In 2021, the Namibian government went to Europe with plans to export three million tonnes per annum of green or renewable energy-produced hydrogen from an area in the south-west of the country as part of a post-Covid economic recovery programme. Germany, on the lookout for green hydrogen supplies, was quick to partner with its former colony. Namibia has an “excellent chance” of succeeding in the global competition for the best green hydrogen technologies and production sites, Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek said in August 2021. She estimated Namibian green hydrogen could be the cheapest in the world, with costs falling to around €1.50–2.00 per kilogram (/kg).

Namibia hydrogen
(From left to right): Port of Antwerp CEO Jacques Vandermeiren, Prime Minister of Belgium Alexander De Croo, Namibian President Hage Geingob, Alexander Saverys, CEO of CMB, and Belgian Energy Minister Tinne Van der Straeten during a visit to the Port of Antwerp and its hydrogen filling station on 16 February 2022. (Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images)

These are big claims for an industry still only in the pre-feasibility stage – and in a country that has never executed an infrastructure project of this size and complexity. Namibia does not generate enough electricity to meet its own limited demand – only 56% of the population has access to electricity – let alone support large-scale hydrogen production.

However, Namibia has the ingredients to become a renewable energy powerhouse, according to Marco Raffinetti, chief executive of Hyphen Hydrogen Energy, the company selected in November 2021 as the preferred bidder for Namibia’s first hydrogen project. “It has excellent co-located wind and solar resources, large swathes of uninhabited, government-owned land – and the industry has strong support from the government,” he told Energy Monitor.

Hyphen – a joint venture between German renewable energy company Enertag and investment and project development company Nicholas Holdings – is working with the government on an implementation agreement that will trigger the start of a feasibility study for the project. The company plans to start production of the first 125,000 tonnes (t) of green hydrogen by the end of 2026. By 2030, it plans to be producing 300,000t of green hydrogen per annum using 5–6GW of renewable generation capacity and 3GW of electrolyser capacity.

For Namibia this would just be the start. Hyphen is one of ten projects the government hopes to develop in the 26,000km2 of land it has earmarked for hydrogen development in the Tsau/Khaeb National Park near the coastal town of Luderitz, now referred to as the Southern Corridor Development Initiative (SCDI). A former diamond mine, the area has been closed off to the public for more than a century and is one of the most biodiverse regions in Namibia. The SCDI is just one of several regions the government says could support large-scale hydrogen production.

Starting with ammonia

Namibia’s hydrogen export plans need to overcome the challenge that shipping hydrogen has not been done on a commercial scale. Liquifying hydrogen is expensive and inefficient. It needs to be cooled to -253°C, which requires high volumes of energy.

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This is just one part of where energy is required – and lost – across the hydrogen value chain. “Take 20% off for electrolysis [the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen], 33% off for liquefaction, 10% for efficiency losses for long-haul cooling and handling, and 40% off for conversion back into electricity, and the solar energy in Namibia turns into perhaps 29% of the energy being useful,” clean energy expert Michael Barnard, chief strategist at consultancy The Future is Electric, wrote in an article for CleanTechnica in December 2021. The result is, he calculates, that liquefied hydrogen would be at least five times as expensive to ship as LNG per unit of energy.

One pilot project in Australia shipped liquid hydrogen to Japan, but the volume of hydrogen shipped was small, at only 2.6t. The ship also made headlines for catching fire before it set sail.

The complications with shipping hydrogen mean that Hyphen’s project, while intended to be the catalyst for a hydrogen export industry in Namibia, is actually going to be exporting ammonia, a hydrogen derivative.

Ammonia comes with its own challenges. It is a highly toxic liquefied gas and strict safety protocols need to be observed in its handling. However, “the technology for exporting ammonia exists – and the market exists in terms of scale and is growing rapidly”, says Raffinetti. Today, 80% of the ammonia produced is used for fertiliser production, but some analysts suggest it could also be used as a shipping fuel, and it could be co-fired in coal or gas plants to help decarbonise the power sector, particularly in countries like Japan, which have less renewable energy resources available.

Energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie estimates ammonia will be the largest consumer of hydrogen, accounting for 48% of demand by 2025. By 2036, Wood Mackenzie estimates that power demand will overtake ammonia to become the primary demand sector for hydrogen, with nearly a third of total demand.

However, given ammonia is so energy intensive to produce, there is debate among energy policy experts over whether it should be used in energy applications at all. The primary focus for green ammonia should be on replacing the ammonia used today in fertiliser production – 99% of which is derived from fossil fuels.

“We should not be thinking about using ammonia as either a fuel or as a way to transport hydrogen for use as a fuel until we have made substantial progress replacing the [fossil] ammonia we need to keep people and their food animals fed,” says Paul Martin, a chemical engineer and process development expert with the Hydrogen Science Coalition, a group of independent academics, scientists and engineers that provides evidence-based viewpoints to the media and politicians on hydrogen policy development.

