North Africa is the new frontier of green hydrogen – Hamza Hamouchene

North Africa is the new frontier of green hydrogen – Hamza Hamouchene
North Africa is the new frontier of green hydrogen – Hamza Hamouchene

There has long been talk of the potential of the North African Sahara Desert to generate huge amounts of renewable energy thanks to its arid climate and vast expanses of land. For years, Europeans in particular have viewed it as a possible source of solar energy that could have met a considerable chunk of Europe’s energy needs.

In 2009, a meeting of European companies and financial institutions had launched the Desertec project, an ambitious initiative to supply Europe with the energy obtained from wind farms in the Sahara, based on the idea that a tiny area of ​​desert could provide 15 percent the electricity Europe needs thanks to high voltage cables for direct power transmission.

Eventually the Desertec initiative ran aground due to criticism of its astronomical costs and its neocolonial connotations. After an attempt to bring it back to life as Desertec 2.0, with a greater focus on the local renewable energy market, the project was resumed as Desertec 3.0, with the aim of meeting Europe’s hydrogen needs, a “clean” energy alternative to fossil fuels.

Fears of looting
In early 2020, the Desertec industrial initiative (Dii) launched the Mena hydrogen alliance to help structure energy projects in the Middle East and North Africa producing hydrogen for export.

While in Europe projects of this type may seem like an excellent idea, capable of helping the continent to reach its greenhouse gas emission cut targets, seen from North Africa they appear in a completely different light. Fears are growing that these programs will not help the region at all in its ecological transition, but will result in the looting of local resources, the dispossession of communities, environmental damage and the strengthening of corrupt elites.

In a world looking for solutions to switch to renewable energy, hydrogen has been presented as a “clean” alternative to petroleum derivatives. Much of today’s hydrogen production comes from the extraction of fossil fuels, a process that causes substantial emissions of carbon dioxide (gray hydrogen). The cleanest form – “green” hydrogen – comes from water electrolysis, a process that can be powered by electricity from renewable energy sources.

In recent years, following strong pressure from various interest groups, the European Union has embraced the idea that its response to the climate crisis should revolve around the transition to hydrogen and in 2020 presented its strategy to that effect. sense in the context of the European green deal (Egd). The plan proposes the transition to “green” hydrogen by 2050 thanks to local production and the structuring of a stable supply from Africa.

The ideas that inspired this vision come from Hydrogen Europe, a trade and lobbying organization that launched the ‘2×40 GW Green Hydrogen Initiative’. According to this vision, by 2030 the EU will plant electrolysers capable of producing 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen internally and import another 40 gigawatts from electrolysers located in neighboring areas, including the desert ones of northern Africa, using the gas pipelines that already connect today. Algeria to Europe.

At the forefront of the EU’s hydrogen strategy is Germany, the country where the Desertec initiative was launched. His government has already contacted the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Morocco to develop “decarbonised fuel” generated from renewable energies for export to Europe and is exploring other areas or countries with similar potential, particularly suitable for the production of “green” hydrogen “. In 2020, the Moroccan government joined a partnership with Germany to develop the continent’s first green hydrogen plant.

Neocolonial logic
Initiatives like Desertec immediately jumped on the bandwagon of the hydrogen transition, which is likely to bring billions of euros in European funding. His manifesto reflects the narrative generally used to promote hydrogen and renewable energy projects. According to this narrative, similar projects would bring great benefits to local communities and could generate “economic development, future-oriented jobs and social stability in North African countries”.

At the same time, however, the extractive nature of this program is clarified: “To obtain a fully renewable energy system in Europe, North Africa needs to produce solar and wind electricity at competitive prices, then converted into hydrogen, to be exported to Europe through the gas pipeline. “. And his commitment to “Fortress Europe” is confirmed by the hypothesis that these projects could “reduce the number of migrants who move from this region to Europe for economic reasons”.

