To talk to Bertrand Masselot, president and CEO of Air Liquide Canada, is to enter a passionate discussion about hydrogen, the most abundant molecule on the planet.
“Hydrogen is not new,” he says in a thick, Parisian-sounding accent. “There’s a growing need for this molecule.”
Masselot’s company is a Quebec-based subsidiary of Air Liquide, which describes itself as a world leader in gas, technologies and services for the industry and health sectors.
The Air Liquide Canada CEO is part of an emerging debate about the role the molecule can play in the battle against climate change, in Canada’s case, becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
Countries such as Japan, Germany and South Korea have adopted bold hydrogen policies. The European Commission recently announced its strategy.
Jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom and Canada have yet to follow suit, perceived inaction that frustrates environmentalists, academics and business leaders who say achieving net zero is virtually impossible without hydrogen.
“The question is not whether it works,” says Masselot, whose company has more than 2,500 employees across Canada. “The question today is the scale up. The speed.”
Because it has released a document considered to be a blueprint for a hydrogen strategy, expectations are high for Natural Resources Canada’s eventual plan.
“We are working with the industry to have more up-to-date information for inclusion in Canada’s hydrogen strategy expected in fall 2020,” said a department spokesperson in an emailed response to Canada’s National Observer.
Advocates pushing Canada to dramatically increase its hydrogen production are expecting a solid plan from the federal government that will result in more public and private investment.
“The government strategy is essential,” says Mark Kirby, president and CEO of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, minutes after taking part in a Natural Resources Canada consultation session, one of many the department is conducting in the lead-up to the unveiling of its strategy.
While Kirby says the department’s “general approach makes sense,” he’s still waiting for a signal that the government is ready to back it with a “significant financial commitment” large enough to stimulate investment from his association’s members, which include companies such as Air Liquide Canada, Enbridge, Toyota, Ballard Power Systems and Hydrogenics.
Though the association has yet to officially put a dollar figure on the amount of federal investment it believes is needed to kick-start private investment, Kirby told the National Observer that he’d like to see the feds commit $3 billion, a proportional amount he says countries including Germany and economic regions such as the European Commission have already announced.
The government’s direction on this file is key to attracting the kind of cash needed to produce enough hydrogen to power vehicles, commercial fleets, large industrial sectors such as steel and cement, heat buildings and store surplus power from renewable energy produced by solar and wind.
Quite a tall order for such a tiny molecule, especially in the midst of a pandemic and record levels of government debt. Still, Kirby and Masselot have lots of company in their push for faster government action.
Pembina Institute has entered the discussion.
Indeed, the hydrogen push has produced interesting bedfellows: business leaders, environmentalists, federal and provincial bureaucrats and academics.
Much of the discussion revolves around the colours associated with each method of hydrogen production.
The meaning of colours
To initiate a broader hydrogen discussion, Pembina recently produced a tip sheet or “primer,” explaining the significance of colours.
Typically, hydrogen does not exist on its own. Instead, it latches on to oxygen and carbon in compounds such as water (H2O), carbohydrates (sugar, wood, biomass) and hydrocarbons (oil, natural gas, biogas). It takes lots of energy to separate the hydrogen, which is stored until needed.
Pure hydrogen can be burned to produce heat in a furnace or engine, just like oil or natural gas. The hydrogen can also be channelled into a fuel cell to produce electricity. In both instances, water is the only byproduct.
Colours are assigned to each method of hydrogen production: green is cleanest; blue is fairly clean; grey is dirty; black or brown are the dirtiest.
Indeed, in the hydrogen discussion colours are loaded with meaning.
It takes electricity to separate hydrogen from water by splitting the water molecule. If clean electricity is used, the hydrogen is considered green hydrogen.
If it uses electricity from clean sources — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear — this method of production is considered to be the gold standard because it produces zero GHG emissions. The hydrogen can also be stored.
Separating hydrogen from biomass, biogas, oil or natural gas also hives off the carbon, typically as CO2.
The carbon is captured and stored. Blue is the colour assigned to this process. Experts estimate that this process captures up to 90 per cent of the carbon, leading Pembina to conclude that “(blue hydrogen) has low to moderate carbon intensity.”
However, if the CO2 is emitted from fossil fuel hydrogen, it is called grey hydrogen. Because it’s a cheap way to produce hydrogen, this method is the world’s most common, and increasingly unacceptable because of its greenhouse gas emissions (CO2).
While it is also part of the colour-coded conversation, brown or black hydrogen, produced by burning coal, are excluded from Pembina’s primer.
So, proponents are left with two viable colours: green and blue.
“We are less bothered about the colour of hydrogen than the climate benefit,” says Pembina’s Simon Dyer.
Struggling to find a strategy
There’s plenty of agreement over the potential for hydrogen and the role it can play in helping countries such as Canada drastically reduce their emissions. Indeed, conceptualizing hydrogen as a clean energy source seems easy enough.
Natural Resources Canada acknowledges hydrogen’s potential in its Pathways to Hydrogen report, as well as its Clean Fuel Standard discussion paper. The federal task force responsible for devising ways of fostering clean-tech investment recently acknowledged the role of hydrogen in its preliminary report.
However, Natural Resources Canada must still address crucial issues such as distribution — and cost.
Other than the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association’s Mark Kirby, few advocates seem willing to articulate a precise price tag. There’s no doubt we are talking about tens of billions, a significant increase from the relatively small sums being spent, according to the association’s most recent and admittedly outdated estimates.
