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Air Liquide Canada has not yet released its plans for blue hydrogen but its parent, France-based Air Liquide SA, has said it is committed to decarbonization, including with blue hydrogen.

John Hryniuk/Handout

Canada’s burgeoning hydrogen industry is pushing for natural gas to play a major role in the production of hydrogen, arguing Ottawa should support various methods to ensure the country meets its climate goals.

The industry relies on a colour-coding system to distinguish various energy sources to power the production process, including blue hydrogen derived from natural gas versus green hydrogen from renewable electricity.

The federal government is backing global efforts to create standards for certifying carbon intensity, including for blue hydrogen, which requires carbon dioxide to be captured and stored.

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Most of the hydrogen produced in Canada today is categorized as grey, or high carbon intensity. Using hydrogen doesn’t emit carbon dioxide, but the production process does, with a small amount of emissions in green hydrogen but higher levels in blue and even higher in grey.

For Canada, important roles must be carved out for both blue and green hydrogen to help the country reach its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, said Mark Kirby, chief executive officer of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. The Vancouver-based association’s members include large industrial companies such as Air Liquide Canada and smaller firms including Loop Energy Inc., as well as academic institutions.

Non-governmental organizations such as Environmental Defence Canada support green hydrogen – giving it a green stamp of approval because the fuel is produced from renewable electricity, which has a much smaller carbon footprint than natural gas.

Mr. Kirby is pleased to see an array of governments globally seeking to devise clean energy certification for the production of hydrogen with relatively low carbon intensity, which he said should include blue hydrogen.

“We are worried that there are statements from some of the NGOs that the only good hydrogen is green hydrogen, which is made from renewable power,” he said in an interview. “That is an arbitrary and restrictive definition, and that will limit the availability and increase the cost of hydrogen.”

Green hydrogen is made by using electrolyzers to capture hydrogen as fuel after being split from oxygen. That process, known as water electrolysis, is powered by renewable electricity from sources such as wind, solar or hydro. Green hydrogen is by far the cleanest type of hydrogen, say environmental NGOs, which are opposed to blue hydrogen.

Energy industry players, however, argue that since green hydrogen is expensive to make, cheaper production methods such as for making blue hydrogen must be deployed as part of the solution to help fight climate change.

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Through a process called steam-methane reforming, natural gas is also used to make grey hydrogen, which emits carbon dioxide during production. In the decades ahead, the industry aims to shift away from grey hydrogen and toward blue and green hydrogen.

Governments around the world are promoting hydrogen as crucial for the planet’s energy transition over the long term for use in transportation and industrial heating.

Natural Resources Canada is striving to establish standards for what constitutes low carbon hydrogen as it holds discussions with two governmental groups: the International Partnership for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells in the Economy, as well as the global Clean Energy Ministerial Hydrogen Initiative.

“NRCan is working with countries around the world to develop a standardized methodology to determine the life-cycle emissions for the production of low emissions hydrogen, regardless of the pathway by which it is produced,” NRCan said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

Drafting such global standards for what qualifies as clean hydrogen could take 18 months to two years.

The federal government released its 140-page Hydrogen Strategy for Canada report in December. In the report, Ottawa ponders a standard for what would constitute low emissions intensity, envisaging a maximum of 36.4 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per megajoule to qualify for clean certification of hydrogen.

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“The real question mark is what’s the carbon intensity of your hydrogen? You can make clean hydrogen in many, many ways,” Mr. Kirby said. “It is actually very counterproductive to our common goal of getting to net-zero, if you start putting limitations on how you make clean hydrogen. Every pathway should be examined.”

Air Liquide Canada has not yet released its plans for blue hydrogen but its parent, France-based Air Liquide SA, has said it is committed to decarbonization, including with blue hydrogen.

“We should find a way to capture, reuse or push for sequestration of CO2,” said Bertrand Masselot, CEO of Air Liquide Canada. “I’m just saying that the upcoming solution will not be purely green.”

Air Liquide Canada produces both grey and green hydrogen at its plant in Bécancour, Que.

In late 2020, the company began producing green hydrogen in Bécancour by utilizing electrolyzers from Hydrogenics Corp., which is 81 per cent owned by Cummins Inc. and 19 per cent owned by Air Liquide SA.

The power source for the electrolyzers originates from hydroelectricity supplied by Hydro-Québec.

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In the Canadian context, Quebec’s abundance of renewable hydroelectricity positions the province to focus on green hydrogen while Alberta’s natural gas reserves mean it will concentrate on blue hydrogen.

Dan Woynillowicz, a Victoria-based climate and energy policy consultant, said if hydrogen is to play a meaningful role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide, the production of hydrogen needs to be as clean as possible.

“Environmentalists tend to want to avoid blue hydrogen because it’s produced from fossil gas, so it perpetuates fossil fuel production,” he said.

While production of green hydrogen is in its early stages globally, he points to bold plans by Saudi Arabia to produce green hydrogen.

“Blue is better than grey. But we can’t ignore the fact that green is cleaner than blue,” Mr. Woynillowicz said. “All that said, the colour labels are poorly defined. Ultimately, it’s not the colour that matters, it’s the carbon intensity.”

British Columbia is still in the early stages of developing plans for hydrogen production to take advantage of hydroelectricity and natural gas in the province.

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The province recently launched a program to provide discounted BC Hydro rates to industrial customers that build or expand clean energy projects.

“This announcement will help and incent green hydrogen,” Bruce Ralston, B.C.’s Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, said in an interview. “Generally, lower carbon intensity obviously is better.”

Besides the complexities of hydrogen production, a major challenge on the consumer level to overcome is the lack of hydrogen infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles in Canada.

Burnaby, B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems Inc., the maker of hydrogen fuel cells, tested its technology in Whistler, B.C., from 2009 to 2014, outfitting 20 buses.

Hydrogen fuel cells create electricity without emitting carbon dioxide, providing a cleaner alternative to energy generated by fossil fuels.

During the five-year pilot project in Whistler for the zero-emission buses equipped with Ballard fuel cells, hydrogen had to be trucked in from Air Liquide Canada’s plant at Bécancour.

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While Ballard gained insights for honing its technology, the bus project got cancelled in 2014.

Much-publicized talk about a hydrogen highway from B.C. to California never materialized. But a hydrogen fuelling station finally opened in Vancouver in 2018.

B.C. has positioned itself to become the leader in Canada in hydrogen outlets, albeit at a gradual pace. By the end of 2023, at least 16 hydrogen stations are expected to be available in B.C. for motorists who drive fuel cell vehicles.

For now, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles remain a niche market, trailing far behind the popularity of battery-powered cars such those manufactured by Tesla Inc.

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