South Africa is facing an ongoing energy crisis, and with no end in sight, it is time to consider expanding the country’s current alternative energy sources.
The University of Pretoria is dedicated to researching and understanding how to address complex societal issues such as this – and has identified energy as one of its core institutional research focuses.
The university’s Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering – part of the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology – is focusing on optimising and developing new approaches to South Africa’s energy and power systems.
In particular, the department is concentrating on building capacity to support the development of South Africa’s hydrogen potential and creating a local hydrogen economy for energy security and sustainability.
Energy sources and hydrogen
While fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas have long proven their effectiveness in producing heat and providing power for domestic and industrial use, they are becoming harder to extract in a cost-effective manner.
Their effect on the environment and human health in terms of their carbon emissions is becoming an increasing source of concern globally, too.
This has led to a drive to find alternative sources of energy, beginning with the Paris Agreement, which was signed by 196 parties at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2015.
The Paris Agreement seeks to limit the global increase in temperature to less than 2 degrees by the end of the century, and achieving this depends on our ability to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Hydrogen in South Africa
South Africa’s renewable energy sector has made huge strides through the introduction of solar, wind, and hydropower over recent years.
However, there are many arguments in favour of adding hydrogen to this list of alternatives by establishing South Africa’s hydrogen economy.
One of the key advantages of using hydrogen is that it is exceptionally energy dense per unit of weight compared to other fuels, making it easier to store and transport.
This is important because most of the challenges facing the large-scale adoption of renewable energy relate to the efficient storage and transportation of clean energy.
Hydrogen can be produced cost-effectively to support decarbonisation through direct combustion, chemical reaction in fuel cells, or industrial feedstock.
It presents enormous opportunities for South Africa as an alternative fuel source because it is produced in a sustainable manner with zero carbon emissions.
It is mainly produced through the electrolysis of water and, since South Africa is a water-scarce country, desalinated water is often used locally.
An additional contribution to the economy is the beneficiation of the country’s platinum group metals (PGMs) that are used in the manufacturing of the hydrogen fuel cells.
University of Pretoria energy research
The South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) has identified the University of Pretoria as a leader in energy efficiency research and the integration of renewable energy into the national energy grid.
Therefore, in partnership with Bambili Energy (one of the country’s leading manufacturers of hydrogen fuel cells and their subcomponents), the University of Pretoria’s Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering is building capacity to safely install, operate, maintain, and refuel the hydrogen fuel cell systems on which the creation of a hydrogen economy depends.
To this end, it launched training launched at the end of 2020 that is aimed at developing competent, capable, and work-ready technicians for the deployment, installation and maintenance of hydrogen fuel cell systems.
Graduates of this training have gone on to complete internships at Bambili Energy, and they are currently employed in the organisation’s maintenance team.
According to Professor Raj Naidoo, Head of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, training like this will contribute to positioning South Africa favourably in the emerging global hydrogen economy.
This is aligned with the University’s commitment to ensure a safer, more sustainable way of life for the next generation, and forms part of the South African cabinet’s long-term national strategy to participate in international hydrogen and fuel cell technology platforms.