Hydrogen’s important role in Canada’s energy transition

By Satvinder Flore

Canada is facing pressure to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, and quickly. Like the rest of the world, we are facing a climate reality that will have devastating future consequences if we do not take serious steps towards drastically reducing our overall carbon footprint.

The success of this transition depends on us making a difference by using the technologies we have available to us today, while continuing to develop future energy solutions that can further lower our emissions in the years and decades ahead. It is a balance, but a very important one, as we can’t rely on a ‘silver bullet’-low-emissions technology that will eliminate the need for fossil fuels.

This is why the burgeoning hydrogen economy is such a valuable part of the energy transition. It is not a solution that will eliminate our reliance on carbon-emitting fuels, but it is one of the solutions that can help us with significant emissions reductions.

But before we go too far into the weeds on how we embrace and ramp up hydrogen, let’s take a moment to appreciate the challenge we’re up against.

The challenge

In advance of 2021’s COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, which I had the good fortune of attending, the International Energy Association stated that 25 per cent of our global energy production needs to come from hydrogen for us to meet our Paris and post-Glasgow targets. That is a huge undertaking. Here’s why.

According to statistics released by the U.S. Energy Information Administration in August 2022, global oil production currently sits at just over 100 million barrels of oil per day. That translates to roughly 1200 barrels per second. Based on the COP26 target, if oil production doesn’t increase in the next 13 years, that means we would need to produce the equivalent of 300 barrels of oil, per second, worth of hydrogen just to replace oil. To put this in perspective, the equivalent displaced barrels currently being produced by commercial hydrogen are precisely zero.

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Consider the development of green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is, for the most part, derived from solar and wind production. Those two technologies, which represent two of the lowest-cost forms of energy production in the world, represent just 9.5 per cent of global energy production. And that is after 25 years of intense investments in markets that are large consumers of energy.

So, while hydrogen may be able to replace that 25 per cent of global energy demand in the next 13 years, it won’t simply come from hydrogen produced using wind and solar. Certainly, some of Canada’s own hydrogen production will come because of new investments in wind and solar.

Evolving the hydrogen conversation

To be successful in integrating a large volume of hydrogen production into our energy mix, we will have to take a step back from the politics associated with the colour classification system and focus on the production opportunities that align with the resources available in each region.

That starts with blue hydrogen, which in some circles, is seen as quite controversial. There are three primary reasons for this, all of which, I believe, can be overcome.

First, there is the fugitive emissions from the source gas. However, the technology is there to be able to capture these emissions. And, in addition, we can use satellite tracking to appreciate the emissions volumes and identify where we need to address them.

Second, there is an issue around the capture rate. Right now, the conversion rate is about 90 per cent. That rate is pretty good but, most importantly, is steadily improving. As we develop more hydrogen infrastructure, there is industry confidence that the continued refinement of the technology will continue to improve that conversion rate.

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Third, there is a social concern that this is a ‘hoodwinking’, a ploy by the oil and gas industry to continue to burn fossil fuels but in a greener way. This is a real red herring. The fact is, there is a need for the major energy companies involved in, what is, the largest energy transition in global history. Having them involved is inevitable. Their decades of innovation and technical knowledge is invaluable to not only a successful energy transition but the continuity of modern society—from agriculture to electronics. Major energy companies create products that end up touching every aspect of our lives, not just with electrons and molecules. Cleaner fossil fuels like natural gas are needed to bridge the decades we need to understand how to work with cleaner, greener fuels and products.

Building our hydrogen mix

Blue hydrogen, and green hydrogen, aren’t the only types that needs to play a role in the overall mix. Pink hydrogen (produced using nuclear energy) will also factor into the hydrogen mix, both nationally and globally, depending on the resources available in that region. In the future, we could also see the development of turquoise hydrogen, made through methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon, but this technology has yet to be proven at scale.

Again, it will really come down to feedstock availability. Some regions, both in Canada and around the world, will have the resources to best utilize some form of hydrogen as their primary source of green energy production. But in other jurisdictions, it will be a ramping up of some other form of renewable energy resource, such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind or solar, that will provide the localized solution for the green energy transition.

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We’ve yet to discover a panacea for transitioning off of fossil fuels globally. But we do know that hydrogen is a key resource that must be as part of our green energy mix. 

[This article originally appeared in the January/February2023 edition of ReNew Canada.]

Satvinder Flore is the executive vice president, Energy, Resources, and Industry, at WSP in Canada.

Featured image: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (left) recently signed onto a major energy project that will see a green energy hydrogen project, powered by wind turbines, built in Western Newfoundland. (Government of Canada)

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