Hydrogen: Where we're at and where we're going

The opportunity and promise of hydrogen in the Edmonton region will be highlighted again when the f-Cell Canada conference comes to the Edmonton Convention Centre on May 25 and 26, a month after the Canadian Hydrogen Convention ignited interest and investment.

Edmonton Global has touted both events as opportunities to attract money to the region. April's convention saw announcements ranging from $50 million for a Hydrogen Centre of Excellence to a variety of commitments made by the Edmonton International Airport to pilot new technologies.

"As global markets and economies shift to reduce emissions, the Edmonton Metropolitan Region is poised to be a world leader in renewable energy in solar, geothermal, and particularly in hydrogen," Mayor Amarjeet Sohi declared during his inaugural state of the city speech on May 10.

While questions have been raised about whether hydrogen is as climate-friendly as proponents say, it is undeniable that every level of government in Canada is persuaded hydrogen is key to reaching the goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Given that lofty goal, it's worth examining what the current situation is and what has to happen to execute on this momentum.

Where is Alberta at with hydrogen currently?

Alberta is producing around 2.4 million tonnes of hydrogen annually, said Amit Kumar, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta and the NSERC/Cenovus/Alberta Innovates associate industrial research chair in energy and environmental systems. The oilsands industry uses hydrogen to upgrade bitumen, and the chemical industry uses it to produce fertilizer, for example.

"We're already producing hydrogen on a large scale, and this is a key advantage," Kumar said. "We have the resources, expertise in producing it at scale, and the trained workforce who can do it." In addition to those already working in this field, the energy workforce could be "easily" transitioned as more workers are needed, he added.

Kumar, whose team advised the provincial government on its hydrogen roadmap, said that Alberta's advantage is that it makes a lot of natural gas. "If we can convert that natural gas to a resource (hydrogen) which is accepted and which is wanted by different jurisdictions around the world, we can continue to grow our economy, and we can continue to prosper," he added.

A portrait of Amit Kumar

The University of Alberta's Amit Kumar has served as the NSERC/Cenovus/Alberta Innovates associate industrial research chair in energy and environmental systems engineering since September 2012. (Supplied)

What kind of hydrogen are we talking about?

Most of the hydrogen produced in Alberta at this time is grey hydrogen. It is produced through natural gas, steam-methane reforming, but the CO2 that is made in the process is emitted into the atmosphere. When the CO2 is captured and put underground, the carbon-intensity of the hydrogen goes down, and it becomes blue hydrogen.

When people talk about the potential of hydrogen in the region, they're talking about blue hydrogen. But to produce it, carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) capability is also required. Kumar said that Alberta is a leading jurisdiction in CCUS, with infrastructure like the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL), which can carry CO2 and sequester it underground. The Quest carbon capture and storage project is also working on this.

There is also green hydrogen, which is produced from renewables like wind and solar power. But Kumar said it is still in development, and the cost to produce it is much higher. He expects the cost to come down in 15 to 20 years, at which time there will be more of a transition to green hydrogen.

What needs to be done to continue the momentum?

Blue hydrogen is currently being produced in smaller quantities, but to scale up, more carbon capture and storage is needed, Kumar said. In March, the Alberta government gave six proposals the go-ahead to evaluate locations in the Edmonton region for the safe storage of carbon.

Two University of Alberta projects received funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta to further their research into the commercialization of CCUS. One of the projects, dubbed ENSURE, is working on monitoring technology that can track small microseismic events. The monitoring is crucial to making sure "the CO2 being put into the ground is actually staying there."

Chris McLeod, vice-president of global marketing and communications at Edmonton Global, said there's also a need to prepare the workforce for the emerging hydrogen economy: "Work is already underway with the hydrogen labour market research study led by Edmonton Global, which brings together post-secondaries from across the province to inform a workforce strategy."

And McLeod noted the need for ongoing consultation with experts to understand business needs and how to be globally competitive in this space. That will also help to update rules and inform regulations that will provide clarity and de-risk projects.

How will industry play a role?

Industry investment into production plants and infrastructure is also key, and announcements from companies over the past year are a positive sign that private investment will continue to ramp up. Last year, Air Products announced that it planned to build a multi-billion-dollar net-zero hydrogen energy complex in Alberta's Industrial Heartland. Suncor and ATCO also partnered on another large-scale hydrogen plant in the province, and Mitsubishi and Shell have signed a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on a blue hydrogen production facility as well. The provincial government can work on policy and provide funding, Kumar explained, but ultimately, the industrial sector's investment in building the infrastructure and creating new jobs will lead to real economic growth.

While companies work through the approval processes for these new plants, it's also important to create demand and ensure it is possible to fulfill that demand. Domestically, that looks like encouraging the potential of hydrogen in the residential sector, for example. Natural gas is currently used for heating, but the province is developing regulations and standards to blend hydrogen into the existing natural gas pipeline. "We can blend 15% to 20% by volume into these pipelines. So you don't have to change anything," said Kumar. That could be used for space heating, and wouldn't require changing appliances. Hydrogen could also eventually be used in the commercial or transportation sectors.

What about the opportunity to export hydrogen?

When it comes to exporting hydrogen, Alberta needs to create the infrastructure required to export it to countries like Japan (which imports about 94% of its energy) and Korea. "We need to have pipelines built from here to the western port, where it could be liquefied and exported," Kumar said. Continuing to build relationships with countries that could use hydrogen will also help.

"We're working to attract as much investment into the entire hydrogen value chain as possible," said Edmonton Global's McLeod. "It's important that we look at this opportunity as more than just export. The world wants our clean energy, but we've also got incredible innovations in transportation technologies, manufacturing, and carbon capture and sequestration."

What's next?

Kumar acknowledges that Alberta hasn't yet overcome all the obstacles facing hydrogen as it comes to fruition. "We are working towards it. But the opportunity is big for Alberta to become a global leader in hydrogen," he said, adding that few other places in the world have all the ingredients to be successful leaders in the economy: resources, production expertise, the workforce, and carbon capture and storage.

He compared the hydrogen opportunity to the promise the oilsands offered several decades ago to produce and export valuable resources. "It is another key form of energy we can export, which will be desired by the world in a future where we are talking a lot about climate change. This could definitely give a boom to the economy," Kumar said.

Meanwhile, Edmonton Global has secured a contract to host the Canadian Hydrogen Convention until at least 2031, and it plans to build the event up to 50,000 attendees within the next five years. "It's going to be the largest hydrogen show in the world," said McLeod.