News that a big hydrogen project could be built in Newfoundland to supply clean fuel to Germany and other parts of Europe cut off from Russian gas has added newfound urgency to the nascent technology Canada is counting on to reduce carbon emissions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will sign a green-energy purchase deal next week in Stephenville, NL, where a proposed plant will use as many as 164 wind turbines to produce hydrogen and ammonia for export.
Ottawa is betting heavily on hydrogen to power much of this country’s — and the world’s — transition away from fossil fuels, whether via hydrogen fuel-cell trucking, hydrogen-powered industry or hydrogen electricity generation.
Canada is among the top 10 producers of hydrogen in the world today, and world demand is projected to increase 10 times over by 2050. Projections show hydrogen providing 24 per cent of the world’s energy demands — and 30 per cent of Canada’s — by that time .
Canada has the water and cheap renewable electricity to be a world leader in hydrogen production, but the technologies that use hydrogen are still largely on the drawing board.
“Hydrogen is a zero-emitting energy source that represents both an important economic opportunity for Canada and an important tool to cut emissions across the Canadian economy. Canada has got a head start on the growing global market,” said federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.
Here’s what’s at stake:
Why are people excited about hydrogen as an alternative fuel?
Hydrogen is a potent fuel that can run heavy machinery and energy-intensive industries, some of the hardest parts of the economy to decarbonize.
Unlike fossil fuels, it produces no greenhouse gas emissions when burned. With modifications, hydrogen can use existing natural-gas infrastructure, including pipelines, holding tanks, liquefaction plants and ships.
The technical limitations to using natural-gas infrastructure, however, will curtail the world’s ability to fuel switch rapidly. Eventually, hydrogen will need its own pipelines, tanks, ships and terminals.
Gray, blue and green hydrogen
Not all hydrogen is created equal. The majority of current hydrogen is called “grey” because it uses methane (natural gas) to react with water in a production process called “steam reforming.” While inexpensive, this process produces emissions from the combustion and leakage of methane and and is only cleaner than making hydrogen from coal (“black” and “brown” hydrogen).
“Blue” hydrogen is gray hydrogen whose emissions are captured and stored permanently, mostly underground. This production technique holds promise for the Canadian oil patch, which can use hydrogen made from natural gas to lower its carbon footprint. But environment groups say blue hydrogen isn’t as clean as advertised.
“Even at its best, blue hydrogen doesn’t capture all the emissions and there’s no guarantee that it will stay captured forever,” said Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.
One academic study found that emissions from the production of blue hydrogen are only nine to 12 per cent lower than those from gray hydrogen.
“They looked at the worst-case scenario,” said Jan Gorski, an oil and gas analyst at the Pembina Institute. “Blue hydrogen can be emissions intensive if it’s done poorly. But it has the potential to be low carbon if done well.”
Green hydrogen — the kind that will be made at the proposed plant in Newfoundland — uses renewable energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen via a process called electrolysis. It produces no greenhouse gas emissions and currently makes up less than 0.1 per cent of world hydrogen production, mostly because of its higher cost … but as the price of renewables have come down, so has the price of green hydrogen.
Because it takes 10 liters of water to make a kilogram of hydrogen, Canada’s vast freshwater reserves and mostly clean electricity grid mean there’s great opportunity in the adoption of hydrogen as the clean fuel of the future.
“It makes a lot of sense,” said Mark Zacharias, executive direction of Clean Energy Canada. “Lots of countries have renewable energy. Water is Canada’s advantage.”
The East Coast’s proximity to Europe and the West Coast’s straight shot to Asia means there’s potential to develop hydrogen production on both coasts, he said.
Still a technology of the future
Unlike low-carbon technologies available now like electric cars and heat pumps, many of the end-uses of hydrogen are still on the drawing board.
The federal government’s hydrogen strategy, put out in 2020, highlights the roles that hydrogen can play in energy-intensive industries that are hard to decarbonize, like steel and cement production. Other uses include using hydrogen as a fuel for long-haul trucking, converting natural-gas electricity generation plants to burn hydrogen and blending hydrogen with natural gas for residential heating.
Apart from a small number of city buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells (approximately 2,000 worldwide), none of these applications are actually in widespread use today.
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