Alberta has high hopes for the hydrogen energy market. But there are still some gaps to be filled
The hydrogen energy market seems to have caught the eye of Alberta’s new premier, Danielle Smith.
In a recent interview with the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, Smith praised the fuel source and Alberta’s potential future role in bringing it to the world.
“Something dramatic has probably happened in the last five years in this province,” he told the audience.
“I saw innovation and innovators and new ideas coming up. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen our business community aligned on this issue, that we can do this, that we can do it better than anyone else. .
“And that’s the message the rest of the world needs to hear.”
Hydrogen is being claimed to play a key role in decarbonisation worldwide as it produces zero emissions when used as a fuel source.
The International Energy Agency says that hydrogen demand will reach 94 million tons in 2021. It estimates that it could reach 115 million tons by 2030 under current conditions, and states that it is below the 200 million tons needed by 2030 to achieve net zero emissions. 2050
According to Bloomberg forecasts, in the most optimistic scenario, hydrogen could supply up to 24 percent of the world’s energy demand – almost 700 million tons per year – by 2050.
Alberta has been using hydrogen as a feedstock for industrial processes for years. Now it wants to be a hydrogen giant with defined ambitions in 2021 Hydrogen Road Map.
By 2030, the province wants to integrate the energy source into the domestic system, as well as “establish itself as the global supplier of choice in clean hydrogen exports.”
Alberta currently produces about 2.4 million tonnes of hydrogen per year. It aims to export three tons by the end of the decade.
So what is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is an abundant chemical element and energy carrier that is almost always found as part of a compound. It must be separated into pure hydrogen to be used as fuel.
This is achieved through various processes, including reforming natural gas or electricity by splitting water into its elements.
Production methods are often color coded according to their emissions. Among others:
- Gray, usually made of natural gas, no leaks detected
- Blue, usually made from natural gas, but leaks are captured
- Green, usually made from emission-free renewable energy
Currently, steam methane reforming—using high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen from a methane source such as natural gas—is the most common and cost-effective source of production.
Naturally, this process still produces greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture, use and storage, where emissions are stored in geological formations, can reduce these emissions by up to 85 percent.
“Alberta is really technology agnostic when it comes to hydrogen,” Heather Campbell, executive director of clean technologies at the provincially funded agency Alberta Innovates, said in an interview earlier this month.
“It’s not about specific production technology and being indebted to a production technology. It’s about producing little or no carbon hydrogen with that low carbon intensity.”
Autothermal reforming, another process that better captures carbon, is also being developed.
Today, hydrogen is commonly used as a fuel in oil refining and fertilizer production. However, there are technological and infrastructure gaps that need to be addressed to increase production.
“I would say it’s integration and fixing some of the downstream technologies [carbon capture, usage and storage]” Campbell said.
Alberta Innovates aims to advance the brand of some of these technologies by funding competitions, reviews and providing laboratory and testing space for demonstrations and pilots, he said.
Where does carbon capture fit in with hydrogen?
There is certainly an expensive hurdle when it comes to hydrogen: the cost of maintaining existing infrastructure and building it for the future.
David Layzell, an energy systems architect at the Transition Accelerator and a professor at the University of Calgary, said adding carbon capture to existing facilities is expensive.
The Transition Accelerator is a non-profit and one of the partners of the Edmonton Region Hydrogen hub, a hydrogen development center that was established last year in collaboration with multiple levels of government.
“There’s definitely some new infrastructure that needs to be built,” Layzell said. Shell has pointed to the Quest project as a carbon capture facility now with more expected to come online within two to three years.
Although just producing hydrogen is not the end of the road.
“We need to build a completely new value chain around hydrogen to make it a credible energy carrier for the future,” said Layzell.
One issue under consideration is the most economical method of transportation. The pipelines have the obstacle of brittleness: cracks caused by the interaction of hydrogen atoms and metals.
Another is to ensure that there is an end-use technology like a furnace or a car that will use the fuel.
“They don’t exist yet, or they’re coming online right now.”
Layzell said what is economically viable in the next four to five years are hydrogen-powered heavy-duty trucks, trains and some off-road vehicles that currently use large amounts of diesel.
So what markets are available for Alberta?
Dale Nally, associate minister for natural gas until a cabinet reshuffle last week, was in Japan for a meeting of hydrogen ministers in late September.
In an interview earlier this month, he said the message from the conference was to look beyond the color of hydrogen and focus on the intensity of carbon. Nally said Japanese and global companies are looking to Alberta.
“They see us as their main supplier of cheap clean hydrogen.”
Nally said the province already ships hydrogen derivatives by rail and could take advantage of that network in the future.
Japan is a particularly attractive target.
In 2017, it became the first country to create a national hydrogen framework. It aims to increase its hydrogen market from two to three million tonnes per year by 2030 and eventually to 20 million tonnes by 2050.
Japan is trying to decarbonize while using its expertise in liquefied natural gas trading, according to Jane Nakano, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Companies like Toyota also want to remain competitive in a market increasingly focused on reducing emissions, he said.
“They’re not just wedded to renewable hydrogen,” Nakano said. “They are looking to import hydrogen based on methane or natural gas, as long as the carbon is captured.”
Japan is looking for sources around the world, but Canada, along with the United States, is at a distance disadvantage compared to neighboring countries such as Australia.
“There is … competition between potential hydrogen exporters to capture the Japanese market.”
What about the federal government?
Both the provincial and federal governments are united in their desire to build a hydrogen market. Canada released its own hydrogen strategy in 2020that it could generate almost 50,000 billion dollars of income in the sector by 2050.
“We see this as a tremendous economic opportunity for Canada and a tremendous opportunity to help decarbonize the world,” Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said in an interview earlier this month.
Wilkinson said the government is developing regulations for hydrogen development with international partners and investing in the technology.
In the spring, the environment commissioner said Canada would not be able to meet its 2030 emissions reduction targets because the strategy was based on “too optimistic” assumptions.
Many of the report’s recommendations were accepted and Wilkinson said he is working to clarify the differential numbers between his office and Environment Canada.
“We continue to focus on those goals, and the goals, even though they are ambitious goals, really drive action.”
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