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The Hype and Hope of Sahara Desert Green Hydrogen

Past supergrid plans have failed. Can a transcontinental hydrogen pipeline connect the energy futures of Europe and Africa?

 The Desertec plan is echoed in parts of the new Africa-Europe hydrogen proposals.

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 hydrogen supply.

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the venture ultimately foundered amid criticism that it would have been an excessively costly boondoggle underpinned by outdated notions of Africa’s natural resources being up for grabs by the rest of the world.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.”

“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 “without the need for huge plants or huge pipes.”

“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.”

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.”

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.


by Ben Willis