The B.C. government has released a hydrogen strategy designed to spur investment in the clean alternative fuel within the province.
The strategy document, made public on Tuesday, outlines a series of short- and long-term policy and procedural goals, including the development of a framework for provincial regulators to work co-operatively with hydrogen industry players. It also includes provisions for reviewing and setting regulations for hydrogen production.
Until two years ago, interest in hydrogen fuel was on the wane. An initial wave of excitement peaked in 2000. One of the beneficiaries at that time was Burnaby, B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems Inc., which continues to make hydrogen fuel cells.
British Columbia’s new hydrogen strategy is looking to capitalize on two decades of technological improvement, during which hydrogen’s outlook has brightened significantly. Dozens of governments around the world are now backing the clean fuel, said Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation.
“Hydrogen has gone through some peaks and valleys over the last 25 years,” Mr. Ralston said in an interview on Tuesday. “But I think the difference this time is that it’s recognized widely by a number of countries, research institutions and established clean-tech companies as a fuel that will enable different countries to achieve the decarbonization goals that they want.”
Governments around the world are promoting increased use of hydrogen in transportation and heating as crucial for the planet to achieve the goal of net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.
Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen doesn’t emit carbon dioxide when it’s used to produce energy. But it’s not a completely pollution-free fuel: The process of producing hydrogen emits varying amounts of carbon, depending on how it’s done. “Green” hydrogen comes from low-emitting renewable electricity, and “blue” hydrogen is derived from natural gas in a process where carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released in the atmosphere is captured and stored.
Green hydrogen is the cleanest type of hydrogen, but it currently has manufacturing costs that are at least three times higher than those associated with producing the blue version.
While environmental groups have urged governments to back green hydrogen and shun fossil fuels, the newly released B.C. strategy advocates for placing bets on both green and blue hydrogen.
“In order for blue to meet the carbon emission thresholds that we want, it has to be paired with carbon capture and storage,” Mr. Ralston said.
Alberta has already made some progress toward hydrogen production with natural gas. Air Products and Chemicals Inc. said last month that it plans to build a $1.3-billion facility in Edmonton that will produce blue hydrogen. The company’s goal is to open in 2024. It’s receiving government incentives, including $15-million through Alberta’s emissions reduction fund.
In May, Suncor Energy Inc. and Atco Ltd. announced plans to jointly produce blue hydrogen in Alberta. The companies are hoping to open their facility in 2028.
Given the large reserves of natural gas in Alberta and B.C., it’s understandable that the energy industry sees the “hydrogen opportunity” to diversify, Mr. Ralston said.
Earlier this year, Mr. Ralston announced a program to provide discounted BC Hydro rates to industrial customers that build or expand clean energy projects.
Karen Tam Wu, B.C. director of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, said in a news release that she was disappointed that the B.C. government is still embracing natural gas when climate change should be top of mind. “Because B.C. hasn’t prioritized green hydrogen production, it misses B.C.’s clear regional opportunity to build a hydrogen economy on a renewable energy foundation rather than on fossil fuels,” she said.
But Ballard chief executive officer Randy MacEwen welcomed Tuesday’s announcement. “A comprehensive hydrogen strategy for the province will send a strong signal to investors, boosting economic growth and local jobs while positioning B.C. as a leader in the hydrogen economy,” he said in a statement.
Ballard tested its hydrogen technology in Whistler, B.C., from 2009 to 2014, outfitting 20 buses with its fuel cells in a five-year pilot project. The project ended in 2014, and much-publicized talk of a “hydrogen highway” from B.C. to California never materialized.
Hydrogen had to be trucked in from Quebec to fuel Ballard’s buses, adding to the project’s already-high operating costs and underscoring the lack of infrastructure for hydrogen fuelling in Canada.
A hydrogen fuelling station opened in Vancouver in 2018 and more have gradually begun operating in B.C. since then. By the end of 2021, at least 10 hydrogen stations are expected to be available in B.C. for motorists.