Whilst the development of a modern, industrialised world has been dominated by the use of fossil fuels thanks to the abundance of supply, ease of access and their efficient application, the current reality is that fossil fuels are becoming more expensive to extract and their impact on the environment has seen many countries commit to reducing carbon-based emissions.

In South Africa, the coal-fired power stations are reaching the end of their life cycle and the country faces an electricity supply shortfall of between 4 000 and 6 000 megawatts that will negatively affect economic growth and investor confidence. As a result, the South African government has been working closely with numerous industry stakeholders like Bambili Energy, various government departments like DSI, DMRE and foreign investors to address energy challenges.

South Africa’s 2 800km coastline, that brings with it an abundance of wind, and the 2 500 hours of sunshine annually, present wind and solar energy as viable alternatives to fossil-based energy. This makes South Africa an attractive renewable energy investment destination.

According to the 2020 statistics of utility scale power generation in a South Africa research conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South Africa has been gradually adding utility-scale wind, solar photo-voltaic and concentrated solar power for years, increasing the installed capacity from 467MW in 2013 to 5 027MW by the end of 2020.

A crucial energy form

Another crucial energy form is hydrogen. Hydrogen Fuel Cell technology is not new. In fact, it was first invented in 1839 by Welsh scientist William Robert Grove. It was only in the 1960s though that the fuel cell was used commercially by NASA to generate power for probes, satellites and space capsules.

A major component of water, oil, natural gas and all living matter, hydrogen is one of the simplest and most abundant elements in the universe. Hydrogen fuel cells systems convert chemical energy into electrical energy through a reformer process which separate the various element into hydrogen, and water. This reformer process is achievable using components including platinum, which South Africa has in abundance.

South Africa is now also actively pursuing the many benefits of introducing hydrogen fuel cell energy to its renewable energy mix, as well as capitalise on the deployment of hydrogen fuel cell technology in many countries internationally. Bambili Energy is a South African company that seeks to manufacture fuel systems by combining locally developed IP with international made components.

The Hydrogen South Africa (HySa) programme

The former Department of Science and Technology initiated the Hydrogen South Africa (HySa) programme approved by Cabinet in 2007. Officially launched in 2008, it has been instrumental in supporting the growth in this industry.  According to Bambili Energy: “The collaboration between the various public and private stakeholders is critical for South Africa to utilise its competitive edge and become a serious hydrogen economy in the global renewable energy sector.”

HySa aims to stimulate and guide innovation along the value chain of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and ultimately position South Africa to derive local benefits from supplying high value-added products (e.g. PGM catalysts and catalytic devices) to the growing international fuel cells and hydrogen markets. These local benefits include economic benefits through job, wealth and new industries creation, and the development of appropriate skills and human resource capital.

The motivation and driving force for the HySa programme is the prevalence of platinum reserves found in South Africa. Platinum group metals are the key catalytic materials used in most fuel cells and, with more than 75% of the world’s known platinum reserves found within South African borders, there is great potential for socio-economic benefits to be derived from these natural resources. South Africa can harness these benefits through the development of local PGM-based hydrogen and fuel cell technologies.

The skills connection

With new technology comes a need for new skills and it is here that the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority (EWSETA) has an important role to play. Brazil had to halt its development of hydrogen fuel cell technology because of challenges with available skills. It is important that South Africa learns from Brazil’s experience and ensures that the right skills are available to embrace all that the hydrogen technology is able to offer the country.

According to Mpho Mookapele, CEO for the EWSETA: “As the skills development authority in the energy sector, we need to work closely with all role players in the hydrogen industry to ensure that as the uptake of this technology grows in South Africa, young people are being capacitated with the knowledge and skills needed to see this technology flourish and make an important contribution to securing South Africa’s energy demands.”

The role of industry in developing skills cannot be overstated and to date, several organisations have worked with HySa to deploy much-needed research, development and skills deployment as South Africa seeks to grow its hydrogen economy.

Implats funds HySa centre of competence

Impala Platinum Holdings (Implats) funded one of three HySA centres of competence, with R6 million to enable the prototype development of hydrogen fuel cell driven material handling and underground mining equipment. Implats have also supported another centre, HySA Catalysis, by supplying platinum for the scale up of the production of South African developed fuel cell catalysts.

This article was published in partnership with Media Xpose.

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