Mohamed Sharki

Green hydrogen seems to tick all the 21st century’s boxes. It may mean that North Africa will continue to power Europe for another century. For a century, Europe has imported its energy from North Africa. Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and Sudan have significant oil and gas reserves and are important fossil fuel exporters. A new form of energy is currently taking off, which seems to tick all the 21st century’s boxes. It may mean North Africa will continue to power Europe for another century or so, with no need to burn carbons.

That ‘new and improved’ energy is green hydrogen, and its potential is as vast as the Sahara, with hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of annual exports being predicted. Carbon-free green hydrogen is a lightweight, highly reactive fuel that can be extracted through the electrochemical process that separates hydrogen from oxygen using water. Crucially, it is not something for the future. It is here now.

From cars to ships

By the end of this year, for instance, BMW plans to launch its BMW iX 5 H model that will run on green hydrogen, not the hybrid or fully-electric engines used in many of its cars today. Hydrogen has obvious advantages to car makers, not least that it will allow a car to travel double the range without recharging.

Consumers conscious of the environmental impact are driving (pun intended) demand. Companies such as America’s Tesla and China’s BYD are listening and following up. Cars, buses, and trucks could all be part of the energy overhaul.

Yet this goes beyond the tarmac.

Germany recently decided to replace the engines of 1,700 commercial ships and convert them to green hydrogen as part of its plan to combat climate change and transition its energy infrastructure. Green hydrogen increasingly constitutes an economic and technological priority for both countries and companies seeking to enhance their competitiveness. For countries, they can do this by capitalising on their geographical advantages.

What nature endowed

The ‘green’ of ‘green hydrogen’ can be produced by solar power, which North Africa has in abundance, and since North Africa is a mere sea away from European consumers, it is perfectly placed in all senses of the word. According to a report from Deloitte, an international consultancy, the global renewable energy market is currently worth around $1.4tn annually, but this will grow.

Crucially, in its report from July 2023, Deloitte said “between 15% and 30% of future energy needs is likely to be satisfied by hydrogen”. It added that North Africa “has the potential to export $110bn worth of green hydrogen to nearby European Union countries annually”. The key producers could include Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria.

European Union countries have already relied heavily on their peers across the Mediterranean to help fill some of the energy gap created when pipelines shut down following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A report on the Hydrogen Insight website points to Morocco being “one of Europe’s potential hydrogen suppliers, benefiting from solar and wind energy as well as geographical proximity”.

Lining up pipelines

The European plan involves pipelines stemming from the coast between Rabat and Cairo to transport hydrogen across the Med, given that this is easier and cheaper than shipping it via tankers. It also proposes extending a hydrogen pipeline (along with the construction of a gas pipeline) between Nigeria and Morocco. This would then stretch the line 5,600km along Africa’s long Atlantic coast.

The demand is certainly there. European markets previously imported 155 million cubic metres of Russian gas before the war. Indeed, European countries are already having conversations, trying to negotiate deals.

Green hydrogen seems to tick all the 21st century’s boxes. It may mean that North Africa will continue to power Europe for another century.

Spanish and Moroccan officials discussed hydrogen projects on 2 February, when Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez visited Rabat to meet King Mohammed VI. Madrid aims to serve as a link between the Mediterranean shores in the field of renewable energy transportation and become a supplier of hydrogen from Morocco to Europe via an underwater pipeline.

A costly business

Morocco is expected to export around four terawatts (about 4 million tons) of hydrogen to the European market annually towards the end of this decade. But building the production facilities is not cheap, so companies are stepping in. Emirati company TAQA is investing $10bn in green hydrogen projects in Morocco that will produce 6 gigawatts of thermal electricity.

French company HDF and Moroccan Falcon Capital are developing joint projects to produce 8 gigawatts of hydrogen. Meanwhile, French oil giant Total Energies plans to invest $10bn in a green hydrogen and ammonia production project in Guelmim-Oued Noun, located in southern Morocco. At almost two billion square metres, the site is vast.

Since new technologies are always expensive when they first roll out, luxury car groups are leading the green hydrogen projects, with cars in the $80,000+ price range, including HUVs or urban sports vehicles. These represent a promising market for Morocco. King Mohammed VI has already said he wants green hydrogen to drive economic development and attract foreign investment, with Morocco becoming a leading global producer.

The fuel could eventually play a similar role and have a similar impact to that of gasoline, which powered cars for decades.

The transition begins

Morocco has all the conditions to become a global source of green hydrogen production, says Adel Gaoui of the Hydrogen and Sustainable Development Association. “With experience accumulated since 2009, Morocco can produce 40% of its electricity needs from renewable energy sources, as it has the largest solar power station in Ouarzazate and aspires to produce 52% of its electricity before 2030.”

Plans to transition to green hydrogen in electricity generation will begin in earnest with a trial in the southern city of Laayoune, with green hydrogen being used to operate the existing power plant. This project is being carried out by the National Office of Electricity and Drinking Water and renewable energy companies Nareva and GE Vernova.

The trial will then expand to larger cities, moving from coal-fired power stations to green hydrogen. In the long run, it will save Morocco around $16bn annually for the fossil fuels needed to power its stations. It will also cut emissions and lead to a cleaner environment.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Rome, Morocco is one of the countries most affected by climate change and water scarcity in recent years. Experts hope that improved environmental conditions may lead to the return of the heavy rains, which in turn will help boost the country’s agricultural production.

Green energy will save Morocco around $16bn annually for the fossil fuels needed to power its stations. It will also cut emissions and lead to a cleaner environment.

Eyeing big exports

Morocco aims to export $280bn worth of green hydrogen over the next quarter of a century or by 2050. The European Union would be the main or sole market. Rabat recently announced its ‘Moroccan Offer’ for hydrogen, aimed at attracting international investment intentions, particularly in renewable energy and green hydrogen projects, worth tens of billions of dollars.

It has already established something of a regional lead since Morocco will soon host the first green hydrogen factory of its kind in Africa in partnership with Germany. European and German companies will “work alongside local companies in Morocco,” said German minister Jochen Flasbarth.

“The operation of the first large-scale reference station for green hydrogen in Africa and is scheduled to begin in 2026.”

Catalyst for change

There is a “new Moroccan agenda in the field of renewable energy to market green hydrogen to Europe, which involves tripling investments to achieve energy transition goals by 2030,” said Moroccan energy minister Leila Benali, speaking to DW. Morocco aims to export $280bn worth of green hydrogen by 2050. The EU would be the main or sole market.

The European Union has pledged to finance large-scale clean energy projects in Morocco at a rate of 1bn euros annually, including solar, wind, and green hydrogen. Europeans believe that their energy future was—and will remain—in the southern countries despite all the shifts that have taken place over the past century.

Wars in Ukraine and Gaza have had a negative impact on some government sustainable development programmes, which has led to some delays in investment in several projects by up to two years. Yet war has also underscored the importance of energy sourced from producers with whom Europe is likely to have stable, friendly relations for years to come.


Mohamed Sharki – Moroccan writer and journalist specializing in economic affairs and sustainable development in North Africa – Rabat


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