Wind howls across the Port of Argentia, picking up foam from the frigid Bay of Placentia and flinging it indiscriminately on ships, trucks and people.
It’s folly to try walking against these gusts, which stunt tree growth along the coast of Newfoundland. And yet they are a natural resource – one officials at the port and the province are betting on to help diversify and bolster the local economy.
They hope to harness all that wind energy to power the production of hydrogen, a fuel that countries around the world are eyeing as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“There’s always a chance things won’t pan out,” said Keith Pearson, mayor of the nearby town of Placentia, a picturesque community of around 3,500 people whose economy stands to gain if the hydrogen ever starts to flow.
“But when you’ve got world leaders talking about it, when you’ve got the Prime Minister of Canada talking about it and the Premier of Newfoundland talking about green hydrogen – I mean, it’s not just me that’s looking at this. It’s leaders around the world who are understanding where the market’s going.”
Newfoundland and Labrador has moved quickly to propel development of wind-powered hydrogen production since December, 2021, when the province’s Liberal government launched a renewable energy plan intended to guide a reduction in fossil fuel use while building the renewables sector.
Wind will play a crucial role. It whips across the province with abundance, and is a “consistently strong resource that few jurisdictions can match” – one that offers “potential opportunities to provide grid energy, power offshore oil and gas, and power the production of green hydrogen/ammonia for export,” according to the province’s energy-plan document.
In April, the province lifted a 15-year moratorium on the development of wind power, eager to harness both the on- and offshore potential of the renewable resource, including for hydrogen production.
As a fuel, hydrogen is light, storable and energy-dense. When burned, it produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases, making it an attractive prospect for decarbonization.
By Oct. 31, companies had proposed 73 wind energy projects in the Atlantic province, as proponents looked at ways of using the region’s significant wind resources to power electrolyzers, which produce hydrogen from water by electrically separating hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen produced this way is sometimes referred to as “green hydrogen.” (As opposed to hydrogen made from natural gas, sometimes known as “blue hydrogen.”)
The government gave the sector another boost last week, when it released a new fiscal framework for wind-hydrogen projects that it said would ensure the province reaps maximum economic returns while encouraging investment in the emerging industry.
Energy NL, an advocacy group that represents the province’s energy industry, is also embracing the renewable resource. Earlier this year, it launched a new campaign aimed at highlighting Newfoundland and Labrador’s potential for wind development and hydrogen production.
“We have seen what the energy sector can do for our province through our oil and gas projects. We see wind development as the next evolutionary step in the expansion of our energy sector,” Charlene Johnson, the group’s chief executive, said in a January news release announcing the campaign.
The province’s push for wind power has already begun to have an effect on the Port of Argentia, an ice-free industrial seaport about 130 kilometres west of St. John’s, located alongside the main North Atlantic shipping lanes between North America and Europe.
The sprawling site was once a U.S. naval base and airfield, but these days its roughly 9,000 acres are run by a private non-profit that plays host to a diverse group of tenants, including companies involved in marine transportation, construction, cannabis, offshore oil and mining.
The port has been inundated with many wind-hydrogen project applications, port CEO Scott Penney said in an interview, and it had the luxury of choosing one that seemed like the best fit for the region.
It went with Pattern Energy Group LP, which wants to build a hydrogen and ammonia production and export facility powered by up to 1.4 gigawatts of installed wind-energy capacity.
The Pattern project is expected to require capital investment of more than US$4-billion, and the company hopes to begin commercial production in 2025.
Mr. Penney said the port chose Pattern in part because of the company’s established record of successful renewable energy ventures, and its reputation for “not rocking the boat” with communities, governments or other stakeholders.
Interest in building wind farms in the area goes back quite a while, according to Mr. Pearson, the Placentia mayor. But the Pattern project is “the most promising thing I’ve seen come along,” he said.
In August, the Canadian and German governments signed a deal to co-operate on exporting hydrogen fuel to Europe. The agreement set an ambitious target: begin shipments from Eastern Canada in 2025.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz signed the agreement in the western Newfoundland town of Stephenville, near the site of another proposed wind-hydrogen project. That one is being pitched by another company, World Energy GH2 Inc.
Both Mr. Penney and Mr. Pearson said that although they are excited about the potential benefits of wind-powered hydrogen production for the region, their optimism is tempered by caution.
Andrew Parsons, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology, said he understands that hesitancy.
“There is an inherent cynicism that in some cases is absolutely well-founded, where we’ve got a history of well-documented resource development failures. We’ve been burned before,” he said.
But he said the “best way to counter cynicism is with sunshine – and so by shining a light on it, opening it up, letting people see it and realize that generally there’s nothing to fear in exploration of opportunity.”
There is virtually no precedent for green hydrogen, Mr. Parsons said, so the provincial government has ended up “trying to make best practices where none really exist, and trying to get as much certainty as we can in an uncertain environment.”
Still, Newfoundland and Labrador has to move forward, he said.
“I think we owe it to ourselves if we want to combat the migration of people out of this province and turn it around.”