Desert vitality is again. Because the European Union units its sights on a inexperienced hydrogen growth as a part of its plans to fulfill decarbonization pledges and rebuild economies ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, North Africa has emerged as a attainable supply for a major chunk of Europe’s future hydrogensupply.
A 2020 model of the European Fee’s hydrogen technique referenced a proposal that the EU might meet a few of its future provide from neighboring international locations akin to Ukraine, in addition to the desert areas of North Africa, which provide each large renewables potential and geographic proximity.
The concept originated in a paper printed in March by commerce physique Hydrogen Europe setting out the “2 x 40 GW inexperienced hydrogen initiative.” Beneath this idea, the EU by 2030 would have in place 40 gigawatts of home renewable hydrogen electrolyzer capability and import an additional 40 GW from electrolyzers in neighboring areas, amongst them the deserts of North Africa, by way of revamped variations of the natural-gas pipelines that already connect with Europe.
If it seems like a well-known thought, that’s as a result of it isn’t fully new. A bit over a decade in the past, an identical plan loved its second within the solar when a coalition of commercial companies and finance establishments joined forces to push what was dubbed the Desertec idea. At one stage, RWE, Siemens and First Photo voltaic have been all concerned. The pondering behind Desertec was that as much as 20 % of Europe’s vitality wants might be met with large photo voltaic and wind arrays situated within the Sahara, introduced into the bloc by way of a trans-Mediterranean high-voltage energy community.
For a number of years, Desertec generated hyperbolic headlines concerning the Sahara finally offering clear energy for the whole world. However the enterprise finally foundered amid criticism that it will have been an excessively pricey boondoggle underpinned by outdated notions of Africa’s pure assets being up for grabs by the remainder of the world.
Nonetheless, this thought now appears to have been granted a brand new lease of life, this time because the attainable reply to Europe’s renewable hydrogen wants. A number of the pondering could be traced again to the legacy group of the Desertec initiative, Dii, which addressed the proposal in a North Africa-Europe hydrogen “manifesto” doc printed final 12 months. One of many authors of that manifesto additionally co-wrote Hydrogen Europe’s 2 x 40 GW initiative paper.
Underestimating Europe’s renewables potential
Maybe due to Desertec’s decidedly combined legacy, the concept of a renewable hydrogen superhighway between Europe and Africa has garnered a lukewarm reception, attracting comparable objections to these aimed toward its predecessor, primarily round price and practicality.
In accordance with Aurélie Beauvais, head of coverage and deputy CEO of commerce physique SolarPower Europe, the concept of an EU-Africa hydrogen mega-project is one thing of a “chimera” based mostly on what she says is a false impression that Europe lacks ample renewable vitality assets.
“That is based mostly on a little bit of a prehistoric imaginative and prescient that you simply solely have photo voltaic within the south and also you solely have wind within the north, whereas [in truth] assets are significantly better distributed,” mentioned Beauvais, citing a examine by SolarPower Europe and Finland’s LUT College printed earlier within the 12 months displaying Europe’s renewables potential to be “immense.”
“The EU is closely underestimating their assets in renewable electrical energy,” she added.
Preoccupation with the concept that Europe will be unable to fulfill its envisioned future demand for renewable hydrogen with home assets overlooks the potential for innovation in decentralized options, Beauvais argues. With most of these improvements, renewable hydrogen might be each produced and consumed domestically “with out the necessity for large crops or large pipes.”
“We’re firstly of a revolution, so it is a second the place we have to encourage expertise and innovation, and decentralized manufacturing of hydrogen may be very fascinating as a result of it doesn’t require the identical quantity of infrastructure,” she mentioned.
Pipelines or pipe goals?
This echoes issues voiced by others concerning the thought of Europe counting on renewable hydrogen produced abroad and the logistics of transporting the gasoline to market.
As Wooden Mackenzie analyst Ben Gallagher has pointed out, hydrogen has low volumetric vitality density in comparison with pure gasoline, which makes its transportation extra of a problem. “It will must be extremely pressurized, liquefied [or] changed into ammonia, or…another service [would have to be used] for transportation,” Gallagher mentioned. “At the moment, hydrogen is compressed and placed on vans, however that is for fairly small-scale distribution; it is by no means been performed on a big scale.”
Martin Lambert, a senior analysis fellow on the Oxford Institute for Power Research, agreed that the price of transporting hydrogen produced in North Africa or elsewhere by repurposed natural-gas pipelines could be substantial. “You should do some fairly deep engineering work to transform a gasoline pipeline system to hydrogen; hydrogen is kind of totally different stuff to methane, so you may’t convert it simply,” he mentioned.
