Let there be light!
Let there be light!
A matter of the heart for Solomon Agbo: building a sustainable hydrogen industry in Africa
Electricity was not part of his everyday life during his childhood in Nigeria: today at Jülich, 46-year-old Solomon Agbo coordinates the H2 Atlas Africa, which aims to bring more light to his continent – and with it, new opportunities.
No electricity, no light: “I grew up in an area where there was seldom electricity,” says Dr. Solomon Agbo. Instead, flickering paraffin lamps and candlelight lit up the dark evenings and nights for his family in their native Nigerian village.
Picture above: A matter of the heart for Solomon Agbo: building a sustainable hydrogen industry in Africa
Yet there is plenty of sunshine in the region, which would allow for energy to be generated: the African continent has the most solar resources in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), however, despite great progress in recent years, around 580 million people in Africa – out of a population of around 1.3 billion – still have no electricity.
As a teenager, Agbo was already racking his brain as to why his country was unable to collect the sun’s energy. After all, he is convinced, “Electricity means education, development and opportunities.” From then on, the idea of ‘more light’ determined his professional career: in 2007, after studying physics, Agbo joined Delft University of Technology as a doctoral researcher. His focus: the development of solar cells and solar cell materials. In 2015, he joined a photovoltaics research group at the Jülich Institute of Energy and Climate Research as a Humboldt Fellow.
However, the Nigerian did not find it sufficient to generate knowledge in the lab – his childhood memories of the acrid and heavy petroleum air, of doing homework in the dark, were rooted too deeply. Agbo wanted to pass his know-how on to society. So in 2018, he changed to science and project management at Forschungszentrum Jülich’s Corporate Development. His dearest project: to build a sustainable hydrogen industry in Africa in order to finally bring more light to his continent – and with it more opportunities. The name: H2 Atlas Africa.
The project led by Jülich marks the start of a cooperation between the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and 31 African countries in the sub-Saharan region. The ultimate goal: to find the best locations for green hydrogen infrastructure in the southern and western parts of Africa.0
in Africa still have no electricity
Hydrogen plays a central role in energy transition in Germany, for example as an energy carrier for fuel cells, as an energy storage medium and as a basic material for industry. This is the intention of the Federal Government’s National Hydrogen Strategy. However, Germany will not be able to produce enough hydrogen on its own. Jülich researchers from the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-3) have calculated a demand of around 414.4 terawatt hours for the year 2045, almost half of which will have to be imported. The German government is seeking cooperation with countries where green hydrogen can be produced. Potential candidates are windy or sunny regions such as the south and west of Africa. Identifying the potential of these regions with the help of the H2 Atlas Africa is one of 38 measures of the National Hydrogen Strategy.
“We need such a project for several reasons,” Agbo explains. There is climate change, which affects Germany just as much as Africa. “We can only stop it with the aid of renewable energies,” explains the physicist. After all, there is much more sunshine in Africa than there is in Germany. West and Southern Africa could produce enough renewable energy – and from it, in turn, green hydrogen – to supply their own countries as well as Germany. To date, the atlas already provides an interactive map showing the best production hotspots in West Africa. The ongoing project will continue to supplement it. “Once we have gathered all the information, we will know exactly in which places, in which regions, we will be able to produce green hydrogen in what quantities and, above all, at what costs,” Agbo describes. This is crucial information for German and African companies, but also for governments. Solomon Agbo holds a key position. As project coordinator, he is the German-African intermediary. He talks to the people on site while also knowing the mentalities of scientists and German authorities. The people from the African countries involved trust their compatriot: “They talk to me very openly. This is important because we have to take into account the interests of each individual country,” Agbo explains. For example, both water and land are needed for the solar plants and wind turbines to produce green hydrogen. Yet, it would not be acceptable if, as a result of their hydrogen production, Africans could no longer plant vegetables or have groundwater for irrigation or drinking. “We take these needs into account to ensure sustainable development,” Agbo emphasizes. For example, the decision was made to use mainly desalinated seawater for hydrogen production.
Before Africa becomes a hydrogen exporter, however, the countries involved are first to be sustainably electrified on a permanent basis. According to Agbo, that takes time: “People first have to be familiarized with the technology and trained accordingly.” One of the biggest challenges is to convince the various governments to invest in the green hydrogen infrastructure. “Many still rely on coal or gas,” Agbo explains. A lot of educational work is necessary,
but Agbo is looking ahead. The BMBF wants to launch the first pilot projects as early as 2022. These are intended to improve the situation in the various countries and show how an economically viable green hydrogen supply chain can be realized. The physicist is convinced: “In the long run, this cooperation is a sustainable win-win situation for Africa and Germany.”
of green hydrogen could be produced in Africa per year at the maximum, according to the H2 Atlas Africa. This is about 1,500 times as much as Germany’s hydrogen demand that the National Hydrogen Strategy assumes for 2030.
Fit for green hydrogen
Forschungszentrum Jülich is not only helping to explore the potential of green hydrogen from Africa, it also supports the training of African students in this future-oriented field – specifically in the International Master Program in Energy and Green Hydrogen (IMP-EGH). In the two-year degree programme – which started in October 2021 in Niamey, Niger, with 60 participants from 15 West African countries – future leaders learn to analyze energy infrastructures and develop sustainable solutions for future energy supply with a focus on green hydrogen. Forschungszentrum Jülich and RWTH Aachen University support the teaching and supervision of students via online tools and on-site visits. In addition, the students will spend a semester in Germany to gain practical experience and write their theses.
The degree programme, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, is offered by the West African Science Service Centre on Climate Change and Adapted Land Use (WASCAL), in which Forschungszentrum Jülich is also involved, and four African universities: Université Felix Houphouet Boigny (Côte d’Ivoire), Université de Lomé (Togo), Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar (Senegal) and Université Abdou Moumouni de Niamey (Niger).
Programmes of the four West African universities:
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