Green hydrogen: Africa’s chance to break the colonial extractive dynamic
European countries are, once again, desperate for the continent’s resources. Why aren’t African governments demanding more in return?
The first time I ever heard the term “Green Hydrogen”, it was said perhaps 100 times in one day.
I was at a conference on the green energy transition in Berlin, Germany, where mostly European journalists, academics, and policymakers were discussing how independence from oil had gone from being a scientific necessity to a question of national security since the war in Ukraine. The clear star of the day was green hydrogen which, it was promised, would bring unlimited clean energy to Germany in the coming decades.
This green vision, we were told, would come courtesy of Africa. “Of course, we would prefer to have partners in places like Sweden or Netherlands but that’s not the position we are in,” explained one German official, to only a few raised eyebrows. Although it might mean making deals with some governments that Berlin considers unsavoury, the continent’s abundant sunshine and wind make it the obvious choice to generate the new energy source.
Germany is not the only country to stake a significant chunk of its future energy needs on the promise of green hydrogen made in Africa. Several European governments are either exploring or finalising agreements with countries such as Nigeria, Algeria, Namibia, Egypt, South Africa, Angola, and Mauritania to generate the energy source. Just this month, Italian PM Giorgia Meloni visited Algeria to cement a deal for an “energy bridge” providing green hydrogen from the country’s massive Saharan solar farms. At the same time, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a €1 billion ($1.1 billion) partnership with Namibia to “create good jobs in Namibia and help the EU meet its clean energy needs. A clear win-win.”
These deals have been presented as mutually beneficial for the countries involved, but after a year of looking into some of them, Unbias the News has come to the conclusion that the opportunity for a genuine win-win is slipping away. Instead, there are growing risks that the mistakes of past extractive deals – through which a few enjoyed enormous gains while the needs of millions were neglected or even depleted – will be repeated.
But it is not too late. African governments have the leverage to renegotiate terms and advocate for a more equitable deal for all.
“The new oil”
As countries look for ways to transition away from oil and gas, many have looked to hydrogen as an alternative. This invisible gas burns cleanly (releasing water vapour), is versatile, and can be used to store and transport energy. It is an obvious substitute for some of the functions of fossil fuels, though it also has numerous key limitations.
The difficulty is that producing hydrogen is itself energy intensive. Today, almost all hydrogen is generated at coal- or gas-powered plants to make what’s known as “grey hydrogen”. Just 1% of hydrogen is “green hydrogen” made using renewable energies, but the hope is that this will ramp up significantly as governments race to divest from fossil fuels.
With a steady stream of wind or solar, many countries in Africa have the ideal conditions to produce green hydrogen, which could then be cooled into liquid, transported, and used for a variety of purposes from powering factories to heating homes in Europe. Ensuring a steady supply of green hydrogen will require the building of huge renewable energy farms in Africa.
In some cases, this will likely lead to major energy surpluses. In Namibia, for example, we found that the amount of excess energy generated would be enough to power the entire country of 2.5 million people. Even in populous Nigeria, surplus energy from green hydrogen plants could be a critical source of power in a country where 85 million people lack reliable access to the grid. The only problem is the lack of infrastructure to transport this energy around these countries.
When it comes to transformational projects, the fundamental challenge is often building the necessary infrastructure. In Europe, governments are already working on this problem by repurposing natural gas pipelines so they can transport hydrogen. Why not make it a requirement that some of the billions they are pumping into green hydrogen projects on the continent also go towards serving Africa’s needs?
This would break the long-held pattern of extractives industries in Africa. After decades global of fossil fuel firms extracting oil on the continent, for instance, oil-producing nations continue to import refined oil due to their own lack of refineries, are faced with disastrous environmental hazards, and remain poor.
So far, European governments like Germany have promised their African partners foreign investment, jobs, and beneficial economic knock-on effects if they agree to host their green hydrogen projects. Jobs are well and good, but these benefits come nowhere close to offsetting energy poverty on the continent, where 600 million people lack access to electricity.
Instead, European governments should pledge to build out the energy infrastructure in their partner countries so that locals can access the clean and stable energy that everyone need. This would help African countries address energy poverty and meet their climate goals. It could also help European countries fulfil the climate finance pledges they have so far failed to meet – such as the $100 billion annually promised to developing nations in 2020 – and often resisted.
It’s one thing to wish for a more equal partnership; it is another thing to get it. But African countries have the leverage they need. European countries like Germany desperately need access to wind, solar and hydropower to fulfil their climate pledges, manage the rising costs of oil, and meet the needs – and increasingly vocal demands – of their own citizens. They are betting on green hydrogen and have money to invest but not sufficient sources of clean energy at home.
By contrast, many African countries have abundant renewable potential – to both export and use domestically – but lack the funds to build the infrastructure needed to generate and distribute electricity to their own population. Why should they hand over their sources of energy without striking a better deal for their own citizens?
Asking for investments in green energy infrastructure is a reasonable demand in exchange for such valuable resources. To some degree, European governments may even be expecting such asks. Nations like Namibia and Nigeria ought to be making them a much bigger part of negotiations.
A key reason for Africa’s current state of energy and financial poverty is the mass ransacking of the continent’s minerals under colonialism and since. Handing over this next set of resources without obtaining key and lasting gains for citizens would be a historic mistake. Money can easily disappear through illicit financial flows into offshore bank accounts. Lasting prosperity and development will hinge on access to reliable, clean energy.