The Hype and Hope of Sahara Desert Green Hydrogen

Desert energy is back. As the European Union sets its sights on
a green hydrogen boom as part of its plans to meet decarbonization
pledges and rebuild economies ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic,
North Africa has emerged�as a possible source for a significant
chunk of Europe’s future hydrogensupply.

A 2020 version of the European Commission’s hydrogen
strategy referenced a proposal that the EU could meet some of its
future supply from neighboring countries such as Ukraine, as well
as the desert regions of North Africa, which offer both huge
renewables potential and geographic proximity.

The idea originated in a paper published in March by trade body
Hydrogen Europe setting out the “2
x 40 GW
green hydrogen initiative.” Under this concept, the EU
by 2030 would have in place 40 gigawatts of domestic renewable
hydrogen electrolyzer capacity and import a further 40 GW from
electrolyzers in neighboring areas, among them the deserts of North
Africa, via revamped versions of the natural-gas pipelines that
already connect to Europe.

If it sounds like a familiar idea, that’s because it isn’t
entirely new. A little over a decade ago, a similar plan enjoyed
its moment in the sun when a coalition of industrial corporations
and finance institutions joined forces to push what was dubbed the

Desertec concept
. At one stage, RWE, Siemens and First Solar
were all involved. The thinking behind Desertec was that up to 20
percent of Europe’s energy needs could be met with huge solar and
wind arrays located in the Sahara, brought into the bloc via a
trans-Mediterranean high-voltage power network.

For a few years, Desertec generated hyperbolic headlines about
the Sahara eventually providing clean power for the entire world.
But the venture ultimately foundered amid criticism that it would
have been an excessively costly boondoggle underpinned by outdated
notions of Africa’s natural resources being up for grabs by the
rest of the world.

However, this idea now seems to have been granted a new lease of
life, this time as the possible answer to Europe’s renewable
hydrogen needs. Some of the thinking can be traced back to the
legacy organization of the Desertec initiative, Dii, which
addressed the proposal in a North Africa-Europe hydrogen “manifesto” document published
last year. One of the authors of that manifesto also co-wrote
Hydrogen Europe’s 2 x 40 GW initiative paper.

Underestimating Europe’s renewables potential

Perhaps because of Desertec’s decidedly mixed legacy, the idea
of a renewable hydrogen superhighway between Europe and Africa has
garnered a lukewarm reception, attracting similar objections to
those aimed at its predecessor, mainly around cost and
practicality.

According to Aurélie Beauvais, head of policy and deputy CEO of
trade body SolarPower Europe, the idea of an EU-Africa hydrogen
mega-project is something of a “chimera†based on what she says
is a misconception that Europe lacks abundant renewable energy
resources.

“This is based on a bit of a prehistoric vision that you only
have solar in the south and you only have wind in the north,
whereas [in truth] resources are much better distributed,†said
Beauvais, citing a study by SolarPower Europe and Finland’s LUT
University published earlier in the year showing Europe’s
renewables potential to be “immense.â€

“The EU is heavily underestimating their resources in
renewable electricity,†she added.

Preoccupation with the idea that Europe will not be able to meet
its envisioned future demand for renewable hydrogen with domestic
resources overlooks the potential for innovation in decentralized
solutions, Beauvais argues. With these types of innovations,
renewable hydrogen could be both produced and consumed
locally â€œwithout the need for huge plants or huge pipes.â€

“We are at the beginning of a revolution, so it’s a moment
where we need to encourage technology and innovation, and
decentralized production of hydrogen is very interesting because it
does not require the same amount of infrastructure,†she
said.

Pipelines or pipe dreams?

This echoes concerns voiced by others about the idea of Europe
relying on renewable hydrogen produced overseas and the logistics
of transporting the fuel to market.

As Wood Mackenzie analyst Ben Gallagher has pointed out,
hydrogen has low volumetric energy density compared to natural gas,
which makes its transportation more of a challenge. “It would
need to be highly pressurized, liquefied [or] turned into
ammonia
, or…some other carrier [would have to be used] for
transportation,†Gallagher said. “Currently, hydrogen is
compressed and put on trucks, but that’s for pretty small-scale
distribution; it’s never been done on a large scale.â€

Martin Lambert, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute
for Energy Studies, agreed that the cost of transporting hydrogen
produced in North Africa or elsewhere through repurposed
natural-gas pipelines would be substantial. “You need to do some
quite deep engineering work to convert a gas pipeline system to
hydrogen; hydrogen is quite different stuff to methane, so you
can’t convert it easily,†he said.

