I recently attracted a storm of criticism on my professional network when I suggested Alberta should be throwing money at hydrogen. Attacks were launched against blue hydrogen, produced from natural gas using carbon capture, because people think it’s just an excuse to keep producing natural gas. Others lobbed grenades that vilified the media hype around hydrogen. Some said it was a stupid idea and we should just continue burning natural gas. Others sneered that investment in hydrogen infrastructure is far better spent on renewable energy and electrical grid upgrades. I was also called a simpleton because hydrogen causes metal fatigue and will require costly replacement of existing gas pipelines. My skin thickened by the minute.

In spite of these forceful objections, multiple industries have been quietly getting on with the job of creating a hydrogen economy. This year, LMG Marin AS put the world’s first hydrogen-powered ship into operation. Ballard Power Systems helped develop the world’s first hydrogen-powered train, now operating in China. Volvo is testing its hydrogen-powered transport trucks, which have a range of up to 1,000 kilometres and can be fuelled up in 15 minutes. Rolls-Royce has begun redesigning the turbines for its jet engines to run on hydrogen. These companies are building the products that will create future demand for hydrogen.

In Alberta, there are people who love oil and gas. Don’t discuss the virtues of the energy transition with them unless you want to be dressed down for talking nonsense. And yet, ATCO Ltd. recently announced a hydrogen-blending pilot in Fort Saskatchewan where over 2,000 homes will receive natural gas blended with up to 20 per cent hydrogen. This is ATCO’s first step in demonstrating hydrogen as a viable source of energy for home heating and cooking. The blended gas works the same as natural gas. It’s just as efficient and burns slightly hotter with a lighter blue flame.

ATCO’s Lance Radke, vice-president of customer experience and initiatives, recently explained to me how an electrolyzer will be installed at a gateway location in Fort Saskatchewan to produce hydrogen. Natural gas is transported over a “backbone” pipeline network to multiple gateways in a municipality, where it is converted to low-pressure gas and delivered to homes in the community. The electrolyzer uses electricity to separate the hydrogen and oxygen molecules from water, thereby producing the hydrogen gas that is blended with natural gas at the gateway location.

Radke foresees a future where hydrogen is cheaper than electricity and that homes and businesses will be equipped with appliances that run on 100 per cent hydrogen. But changes in government policy are needed to get there. A rising carbon tax narrows the energy cost gap and creates an incentive to invest in hydrogen infrastructure, but ATCO would like to see a policy encouraging that investment now when there are additional costs that companies must absorb to start transitioning to hydrogen.

In order to get to 100 per cent hydrogen distribution, there are other issues beyond the regulatory challenges. Hydrogen can cause a phenomenon known as stress corrosion cracking. This is a major concern for high-pressure steel pipeline infrastructure used in the backbone network. After a gateway, polyethylene pipe is used to deliver low-pressure gas (less than 100 PSI) to end-users. These low-pressure pipes can already handle 100 per cent hydrogen.

Alberta has high-pressure hydrogen pipelines in use, so the technology and know-how already exist. But for the high-pressure natural gas network to support 100 per cent hydrogen, a lot of pipe will have to be replaced. However, it might make more sense to produce hydrogen locally rather than transporting it across the province and that would significantly reduce the amount of new pipeline required.

A recent report from ENTSOG, GIE, and Hydrogen Europe stated that, “For the same investment, a hydrogen pipe can transport 10 to 20 times more energy than an electricity cable.” Radke agreed that “generally speaking, gaseous energy transfer is far more efficient and cost-effective than electrical wire. On a peak day in Alberta, we move eight times the amount of energy through natural gas than we do in electricity. On an annual basis, it’s five times.”

ATCO also has an electrical transmission and distribution network, so it doesn’t favour one type of energy transmission over another. Radke believes that within municipalities, the existing pipeline can efficiently transport hydrogen energy, so there’s an opportunity to offload the demand on the electrical grid and avoid the need for costly upgrades. Radke adds, “We’re going to need every available transport mechanism operating in unison.”

