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.

Air Liquide Canada CEO Bertrand Masselot says the federal government must adopt a hydrogen strategy as soon as possible. Photo provided by Air Liquide Canada

“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.

“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.

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.

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.

“We are less bothered about the colour of hydrogen than the climate benefit,” says Pembina’s Simon Dyer. Photo provided by Pembina Institute

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.

“So, you really have to understand the source of energy that’s going to create this hydrogen molecule.”

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.

Chris Gent, policy manager at the London-based Carbon Capture and Storage Association, says the U.K. government has yet to announce its hydrogen strategy. Photo provided

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.”

For Dan Wicklum of the Alberta-based group called the Transition Accelerator, hydrogen's success depends on the development of clusters, or "nodes," of excellence. Photo provided

He’s the CEO of a non-profit private foundation called the Transition Accelerator, so named because its aim is to “accelerate” the speed of clean-tech growth.

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.

For instance, there are only a handful of hydrogen filling stations across the country and very few projects in development with the help of federal dollars.

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.

Loading alternative fueling station locator...

Source: Natural Resources Canada and the US Department of Energy

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.

"Hydrogen is the energy of the future, and it always will be." Engineers understand that the reason for this hoary lament is that while pure Hydrogen is a wonderful fuel, it is a real bear to contain and transport. To reduce its extreme pressure, leakage, and volume problems, CH4, (Methane) is probably the best solution, The carbon can be stripped off and recycled to use the Hydrogen in fuel cells, but even Methane is notoriously leaky and bulky.
Calling Hydrogen essential for a green economy is pure propaganda. Synthetic, carbon-neutral gasoline is a much better option. Nuclear never outgrew its need for heavy subsidies, and I don't expect Hydrogen to change its basic nature either.

"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."
More accurately, it can produce lower GHG emissions than other sources, but only if the methods for producing and transporting the 'clean electricity' themselves produce low emissions. We need to factor in the full life-cycle of all aspects of energy production, from extracting materials used to build the energy capture devices to end of life dismantling and recycling before evaluating how 'green' any technology is.

The elephant in the room is that all the "clean electricity" they use up, could go to powering households and businesses.
The other elephant, of course, is the self-contradictions the oil industry (in this case Cenovus) makes, and which somehow or other pass ppl by:

“The goals Cenovus have set are commendable, including a 30 per cent reduction in emissions intensity by 2030, holding current emissions flat through 2030 and an ambition of reaching net-zero emisisons by 2050. We’ve moved beyond the time of talking about oilsands’ emissions intensities to focusing on absolute emissions. Meeting Canada's 2030 and 2050 climate commitments will require credible plans for substantial decreases in the oil and gas sector’s overall emissions as quickly as possible."
Either they can't read, they can't do basic arithmetic, or they didn't get the memo.
30% reduction in emissions, that'd be great. 30% reduction in emissions intensity, without reducing emissions, is no reduction at all. It represents a 30% *increase* in the dirty fuel produced. And the downstream carbon? Well, that belongs to some other jurisdiction, right?
And the requirement isn't 30% below today, either: it's 30% below 1990, or at the very least, below 2005.
Time for the tar sands to go back where they came from ... Waa-aayyy back, to before they were the blight on the earth that they are now.

Hydrogen is a mostly useless technology. Sorry, but it is. For almost all applications, battery electric is better. I looked at the list: "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." And I said "battery, battery, electric, electric/heat pump, maybe some hydrogen application".

So OK, that last thing, storing surplus so you can burn it later, might help with the intermittent nature of renewables. And the nice thing about it is that it would be a centralized power-plant kind of thing where you make the hydrogen at the same place where you later burn it, so you don't need a whole fuel transport infrastructure and you can have really solid storage facilities. Plus it would all by definition be "green" hydrogen. So that application I like.

For the rest, it's stupid. Electric and battery technology is better. For cars and vehicle fleets, battery electric is where the future is going, and it would be stupid to build a whole parallel fuel infrastructure for an also-ran technology when you can just use wires. The only real disadvantage of battery vehicles is range, it's rapidly going away, and hydrogen isn't great for energy density either, while it's missing a bunch of electric vehicles' advantages. For more stationary applications--what is the point of using electricity to generate hydrogen, transporting the hydrogen somewhere and then burning it to like heat the building or whatever, when you could just run a wire to the place and use the electricity in the first place without all the extra steps?

