According to the World Economic Forum, only 9% of all the energy generated in Africa came from renewable sources in 2020. Progress is being made, however, with solar and wind capacity increasing by 13% and 11% respectively, and hydropower soaring by 25% – all in 2019 to 2020 alone.

“We have seen several projects, in different regions, coming through the planning pipeline over the past several years – with evidence of significant investor and developer interest in renewable energy projects,” says Dinesh Buldoo, MD: power at WSP Africa. “Private sector interest in investing in renewable power assets across Africa has been growing steadily, as the continent as a whole offers diverse renewable energy sources ranging from solar and wind to green hydrogen.”

The commitment to invest in renewable energy projects in Africa, made by Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the US and the European Union at COP26 last year, has added much-needed impetus to moving planned projects forward.

“Most recently, for example, Sasol and the South African Industrial Development Corporation announced they will use the country’s solar and wind resources to produce and export green hydrogen at a massive scale, with support from the German government,” Buldoo continues.

“The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is also well positioned to take advantage of this growing global demand for green hydrogen,” adds Martin Mkhabela, director: power at WSP in Africa. “The Inga Falls, situated on the Congo River in the DRC, is the world’s largest hydropower site with 44GW of potential generating capacity. There are a number of global companies that are pursuing the Grand Inga Project for the production and export of green hydrogen (or clean-H2) to the European markets.”

Green hydrogen presents one of the most viable alternatives for Africa to realise its renewable energy ambitions, but there is much work to be done before its potential can be realised. “In order to leverage hydrogen, two critical components are required,” Mkhabela says. “The first is an abundant and reliable source of water and the second is access to a cheap source of electricity from renewable energy sources in close proximity to consumption or export nodes.”

South Africa certainly has world leading and abundant solar and wind resource potential, which is integral to the production of green hydrogen and, to compete in the global green hydrogen economy. However, the challenge to South Africa realising this potential in the short-term is two-fold. The country does not have any excess electricity from renewables or Hydro, with local power utility Eskom currently using all available electricity generated from renewable resources. South Africa is also a naturally water-scarce country and the 30th driest in the world.

“We believe that as more renewable power generation plants are built as a result of recent changes in the Electricity Regulations Act, South Africa will experience intermittent excess energy in the electricity grid paving the way for more widespread adoption of hydrogen production. This will however by no means be a walk in the park and significant innovation will be required to unlock water resources for the production of green hydrogen, at competitive prices, in South Africa,” Mkhabela admits. “But we are already seeing numerous pilot projects in development in the country.”

WSP have successfully delivered solar and wind projects through the 4 Rounds of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPPP) and are looking forward to an additional 5200MW of Solar PV and Wind projects in Round 5 and the upcoming Round 6.

Several significant renewable energy projects were also launched elsewhere in Africa in 2021, including a 5GW green hydrogen project in Namibia, a 600MW hydroelectric power station in Congo and Cameroon, a 200MW solar project in DRC and a further 100MW of solar power each in Botswana and Ghana.

“All indications are that, by successfully leveraging renewable energy sources like these as well as hydrogen technology, Africa can benefit greatly from the global drive to achieve certain decarbonisation targets by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050. Critically, these benefits will not only be from an environmental point of view, but from an economic and social one as well,” Mkhabela says.

“At WSP we see the discussions around green hydrogen mirroring those held about solar power and batteries five years ago. The argument against it – that it is too expensive – will likely follow the same patterns, with prices dropping rapidly and the economics of using the technology changing drastically for the better,” Buldoo adds.

The reality is that African states most likely require a hybrid approach to renewables, in which gas and green hydrogen play a significant role, while complementing solar PV and wind power plants in combination with energy storage solutions.

“However, to capitalise on the momentum we’re seeing in terms of appetite for investment, we need regulations that enable renewable power generation plants to be built. We also need legislation and policies that support the growth of the alternative energy sector as a whole and enable it to overcome upfront capital costs on individual projects in favour of long-term gains,” concludes Buldoo.