Hydrogen is a powerful and easily sourced element that can be used as a near-zero emission fuel. For this reason, it is at the center of many of these long-term national energy strategies. In Canada and other parts of North America, the traditional fuel supply has recently been threatened by several factors, such as pipeline disruptions, environmental protests, regulatory changes, prohibitive or volatile prices, and global supply chain issues. Meanwhile, each new forest fire or other environmental disaster illustrates the need for Canada and the rest of the west’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations to transition more rapidly toward using clean, bountiful energy sources, such as hydrogen fuel cells.
Canada’s Energy Strategy
A recent market study by The Canada Energy Regulator, a national agency dedicated to safety and cooperation throughout Canada’s energy industry, identified five trends that will define the near future of Canada’s energy market. Hydrogen projects could conceivably play a role in all five:
1) Decarbonization of the Electrical Grid
As things stand today, much of our consumer electricity is still generated through fossil fuels and other environmentally disruptive processes. While Canada has a great deal of infrastructure in place for generating hydroelectric energy through dams, the current electrical grid in some provinces is almost entirely dependent on the burning of natural gas and various fossil fuels. Other areas, such as British Columbia and the Yukon, already get nearly all of their electricity from renewable sources, providing a viable model and body of data for future projects. Canada has also emerged as a leader in another method of decarbonizing electricity. Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is an aggressive approach to scrubbing carbon from industrial and extraction processes and safely storing it before it can be released into the atmosphere.
2. Improvements to Transportation
Transitioning the fuel paradigm for our cars, trains, and planes is among the nation’s top priorities. Today, over 80% of Canada’s fuel use for transportation purposes remains in the form of fossil fuels, and transportation is the country’s second-largest single source of emissions.
Hydrogen fuel technology may be uniquely situated to solve this problem. A small amount of plain water could potentially hold the hydrogen power capable of powering a car. Meanwhile, most electric cars are still being charged using fossil fuel energy, and passenger cars powered directly by solar energy or other renewables are nowhere near viable.
3. Increased Efficiency
According to a report from The Generation Energy Council (a special 14-member panel mandated by the Canadian government), wasting less energy must be a fundamental part of Canada’s path forward to a cleaner and more sustainable energy future. The report posits that Canada could get one-third of the way to meeting its Paris Climate Accord obligations by simply improving energy efficiency within currently existing systems.
Another report from The Conference Board of Canada (an independent research organization) came to a similar conclusion, stating that Canada’s energy demand could be reduced by 15% over the next decade or so just as a result of increased efficiency. Lowering costs and improving technologies could lead to hydrogen playing a major role in streamlining and improving Canada’s energy system.
4. Industrial Reform
The largest overall energy draw in Canada remains in the industrial sector. Industrial operations account for over half of Canada’s total energy demand but only about one-quarter of the nation’s GDP. The industrial sector is also responsible for more unwanted emissions than other energy users. Clean burning hydrogen fuel cells could represent a cleaner way of doing business for many energy-intensive industries. The largest single energy consumer and pollution emitter is the mining industry, which includes oil and gas extraction operations.
5. Residential and Commercial Energy
The residential and commercial sectors in Canada consume about a quarter of the nation’s total energy. Energy efficient heating and lighting technologies will therefore prove to be crucial.
Hydrogen will play an increasingly important role in Canada’s energy future over the next several decades. This is not a matter of conjecture but is outlined in Canada’s national Hydrogen Strategy, where the nation has committed to making 30% of the power used by its end-users hydrogen generated by 2050.
Canada’s Hydrogen Fuel Strategy
Canada’s Hydrogen Strategy was developed over the course of three years. Spearheaded by Natural Resources Canada, the project brought in various government agencies, Indigenous tribes, and other stakeholder groups to help put together a comprehensive and cooperative hydrogen-based strategy to battle climate change and lower Canada’s emissions by the year 2050.
Some key findings from the deliberation and research that informed Canada’s Hydrogen Strategy include:
- Economic factors, such as massive startup costs for hydrogen production facilities and risk-averse investors who are skittish about new technologies, threaten to stymie progress through a lack of available funding.
- A current political and economic climate that does not sufficiently invest in innovation threatens to hamper the development of new technologies and the advancement of existing projects. Sustained support in the form of both policy and investment is required to drive costs down and make hydrogen a viable, mainstream form of fuel for Canadians.
- Public policy – or the lack thereof – also threatens progress. There is currently no policy that clearly and directly supports hydrogen’s crucial position in transforming into a cleaner energy system and a future with net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
- The codes and regulations that currently govern energy are also problematic, as they are often difficult or inappropriate to apply to hydrogen production. In other instances, the regulations necessary to make hydrogen power safe and sustainable do not yet exist.
