Here are the promises and pitfalls of hydrogen, hailed as the world’s next clean energy source


News that a major hydrogen project could be built in Newfoundland to supply clean fuel to Germany and other parts of Europe cut off from Russian gas has added new urgency to the emerging technology on which Canada matters to reduce carbon emissions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will sign a green power purchase agreement next week in Stephenville, Newfoundland, where a proposed plant will use up to 164 wind turbines to produce hydrogen and ammonia for export.

Ottawa is betting heavily on hydrogen to power much of this country’s – and the world’s – transition away from fossil fuels, whether through hydrogen fuel cell trucking, hydrogen industry or power generation. to hydrogen.

Canada is now among the top 10 producers of hydrogen in the world, and global demand is expected to increase 10-fold by 2050. Projections show that hydrogen will provide 24% of global energy demand—and 30% Canada’s — by then. .

Canada has the cheap renewable water and electricity to be a world leader in hydrogen production, but technologies that use hydrogen are still largely under investigation.

“Hydrogen is a zero-emission energy source that represents both a significant economic opportunity for Canada and an important tool for reducing emissions across the Canadian economy. Canada has a head start in the growing global market,” said federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

Here’s what’s at stake:

Why are people excited about hydrogen as an alternative fuel?

Hydrogen is a powerful fuel that can power heavy machinery and energy-intensive industries, some of the hardest parts of the economy to decarbonize.

Unlike fossil fuels, it produces no greenhouse gas emissions when burned. With modifications, hydrogen can use existing natural gas infrastructure, including pipelines, holding tanks, liquefaction plants and ships.

However, technical limitations to the use of natural gas infrastructure will reduce the world’s ability to quickly switch fuels. Eventually, hydrogen will need its own pipelines, tanks, ships and terminals.

Grey, blue and green hydrogen

Not all hydrogens are created equal. Much of today’s hydrogen is called « gray » because it uses methane (natural gas) to react with water in a production process called « steam reforming. » Although inexpensive, this process produces emissions from combustion and methane leakage and is only cleaner than making hydrogen from coal (“black” and “brown” hydrogen).

“Blue” hydrogen is gray hydrogen whose emissions are permanently captured and stored, most often underground. This production technique holds promise for the Canadian oil field, which can use hydrogen made from natural gas to reduce its carbon footprint. But environmental groups say blue hydrogen isn’t as clean as advertised.

“Even at its best, blue hydrogen does not capture all emissions and there is no guarantee that it will remain captured forever,” said Jack Gibbons, President of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance.

A university study found that emissions from the production of blue hydrogen are only 9-12% lower than those of gray hydrogen.

“They looked at the worst-case scenario,” said Jan Gorski, oil and gas analyst at the Pembina Institute. “Blue hydrogen can generate a lot of emissions if misused. But it has the potential to be low carbon if done right.

Green hydrogen — the kind that will be made at the proposed plant in Newfoundland — uses renewable energy to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis. It produces zero greenhouse gas emissions and currently accounts for less than 0.1% of global hydrogen production, primarily due to its higher cost…but as the price of renewables has fallen, the green hydrogen prices also fell.

Canada’s advantage

Because it takes 10 liters of water to make one kilogram of hydrogen, Canada’s vast freshwater reserves and mostly clean electricity grid mean there are great opportunities in hydrogen adoption. as the clean fuel of the future.

“It makes a lot of sense,” said Mark Zacharias, executive director of Clean Energy Canada. “Many countries have renewable energies. Water is Canada’s advantage.

The east coast’s proximity to Europe and the west coast’s direct pull to Asia means there is potential for developing hydrogen production on both coasts, he said.

Another technology of the future

Unlike currently available low-carbon technologies, such as electric cars and heat pumps, many end uses of hydrogen are still being explored.

The federal government’s hydrogen strategy, released in 2020, highlights the roles hydrogen can play in energy-intensive industries that are hard to decarbonize, such as steel and cement production. Other uses include using hydrogen as a fuel for long-haul trucking, converting power generation plants to natural gas to burn hydrogen, and blending hydrogen and natural gas for residential heating.

Apart from a small number of city buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells (around 2,000 worldwide), none of these applications are widespread today.


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