COLUMN: From the Hill -- Greener Hydrogen?
My role as Natural Resources critic for the NDP covers forestry, mining and energy—and the big issue these days in that trio is energy. The pandemic has intensified calls for a national energy strategy that will direct federal investments to help us recover from the economic impacts of the crisis and put us on a good footing for the years to come. While all aspects of the energy sector will play a role in that strategy, hydrogen has come up repeatedly in these discussions.
Hydrogen is seen as one of the leading options for storing renewable energy over long periods of time and transporting that energy over long distances. But any hydrogen strategy intended to lower carbon dioxide emissions must address lowering emissions from hydrogen production. At the moment, more than 95% of hydrogen is produced from natural gas, oil and coal, processes that globally release over 800 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year. That’s more than all of the emissions produced in Canada
Right now, most hydrogen is used in manufacturing ammonia, refining oil and making plastics. Ensuring that the hydrogen used in those processes came from clean sources (“green hydrogen” produced by electrolysis using renewable electricity) would be a good first step. However, the opportunities for hydrogen are staggering. Hydrogen is particularly well suited as an energy source for other industrial and transportation systems that require large and intense energy inputs, such as iron and steel production, heavy transportation and air travel.
The cost of hydrogen as transportation power is very competitive with fossil fuels. One kilogram of hydrogen provides about the same power as a gallon of gasoline, and costs about one dollar at present. Green hydrogen costs about three times as much, but those prices are predicted to fall to about $2 per kilo by the end of the decade as production scales up. That scaled-up production and distribution is one of the biggest challenges at present, but a challenge with huge opportunities
Canada has been a world leader in early hydrogen technology–Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver has led hydrogen fuel cell development for almost 40 years. New Flyer, the biggest bus manufacturer in North America, has been making hydrogen-fueled buses in Winnipeg. We are one of the top ten producers of hydrogen in the world. But we are being left behind by other countries that are investing heavily in expanding the role of hydrogen in clean energy systems.
When I was at the G20 energy meetings in Argentina in 2018, a gathering centred on the topic of the transition to a low carbon future, Germany announced it was looking at hydrogen as a way to transport green energy around the world. The German minister suggested that solar energy from the deserts of Chile could be shipped in the form of hydrogen fuel cells. Japan echoed that sentiment. Canada announced that they had bought an oil pipeline
Since that meeting, Germany has announced it will invest $10 billion to become a “supplier to the world” of hydrogen electrolysis technology. Japan and China have rolled out thousands of city buses running on hydrogen and China has designated whole industrial centres to the development of clean hydrogen technology
Canada still has an opportunity to play a major role in the global production, distribution, storage and use of clean hydrogen technology. To do that we need a coherent strategy that will provide government leadership and incentives to ensure that all those factors can grow together to create good jobs and clean energy for the Canadian economy.