Development of energy storage systems through batteries, hydrogen, others ‘ll enhance availability of renewable energy  —Air Products MD Rob Richardson

Rob Richardson is the Managing Director of Air Products South Africa (Pty) Ltd. He has managed a diverse business portfolio including air separation plant operations, Hydrogen separation systems and Carbon Dioxide production facilities, etc. In this position he held the overall operational responsibility for Air Products’ extensive network of gas production plants and distribution pipelines. Richardson has over 30 years of process industry experience, including 10 years spent in the petrochemical industry, and an excess of 20 years in the industrial gases industry. Richardson attended the just-concluded Smarter Mobility Africa Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa where he shares his views with Oke Peter on the future of growth of energy value chain and alternative, among others.

You became the Managing Director of Air Products South Africa (Pty) Ltd in 2016. How has it been running the affairs of this company?

It’s been a privilege to lead this company since 2016. Air Products has an excellent business model, an enviable technology base through our United States shareholder, and a strong management team. Barring the COVID 19 period in 2020, we have seen relatively consistent growth, which is a testament to the quality of the management team and the organisation.

You have managed a diverse business portfolio including air separation plant operations, Hydrogen separation systems, and Carbon Dioxide production facilities, among others. What was your experience and how has it contributed to the growth of the energy value chain?

Our main production processes are energy intensive and we are a significant user of electricity – to power our Air Separation Units. Our hydrogen business has historically been focused on industrial and metallurgical applications rather than energy applications, but the future of Hydrogen for mobility applications and the energy sector looks bright, and we plan to invest and grow in this market.

Air Products has a network of gas production plants and distribution pipelines. How are you managing these facilities considering the high rate of vandalism and insecurity?

This is a challenge, but fortunately, our pipelines run mainly underground, and they are therefore not always an obvious target for vandalism.  Nevertheless, we have a team of people who are dedicated to patrolling, securing and maintaining our pipeline network.

Can you please tell us how the energy events and conferences have fared after the COVID-19 pandemic?

After COVID-19, we saw a massive spike in the number of Webinars and online events but the appetite for these events seems to have waned and we see that the number of regular events has recovered almost to pre-Covid levels.

Who are your competitors in the industry and how do you cope with competition?

In South Africa we compete with two large multinational industrial gas companies as well as several local players, so the competition is fierce and customers are price sensitive. It ultimately comes down to being able to provide one’s customers with security of supply, responsive service, and a full range of gases and delivery modes.

What do you think can be done to make the World energy-sufficient?

Renewable energy through solar and wind generation will only get us part of the way there. The development of mass energy storage systems, either through batteries, hydrogen, or other alternatives will be needed to make renewable energy available around the clock. I also think Nuclear energy will need to be part of the future energy mix – to provide clean base load energy.

Your company plays a major role in petrochemical and industrial gas production. How do you get funds for your projects considering the current economic realities?

Despite the current low economic growth environment, we have not experienced difficulties in obtaining funding or finance for our projects. There seems to be a great willingness on the part of commercial lenders to finance energy projects in Africa as long as they have credible developers.

Can you mention some of your company’s successful projects?

In recent times the capital projects pipeline has been relatively lean, but we have significantly expanded our CO2 production capability to support growth in the food and beverage sector. We also look to the future and significant potential for private sector investment in energy projects. As a high energy user, we aim to develop a number of renewable energy projects which will decarbonize our supply chain and secure our energy price path. We recently announced a 75MW solar power project which will be a joint investment between Air Products and Mulilo, who are an established independent power producer.

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