructure”, she declared.
Pipelines or chimeras?
This echoes concerns expressed by others about the idea that Europe relies on renewable hydrogen produced abroad and the logistics of transporting the fuel to market.
As Ben Gallagher, analyst at Wood Mackenzie, pointed out, hydrogen has a low volumetric energy density compared to natural gas, which makes it more difficult to transport. “It would have to be strongly pressurized, liquefied [or] transformed into ammonia, or … another carrier [would have to be used] for transportation, âsaid Gallagher. âRight now the hydrogen is compressed and put on trucks, but that’s for a pretty small distribution; it has never been done on a large scale.
Martin Lambert, a senior researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, agreed that the cost of transporting hydrogen produced in North Africa or elsewhere via reused gas pipelines would be substantial. âYou have to do some pretty deep engineering work to convert a gas pipeline system to hydrogen; hydrogen is quite a different substance from methane, so you can’t convert it easily, âhe said.
Lambert is broadly in favor of the idea of ââharnessing the potential of regions such as the Sahara to supply electricity directly to Europe or to produce renewable hydrogen. But he questioned the feasibility of the timescales involved and of reaching up to 40 GW of capacity by 2030.
The hydrogen market development models that Lambert and others have undertaken are more in line with the decentralized approach suggested by SolarPower Europe, relying on a few local clusters initially developed around large industrial centers such as Teesside, Humberside or Merseyside in the UK or the Ruhr area in Germany.
âA few clusters could develop, and from there you start to integrate the link between them. To say at first that you are going to have huge hydrogen pipelines across Europe seems a bit premature, âhe said.
New technology and new momentum bring renewed optimism
Yet supporters of the concept remain true to its goals.
Constantine Levoyannis, responsible for Hydrogen Europe policy, agrees that a decentralized approach should be the first axis of the development of a renewable hydrogen market in Europe. But he argues that the large numbers involved in the energy and industrial ârevolutionâ that the European Commission is proposing in its hydrogen strategy will inevitably require an outward-looking approach to achieve it.
âWe want European industry to invest in electrolysers and help us achieve this goal. On the other hand, we are aware that we do not have enough space to be able to do more than 40 or 50 GW [within the EU]. So we will need a strategy that also involves external parties, âsaid Levoyannis.
Levoyannis acknowledges that some of the criticisms leveled against Desertec are now leveled at the 2x40GW initiative, but he points out how factors such as technological advancements, significantly greater political momentum, and the dramatic drop in renewable energy costs created a very different context from that in which Desertec operated.
âThere will always be naysayers, but I think the facts speak for themselves. It’s a completely different discussion we are having today compared to 10 years ago, âhe said.
On the question of how renewable hydrogen could be physically transported to the market in Europe, Levoyannis acknowledged that significant engineering would indeed be required. But the cost of reallocating existing pipelines to transport hydrogen would still be cheaper than building new ones and more efficient than trying to bring in renewable electricity from, say, South Africa. North to the EU in electronic form, he said.
âYou can transport a lot more renewable energy by pipeline, like in molecular form, than through the grid,â he said. The Hydrogen Europe article claims that transporting hydrogen by pipeline costs 10 to 20 times less than electricity carried by cables.
The inclusion of the 2 x 40 GW initiative in the European Commission’s July strategy proposal does not mean that it is official EU policy. But Levoyannis said the fact that it was included highlights how seriously the idea is taken at the highest levels of the EC. This view is reinforced by the activity already underway at legislative level to pave the way for the development of a hydrogen âbackboneâ in Europe to support the hydrogen economy.
Others agree that the EU is right to look beyond its borders if it truly wants hydrogen to play a central role in achieving climate neutrality.
The plan can bring Africa into the hydrogen economy
According to Nils RÃ¸kke, president of the European Alliance for Energy Research, closer collaboration between the EU and Africa in areas such as energy would bring mutual benefits. These could include allowing Europe to harness the vast renewable energy resources of its neighbor and allowing African countries to enjoy greater access to household energy as a benefit of this investment.
“Africa would be in a much better situation and Europe would be in a much better situation if there was cooperation between the development of renewable energies and the development of renewable fuels such as hydrogen,” said RÃ¸kke. âAnd there will be benefits, I’m pretty sure; not to do so would isolate Africa from its participation in the industrial development of this type of technology.
It is far too early to predict whether these factors will be sufficient to lead to the construction of 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers in North Africa transporting fuel across the Mediterranean. What seems clear is that in official circles at least, there is a growing opinion that at least some of Europe’s future renewable hydrogen needs must be met outside its own borders.
Already, steps are underway to mobilize the industry to start finding ways to put the European Commission’s plans into action, including the launch of a Clean Hydrogen Alliance to bring together key parties. stakeholders. The EU is also gearing up on the diplomatic front, with commission efforts such as the Africa-Europe Green Energy Initiative exploring opportunities for clean hydrogen collaborations.
As these companies begin to take shape and legislative changes begin to lay the groundwork for a future clean hydrogen market, a clearer picture should start to emerge as to whether the prospect of a hydrogen revolution essentially powered by the sun and the wind of the Sahara is just a mirage or a solid vision of a greener future.