Opinion: Alberta is well-placed to become one of the first locales in North America to transition to a hydrogen economy, writes Rob Miller @winexus. #ClimateAction #climate

Transitioning homes in Alberta to hydrogen furnaces is a daunting task, but there are companies working on it. Calgary’s Gradient Thermal is developing a 100 per cent hydrogen combined furnace and water heater system. Radke noted that ATCO is planning to install a gradient system in Fort Saskatchewan by early 2023 and it will be North America’s first building using 100 per cent hydrogen for space and water heating. He’s also had discussions with developers about building a 100 per cent hydrogen community, but there are no immediate plans in the works.

Alberta is well-placed to become one of the first locales in North America to transition to a hydrogen economy. There is an existing industry that is already producing, transporting and using hydrogen. There is hydrogen-ready municipal pipeline infrastructure and a large natural gas industry with technical knowledge that is adaptable to producing, transporting and storing hydrogen. Alberta also has a large amount of carbon sequestration capacity due to geological formations, including depleted wells and salt caverns.

Whether you believe hydrogen is a valid zero-emissions solution, it undeniably has the potential to contribute to the energy transition for high-heat applications like green steel production. Hydrogen can also provide zero-emissions transport solutions where super large batteries are impractical. One day, hydrogen may even compete head-to-head with electric heat pumps in the building heating market.

The green shoots of the hydrogen economy are emerging around the world. Time will tell if Alberta, and the rest of Canada, can adapt to the opportunities that present themselves.

Editor's note: This op-ed has been updated to clarify that up to 20 per cent of homes in Fort Saskatchewan pilot project will receive natural gas blended with hydrogen, and the company ATCO will install an electrolyzer at a gateway location in Fort Saskatchewan to produce hydrogen.

Rob Miller is a retired systems engineer, formerly with General Dynamics Canada, who now volunteers with the Calgary Climate Hub and writes on behalf of Eco-Elders for Climate Action. As a climate activist, he works to stop old-growth logging in B.C., to reject coal mining on Alberta’s eastern slopes, to facilitate community involvement in urban afforestation, and to advocate for renewable energy. Miller uses a “systems-thinking” approach to learn, understand, and defend the ecosystems that are under threat by climate change and unrestrained resource development. He lives in Calgary.

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Interesting but flawed article, in that it does not mention the main problem with widespread hydrogen use: the low "roundtrip efficiency" of generating hydrogen, storing and transporting it, and then reconverting to useful work. For green hydrogen made from electricity, this can be 30%, whereas batteries can be 90%. So storing electricity in batteries is much more efficient than storing it as hydrogen. As mentioned in the article, there may be niche markets for H2 (steel production, perhaps aviation), particularly when the source is not green, but the case for broader use seems weak.

See, for example, https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news...

Alice Friedemann put the problem of hydrogen very succinctly when she said of its energy costs "Look, if you don't understand this, send me $10 and I'll send you back $1". The hype may be real, but hydrogen can't effectively replace our energy demands. Can it contribute to a greener economy? Maybe, but the only real solution is degrowth.

"In spite of these forceful objections, multiple industries have been quietly getting on with the job of creating a hydrogen economy."
Well, they shouldn't be.

This article certainly has chutzpah if nothing else. The structure seems to be to first, list all the objections to hydrogen (except the fundamental one two commenters mentioned). Second, completely ignore them, saying basically "Well too bad, because it's happening anyway". The author mentions getting a thicker skin from all the opposition, but does not mention evaluating it in any way.

The implicit justification here is that if something is happening in the real world, it must be justified--like, by The Market or something. I really don't think this position is going to see a lot of popularity in the era of climate change--the WHOLE POINT of doing something about climate change is that markets are killing us so we have to make something different happen that won't kill us. At a bare minimum we have to manipulate markets massively; we may find we have to get rid of the dang things. But accepting what is just because it is, is not a position that resonates much these days.

In addition to the flaws in the opnion piece pointed out in other comments, there also is no discussion of the source of the electricity required to produce the hydrogen. If it's a fossil fuel (gas or oil), then the emissions savings become marginal. (Geoffrey Pounder, where are you to back me up?)