With the UK government and others announcing hydrogen strategies as part of their Net Zero plans, Jeremy Williams assesses the potential – and the pitfalls – of the first element.
Mauritania is a desert land with 90% of the North-West African state within the Sahara. The nation’s population of 4.4 million is concentrated in the more comfortably-habitable rest of the country. Climate change, however, is adding extra complications to an already challenging geography, with the persistent risk of drought and further desertification.
In that environment, people have to be creative and make use of what they have. And Mauritania has spotted an opportunity in the energy sector – it is going to export hydrogen. If there’s one thing you can guarantee in the Sahara, it’s sunshine. Two large-scale plans have been proposed, both using solar power in uninhabited regions. This renewable energy will power electrolysers that will split hydrogen from water, which will then be shipped up the coast into Europe. Mauritania wouldn’t be the first desert nation to become a global energy giant, but it would be the first to do it with zero carbon energy.
Mauritania wouldn’t be the first desert nation to become a global energy giant, but it would be the first to do it with zero carbon energy.
The world already uses a fair bit of hydrogen. It’s used in making fertilisers and in refinery processes. There’s also a good chance you spread some on your toast this morning. If you use a non-dairy spread, it will be made from vegetable oils that have been combined with hydrogen to make them spreadable. And many more uses for hydrogen are on their way as it becomes part of national Net Zero carbon targets.
Burning hydrogen generates water and nothing else. Trials are underway to feed it into gas networks for heating, and into blast furnaces for low-carbon steel. By turning it into hydrogen, renewable energy can effectively be piped across the country, stored and used to balance the grid. In the form of fuel cells, hydrogen will make in-roads into transport. It’s already powering trains in Germany, buses in London, taxis in Japan. Many more examples will follow, perhaps even hydrogen-fuelled aircraft in due course.
This boom will create new energy powers. Mauritania is hoping that it can move fast enough to be one of them. So is Namibia in South- West Africa. Portugal has a €10bn strategy to become an energy exporter. Japan, which already has an ambitious strategy for hydrogen, plans to import it from Australia. In the past, countries became energy giants by striking it lucky with fossil fuels. With hydrogen, it is countries with lots of renewable energy potential that stand to profit.
While there will be new hydrogen players, established oil-exporting countries are well placed to maintain their role in the global energy system, if they have the vision to diversify beyond fossil fuels. The biggest green hydrogen project in the world is currently located in Saudi Arabia. Iran opened a demonstrator project in 2021. The United Arab Emirates is investing heavily. As well as the capital reserves to invest, oil- and gas-producing countries have a head-start in the form of pipelines, and hydrogen can be exported through existing gas infrastructure. According to Marco Alvera, gas pipeline chief and author of The Hydrogen Revolution, “the Middle East – so blessed with hydrocarbons – is poised to win the resource lottery twice.”
Before we get carried away however, hydrogen has a dark side, because there is more than one way to produce it.
The biggest obstacle to this “revolution” is the expense. To make a dent in the power of fossil fuels, and therefore in greenhouse gas concentrations, hydrogen will have to compete with them on price. For that to happen, the cost of electrolysers has to fall dramatically – and it will. The first electrolyser “gigafactories” are on the drawing board, ramping up economies of scale and driving down the price. It was China that drove this process with solar panels, and the might of Chinese manufacturing is now swinging behind electrolysers, in competition with Europe and Japan. Cheaper hydrogen is on its way.
Before we get carried away however, hydrogen has a dark side, because there is more than one way to produce it. When it is made from renewable energy, it is called”green hydrogen” and is legitimately low-carbon. It can also be made from coal or natural gas so, naturally, some of the loudest lobbying for hydrogen is coming from the gas industry. It sees a very real prospect of being stuck with the stranded assets of an obsolete industry – reserves it can’t tap with pipelines and grid connections it can’t use. Hydrogen offers it a lifeline.
The solution of choice is what the industry is calling blue hydrogen. This is when natural gas is used to make hydrogen, but with the carbon produced from that process captured and stored. That would provide the big gas companies a role in a clean energy future – but all the usual caveats about carbon capture and storage apply. Where will the carbon dioxide be stored? Will it leak? How much will it cost? How low-carbon is it in practice?
There are questions of trust here too. The fossil fuel industry has unrivalled technical expertise and can mobilise capital like no other sector. But it is also heavily responsible for the climate crisis in the first place, and many of its corporations have lobbied to delay and undermine climate action. For some, giving the fossil fuel industry a prominent role in the energy transition will look like putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse.
For countries like Mauritania, there is the additional question: will the majority of local people see the benefits of a hydrogen boom? Half of Mauritanians lack access to electricity, but that huge investment in energy would be geared for export, serving Europe’s needs first. There’s an echo of the colonial mentality that treats African nations as sites of extraction, and it risks repeating the experience of fossil fuels. There is no shortage of examples of African nations where, in collusion with regional elites, oil and gas wealth hasn’t trickled very far down.
That is not inevitable however. Done well, large-scale hydrogen production could release a huge new source of clean energy, reducing poverty, tackling climate change, and rewriting the global energy landscape in the process.