Green hydrogen has been heralded as the key to meeting South Africa’s decarbonisation targets and finally leading the country away from its dependence on fossil fuels for energy.
By Billy Bokako – Senior Manager: CICSA
However, the country continues to lag significantly behind international counterparts in making the transition.
Developing and integrating green hydrogen projects and technologies will require a substantial upfront investment at a time when government is already experiencing extreme fiscal pressure. South Africa has invested heavily in the sector with its journey dating back to 2007 cabinet approved the National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technologies Research, Development and Innovation Strategy (HFCT RDI), branded Hydrogen South Africa (HySA). The strategy was implemented through the HySA 15-year programme that focused on research & development, skills and technology development.
We’ve seen tangible progress, as well as a review of the programme and the subsequent birth of the Hydrogen Society Roadmap, which aims to implement some of the programme’s initiatives. The advent of green hydrogen in South Africa means a shift in green entrepreneurship, especially in the renewable energy and water spaces. Like the rest of the country, The Innovation Hub has had to pivot and adapt to this shift.
Incubating over 19 companies in the renewable energy and water sectors means purposively and consciously preparing a conducive environment for these companies to thrive and grab opportunities as they present themselves.
There are a number of initiatives that the Innovation Hub (TIH) through its Climate Innovation Centre South Africa (CICSA) incubation programme, with the support of its holding company Gauteng Growth and Development Agency (GGDA) and shareholder, Gauteng Department of Economic Development (GDED), have embarked on to pave way to this inevitable and exciting reality.
These include a promise to facilitate the implementation of 1000 Megawatts alternative energy to the national grid in the next two years. Currently, TIH is preparing for piloting microgrid projects across the province as a technology partner. This presents a mammoth opportunity for companies in the renewable energy space.
One such company is Wetility, a renewable energy company based in Bryanston, Johannesburg. Wetility offers a full stack solution, with context-specific software, and hardware. Wetility’s hardware stores solar energy and its software automatically releases enough electricity for a home or business, reducing energy costs by up to 65%. Through lease financing programme, the company is able to lend its products to its customers.
There is a looming question concerning the water input into green hydrogen, especially surrounding availability. The issue of whether South Africa is a water-scarce country or has a water infrastructure challenge remains a topical debate. A great majority of companies incubated within the CICSA incubation programme focus on water purification and preservation technologies leaving a huge gap on the infrastructure component. There are many questions to answer where water is concerned, chief among all being whether we have sufficient water to support green hydrogen in its efforts to promote decarbonisation.
All is not lost as there are some companies making headway in treatment of acid mine drainage (AMD) with the aim of purifying water to potable state. AMD is quite prevalent in mining towns and cities, especially in Gauteng. ROC Water Technologies has developed the ROC (Reverse Osmosis/Cooling) and freeze crystallisation technology for Senior Manager: CICSA the specific case of treating effluent process water from mines. The technology involves a four-stage process which includes two pre-treatment stages, a reverse osmosis stage and lastly a freeze crystallisation stage.
Currently ROC Water has completed more than two pilots for their technology at different locations, each proving that the technology is advancing and ready to be implemented. Despite the huge upfront investment required for the deployment of AMD treatment plants, AMD treatment could be a ready solution to augment the supply of water which could be used as a green water alternative furthering the green hydrogen agenda. CICSA is currently in talks with various stakeholders to deploy various pilots across the province aimed at building a solid case for the deployment of the ROC technology.
There are other realistic questions that we need to ask ourselves regarding capacity in terms of skills availability, SMME participation, time frames for when the sector will reach its peak, readily available innovation, and when we will start seeing the impact in relation to the socioeconomic challenges. These questions already indicate that there is still lot of work ahead of us. In trying to address some of these questions, CICSA is working closely with municipal and provincial partners to provide advisory and support to municipalities such as the City of Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, and Emfuleni to enable roll out of Small-Scale Embedded Generation (SSEG) plans within these municipalities. Over the coming financial year, CICSA plans to provide the necessary support for all nine municipalities across Gauteng to roll out their own SSEG projects and make the conversion to clean energy while alleviating pressure on the country’s power supply.
Much has already been done, but there is still a long road ahead for South Africa to catch up with global competitors. The country has been recognised internationally for being home to an ideal environment for green hydrogen production, with an abundance of warm, windy conditions for producing renewable energy. Likewise, we boast worldclass plans and policies in the form of documents such as the national Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)’s Hydrogen Society Roadmap, the REIPPP, and even the National Development Plan (NDP) for 2030.
The missing step remains adoption and implementation, which will necessitate an even greater focus on advocacy to ensure that policy frameworks produce the results needed to fulfil green hydrogen’s promise. If government’s plans are to see fruition timeously, we need to inspire even greater levels of passion for green hydrogen as a tool for driving greater energy security and building a more resilient and low carbon economy.