Golden-red sand as far as the eye can see. From above, it resembles waves on the ocean, all a single surface, but no two waves are the same. We barely feel the wind up here, but we see it – how it whips up the dunes and tinges the blue sky beige on the horizon—an endless expanse of dry nothingness, this Namibian desert in southwestern Africa. However, the enthusiastic and eloquent James Mnyupe doesn’t see it that way. He is so convincing that the Namibian president, Hage Geingob, hired him as his energy advisor.
Mnyupe sees a vision in the coastal strip along the Atlantic coast. He sees a way to propel Namibia’s economy and innovation forward by leaps and bounds, symbolised by a water molecule. In this country that fought for its independence in 1990 and is democratically governed, the sun shines more than 300 days a year. Solar plants in Namibia produce three times as much electricity as, for example, in Germany. Along the coast, the wind blows so strongly that the wind power plants in the North Sea look outdated in comparison.
For a long time, Namibia neglected to recognise its own opportunities and instead relied on importing 60 percent of its electricity, primarily from South Africa. The president and the government have now developed a national hydrogen strategy with the potential to make Namibia Africa’s first 100 percent climate-neutral country.
They are not alone in this endeavour. Leading this major project, alongside James Mnyupe, is Rainer Baake, director of the German foundation Stiftung Klimaneutralität and currently the German special advisor in the collaboration project with Namibia. Baake, normally a low-key man in a grey suit, now stands in the wind wearing a cap and t-shirt, gesturing side by side with James. He explains:
«This is something that will benefit both Germany and Namibia. Germany has committed to becoming climate-neutral by 2045. This is a tough goal. Our project here involves an important element in the industry, ammonia. Germany is the largest producer and consumer of ammonia in Europe. Eleven percent of the industry’s natural gas consumption in recent years was used for ammonia production, resulting in approximately 6 million tons of CO2 being emitted into the air annually.»
Norwegian hydrogen production
This is where it gets particularly interesting. Ammonia can also be produced without greenhouse gas emissions with wind and solar energy. This renewable energy splits water into hydrogen and oxygen in electrolysis plants. Nitrogen, extracted from the atmosphere, is then added to the hydrogen, and through a chemical process, ammonia is produced – completely without natural gas imports and greenhouse gas emissions. Baake elaborates on the advantages of collaborating with Namibia for Germany: «Theoretically, we could also produce green, climate-neutral ammonia. But it would be too expensive, and our chemical industry would not produce competitive goods. Importing hydrogen from non-European countries with wind and solar power works with competitive prices only through pipelines. Europe doesn’t have many neighbouring countries suitable for pipeline connections. And those who could supply them are almost all ruled by autocrats we don’t want to depend on.»
As we painfully know, dependence on Russian gas, Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine, and provoked supply crises have put energy at the centre of European politics, with many painful compromises. Germany has manoeuvred itself into a situation where the country has financed two armies: its own through taxpayers – and Putin’s through payments for gas and oil.
The country, of course, has more than just Namibia in its sights. Norway is a major gas supplier to Germany, but conflicting interests and the risk of stranded investments also arise here. Norway is working on its own path towards emission-free energy systems. Hydropower provides clean electricity, while the country also has large quantities of highly profitable fossil energy sources. Who can really criticise Norway for making good money from the gas trade («money has no smell») when it also helps alleviate the energy crisis caused by Vladimir Putin? But the ambivalence – and the fate of the future in the sign of climate neutrality – remains.
Where does Norway stand in the race for major contracts and the cleanest energy sources? Norway’s hydrogen strategy bears the colour blue, not green, indefinitely. The government states, «we are working to develop further our role as an energy nation, including decarbonising gas through hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage.» Germany and Norway are key trading partners for each other. Thus, it is tempting to overlook some equally important aspects: urgency – both in terms of energy security and climate neutrality. Investments of industrial significance, which extend far into the future and are not based on 100 percent CO2-free production, risk being stranded. An intermediate solution involving hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage is a step in the right direction but not a permanent solution with climate neutrality as the goal. Fossil energy will continue to be used in Norway indefinitely, and carbon storage needs to be «scaled up», to use the words of Climate and Environment Minister Espen Barth Eide. Another small hitch can be found in carbon capture itself. According to experts from SINTEF, it will indeed «come close to the 100 percent target.» However, some emissions remain in the atmosphere to varying degrees. Therefore, this solution may face difficulties entering into long-term contracts with Germany, where the expectations for climate neutrality by 2045 are taken seriously.
New large port facility
Returning to James Mnyupe’s symbol-laden hydrogen molecule, what does his grand vision look like in practice? The duo Mnyupe/Baake has positioned themselves near the three existing wind turbines, out by the sea near the small town of Lüderitz. They passionately explain that it involves a collaboration between the German company ENERTRAG and the South African company Nicholas Holding. The alliance is called Hyphen and was announced during the climate conference in Glasgow (COP26). Hyphen plans to establish a wind and solar facility with a 6-7 GW capacity right here in Lüderitz. First, seawater will be desalinated with «green» electricity, and hydrogen will be produced through electrolysis. In the next step, atmospheric nitrogen will be used to produce ammonia. Unlike hydrogen, ammonia can be easily transported by ships. Therefore, a new large port facility is now being planned. In the first phase, the project has a capacity that would cover 50 percent of Germany’s ammonia needs.
On the one hand, the endeavour poses a massive challenge for Namibia. For instance, new laws must be developed for new business ventures. On the other hand, investments of around 10 billion euros offer tremendous opportunities. Investment security is a key issue, and Germany provides financing guarantees. During the construction phase, 15,000 new jobs will be created, followed by 3,000 jobs in the future. The local workforce will fill at least 90 percent of these jobs. This requires a large-scale focus on education and training. Lüderitz will grow to twice its size with new housing, schools, and businesses. Over an area of 4,000 square kilometres, 700 wind turbines will be installed (currently, there are only three), and solar panels and electrolysis plants will also be added.
In March 2022, the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate, Robert Habeck, and the Namibian Minister of Mines and Energy, Tom Alweendo, signed a collaboration agreement in the field of hydrogen production. Germany gains access to cost-effective ammonia, reduces its natural gas imports – including from Norway – and avoids greenhouse gas issues. Namibia makes a significant economic leap forward, develops a forward-looking industry, and reduces its severe unemployment problem. It’s a win-win situation.
Furthermore, the two government officials emphasise that this collaboration brings two additional benefits. There will be a significant surplus of electricity through industrial hydrogen production in Namibia using wind and solar energy. The country will transition from being an importer of electricity from South African coal-fired power plants to an exporter of renewable energy.
Germany gains access to cost-effective ammonia, reduces its natural gas imports – including from Norway – and avoids greenhouse gas issues.
The world’s oldest desert
So much to gain. So much to achieve. The half-hour helicopter ride back to Windhoek over an endless poetic watercolour is just long enough to envision all the changes that will occur down there, on the ground, in the air, and at sea. And it only occupies a small corner of Namib, the world’s oldest desert.
Ranveig Eckhoff (photo – Namibia)