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Japanese trading house Itochu Corp., leading a group, is close to finalising a deal to purchase green ammonia from Hive Hydrogen South Africa, a $5.9 billion project poised to position the country as a global leader in fuel production.

Hive Hydrogen may start producing green ammonia, which could be utilized as a fuel for heavy industry and power plants and is also used in fertilizer and cleaning products, from the new facility in South Africa’s southern port of Coega in 2029.

While the signing of the pact with the Itochu and other trading houses focused on Japan and South Korea is “not there yet,” the parties know what “the offtake agreement will look like,” Hive Hydrogen Chief Executive Officer Colin Loubser said in an interview. He declined to identify the other participants in the group, citing confidentiality.

Securing an offtake agreement—a few of which have been signed in the nascent green-hydrogen industry—iimproves the viability of projects and makes them more attractive to financiers and investors. 

A spokesperson from Itochu said that discussions over an offtake agreement are still ongoing.

Such an agreement would boost the prospects of the mega project and would put it ahead of a host of other plans to produce green fuel in southern Africa, utilizing the region’s abundant renewable power resources and adding impetus to the plans of Namibia and South Africa’s governments to develop the industry.

In neighboring Namibia, Enertrag SE is backing the €10 billion ($10.8 billion) Hyphen project. Compagnie Maritime Belge SA has built a small hydrogen plant there and plans a $3.5 billion ammonia facility.

Hive Hydrogen, which is 75% owned by the UK’s Hive Energy Ltd., plans to sell the fuel it produces to East Asia, with initial output currently scheduled for the second quarter of 2029. 

Green hydrogen, which burns without producing climate-warming greenhouse gases, is produced by splitting water using renewable energy. It can then be converted into ammonia, which is easier to transport, has a higher energy density than hydrogen, and doesn’t require cooling to extreme temperatures.

The fuel is seen as a potential way of decarbonizing ship transport and heavy industry, and it could also be used to fire power plants. While it’s currently more expensive to make than other fuels like diesel and so-called blue hydrogen that’s made using natural gas, costs may fall as technology improves and regulators impose penalties on the use of fossil fuels.

South Africa has ambitious plans to develop ammonia plants, hydrogen ports and pipelines, and steel facilities fired with hydrogen or ammonia. A portion of a $9.3 billion climate finance pact with some of the world’s richest nations, known as the Just Energy Transition Partnership, is being directed to help develop the industry. 

Hive Hydrogen, which is 25% owned by South Africa’s Built Africa Group, wants to eventually own about 10% of the project, Loubser said. 

Itochu, which last year signed a memorandum of understanding on developing the plant, could take a 25% stake together with its partners, Loubser said. Other potential investors include two oil majors and a large fund, he added. 

There are plans to allocate a $420 million stake to communities near the plant, with $160 million of that financing already secured, he said. 

Upon completion, the first phase of Hive Hydrogen is set to produce approximately 900,000 tons of green ammonia annually, requiring the installation of 3.5 gigawatts of renewable power capacity.

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