Powering up hydrogen: Alberta funds new ways to produce fuel
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As public demand - backed by some of the sharpest minds in industry and the environmental movement - pushes increasingly to advance green energy alternatives to oil and natural gas, the Canadian and Alberta governments have started releasing funds for a series of trial hydrogen projects.
The chemical element is fast emerging as a key component of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, GHGs, especially through that fuel-cell technology that shows signs of taking over from diesel to power large-freight transport. At the same time it is helping to clean up industrial processes and energy generation.
The two governments believe Canada may have a competitive edge through its ability to tap vast gas infrastructure to extract hydrogen.
The International Energy Agency says hydrogen is enjoying “unprecedented momentum” around the world because it is light, storable, energy-dense and produces no direct emissions of pollutants or GHGs.
Alberta pilot projectIn Alberta, a pilot project to operate hydrogen-powered trucks between Edmonton and Calgary has received C$7.3 million from a government corporation funded by a GHG tax on large emitters.
This is the first step in establishing a “very aggressive and profitable hydrogen industry,” said Dale Nally, Alberta’s associate minister of natural gas.
In addition, the province is about to pump C$58 million into a string of small-scale ventures to develop a market for the alternative energy source.
Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan is ready to join forces with Alberta in exploring the new technology, promising to have “a comprehensive strategy in place by the end of summer.”
However, he shares the concern of others that hydrogen fuel remains expensive to produce and will take time to lower those costs.
Net-zero GHGsDozens of countries are now working towards net-zero GHGs, with Australia establishing a fund worth the equivalent of US$220 million for hydrogen projects, while Norway has earmarked US$370 million for green technologies including hydrogen power solutions.
In July Germany’s federal cabinet adopted a national hydrogen strategy aimed at making the country a leading player in evolving the technology.
A month ago, the European Commission published a report on a “hydrogen strategy for a climate-neutral Europe,” calling for the economic bloc top concentrate on green hydrogen.
“For hydrogen to contribute to climate neutrality, it needs to achieve a far larger scale and its production must become fully decarbonized,” the report said.
Carbon capture and storageSimon Dyer, executive director of the Alberta-based Pembina Institute, said carbon capture and storage can play an important role in “decarbonizing Canada’s energy systems ... as we build a more sustainable economy for all Canadians.”
The IEA said that for hydrogen to make a significant contribution to cleaner energy it must be adopted in sectors where it is largely absent, such as transport, buildings and power generation.
HSBC analyst Sean McLoughlin told the Globe and Mail that demand for hydrogen-based electric vehicles is trailing sales of battery-powered vehicles, whose costs are falling, while charging points in homes and communities are on a rapid growth curve. In contrast, hydrogen refueling infrastructure is scarce.
McLoughlin said an estimated 13,000 hydrogen-powered vehicles were in use at the start of 2019, led by Japan, with China making bold strides to move ahead.
In addition to the Canadian and Alberta governments, British Columbia has been a pioneer, opening Canada’s first hydrogen refueling station in 2018 and growing that to a small network of government-sponsored retail stations.
British Columbia has been spurred on by Vancouver-based Ballard Power, which was founded in 1979 to develop fuel cell membranes. Its shares have been on a sickening ride over 25 years, peaking at C$132 in 2000, plunging to almost rock bottom, then recovering to C$21 over the past year, as it briefly attracted global investors, who often bolted for the exit door.
Alberta could work its way to the leading edge of the technology from its current role of producing millions of metric tons a year of hydrogen, which is used to convert oil sands bitumen into synthetic crude, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, plastics and fertilizers.
- GARY PARK