In other words, the vision behind Desertec and behind many other European “ecological” projects in North Africa pursues the maintenance of the relations based on exploitation and neocolonial logic that Europe has today with the region.

In the colonial period, the European powers founded an economic system to extract wealth, raw materials and (enslaved) labor from the African continent. Although the twentieth century brought independence for African colonies, this system was never really dismantled, only transformed, often with the contribution of authoritarian leaders and post-colonial local elites.

Now the fear that the ecological transition of the EU could continue to feed this predatory economic system to the advantage of large European companies and to the detriment of local communities in African countries with which the latter enter into collaboration agreements. The push for the development of new hydrogen supply chains proposed by projects such as Desertec does not do much to mitigate these fears.

To compare lo the status quo
The reason is that one of the main pressure groups behind the EU’s shift in favor of hydrogen represents fossil fuel companies, whose origins are closely linked to colonial exploitation by European powers. Two of Desertec’s partners, for example, are French energy giant Total and Dutch oil company Shell.

In Africa as elsewhere, fossil fuel companies continue to use the same predatory structures created during the colonial era to extract local resources and transfer wealth off the continent. They also go to great lengths to maintain the political status quo within the countries in which they operate, in order to continue to benefit from lucrative relationships with corrupt elites and authoritarian leaders. This essentially allows him to exploit local labor, cause environmental damage, carry out violence against local communities while remaining unpunished.

So it is not surprising that the fossil fuel industry and its lobby groups are pushing for hydrogen to be accepted as the “clean” fuel of the future to maintain their relevance and keep doing business. The industry wants to preserve pre-existing natural gas infrastructure and pipelines, as well as the predatory economic relationships behind it.

Given the industry’s long history of environmental damage and exploitation, it is also not surprising that the push towards hydrogen hides serious pollution risks. In the Desertec manifesto, for example, it is emphasized that “at an early stage (between 2030 and 2035) a considerable volume of hydrogen can be produced by converting natural gas into hydrogen, where carbon dioxide is stored in oil fields. or empty natural gas “. This, coupled with the use of scarce water resources to produce hydrogen, is yet another example of a waste spill in the global south and a shift in environmental costs from north to south.

Dependence on loans
The economic benefits for the local population are also to be evaluated. It would take a huge upfront investment to create the infrastructure needed for the production and transport of green hydrogen in Europe. Given previous experiences of such very expensive and capital-intensive projects, the investment ends up creating more debt for host countries, exacerbating dependence on multilateral loans and Western financial support.

The North African energy projects created with European support in the last decade already show how energy colonialism is reproducing even in the transition processes to renewable energy, taking the form of ecological colonialism or green grabbing (ecological hoarding).

In Tunisia, the TuNur solar energy project, supported by Desertec, has come under fire for its export-oriented plans. Given the country’s severe energy shortage and dependence on Algerian natural gas imports for electricity generation, it makes little sense to export electricity as the local population has to contend with frequent blackouts.

In Morocco, the opaque process of land acquisition and plans for the exploitation of water resources for the solar power plant in Ouarzazate, also supported by members of Dii, have raised doubts about the possible damage to local communities. The very high cost of the project, sustained thanks to loans from international financial institutions, has raised a lot of concern for the debt burden on the national budget.

In the midst of an increasingly severe climate crisis, North African countries cannot afford to continue getting involved in these kinds of predatory projects. They cannot continue to be exporters of cheap natural resources to Europe and the place where Europe transfers the socio-environmental costs of its ecological transition.

They need a just transition that involves a shift towards an ecologically sustainable and just economy. In this context, neocolonial relations and practices must be challenged and stopped.

As far as European countries and companies are concerned, they must abandon the imperialistic and racist logic inherent in the externalization of costs. Otherwise they will continue to fuel ecological colonialism and to plunder and exploit nature and manpower in the context of a seemingly ecological agenda, which will undermine collective efforts for an effective and just global response to climate change.

(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)

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