Increasing the role of hydrogen and fuel cells in the economy

South Africa’s Hydrogen SA flagship initiative is set to transition to a manufacturing capability, as the country looks to grow the local hydrogen fuel cell (HFC) market and become a significant player in a global HFC sector which is projected to generate trillions of dollars in revenue.


The International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy (IPHE) meeting took place in Pretoria in early December. Hosted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), IPHE attracted global leaders from the multi-billion-dollar fuel cell industry. Research indicates that the global fuel cell industry reached $2,2 billion in revenue in 2014 and $3,6 billion in 2016, with countries such as Japan, China and the USA at the forefront of innovation in this industry.


Countries such as China, the United States of America, Brazil, Japan, Zimbabwe and India, and the European Commission, participated in the meetings which took place from 4-7 December.


Comprising 19 member countries, the IPHE serves as a mechanism to organise and implement effective and focused international research and development, demonstration and deployment activities related to HFC technologies.


It also provides a forum for sharing best practices on initiatives, policies, regulations and standards, to accelerate the widespread deployment of HFCs in the economy and enable energy, economic and environmental security worldwide.


South Africa has been a member of IPHE since 2010 and the partnership presents an excellent platform for the country to form and strengthen collaborations that will drive the local development of the fuel cell market.


Speaking at the conference, the Director General of the DST, Dr Phil Mjwara said South Africa welcomed the opportunity to showcase the evolution of its HFCTs sector.   


The implementation of HySA a flagship initiative of the Department a decade ago, translated into the development of the National Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology Research, Development and Innovation Strategy.


“The HySA programme seeks to diversify, promote the green economy and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris Agreement, while ensuring a just transition as encapsulated in the country's, National Climate Change Response White Paper.  The programme transitioning from research, development and innovation to a manufacturing capability, as well as developing strategic partnerships with the private sector will be critical,” added Dr Mjwara.


Dr Mjwara said, public-private partnerships support is envisaged to increase and cover gaps in technology commercialisation funding. 


“A sovereign innovation fund that is going to be created to leverage co-investment by the public and private sectors, will be relevant to the fuel cell sector uptake of locally developed technologies in both the local and global markets” concluded Dr Mjwara.


The Chair of IPHE, Dr Sunita Satyapal, said their objective was to foster global collaborations, accelerate progress and enable widespread deployment of HFC technologies across sectors.  IPHE focuses on energy security, resilience, emissions reduction (carbon and air pollutants) and economic prosperity.


“IPHE members collectively invest nearly $1 billion a year in HFCs.  There are 10 000 commercial fuel cells cars and over a quarter of a billion HFC stationary systems that can operate directly with natural gas,” affirmed Dr Satyapal.


According to her, the industry projected the potential of two and half trillion dollars in revenues just for HFCs, creating 30 million jobs worldwide.


Representing industry at the conference, ENGIE, a global energy provider that operates in 70 countries with 155 000 employees, committed to a long-term innovation solution.  Its main objective is to diversify and grow through its key sectors; natural gas, power and energy services with a focus on renewable sources.


Locally this means investment in solar technology and reduction of brown coal use. In 2016 the group announced the Kathu Solar Park project in the Northern Cape and signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with Eskom. 


Kathu Solar Park is a 100 MW Greenfield concentrated solar power plant situated 280km from Kimberly with parabolic trough technology and equipped with a molten salt storage system that allows 4.5 hours of thermal energy storage and thus limits the intermittent nature of solar energy.


Last month, the power plant was synchronised to the national grid and is expected to enter into full commercial operation in early 2019.


The project supports South Africa’s strategy of increasing the contribution of renewable sustainable energy generation and will create approximately 1 200 jobs during the construction phase.  Koen Langie, Senior Project Manager: Hydrogen in the Economy and Mining Applications at ENGIE’s a French company, called for increased scale up, to meet the target of zero emissions.


The forum was concluded with Minister Kubayi-Ngubane’s meeting with a select group of IPHE delegates before they embarked on site visits to Mintek, Chamber of Mines, Impala Platinum Refineries, Poelano High School, HySA Infrastructure Centre of Competence – North West University and Mponeng Mine.


Minister Kubayi-Ngubane assured the IPHE members that South Africa had made a commitment to reduce green emissions by 34% in 2020 and 42% by 2025.  The Minister indicated that South Africa should be working towards developing a hydrogen and fuel cell technology plant.


The forum was attended by more than 100 delegates from government, industry and academia.  Students, researchers and exhibitors exchanged information with international experts on the developments in HFC technologies, including an overview of the current technical and market status of HFC in different countries.


Delegates agreed that more commitment to public-private partnership would unlock hydrogen and fuel cells potential across economic sectors and reduce carbon emissions.


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