The Ontario government announced plans to develop a hydrogen economy Thursday, touting the fuel as a way to kick-start the province’s economic recovery from COVID-19 while lowering emissions.
The province is aiming to roll out its full hydrogen strategy in 2021, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said. For now, the province has published a discussion paper to outline its ideas, opening it up for public feedback over the next two months.
“Our government sees tremendous potential in this innovative energy source,” Yurek said Thursday, speaking to a virtual conference hosted by the Hydrogen Business Council of Canada.
“Our government envisions a hydrogen economy that can create more local jobs and attract investment, while also helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions using low-carbon hydrogen, especially in the transportation sector.”
The Progressive Conservative government’s decision to pursue clean energy comes at a time when jurisdictions around the world are outlining green stimulus packages as a way to help economies recover from the hit caused by COVID-19. The idea may be seen as a surprising change in direction for Premier Doug Ford, who has pledged to “tear up every wind turbine in this province,” cancelled over 700 renewable energy contracts days after taking office in 2018 and used economic recovery legislation over the summer to water down environmental rules.
“Ontario has and will continue to support other energy sectors and sources that can help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” said Environment Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler in an email, pointing to a 2019 proposal to increase the biofuel content in gasoline and an October investment in electric vehicle manufacturing.
“We see further opportunity in the clean technology and hydrogen sectors, which we believe could be an important source of economic growth and job creation in our province, and country, over the long term.”
A growing number of jurisdictions are pursuing hydrogen, a colourless, odourless gas, as a low-carbon energy source. When it’s used, it doesn’t emit carbon or greenhouse gases — its only byproducts are heat and water.
The fuel could be used for vehicles like trucks and ships, but also for industrial applications. It could also be blended into natural gas to help heat and power homes, the province said in a press release.
“This moment in time presents us with opportunities to encourage emerging industries, including the clean technology sector, to help support a speedy economic recovery, while also helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Wheeler said.
The Ford government has cancelled green energy programs and tried to halt partially built wind farms. But now it’s announcing plans to reduce emissions through a new “hydrogen economy" as a way to boost the economy amid COVID-19. #onpoli
“Although some hydrogen uses may occur in the longer term, certain actions are needed now to scale up technologies and bring down costs to support the province’s hydrogen potential.”
Not all hydrogen, however, is created equal. It can be produced using green energy sources like wind, solar and hydro, but it can also be made using emissions-intensive natural gas. (Sometimes, those emissions can be reduced by carbon capture and storage, a technique that buries them underground.)
In its announcement, the province touted a pilot project by pipeline company Enbridge that would blend low-carbon hydrogen with natural gas to supply energy to 3,600 customers in Markham, Ont., a Toronto suburb.
Hydrogen is a “really promising technology,” said Sarah Buchanan, clean economy program manager at the green non-profit Environmental Defence. But the government could reduce emissions using cheaper and more established technologies like vehicle electrification, she said.
“My concern would be, the way it’s being pitched right now, it provides a way to preserve the existing oil and gas industry and infrastructure, and to preserve large amounts of oil and gas being in the supply mix and still calling it clean,” Buchanan said.
“It helps trick us into thinking we can consume endlessly and it’ll be OK.”
The province’s discussion paper does not include estimates of how much hydrogen could reduce emissions, or its cost-effectiveness compared to other clean technologies. Ontario’s environment plan included a pledge to reduce emissions to 30 per cent below what they were in 2005 by 2030, a target the province is in danger of missing, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said in a report released Wednesday.
When asked whether the province has plans to release such estimates, Wheeler said the government “uses modelling to estimate emissions in Ontario” and will “continue to evaluate opportunities hydrogen represents” as its strategy develops.
Buchanan said the province’s hydrogen vision could pan out if it looks at completely decarbonizing as a way to reduce emissions and combat the climate crisis. But that isn’t in the discussion paper, which calls for stakeholders to weigh in on how the government could support a hydrogen market.
“I think that’s a good idea. I think they should do that,” she said of the hydrogen plan.
“But I think there’s way bigger steps they need to take … We can’t get distracted by this shiny new thing and put all our eggs in this one basket.”