European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was in Mauritania on Thursday for a green hydrogen roundtable, where she called upon the government to produce and export both renewable H2 and green steel — made using the hydrogen — to Europe.

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The EU wants to import ten million tonnes of green H2 from outside the bloc by 2030, and the North African country is in prime position to be a key supplier due to its proximity to Europe, vast swathes of undeveloped land, and strong winds and sunshine to generate low-cost renewable energy.

But von der Leyen may have surprised observers by suggesting that, rather exporting all of its green hydrogen to Europe, where it could be used by European steelmakers to produce green iron and steel, it should use some of the renewable H2 directly to produce its own green iron and steel for export.

On a visit to the presidential palace in the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott, she told President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani: “As you have said, Mauritania is blessed with resources, that is space, sun and wind. With the right investment and infrastructure, this country can harness over 350GW of renewable energy only from wind and sun. But that is not all.

“Mauritania is also Africa's second largest iron producer. The majority of your iron is exported as raw ore. But if we have clean energy coming into the game, the processing into green steel could stay here in Mauritania. And that is a huge step because this is the added value. This is where the jobs are. This is where the prosperity is.

“In fact, you could export iron and premium green steel. The technology works but, as I said, the production of green steel needs an essential input and that is green hydrogen. And that is why hydrogen is so important for Mauritania but also for Europe, so we share the interests. It would be a source of revenue domestically and an export product, for example to the European Union.”

Von der Leyen also suggested to the president and six of his ministers that EU money from its €300bn ($323bn) Global Gateway fund might also be made available to support such investments, including the construction of a new high-voltage power transmission line, and “new road infrastructure” between the capital city and the port of Nouadhibou.

She added that “demand for Mauritania’s green hydrogen and potentially green steel will set to grow exponentially in the European single market” and that the EU could help build the required infrastructure and train the local workforce.

“It is a win-win-win situation,” she concluded. “And we should join forces because the project is fascinating.”

President Ghazouani told von der Leyen: “It is well established that our country has abundant renewable energy resources, wind and solar energy, which are almost unique in their quality and integrity, as well as large reserves of iron and magnetite that are easy to enrich and particularly approved for the production of green steel.

“This enormous potential should serve as the basis for strong, dynamic and mutually beneficial energy co-operation between Mauritania and the European Union.”

The gathering came days after the publication of a joint report by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), which concluded: “The exclusive focus on GH2 [green hydrogen] as a developing-country export has raised concerns about the fair distribution of GH2’s benefits, sparking increasing resistance within local communities in these countries.”

However, the then Mauritanian energy minister Abdessalam Mohamed Saleh said last March: “Our country is determined to play a leading position on the global map of the green hydrogen economy in the coming decades. We strongly believe that the development of the green hydrogen industry in Mauritania will bring environmental, economic and social benefits to our country and the world.”

Mauritania only had 122MW of renewable energy installed at the 2022, according to Irena figures, but there are several 10GW-plus green hydrogen projects planned in the country that would require vast amounts of new wind and solar power.

These include Danish developer GreenGo Energy's 35GW moon-shaped Megaton Moon project; CWP Global’s 16-20GW Aman project (which will require 30GW of renewables); and two 10GW facilities — Project Nour, being developed by TotalEnergies and Chariot Energy, and the other by UAE-based renewables developer Masdar, which is set to cost $34bn.

Iron is usually extracted from its iron-oxide ore by burning coking coal, which both melts the metal content in the rock and removes the oxygen (which combines with the carbon to produce CO2). The only currently available method to decarbonise this process is to replace the coke by burning green hydrogen, which reacts with the oxygen to form steam (H2O).

This article was updated to include comments from the Mauritanian president.