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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.

“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.”

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

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.”

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This has great potential to lead us away from creating an EV infrastructure in Ontario, along with the rest of the world, and down a path to creating a similar transportation fuel infrastructure based on hydrogen, possibly alone in the world. Why? Is it simply that the previous Ontario government backed clean electricity and therefor the current one must find something else, or are they really that far sighted?

The report doesn't raise my confidence: in the introductory material, on pager 6, it suggests fuelling a hydrogen vehicle will be (much like filling up your car with gasoline" which is misleading: hydrogen gas has too low energy density to be used for transportation, so the gas will need to be liquefied and handled as a low temperature, high pressure liquid, more akin to propane or LPG than gasoline.

Why chase hydrogen as a future fuel when there are enough challenges, and opportunities in electricity, for Ontario? That is the question the rport needs to tackle, and it fails.

I guess it's official. Hydrogen is the next fallback of the fossil fuel industry, after climate denial, delay, "natural gas is a transition fuel" etc. Suddenly all the right wing ex-climate-denier politicians are singing from the hydrogen songbook.
It's basically the new "clean coal"; they want to use fossil fuels, instead of renewable electricity, to make the hydrogen, and they'll pretend they'd capture the carbon from that and pretend they can stop the methane leaks from the (fracked) natural gas. And they'll pretend it's economically viable.

I don't even know if they're serious or if it's basically another delay tactic like the one where they say "Instead of renewables we should use a next generation of nuclear plants that haven't been designed yet and, when they are, will take ten years to build, hit stiff public opposition, and be too expensive to be viable". The point being not to actually build the stupid nuclear plants but to do nothing while you're supposedly waiting for them to be ready. Similarly with the hydrogen, I don' t know if they seriously think they can take this anywhere or if they just want to create enough uncertainty about which infrastructure should be built, to slow down the buildout of the electricity-based infrastructure. And to give right wing governments another thing they say they'll do so they take less flack for not doing anything that actually needs doing.

You're on the money, Rufus.

"Hydrogen is the energy of the future, and it always will be." Engineers have been chuckling over that for many decades. Hydrogen does have a few great advantages, but it also has permanent problems with bulky storage, high pressures, and bad leakage. To overcome those, many fuel cells run by just stripping the hydrogen from methane - the carbon tames the hydrogen for handling by attracting it into a molecule. We can now produce fully synthetic, carbon-neutral gasoline for about $1.50 per litre using just wind and air. Once again, Ford has chosen the expensive, risky, way to generate business from a crisis instead of fixing it.