Building the hydrogen economy through niche experimentation and digitalisation

David Walwyn (Department of Engineering and Technology Management, University of Pretoria – Groenkloof Campus, Pretoria, South Africa)
Andreas Bertoldi (Rebel Group, Johannesburg, South Africa)
Christian Gable (Rebel Group, Johannesburg, South Africa)

Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management

ISSN: 1741-038X

Publication date: 2 November 2018



Hydrogen fuel cells could play an important role in meeting the challenges of the Two Degrees Scenario. The purpose of this paper is to review the development of this technology in South Africa with the aim of understanding how the country can transform its existing socio-technical systems and act to support a hydrogen-based technological innovation system (TIS).


A mixed methods approach has been followed in this study. Secondary data analysis was used initially to build a profile of South Africa’s present energy system, followed by a stakeholder survey of the emerging hydrogen economy. Respondents were selected based on a convenience/snowball sampling approach and were interviewed using a semi-structured questionnaire, covering opportunities for South Africa in the global hydrogen economy; sources of competitive advantage; the present phase of development; the maturity of each function and the main weaknesses within the TIS; and finally the appropriate policy instrument to remedy the weakness and/or maximise opportunities for local companies.


The research has shown that the hydrogen economy is still at a pre-competitive level and requires ongoing government support to ensure an energy transition is realised. In particular, it is important that niche experimentation, a proven strategy in respect of successful sustainability transitions, is further pursued. Importantly, the net cost of hydrogen-based transportation, which is still several times larger than the cost of transport based on the internal combustion engine (ICE), must be reduced, especially in the key applications of public transport and underground vehicles. Furthermore, the development of digital technologies to manage supply fluctuations in energy grids must be accelerated.


The South Africa economy will be severely affected by the replacement of the ICEs with battery electric vehicles due to the country’s reliance on ICEs for platinum demand. Fuel cells represent a new market for platinum but the hydrogen TIS is still at a vulnerable point in its development; without policy support, it will not contribute to a successful socio-technical transformation, nor provide an alternative outlet for platinum.



Walwyn, D., Bertoldi, A. and Gable, C. (2018), "Building the hydrogen economy through niche experimentation and digitalisation", Journal of Manufacturing Technology Management, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print.

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