Hydrogen in South Africa: The uses, benefits and opportunities

In August 2021, South Africa’s National Business Initiative (NBI) published a government-backed report. It described the pathways that the country must take to decarbonise. At the same time, the report explained how this would strengthen the South African economy. Along with renewable energies, NBI also promoted the development of the green hydrogen industry.

South Africa has strong wind and solar energy resources. Therefore, the country has a competitive advantage for green hydrogen production, according to NBI. This could allow South Africa to become a net energy exporter. To better understand this opportunity, this article will take a close look at the promising fuel.

Hydrogen is a natural chemical element. In nature, it exists as a molecule. That means that it is made up of two hydrogen atoms, which is why its chemical formula is H₂. It is perhaps best known as one of the elements that makes up water. The other is oxygen. That is why water’s chemical formula is H2O. In fact, it is naturally linked to other elements. That is, it does not exist on its own.

image of hydrogen and the universe

The energy of the universe

H₂ is the lightest and most common element. Indeed, it makes up nearly 90 per cent of the visible matter in the universe. This is mostly in gas form. In the Earth’s atmosphere, it burns similarly to methane (natural gas). Therefore, people can use it as fuel. Plus, it has the highest energy content per unit of weight than conventional fuels. For example, it has three times as much as petrol.

Hydrogen: The basics

The element works as a fuel in three ways: through direct combustion, in fuel cells and as an industrial feedstock. However, unlike other fuels, it does not emit pollution. Instead, it only leaves behind water. This is the case whether it is burned or used in fuel cells. Therefore, it is a promising fuel for transportation and electricity generation, for example.

How a hydrogen fuel cell works

Hydrogen fuel cells convert chemical energy into electricity. During this process, they convert hydrogen gas and oxygen into water. Currently, these devices are mostly used to power cars and other vehicles. That is because they are a clean alternative to polluting petrol and diesel engines. To power a vehicle with such a fuel cell, you simply refill it with hydrogen instead of petrol.

hydrogen fuel cell

“Hydrogen fuel cell” by matthew venn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Uses of hydrogen

Industry commonly uses hydrogen to refine petroleum and produce fertilisers. However, it also presents a great opportunity for transportation and utility companies. That is because such industries could use it to generate electricity, power or heat. Although, it is important to know that the element is an energy carrier. That is, it is not an energy source, unlike solar or wind power. Therefore, to produce this element, another type of energy must be involved as well.

Hydrogen production and its applications

Humans can extract it from fossil fuels and biomass. Otherwise, we can extract it from water. At the moment, natural gas is the most common source of hydrogen production. Specifically, it accounts for three-quarters of yearly global production. This amounts to around 70 million tonnes. Coal is the second-highest source of hydrogen production. Therefore, together, gas and coal account for 95 per cent of the hydrogen that people use currently. Industry makes the greatest use of this fuel.

Carbon dioxide emissions

Globally, the amount of hydrogen that industry uses has tripled in the past four decades. Consequently, the fuel is responsible for a large portion of carbon emissions, specifically, 830 million tonnes per year. This is equal to the combined carbon emissions of the United Kingdom and Indonesia.

Use in South Africa

The mining sector has been responsible for most hydrogen development in South Africa. However, this is limited to producing hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. The telecommunication industry in South Africa also uses cells in their infrastructure for off-grid power. Although, hydrogen offers the country a much greater opportunity beyond these uses. That is according to a 2020 report from PwC. The fuel could revolutionise South Africa’s economy, says the consultancy group. But, only if the country invests in green hydrogen.

Renewable energy: Green and zero impact

Industries can use renewable energy to produce green hydrogen. They do so with a method called water electrolysis. This involves splitting water, hydrogen and oxygen by using renewable electricity. This green hydrogen production is entirely emissions-free. Unfortunately, the production process is not easy nor cheap. However, the scientific and technological communities have done a lot of research into how to make this green hydrogen. This has led to recent breakthroughs. Therefore, the fuel will soon have a large global impact, according to energy experts.


The greatest benefit that green hydrogen offers is the chance to reduce emissions. For example, it could replace the hydrogen from natural gas that industry uses currently. In the US alone, this amounts to 10 million tonnes of the fuel. On top of this, industries that cannot easily transition to electricity can turn to green hydrogen. These industries include steel production and the chemical industry. Therefore, this will help them decarbonise.

The PwC report highlighted other benefits as well. In the transport sector, hydrogen fuel cells will improve the fuel efficiency of road vehicles and trains. The aviation and shipping industries will also benefit. That is because motor engines and jet turbines could run on green hydrogen. In turn, this will decarbonise these industries. Utility companies are also exploring using it in existing natural gas networks. This would reduce carbon emissions from household heating and power. Finally, hydrogen offers a solution for storing renewable energies. That is because electricity can be turned into hydrogen with electrolysis. Therefore, this stores the fuel for later use.

green hydrogen cycle

“Green hydrogen cycle” by Rh2network (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The future of hydrogen

The global energy sector will mostly come to rely on wind, solar and hydropower, according to PwC. Specifically, 85 per cent of global electricity production will come from renewables by 2050. Therefore, hydrogen will have an important role in the future too. That is because it offers a solution for “the transport, storage and efficient utilisation of clean energy”, says PwC.

Demand for hydrogen

The above benefits of green hydrogen mean that it is likely that demand for hydrogen will grow. In fact, its usage may expand from less than 90 megatonnes in 2020 to more than 200 megatonnes in 2030. That is the opinion of the International Energy Agency. Specifically, Europe and Asia are probable high demand markets, according to PwC.

Opportunity for South Africa

This presents South Africa with the opportunity to become a net exporter of hydrogen produced chemicals, fuels and products. This would require a large investment in renewable energy. This is so that South Africa could produce enough green hydrogen to export. However, it would also reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuel imports for energy. That is because South Africa could also use this new renewable energy locally. This would both secure and decarbonise the country’s electricity grid.

Overcoming challenges

South Africa’s chances of seizing this opportunity depend on the country transitioning to an economy based on clean energy. Alongside this, the government must develop a clear hydrogen strategy. Fortunately, policymakers have recognised this. That is why a future NBI report will detail how green hydrogen fits into South Africa’s decarbonised economy.

Making a hydrogen economy a reality

This strategy must provide the proper regulation to incentivise green hydrogen, says PwC. For that reason, the consultancy group calls on the South African government to establish a “certain, transparent, stable and accountable policy environment for hydrogen”. With this in place, the country could benefit from the global energy transition. Therefore, South Africa would become a major player in the hydrogen economy.