“There’s no free lunch here,” says David Tulk, a Calgary-based energy consultant studying ways to make a business case for hydrogen. “You’ve got to put a lot of energy into making hydrogen.
Though green hydrogen is the gold standard, it is also the most expensive because it depends on electricity, which means from a grid, or sources such as wind, solar power or nuclear.
Even though the cost of producing power from wind and solar is decreasing, and jurisdictions such as Quebec have an abundance of hydro, green hydrogen may be more aspirational than realistic, at least within the next several years.
That means blue hydrogen is a logical first step.
“Hydrogen is almost entirely supplied from natural gas and coal today,” concludes The Future of Hydrogen, a report by the International Energy Agency.
“Hydrogen is already with us at industrial scale all around the world, but its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. Harnessing this existing scale on the way to a clean energy future requires… (the) capture of CO2 from hydrogen production from fossil fuels…”
The technology of “capturing” carbon and burying it is already well-established, says Chris Gent, policy manager at the London-based Carbon Capture and Storage Association, in an interview with Canada’s National Observer.
Though support from the U.K. government has wavered over the last several years, he says hydrogen is now seen as a “necessity,” a view echoed by the European Commission in its recent hydrogen strategy.
Gent says while the industry is waiting for the U.K. government to announce a hydrogen strategy, it has already identified five so-called “industrial clusters”, incubators for projects that can produce blue or green hydrogen.
“Whatever colour of hydrogen you’re looking at, the U.K. is well-positioned.”
While the U.K. characterizes these hubs of hydrogen activity as clusters, Dan Wicklum calls similar areas in Canada “nodes.”
The key to success, he argues, is identifying Canadian regions, or nodes, where the hydrogen production can thrive. So far, his group has identified five areas in Alberta: Edmonton, three counties to the north of the provincial capital city, and Fort Saskatchewan, collectively known as the “Edmonton Heartland Region.”
They are regions where municipal politicians and industry work together to develop a hydrogen strategy that could include business endeavours such as converting buses from diesel to hydrogen.
Mark Kirby of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association says Vancouver (dockyards) and Saint John and Halifax could also be examples of these nodes.
A key part of the strategy is also finding customers for this cleaner source of energy, but not before devising ways to transport, store, export and burn at the source. In short, building infrastructure almost entirely from scratch. Hence, the need for cash -- and lots of it.
Mapping hydrogen fueling station locations
Below, you'll find the Electric Charging and Alternative Fuelling Station Locator map maintained by Natural Resources Canada and the U.S. Department of Energy. The map provides electric and hydrogen vehicle owners with up-to-date information about alternative fueling station locations in Canada and the United States.
The map is filtered for the 11 hydrogen stations that are already in operation (publicly available or privately available for a dedicated fleet), or have yet to open. "The information found on the map is updated on a regular basis," explained a natural resources spokesperson in an email to Canada's National Observer.
To obtain locations of the charging stations for vehicles powered by other sources such as electricity, click the "Public Stations' tab, and then select one the dots on the map for further details. You can then also select the "Advanced Filters" tab to drill down even further. If you want to return the map to the 11 hydrogen-filling stations, simply place your cursor outside map, right-click and refresh the entire page.
After spending a bit of time with this map, what becomes evident is that hydrogen is barely in the game compared to the other sources of power, prompting Wicklum to conclude that the hydrogen distribution-fuelling system does not exist, at least not yet.
Show me the money
Although enthusiasm for hydrogen is abundant in Canada, investment is still scarce. Too few businesses are willing to spend the money, especially in the absence of the kind of strategy adopted by the European Commission, which envisions hydrogen being used to power vessels such as ships and heat buildings.
Investing in hydrogen production is expensive. How much seems to be anyone’s guess.
“People balk at big, public infrastructure spending, but my gosh, take a look at the history of this country,” says Wicklum.
“Pipelines and rural roads and highways. There’s always big public investment. That is something that other countries are doing and Canada needs to do as well.”
Energy consultant David Tulk is still trying to do the math, in part by studying what jurisdictions beyond Canada are doing.
He says in Europe, they’ve been able to put 10 to 15 per cent of hydrogen into their gas stream. So, this may be an easy way to reconfigure the fuel stream flowing through Canadian pipelines.
“If 10 per cent of (Canada’s) natural gas is hydrogen, that would produce fewer emissions… because you’re burning less carbon. But (at) what… cost? This is the calculation we’re doing.”
Air Liquide’s Bertrand Masselot says the key will be identifying industrial sectors where large-scale hydrogen use makes sense: commuter bus fleets, taxis, to name a few.
“Then you can use these refuelling stations. And the manufacturing side as well. Not only for the fleet, but in a second step for other types of use. Your car. My car. Or other types of applications. And that’s what I mean by focusing on an application where you can really scale up.”
The discussion always returns to money.
“We will need incentives. Tax breaks. Credits,” says Masselot.
“We are entering a phase where we need to gain speed… in the projects we are currently offering. Something we could do if all the stakeholders are aligned. Government, industrial players and users.”
The speed with which hydrogen moves from concept to reality remains an open question in Canada. Other countries are further along. Because the battle against climate change is global, foreign jurisdictions provide a blueprint for what can be done, even when also dealing with COVID-19-induced debt.
The ultimate direction Canada takes could become clearer as early as this fall. Until then, the colour-coded hydrogen discussion continues to gather momentum and intensity.