I see that one niche for hydrogen that isn't basically a useless kludge to create multiplication of effort and duplication of infrastructure. For everything else, it's useless except maybe for greenwashing, an excuse to let certain fossil fuel interests keep burning their stuff a little while longer disguising it as "hydrogen" instead of natural gas or coal or whatever. Which is probably the only reason anyone is talking about it. Doubtless the scientists and such referenced in the article are sincere and excited by the whole thing, just mistaken as to whether it's any use. But if you dig a bit, this article is probably ultimately fed by some sort of fossil fuel lobby/pr group.

It's not a plan. The PM has no plan, except to keep talking and saying nothing, while the world burns.
The only sketch lines to any "plan" are at best sketchy: and they're basically a plan to bail out Big Oil ... using hydro power (for which the homes of hundreds of families and farms, and dozens of communities were flooded out forever} ... to somehow miraculously burn off Carbon from capped gas wells, to release the hydrogen in pure form, and then use TMX to ship it to coastal waters. Never mind that it passes through hundreds of miles of avalanche, rock-slide, mudslide and forest-fire country ... and that the ppl who own the land don't want it: never did, and the government wouldn't listen, instead paying off petty elected officials (a number of whom signed with an X because they couldn't read) rather than the governance structure confirmed by the Supreme Court of Ontario.
And then, somehow, they got a judge to rule contrary to that. Not only once, but multiple times. How that happens right alongside the independence of the judiciary is a mystery for journalists to solve.
So there *is* no plan: just a sketchy pretense at a plan, designed, ultimately for one purpose: to put more money and profits in the hands of the same foreign corporations who don't pay tax, demand the full costs of their operations be funded by the Canadian government, and then pay virtually nothing even for royalties.
No other country in the world could possibly be so stupid.
And meanwhile, our "Climate Change Leader" has done nothing, but supervise handouts in one probince, to the very industry that's wiped out all the gains made by all the other provinces put together.
I don't believe he's so stupid he doesn't see what he's doing. Presumably, he thinks we are.

Hydrogen is not an energy source; it is an energy storage material. For countries without hydroelectric energy storage, it may prove useful. Canada is not that country.....we have much better choices open to us. We need to realize how lucky we are, and move forward quickly to replace fossil energy use by electrification.

With my limited knowledge ( your article was informative don't get me wrong), the big future for hydrogen is in the heavy duty 18 wheeler s that roll down our highways. The Prius Prime and others take care of day-to-day commuters. Good background information form EU, thank you.

This does not put hydrogen in context. Compared to electricity used directly (like an electric train that gets power from overhead wires), or stored in batteries (like an electric car), hydrogen is very inefficient and expensive. Hydrogen has a role, but only in the limited applications where the cost and inefficiency is justifiable.

This article seems to have popped out of a time-capsule from before Proton Energies, which the NO itself covered just one month earlier. Does the author not read the paper he publishes in?

The article is thin on economics, it fails to even mention the price of hydrogen: some dollars per kg. This article:

...notes how green hydrogen will maybe get down to $2/kg in 10 years.

The NO article last month fails to mention the overwhelmingly important thing about Proton, besides it also being clean hydrogen, no carbon comes out of the well, green electricity can be used, of course, to run the plant; it's cheap.

The NO almost always fails to touch the money issue in its climate reporting, preferring an attitude that it's all such an emergency that money doesn't matter. But it does, especially, as all the commentators her point out, that it has to compete with batteries, and that decision will be made by money. From the Bloomberg article, from the guys who care about nothing but money:

"Proton is testing its zero-emissions technology on a well in Saskatchewan that could reach output of as much as 20 tons of hydrogen a day this fall, Chief Executive Officer Grant Strem said in an interview. A facility the company aims to build in the next two years could produce 500 tons per day at a cost of about 10 Canadian cents (7.6 cents) a kilogram, compared with $1 to $3 per kilogram for the currently cheapest method, he said."

"10 cents per kg" may well be BS emitted to grab investors, but if they can even get it under $1, it's a huge climate victory. The fact that it may "save Alberta", etc, is just a local bonus.

But, whether Proton is a factor or not, hydrogen has several clear applications that the posters here have missed, probably because they're consumers with no background in engineering. The world is a much bigger place than your car and your bus.

How about 50,000 large boats that carry all our cargo? They run on bunker fuel. If you put in batteries, that would be the whole cargo.

