Green Hydrogen from the Sahara - A bridge between Europe and North Africa?

Green Hydrogen from the Sahara – A bridge between Europe and North Africa?

More than 120 years ago, in his book “The Mysterious Island”, Jules Verne’s novel character Cyrus Smith prophesied that “water will be the coal of the future”. Maybe he was right. The European Green Deal, which was presented by the European Commission in late 2019, is without a doubt a task of the century. There is no other way to put it. Across all areas of society and economy, the EU aims to become the global pioneer in climate protection and defines achieving net-zero global warming emissions by 2050 as its overarching objective.

It is no surprise that the European Commission is counting heavily on hydrogen to achieve its ambitious climate goals. For a long time, many studies and experts have highlighted the benefits that a hydrogen-based economy would offer with regards to an integrated energy system and the volatility of renewable energies. Hydrogen can be produced with relative ease from water using the PEM electrolysis process and stored in tanks similar to the ones used for natural gas. If renewable energy is used for this process, the end product is referred to as ‘green hydrogen’, since no emissions are emitted during the production. Hydrogen can act as an energy source, but also a storage medium – a clean all-rounder so to speak.

However, it is already certain that Europe must and will import hydrogen in the future due to its limited size and high population density. The nearest conceivable location for the large-scale production of green hydrogen and its export to Europe is the Sahara – especially the Algerian and Moroccan parts. The planet’s largest desert offers vast opportunities. Only 8 per cent of the Sahara’s surface covered with solar panels would be enough to satisfy the world’s energy demand.

Desertec’s Revival

Although the idea of generating electricity on a massive scale in the Sahara by means of solar panels was first conceived around ten years ago, the project called “Desertec” failed twice, inter alia because of the problem of transportation and cost-inefficiency. However, a readjusted concept – using the energy obtained to generate hydrogen – is currently helping the project to achieve a revival as Desertec 3.0. One of the biggest differences to the first two versions of this ambitious project: since 2015, solar energy has become fully competitive without subsidies – the price currently stands at 1,7 ct/kWh and is soon approaching the one-cent mark. Furthermore, the existing infrastructure that is currently in use for fossil natural gas could be used for the exportation. Already today, 13 per cent of the natural gas and 10 per cent of the oil consumed in Europe comes from North Africa, and 60 per cent of North Africa’s oil exports and 80 per cent of its gas exports are sent to Europe.

If North Africa and Europe are able to develop a joint hydrogen strategy, both regions will potentially benefit. Hydrogen imported from North Africa could enable Europe to realise its goal of becoming climate-neutral by 2050 faster and cheaper. Moreover, a joint European-North African hydrogen economy could create economic development, future-oriented employment opportunities and social stability in North-African countries, which in return could potentially reduce the number of economic migrants from the region to Europe.

It seems like a perfect solution for both sides. It is therefore not astonishing that many European national governments are already pursuing projects and initiatives in line with this concept. EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who is responsible for the implementation of the Green Deal, has also already spoken out in favour of a hydrogen-partnership with North African countries. However, as it is well known that there are no perfect solutions, it must be seen whether the vision of cheap green hydrogen from North Africa becomes a reality and whether Cyrus Smith was indeed right with his prophecy.

First published in Diplomatisches Magazin 04/2020

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.

Eimen Hamedat

Eimen Hamedat has studied Social Sciences with a focus on Political Sciences at the RTWH Aachen University and RMIT University in Melbourne. He has interned with the European Parliament in Brussels and the German Parliament in Berlin. Currently, he is pursuing a MBA degree.