- A consistent supply of hydrogen produced with a lower carbon footprint is currently not available throughout much of Canada, which limits the ability of entrepreneurs and researchers to launch pilot projects, much less use hydrogen on a commercial scale.
As with many public policy matters, a lack of public awareness has also been identified as an issue in transitioning to hydrogen. Many people are unfamiliar with the potential of hydrogen fuel and are naturally skeptical of new and poorly-understood technologies, especially in potentially dangerous situations like power plants and passenger vehicles.
Hydrogen as a Fuel Source
The electrolysis process, which is central to the production of hydrogen at an industrial scale, was discovered at the turn of the 19th century by a pair of English scientists. Electrolysis involves subjecting water to an electrical charge to separate liquid H2O into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Fewer than 40 years later, the first electricity-producing hydrogen fuel cell was developed. Scientists and engineers in Canada and the rest of the world have been chasing the dream of clean, abundant hydrogen fuel ever since.
The upsides of hydrogen as a fuel source:
- Supply security – Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and Canada already has more hydrogen and hydrogen-ready infrastructure than many other industrialized nations. Because hydrogen is easily sourced, the implementation of a hydrogen-first energy economy would avoid energy conflicts between Canada and the United States, Russia, or other state powers and lower the risk of resource scarcity. Hydrogen can be produced domestically using natural gas, biomass, coal, nuclear power, and clean energy sources.
- Clean burning fuel source – Electrical energy can be derived from hydrogen with no waste or exhaust other than water vapor. When hydrogen fuel is produced using clean energy sources, it represents a truly clean fuel with nearly zero emissions. Canada already produces more than half of its energy with water, through hydroelectric installations. A Canadian energy grid based on converting water to hydrogen fuel cells would be a natural evolution.
- Economic benefits – According to some economists’ models, we could enter the next decade with a hydrogen power industry worth around $500 billion. Not utilizing Canada’s current energy and production infrastructure to aggressively seize part of this market would represent a national policy failure.
- Adaptability – While much of today’s industrial hydrogen is derived from natural gas or other fossil fuels, hydrogen can also be produced cleanly through water electrolysis. The technology and body of knowledge necessary to extract industrial-scale hydrogen from plain water already exists, and around 0.1% of the hydrogen on the global market today is already electrolytic hydrogen.
- Transportation options – Unlike some forms of fuel, which must be stored and kept stable in a refined, ready-to-use state for long periods of time, hydrogen is easily transported in multiple forms. Hydrogen can be carried through a pipeline in its gaseous form or stored in tanks and containers as liquid hydrogen. Water, from which hydrogen can be derived, is even more stable and already has a massive infrastructure for distribution.
Canadian Strategy for Clean Hydrogen Power
While Canada’s Hydrogen Strategy includes many recommendations and guidelines for moving forward, the core of the strategy lies in the dual goals of net zero emissions and 30% hydrogen power by 2050. How does Canada’s 30% by 2050 goal stack up against other energy-conscious nations of the world? Many other countries have also made energy commitments or outlined hydrogen-specific plans for transitioning their energy systems:
- Australia – The “H2 Under 2” program seeks to use state influence to drive the price of hydrogen below $2 AUD per kilogram. To date, the price of hydrogen on the free market remains in the double digits in most places.
- South America – Chile has created an ambitious plan to become the world’s largest hydrogen producer by 2030. Columbia has also developed a robust plan for increasing hydrogen capacity.
- Europe – Germany, long a European leader in technology and industry, seeks to have a 5-gigawatt electrolysis capacity by the year 2030. Not to be outdone, France aims for 6.5 gigawatts in the same timeframe.
- Asia – India also has its sights set on 2030 and hopes to be producing five million tons of “green” hydrogen annually by that year. Japan and South Korea have also unveiled broad plans to transition to the expanded use of hydrogen-based power.
Many other countries have also unveiled roadmaps for expanded hydrogen power. Canada’s Hydrogen Strategy, with its 2050 endpoint, is more of a long-term proposition than many other nations’ plans which only look ahead to 2030. Canada’s goal of 30% hydrogen power is quite ambitious, however, and may require significant infrastructure that is not yet built. Supporters point to those facts to defend the 2050 timeline.
While the world has a long way to go before emissions are cut to the rate suggested by the Paris Climate Accord, Canada and its robust Hydrogen Strategy are well-positioned to take a global leadership role in a cleaner and more hydrogen-reliant future.