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Is B.C. up to the hydrogen economy challenge?

ANALYSIS | Commitment, focus needed to tap billions in clean-energy market potential
Vancouver’s lone vehicle hydrogen refuelling station at Granville and 71st

Commercial aviation and marine shipping need all the help they can get in kicking the fossil fuel habit.

Long haul truckers also need viable options. 

Will any of that help be forthcoming from B.C. or elsewhere across Canada?

The smart money would say no; clean energy opportunities disagree.

Given the country’s track record of dithering and delay over any resource infrastructure project of national significance, it would be hard to argue against the smart money bet.

Canada’s stumble out of the gate in the global liquefied natural gas (LNG) market sweepstakes confirms its entrenched minor league mind-set.

Consider that B.C. and the rest of Canada have some of the world’s best natural gas reserves available to meet the growing world demand for lower carbon-intensive fuels, but of the 18 LNG export projects proposed in Canada, only one large export facility is under construction. Meanwhile, in the politically dysfunctional United States, seven have been built since 2014 and another five are under construction.

According to a February report from Wood Mackenzie, another 16 LNG projects are planned on the U.S. Gulf coast and the added capacity from those projects would make the U.S. the world’s largest LNG supplier. The report estimates that, if the majority of the projects reach a final investment decision, US$100 billion could be invested in them over the next five years.

Canada can avoid stumbling out of the gate on the next big energy market opportunity, unless, of course, it insists on adhering to its tradition of failing to capitalize on its energy and innovation potential.

The hydrogen economy has come knocking.

Last summer, it came knocking in the form of the German-Canada Hydrogen Alliance (GCHA).

Observers would rightly argue that the alliance thus far is only a joint declaration of intent between the two countries.

Science would argue that hydrogen is still many miles from energy market viability.

But those arguments aside, the alliance is a start.

And for commercial aviation, long-haul trucking and deep-water shipping, three of the most difficult transportation sectors to electrify, it’s a start that provides light on the decarbonization horizon.

The alliance, as Heather Exner-Pirot has said, is also a multi-dimensional opportunity.

Speaking on a Macdonald-Laurie Institute (MLI) panel last September, the MLI senior fellow pointed out that being a preferred source of hydrogen for Germany’s green energy transition is one element of that opportunity. Another is the potential to build a cohesive national energy outlook, which, up until now, has been anything but.

Exner-Pirot added that it is not a case of LNG versus hydrogen.

“This is an opportunity. There are multibillion-dollar investments already in Western Canada. There are $100 million-plus investments in Eastern Canada industries interested in this. And so, it’s something that [for] people on all sides maybe finally hydrogen is what will bring natural resource opinions together in Canada.”

That is optimistic, considering how politicized natural resource development in Canada has become.

And that, Exner-Pirot conceded, is a problem.

“We are going to have to change our mindset in terms of [yes] we want to build projects; we don’t want to stop projects. And if we were to build a hydrogen economy, there will need to be smoother systems that are not adversarial. Right now, the regulatory system in Canada is very adversarial in that it seems like the regulators are looking at ways to stop or prevent or apply burdens [to energy development projects].”

Canada consequently misses a lot of economic opportunities.

The GCHA could help ensure that it doesn’t miss the opportunity to become a global supplier of low-carbon energy.

The alliance works for both countries on several fronts. Canada and Germany share many common values, including democratic principles, free trade and climate protection. 

The MLI’s Canada and the Energiewende report states therefore that Canada has the potential to become a major exporter of reduced carbon energy, “including hydrogen, for Germany and Europe.”

And unlike LNG, the report opines, “hydrogen has support across political and geographic lines, for now, and as such the social licence to move more quickly.”

But Canada does not move quickly when it comes to resource development, and it will need to if it hopes to reap the potential of the Canadian-German partnership, because, as Jens Honnen pointed out during the panel discussion, clarity and commitment are needed on both sides of that partnership.

The consultant for Adelphi, a European environmental and development think tank, said LNG suppliers and customers need long-term commitment and certainty.

The same would apply to hydrogen suppliers and customers.

No commitment, no contract; and no contract, no investment.

But there is certainty in clean energy’s economic potential.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the global market for mass-manufactured clean energy technologies alone will be worth US$650 billion by 2030. 

In his opening remarks at DNV’s June 14 hydrogen outlook, the maritime risk management company’s CEO Remi Eriksen estimated that the investment required to increase hydrogen’s role in the global energy mix to five per cent by 2050 would be roughly US$7 trillion.

And, according to the federal government’s Hydrogen Strategy for Canada report, B.C.’s export potential alone for hydrogen has been estimated at $15 billion by 2050.

Little wonder then that Canada’s ambition today is to become one of the world’s top three producers of clean hydrogen.

Good luck with that, considering its sub-par record for developing its natural gas export infrastructure and its LNG markets in a world hungry for lower carbon energy alternatives.

Commercial aviation and deep-water maritime shipping are at the front of the line pushing for green transportation alternatives.

The long-haul trucking sector also needs directions to a lower carbon future.

Transportation is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Its 25 per cent contribution is just marginally below the oil and gas sector’s 26 per cent. Gasoline and diesel account for around 93 per cent of the energy used today in Canada’s transportation sector.

As with aviation and maritime shipping, electrifying that sector today is neither technologically viable nor commercially practical. Battery size and recharging time say it is not so.

Just ask Dave Earle.

As the BC Trucking Association CEO previously told BIV, current power storage technology requires batteries that are too large and recharging times that are too long to make them economically viable for trucks hauling freight over long distances. 

For Earle, the practical alternatives to diesel are limited.

Hydrogen is one of those alternatives.

Along with LNG, it is also a future propulsion alternative for the world’s container shipping fleet when used in fuel cells to convert green fuels into mechanical energy.

And it promises to be in the future low-carbon energy mix for Japan and other major energy importers in Asia.

Kenryo Mizutani, deputy director and legal counsel for Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security (JOGMEC), told a Feb. 14 Canada West Foundation panel discussion on Canadian clean energy opportunities in Japan and Korea that Japan’s most recent energy plan identifies hydrogen as a key future resource "that’s going to be there together with crude oil and natural gas and other major energy forms. And Japan has a concrete plan of using hydrogen for natural-gas-powered plants [with] possibly up to 30 per cent of hydrogen mix."

The hydrogen market in a lower-carbon world therefore includes many large and lucrative opportunities.

B.C. and the rest of Canada should not be late to this economic opportunity party.

The German-Canada Hydrogen Alliance is a start; B.C.’s goal to be a world-leading hydrogen economy by 2050 is an admirable target.

But neither will get Canada into the hydrogen profit party without major infrastructure investments and national focus and collaboration. 

As Matthew Klippenstein told the MLI panel, “Hydrogen is a great opportunity for Canada.”

The Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association’s regional manager for Western Canada and branch manager for Hydrogen BC pointed out that the demand for energy in a world of eight billion people is only going to grow.

“You know, we have had, I would guess, a comparatively slow last two years on the energy side, we can be an energy superpower, we should be an energy superpower, our European allies are looking to us to provide that.”

He added that energy is fundamental to raising the economic well-being of the world’s population.

“The more energy humans use, the better. Human development is strongly correlated with … literacy, mortality, gender equality, everything.” 

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