One village in South Africa has become the first in the world to be fully powered by fuel cell technology after years of struggles with unreliable energy supplies.
The pioneering project, sponsored by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats) and Canadian-listed Ballard Power Systems, will see 34 homes in the village of Naledi connected to a minigrid powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
The trial, expected to last for 12 months, will assess the viability of the technology for use in other locations across Africa where millions of people still live without electricity.
The pilot system can generate 15 kW and a maximum of 60 kW when extra batteries kick in.
"What we have here is a world first," said Chris Griffith, chief executive of Amplats.
"Fuel cell mini-grid technology is a cost-competitive alternative to grid electrification in these remote areas and could accelerate access to electricity."
Amplats and Ballard will cover the pilot scheme costs but hope to make the fuel cell system profitable by tapping into an estimated 600,000 South African households in areas beyond the reach of the grid and millions more throughout the continent.
Fuel cells, relying on a chemical reaction involving hydrogen, methanol and platinum, offer a cleaner alternative to lead-acid batteries. They are already used in industrial machinery and domestic refrigerators.
The proponents of the technology believe deployment of fuel cell-powered minigrids in South Africa could give a much needed boost to the country’s platinum sector.
If the fuel cell system is widely adopted, about 7,500 ounces of platinum will be used in production over the next 15 years, Amplats and the government said.