You can power the seaplanes to Victoria on batteries, that's coming. Better batteries will me a few 200-km commuter flights, too. But that's it for aviation and batteries. How were you planning to power 24,000 airliners, a number that Asia plans to double by 2040?

Oh, and construction equipment. Were you thinking that batteries can run all the world's backhoes, front-end loaders, bulldozers, asphalt paving machines? They all need portable power sources that can run two eight-hour shifts per day, for thousand-horsepower outputs. (Hint: not batteries).

Forgot to mention that the human race produces one billion tonnes of steel every year, an additional billion tonnes of concrete (which involves baking calcium carbonate at 1700C).

Anybody wondering how I know all this, just needs to check books by Vaclav Smil out of their library. I would recommend "Energy Transitions" and "Energy Density" as manuals for the size of the Green New Deal.

"You can power the seaplanes to Victoria on batteries, that's coming. Better batteries will me a few 200-km commuter flights, too. But that's it for aviation and batteries. How were you planning to power 24,000 airliners, a number that Asia plans to double by 2040?"

Try walking. You'll find you don't need to go nearly as far as you'd thought.

No, Mr. Brander. Thinking that all those backhoes and endless roads to pristine territories to rape the land, will go the way of the horse and buggy. Old technology, old stories.
You might have noticed that the Bloomberg article also claimed that electricity costs are "negative."
Last I heard, I was paying through the nose for electricity (compliments of our dinosaur Premier's Office) that we already paid for when we paid for the infrastructure to be built, we'll pay forever for the waste, and now we're apparently committed to paying for endless refurbishment (already, before they're started, there are cost overruns!), and then again, we pay when we flip the light switch on.
Ontario pays through the nose for its electricity, after the last administration gave away a controlling interest in *taxpayer* owned infrastructure, granted to the taxpayers to be held by them in perpetuity.
There are no needy friends, of course, to whom a Premier can explain what "in perpetuity" means ... when they *want* that asset!!!
So if there's hydro power available at negative cost, I'm in!!! Bring it on!!!
I'd love to get rid of our local power authority: whatever it spends to make profit, it can charge all of that plus 9% back to the people who own the infrastructure: ostensibly ... in fact, the money goes to a small vehicle-load of "preferred shareholders." And we can't even find out who they are, apparently.

I've had multiple construction machines making a racket outside my house for weeks, now. They're replacing a water main. There are several thousand kilometres of water mains below Vancouver, as many more of sewer, then there are separate drainage sewers to prevent flooding, and cable ducts. I'm not sure how you were going to run cities that need pipes, roads, wires to keep people alive, with all construction equipment consigned to the ash-heap of history, but in my world, 1%-2% of them need to be replaced every year, even if we had zero growth.

But we do have growth; not just babies, but 300,000 immigrants per year; they need 100,000 homes to be built, and about a million metres of trenches to be put in for all THEIR pipes and wires. Unless you're a rabid right-winger opposed to immigration.

Then there's the construction of the Green New Deal. At present, as Vaclav Smil puts it, "Every wind turbine being built is made out of steel smelted with coal, in a foundation dug by a backhoe running on diesel, poured with concrete that was baked with natural gas". We need to replace all three technologies, but doing entirely without a backhoe, (powered by anything) is not going to get a wind turbine erected. You'll just have to "rape" about 50 square metres of foundation land somehow.

There is a wide-spread and troubling misunderstanding of the use of hydrogen, which this article does little to dispel. Hydrogen is NOT a source of energy. Hydrogen is NOT "the energy of the future". The abundance of hydrogen in the world does NOT imply availability of abundant energy. Hydrogen can be used to STORE energy, but the energy must come from another source. The use of hydrogen is a BATTERY technology. As such, it can be made comparatively very efficient. It does not depend on the mining and consumption of expensive and toxic chemicals, such a lithium, and is relatively safe in transport. It's containment mechanism (high pressure vessels) is physical rather than chemical, and has a high level of reusability. But, it is very important to understand that while it may be a very clean fuel, hydrogen is not in itself a source of energy, but has to be generated from other sources. It's GREAT VALUE lies in its advantages as a STORE of energy to provide BUFFERING to smooth out the natural fluctuations in supply from green sources such as wind, tide and sunshine. A secondary value lies in it's cleanliness at point of use (e.g. no toxic emissions from internal combustion).

Oops!! I now see that my rather pompous comment was not needed. Others here have made the same point already. The standard of discourse here is unusually high.