The Hydrogen Society Roadmap (HSRM), which was approved by Cabinet on September 14, provides a “clear indication” of how hydrogen and fuel cell technologies could be a “game changer” for the South African economy, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande noted during the Hydrogen Economy Indaba – Series 3 event on October 21.
He added, however, that, before South African could derive the full benefits of a hydrogen economy, several challenges had to be overcome.
These included the further development of hydrogen technology, which Nzimande said had yet to fully mature to the point where it could be deployed in a cost-effective manner and at scale.
Secondly, he said, the infrastructure to support the deployment of hydrogen energy, particularly in mobility applications, such as in vehicles, was almost non-existent in South Africa.
In addition, Nzimande said market demand for hydrogen was still very low and that the world had been “shaken” by the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in a negative impact on the resources needed to deploy hydrogen technology.
Nonetheless, he said implementing the HSRM could ensure that gender equality and social inclusion were at the core of the transition to a low-carbon economy, while simultaneously helping to tackle the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Taking on these challenges was only possible if local communities participate in the reskilling opportunities to support the hydrogen economy, said Nzimande. He noted that this was particularly relevant for areas and towns that were most likely to be affected by the decline in the use of fossil fuels, such as areas in Mpumalanga – South Africa’s current fossil fuel burning epicentre.
Secondly, the production of green hydrogen and ammonia must be “socially just and sensitive” to the potential impacts on job losses in local economies, said Nzimande.
“We also need to ensure there are clear targets for women and youth in recruitment and human-capacity development programmes targeted for the green industry,” he added.
Development of a hydrogen economy needed to address the barriers to entry for women in the green industry sector, said Nzimande, pointing out that this had been highlighted in studies that had been conducted by other organisations, such as the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation.
“We need also to ensure that there are clear targets for women and youth-owned small, medium-sized and microenterprises involved in the strategic infrastructure projects and the hydrogen value chain,” he said.
Therefore, Nzimande forsees the hydrogen economy “as a story of hope. A hope for a new world with low emissions . . . for a disruptive, but necessary change . . . for a renewed industry and sustainable jobs”.
However, for these hopes to become reality, he said, South Africa had to focus on preparing itself to be a significant global player in the hydrogen economy through developing the necessary knowledge and skills in the hydrogen and fuel cell technology space.
Nzimande noted that there was strong interest in hydrogen in South Africa, and that the same trend had been observed in Europe.
Locally, he said, the national hydrogen strategy – the HySA Strategy, which was approved by Cabinet in 2007, provided guidelines for how South Africa should undertake its hydrogen development.
Nzimande added that the Department of Science and Innovation had been implementing the 15-year HySA programme for the past 12 years.
“If anything, what the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us is the importance of science, technology and innovation in our everyday lives. Through the investments that started a decade ago, government was able to rapidly and in a coordinated way respond to the challenges presented by Covid-19,” he noted.
An example of this is the rolling out of hydrogen fuel cell systems to provide primary power for field hospitals and medical facilities to support Covid-19 patients in some parts of South Africa.
In this regard, Nzimande said the hydrogen fuel cell system deployed at 1 Military Hospital, in Pretoria, was still being used to support the Covid-19 vaccination programme.
“The deployment of fuel cells at [this hospital] is just one example of how we can use the technology in facilitating the provision of public services and other services as well, and the potential the technology offers in transforming our economy,” he said.