energy globalisation technology

What can hydrogen do for developing countries?

So far in my series on hydrogen, I have looked at how it can be produced and how it can be used. Inevitably that brings technology to the fore, with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, electrolysers and the like. A lot of the news on that front comes from richer countries with money for cutting edge technologies. But the ‘hydrogen revolution’, as Marco Alvera calls it, will affect developing countries too – with some interesting new opportunities.

In the past, a country could become a big player in the global energy market by discovering oil or gas. When new reserves are found, they are licenced for exploitation. The big energy corporations pile in, and the energy exports follow in due course. Hydrogen is quite different. It’s manufactured, rather than found. It’s a much more open field. As demand for hydrogen grows rapidly in places like Japan, South Korea and Europe, other countries can specialise in hydrogen production. And there are some notable new entries already.

Take Mauritania – a country that is 90% covered by the Sahara desert. They are in the early stages of two major projects that will use solar power in uninhabited areas of the country to make green hydrogen. One of the projects plans to supplement solar with what would be Africa’s first offshore wind farm. The hydrogen would then be shipped north to Europe. Mauritania would become a major energy exporter, and via the medium of hydrogen, it would basically be exporting the Sahara sun.

Namibia has similar plans. They have signed a bilateral deal with Germany to produce what could be the world’s cheapest hydrogen. Again, the key resource is renewable energy capacity. Countries with abundant sun and wind, and with routes to market, are poised to capitalise on the rising demand for hydrogen. This could create some globally significant new energy exporters.

Of course, the Middle East also has lots of sunshine. They also have expertise in pipelines and infrastructure, abundant capital to invest, and existing customers to serve. Qatar, for example, already ships liquidified gas to the UK. Why not hydrogen instead? Saudi Arabia already has the world’s largest green hydrogen project on the drawing board, and others in the region are testing the waters.

Hydrogen may not rewrite the energy map completely then, but it may diversify the number of countries exporting energy.

For African nations, this is a real opportunity, and hopefully one that will prove less damaging than previous resource booms. Extractive industries and oil companies have in many cases plundered Africa, leaving behind deforestation and pollution. Hydrogen, made with renewable energy, should in theory be an altogether less destructive business.

Not that it is benign. The old colonial patterns remain, with production too often geared towards export. It would be a tragedy if millions of solar panels were installed in low income countries, where many people still lack electricity, only for the power to be exported to energy-rich white folks in Europe. There is the risk of land-grabs for renewable energy, the possibility that growth won’t bring jobs at any kind of scale, and that wealth will be captured by elites.

But none of that is inevitable. Done transparently, with democratic accountability and deliberate efforts to maximise returns to local communities, hydrogen could lift people out of poverty and become a new source of income for African countries. That would be a hydrogen revolution to celebrate.


  1. As you raise in your last two paragraphs, this should be good news and a positive development, but could, of course, go horribly wrong.
    Visions of rainforest being felled to make way for solar panels or of mangrove swamps being destroyed by wave or tidal generators remind me that it’s not just the technology that needs to change – it’s the whole economic system.

    1. Absolutely, there is the potential for this to play out like so many other destructive and unequal industries before it. But I think the big investors will be looking for the cheapest possible places to put solar panels, and those are going to be where land is already clear, and where land is dirt cheap because it has little value for anything else – like the Mauritanian desert.

      That’s why I’m hopeful that it will be kinder than the fossil fuels industry. Nobody is going to get displaced from an uninhabited region, no trees will be cut down in the Sahara.

      Failing to share the wealth or improve energy access remain very real risks though.

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