The relentless winds that buffet the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador have caught the attention of renewable-power developers who want to harness them and use the clean electricity to produce hydrogen, with Germany as a potential customer.
They believe the sector can become a driving force of the province’s economy, pointing to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s scheduled meeting in Stephenville, N.L., this week to sign a hydrogen agreement.
Mr. Scholz landed in Montreal on Sunday for a visit that also includes a stop in Toronto. He is being accompanied by Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, who is in charge of the country’s energy file.
The province lifted a moratorium on the construction of wind farms earlier this year and on July 26 issued a call for proposals to put turbines on Crown lands. Already, more than a dozen project proponents have reached out to the government.
Most are interested in tying wind farms to hydrogen production, Minister of Industry, Energy and Technology Andrew Parsons told The Globe and Mail in a recent interview.
“We want to move as quickly as possible, given the fact that we’re competing against other jurisdictions,” Mr. Parsons said.
“The reason we’re so bullish is we see an opportunity here.”
But at the same time, he stressed, the province needs to develop permit and assessment processes that are transparent and fair.
“It’s a balancing act of timeliness versus pragmatism and common sense,” he said.
One of the companies pitching a project is World Energy GH2 Inc., a U.S.-based biodiesel producer that wants to build a 164-turbine, one-gigawatt wind farm on the Port au Port Peninsula, on the province’s west coast. The installation would power a hydrogen/ammonia production facility at the site of the old Abitibi-Consolidated pulp mill in Stephenville. (Ammonia is easier to transport than pure hydrogen; when it reaches its destination it can be chemically split, allowing its hydrogen atoms to be used for fuel.)
Nova Scotia-based billionaire businessman John Risley, a co-founder of Clearwater Seafoods and a director at World Energy, believes the project could be a catalyst for a booming hydrogen sector in Atlantic Canada. But he said governments must “show some courage” and move swiftly to develop appropriate policies.
“I love my country, it’s been good to me. I want to invest here, I want to build successful businesses here, but we can be our own worst enemy,” he said in a recent interview.
“We just cannot get out of our own way sometimes. And I just worry that we cannot make people understand that this is a global opportunity. The wind blows in a whole bunch of other places around the world, and we are in a race with those jurisdictions.”
Hydrogen as a fuel is light, storable and energy-dense. It produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.
World Energy started considering renewable-powered hydrogen production in Atlantic Canada about 14 months ago, casting its eye around for a jurisdiction with substantial wind resources, access to a high-voltage power-distribution grid and a port that can ship product to Europe.
The Stephenville site has all that, Mr. Risley said, along with access to an abundant supply of fresh water needed to produce hydrogen.
He estimates the cost of the project at US$10.5-billion to US$12-billion, which he said would be the largest single private-sector investment ever made in Atlantic Canada. It would bring a flood of jobs to a region that had an unemployment rate hovering around 12 per cent in July and would produce the kind of clean energy needed to lower emissions in the fight against climate change.
But there is local opposition to the project – something Mr. Risley said he finds discouraging.
“It’s somewhat ironic that we’ve got people who are calling themselves environmentalists who say they don’t want the wind farm in their backyard – they want us to go somewhere else. And you sort of shake your head,” he said.
“Look, if you’re against this, what’s the future? What are you going to be in favour of?”
Paul Wylezol isn’t just concerned that the project could damage ecologically sensitive lands in the region. As co-chair of the International Appalachian Trail and chair of the Cabox Aspiring UNESCO Global Geopark, Mr. Wylezol also worries about the wind farm’s impact on tourism and future liabilities once the facility is decommissioned.
And he believes there has been a lack of transparency in the permit process for the project, which is now heading to an environmental review.
“We have no problem with resource development, it’s just how they go about it,” he said in an interview from the bed and breakfast he owns in Portland Creek, N.L., on the island’s west coast.
Instead of building the wind farm on land, he supports an offshore facility that could potentially anchor marine sanctuaries that would serve as nurseries to help improve fish stocks.
“What point is there to destroy tens of thousands of acres of natural wilderness … in order to have green energy to reduce emissions?” he said.
“It’s totally unnecessary when we can go offshore. We don’t have to build the roads. We don’t have to have the power lines. So it’s far less impact.”
Another company eyeing a wind power and hydrogen production facility in the province is Pattern Energy, one of the largest producers of wind energy in Canada.
In June, Pattern signed an option to lease agreement with the Port of Argentia on the Avalon Peninsula, about 130 kilometres west of St. John’s.
A former U.S. naval base, the site’s current role as an industrial and commercial hub means the project would not harm unspoiled wilderness – plus, it’s on an active shipping lane, with transatlantic routes already available, said Frank Davis, the country head of Pattern Canada.
The project is currently in its planning and feasibility stages, and Mr. Davis hopes it can be up and running in 2025 or 2026.
Mr. Davis, who was born and raised in St. John’s, said Newfoundland and Labrador’s vast wind resources and location, coupled with the growing global interest in renewable-powered hydrogen production – particularly in Europe – is a huge opportunity for the province.
“We view the potential for renewable-powered, green fuel production and exports to be a new, foundational industry in the province and a major employer of people in the long term.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
Editor’s note: The location of Port of Argentia on the Avalon Peninsula in relation to St. John's has been corrected in the online version of this story.