Thabo Mohlala

Renewable hydrogen and green power-fuels are among some of the key instruments that South Africa can harness to revive its economy after it was ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of science, technology and innovation.

The minister was on Tuesday addressing a webinar on renewable hydrogen and green power-fuels opportunities for South Africa.

The webinar was co-hosted by EE Business Intelligence and the European Union Delegation to South Africa in association with the department of science and innovation (DSI), the European Commission, Nedbank and Air Liquide.

Green power-fuels are synthetic gaseous or liquid fuels based on renewable hydrogen, which is hydrogen obtained by the electrolysis of water using renewable electricity. These fuels can be used in sectors that are difficult to decarbonise, or to power directly by means of renewable-based electricity, such as road and rail transportation, shipping, and production of steel, cement and fertiliser.

Said Nzimande: “There is growing scientific evidence suggesting that accelerated global warming, driven by increased release of CO2 into the atmosphere, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and forms of mass agriculture driving zoonotic risks may lead to the frequent emergence of future global pandemics”.

He said the stabilisation of the earth’s climate and retention of natural capital should form central elements of global growth strategies. “Clearly, the shift away from carbon-intensive fossil fuels in favour of greener, renewable energy forms is crucial in this regard. Alternative and renewable sources of energy, like solar and green hydrogen-based sources of energy, are precisely what we need to prevent the world and its life from being destroyed by pandemics in future,” Nzimande said.

“Renewable energy must not only be accessible to the wealthy and better-off in society, it must be accessible to all. That is the reason I strongly believe that a public company such as Eskom must position itself to play a leading role in this space of the renewable hydrogen and green power-fuels,” added Nzimande.

He said his department is positioned to play an important role in providing solutions to a sustainable and inclusive economic development. “In our innovation-led economic growth and development strategy, the key challenge is that of addressing what is sometimes referred to as the “Innovation Chasm”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has tasked his department, he said, to address and remove all barriers to overcome the ‘innovation chasm’, adding that is why the departments of higher education and training and of science and innovation have merged to align their skills development and innovation strategies much closer to facilitate an innovation-led economic growth and development strategy.

Nzimande said his two departments (DHETand DSI) will exploit opportunities within the innovation space to involve “our technical and vocational education training colleges (TVET), which will add to the already existing training that is offered by some of our universities”.

He said this is the right time to empower the TVET colleges, in partnership with industry, to begin with training of green artisans and other mid-level skills in the value chain of the green economy we seek to develop.  

He said through the (Hydrogen South Africa) HySA programme, DSI has partnered with Bambili Energy, a woman-owned company, the University of Pretoria and the Water and Energy SETA and have started to provide training to TVET and University of Technology graduates. The graduates are trained in the installation and maintenance of Hydgrogen Fuel cells and the first cohort of trainees graduated in December 2020.

“Our Renewable Energy RDI Programmes are not just producing the next generation of scientists and engineers for the workforce but the next generation of business leaders and public sector managers and policy experts. South Africa has a comparative advantage when it comes to renewable hydrogen and green power fuels. We have a unique competitive advantage in the production of green power-fuels,” said Nzimande.  

He added that South Africa has the exceptional wind and solar natural resources, which together with abundant low-cost land and 50 years of experience in the commercial production of synthetic fuels, can position the country as a key role player in renewable hydrogen and green power-fuels, both locally and internationally.

Nzimande said in December 2019 his department appointed an independent panel of experts to review the second phase of implementation of HySA Programme investing over R1 billion.

He said the country has developed a South African Hydrogen Roadmap setting out a vision for an inclusive hydrogen society so that an enabling compact between industry, labour, community and government can be developed. The roadmap, according to Nzimande, “will assist and enable our government and industrial stakeholders to put in place a policy framework required to promote the exploitation of the benefits that hydrogen provides through its integration into the various sectors of the economy”.

He also shed light on the launch of the detailed study on green power-fuels and the opportunities for South Africa. The study was commissioned by EU-SA Partners for Growth Programme, supported by the EU Delegation (EUD) in South Africa (SA) in its efforts to maximise bilateral trade and investment flows between the EU and SA.

Nzimande said a technical workshop on power-fuels was held in December 2019 in South Africa, hosted by the EU-SA Partnership together with WITS Business School. Some of the aims of the workshop, said Nzimande, were to explore the potential of a power-fuels economy in South Africa, and to identify hurdles that could hinder the establishment of South Africa as a major supplier to Europe and other bulk markets.

Based on the success of the workshop, the EU-SA Partnership will be hosting a study tour to Europe to demonstrate to the participants the expertise and know-how in power-fuels. He said selected South African companies and relevant government policy makers will be invited to visit industrial plants, market leaders and EU officials in order to strengthen their understanding of the potential and benefits of power-fuels.