Lambert is broadly supportive of the concept of tapping the potential of areas such because the Sahara to both provide energy on to Europe or produce renewable hydrogen. However he questioned the feasibility of the timescales concerned and attaining as a lot as 40 GW of capability by 2030.
Fashions of the event of the hydrogen market that Lambert and others have undertaken are extra consistent with the decentralized strategy prompt by SolarPower Europe, constructing from a number of native clusters initially developed round large industrial facilities akin to Teesside, Humberside or Merseyside within the U.Okay. or the Ruhr in Germany.
“A couple of clusters might develop, and from that, you then begin to combine the hyperlink between them. To say as a primary step you are going to have huge hydrogen pipelines working throughout Europe sounds a bit untimely,” he mentioned.
New tech and revived momentum carry renewed optimism
Nonetheless, backers of the idea stand by its goals.
Constantine Levoyannis, Hydrogen Europe’s head of coverage, agrees that a decentralized strategy ought to be the primary focus of the event of a renewable hydrogen market in Europe. However he argues that the large numbers concerned within the vitality and industrial “revolution” the European Fee is proposing in its hydrogen technique will inevitably require an outward-looking strategy to realize.
“We would like European trade to spend money on electrolyzers and assist us obtain this goal. Then again, we’re cognizant that we do not have sufficient area to have the ability to do greater than 40 or 50 GW [within the EU]. So we’ll want a method that engages exterior events as nicely,” Levoyannis mentioned.
Levoyannis acknowledges that a number of the similar criticisms lobbed at Desertec at the moment are being product of the two x 40 GW initiative, however he emphasizes the extent to which components akin to technological advances, considerably larger political momentum and the dramatic decline within the prices of renewables have created a really totally different context from the one by which Desertec operated.
“There’ll all the time be the naysayers, however I feel the information communicate for themselves. It is a utterly totally different dialogue that we’re having at present than we have been 10 years in the past,” he mentioned.
On the query of how renewable hydrogen is perhaps bodily transported to market in Europe, Levoyannis acknowledged that vital engineering would certainly be required. However the price of repurposing present pipelines to hold hydrogen would nonetheless be cheaper than constructing new ones and extra environment friendly than making an attempt to carry renewable electrical energy from, say, North Africa into the EU in electron type, he mentioned.
“You’ll be able to transport way more renewable vitality by way of pipeline, as in molecular type, than by way of the grid,” he mentioned. The Hydrogen Europe paper claims that transporting hydrogen by pipeline prices 10 to 20 occasions lower than electrical energy transported by cables.
The inclusion of the two x 40 GW initiative within the European Fee’s July technique proposal doesn’t imply that it’s official EU coverage. However Levoyannis mentioned the very fact it was included highlights the extent to which the concept is being taken critically on the highest ranges of the EC. That view is bolstered by exercise already underway at a legislative stage to pave the best way for the event of a hydrogen “spine” in Europe to assist the hydrogen financial system.
Others agree that the EU is true to look past its borders whether it is critical about hydrogen enjoying a central position in attaining local weather neutrality.
The plan can carry Africa into the hydrogen financial system
In accordance with Nils Røkke, chairman of the European Power Analysis Alliance, nearer collaboration between the EU and Africa in areas akin to vitality would carry mutual advantages. These might embody enabling Europe to faucet into its neighbor’s huge renewable vitality assets and permitting African international locations to take pleasure in larger home vitality entry as a profit from that funding.
“Africa could be in a significantly better state of affairs and Europe could be in a significantly better state of affairs if there was a cooperation between the event of renewable energies and to develop renewable fuels akin to hydrogen,” Røkke mentioned. “And there will likely be will likely be spillover advantages, I am fairly positive about that; not doing it will be isolating Africa from participating within the industrial growth of those sorts of applied sciences.”
It’s far too early to foretell whether or not these components will likely be sufficient to result in the belief of 40 GW of renewable hydrogen electrolyzers in North Africa piping gasoline throughout the Mediterranean. What appears clear is that in official circles at the least, there’s a rising view that at the least a few of Europe’s future renewable hydrogen wants have to be met from outdoors its personal borders.
Already, strikes are afoot to mobilize trade to start discovering methods to place the European Fee’s plans into motion, together with the launch of a Clear Hydrogen Alliance to carry collectively key stakeholders. The EU can also be gearing up on the diplomatic entrance, with fee efforts such because the Africa-Europe Inexperienced Power Initiative exploring alternatives for clear hydrogen collaborations.
As these ventures begin to take form and legislative adjustments start laying the foundations for a future clear hydrogen market, a clearer image ought to start to emerge of whether or not the prospect of a hydrogen revolution considerably powered by the solar and wind of the Sahara is only a mirage or a stable imaginative and prescient of a greener future.