Lambert is broadly supportive of the idea of tapping the
potential of regions such as the Sahara to either supply power
directly to Europe or produce renewable hydrogen. But
he questioned the feasibility of the timescales involved and
achieving as much as 40 GW of capacity by 2030.

Models of the development of the hydrogen market that Lambert
and others have undertaken are more in line with the decentralized
approach suggested by SolarPower Europe, building from a few local
clusters initially developed around big industrial centers such as
Teesside, Humberside or Merseyside in the U.K. or the Ruhr in
Germany.

“A few clusters could develop, and from that, you then start
to integrate the link between them. To say as a first step you’re
going to have massive hydrogen pipelines running across Europe
sounds a bit premature,†he said.

New tech and revived momentum bring renewed optimism

Still, backers of the concept stand by its aims.

Constantine Levoyannis, Hydrogen Europe’s head of policy,
agrees that a decentralized approach should be the first focus of
the development of a renewable hydrogen market in Europe. But he
argues that the huge numbers involved in the energy and industrial
“revolution†the European Commission is proposing in its
hydrogen strategy will inevitably require an outward-looking
approach to achieve.

“We want European industry to invest in electrolyzers and help
us achieve this objective. On the other hand, we’re cognizant that
we don’t have enough space to be able to do more than 40 or 50 GW
[within the EU]. So we’re going to need a strategy that engages
external parties as well,†Levoyannis said.

Levoyannis recognizes that some of the same criticisms lobbed at
Desertec are now being made of the 2 x 40 GW initiative, but he
emphasizes the extent to which factors such as technological
advances, substantially greater political momentum and the dramatic
decline in the costs of renewables have created a very different
context from the one in which Desertec operated.

“There will always be the naysayers, but I think the facts
speak for themselves. It’s a completely different discussion that
we’re having today than we were 10 years ago,†he said.

On the question of how renewable hydrogen might be physically
transported to market in Europe, Levoyannis acknowledged
that significant engineering would indeed be required. But the cost
of repurposing existing pipelines to carry hydrogen would still be
cheaper than building new ones and more efficient than trying to
bring renewable electricity from, say, North Africa into the EU in
electron form, he said.

“You can transport much more renewable energy via pipeline, as
in molecular form, than via the grid,†he said. The Hydrogen
Europe paper claims that transporting hydrogen by pipeline costs 10
to 20 times less than electricity transported 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 it was included
highlights the extent to which the idea is being taken seriously at
the highest levels of the EC. That view is bolstered by activity
already underway at a legislative level to pave the way for the
development of a hydrogen “backbone†in Europe to support the
hydrogen economy.

Others agree that the EU is right to look beyond its borders if
it is serious about hydrogen playing a central role in achieving
climate neutrality.

The plan can bring Africa into the hydrogen economy

According to Nils Røkke, chairman of the European Energy
Research Alliance, closer collaboration between the EU and Africa
in areas such as energy would bring mutual benefits. Those could
include enabling Europe to tap into its neighbor’s vast renewable
energy resources and allowing African countries to enjoy greater
domestic energy access as a benefit from that investment.

“Africa would be in a much better situation and Europe would
be in a much better situation if there was a cooperation between
the development of renewable energies and to develop renewable
fuels such as hydrogen,†Røkke said. “And there will be will
be spillover benefits, I’m pretty sure about that; not doing it
would be isolating Africa from taking part in the industrial
development of these kinds of technologies.â€

It is far too early to predict whether these factors will be
enough to lead to the realization of 40 GW of renewable hydrogen
electrolyzers in North Africa piping fuel across the Mediterranean.
What seems clear is that in official circles at least, there is a
growing view that at least some of Europe’s future renewable
hydrogen needs must be met from outside its own borders.

Already, moves are afoot to mobilize industry to begin finding
ways to put the European Commission’s plans into action,
including the launch of a Clean Hydrogen Alliance to bring together
key 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 ventures start to take shape and legislative changes
begin laying the foundations for a future clean hydrogen market, a
clearer picture should begin to emerge of whether the prospect of a
hydrogen revolution substantially powered by the sun and wind of
the Sahara is just a mirage or a solid vision of a greener
future.

Source: FS – GreenTech Media
The Hype and Hope of Sahara Desert Green Hydrogen