Focusing on fertiliser production, rather than hydrogen exports, has advantages. Fertiliser is easier to distribute than hydrogen (or ammonia), and is a valuable commodity in a country like Namibia where agriculture is the country’s largest employer, making up 20% of the workforce. While Namibia is currently dependent on fertiliser imports from South Africa, it could become a regional exporter.

It could also become a regional exporter of electricity.

Namibia currently imports around 60–70% of its electricity through the regional electricity network, the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP). Hyphen says its project, which would increase Namibia’s electricity production capacity by around 5,000MW, up from 680MW today, could improve the country’s energy access.

When fully optimised for hydrogen production, Hyphen’s project will generate 1.5–2 terawatt-hours of electricity per annum that is surplus to the project’s requirements, roughly equivalent to Namibia’s electricity purchases from the SAPP, according to Raffinetti. “The potential exists to incorporate into the design of the Hyphen project the supply of electricity, either on a self-dispatch basis or to meet a required dispatch profile, to assist Namibia in meeting its demand requirements,” he says.

As other hydrogen projects are developed, this excess electricity could also be made available to the SAPP, helping to decarbonise the region’s electricity supply, he adds.

As well as increasing the availability of power, Namibia hopes green hydrogen development will reduce its cost. Namibia pays between $0.09 and 0.12 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for imports through the SAPP, but these costs could drop to $0.02–0.03/KWh as it ramps up domestic hydrogen production, James Mnyupe, the government’s green hydrogen commissioner told the World Hydrogen Summit in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in May 2022.

Cheap, clean electricity could also incentivise energy-intensive industries looking to decarbonise into Namibia, such as zinc and aluminium smelting, he said.

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Empowering African countries like Namibia to participate in the entire value chain of the green hydrogen economy could be transformative for the continent, says Amos Wemanya, a senior adviser at Power Shift Africa, a climate and energy think tank based in Nairobi – but the priority first needs to be on meeting each country’s basic energy and development needs. While Hyphen’s project may have the potential to improve local access to energy, this needs to be cemented into its development plans.

“We need to set standards to hold the various participants in the green hydrogen economy accountable and that apply not only to the Namibian government but also investors, and investing countries, like Germany and the EU,” he says. Power Shift Africa put forward suggestions for these standards in a green hydrogen position paper published in January 2022 with civil society organisation Germanwatch. Chief among them is the guarantee that the water and energy used in projects are additional, and not drawing on existing local supplies.

The Hyphen project will use desalinated water for its plant, a process that Raffinetti says will only add a couple of cents per kilogram to the final delivery price of Namibia’s hydrogen.

The water requirement is “pretty small”, he says, with 1kg of hydrogen only requiring around 9kg of water.

However, the issue with hydrogen production is not water use, it is energy use, says Martin. “Pure water electrolysis requires about 50–65kWh of electricity per kilogram of hydrogen produced," he explains. "Producing enough freshwater by desalination of seawater to make 1kg of hydrogen takes about 0.035kWh by reverse osmosis.”

The electricity that goes into the production of just 1kg of electrolytic hydrogen could instead make around 14,000 litres of pure water for Namibians to use, he says.

A big opportunity – a big risk

The green hydrogen industry is in its infancy, and it is difficult to predict how the market will develop in the long term. Depending on global climate ambitions, sector-specific activities, energy efficiency measures, direct electrification and the use of carbon capture technologies, hydrogen demand by 2050 could vary from 150 to 500 million metric tonnes per year, according to a report by the World Energy Council and PwC.

Hydrogen is an expensive bet for Namibia. Hyphen estimates its project will cost around $10bn (N$159.9bn) roughly the equivalent of Namibia’s annual GDP. The Namibian government could take up to a 24% stake in this, raising up to $500m for its own equity, Mnyupe told Bloomberg at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in May 2022.

The Hyphen project has already attracted the interest of some lenders, particularly development finance institutions. “There is strong appetite to see projects of this nature succeed on the African continent, and in Namibia specifically,” says Raffinetti.

However, there are questions over whether this is a misuse of climate finance, which should be focused on local development, rather than export projects. “This is about trade and investment deals for European green targets, a complete distortion of what clean development is supposed to look like,” says Pascoe Sabido, a researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, a non-profit.

If the European market does not develop at the speed and scale the industry hopes, Namibia will be left “with a very large debt that its own population will have to pay”, says Sabido. “European companies subsidised by the EU are going to do very well out of this, but I don't think Namibians are,” he says.

Ultimately, too little is understood about all the complexities of the green hydrogen import industry, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research concluded in a 2020 report: “The challenges and tasks to be solved in the future are therefore partially underestimated,“ they warned.

Green hydrogen development could present a great opportunity for Namibia and a catalyst for renewable energy investment, says Kerstin Opfer, a policy adviser at Germanwatch. “But only if it is done right,” she adds. “The first priority needs to be ending energy poverty and creating access; the second, accelerating renewable energy deployment; and the third, maximising energy efficiency. Only then, perhaps, green hydrogen can also come into play.”