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A hydrogen truck on display at the Edmonton Convention Centre in Edmonton on April 27.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

Oil-rich Alberta produces millions of tonnes of hydrogen each year, generally using it to crack bitumen to produce gasoline, diesel, plastics and fertilizers.

But there’s a growing recognition the fuel can do more to help lower global greenhouse gas emissions, and around 5,000 people descended on Alberta’s capital this week to discuss those opportunities at the Canadian Hydrogen Convention in downtown Edmonton.

Hydrogen as a fuel is light, storable and energy-dense. It produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases, and the International Energy Agency says it will be key to reaching net zero by 2050.

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As convention panels discussed regulatory and infrastructure changes to beef up the sector, financing the energy transition and initiatives to scale up consumer demand, sector announcements came thick and fast. They included a partnership for a hydrogen fuel manufacturing facility, the establishment of a new $50-million Alberta Hydrogen Centre of Excellence, and close to a dozen deals between the Edmonton International Airport and various parties to boost hydrogen demand and explore alternative fuels.

Hydrogen first fuelled engines 200 years ago, but pushes for its mainstream adoption since then have fallen flat.

Canada’s Natural Resources Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, remembers well one of the world’s failed dalliances with hydrogen, from his prepolitics life when he worked in the green technology sector. “The technology wasn’t quite ready for prime time,” he told The Globe and Mail in Edmonton this week.

That’s all changed, because of a global push to lower greenhouse gas emissions and a broad acceptance of hydrogen’s critical role in doing so. As a result, the political and investment appetite for hydrogen has grown.

Take the new Hydrogen Centre of Excellence. Run by the arms-length government agency Alberta Innovates, it will fund programs and testing facilities, and facilitate partnerships to de-risk hydrogen development for young technologies and companies.

“Investors cannot put that level of capital risk into a technology that’s precommercial and that’s at a demonstration level,” said Heather Campbell, who will oversee the centre in her role as the executive director of clean technology at the agency. “They need to have more validation, they need to have more proven capability. And that occurs through this process.”

Around 5,000 people descended on Edmonton this week to attend the Canadian Hydrogen Convention.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

At Edmonton’s airport, a stack of new partnerships is focused on developing demand for hydrogen, including for taxis, car rentals and airport vehicles.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario. If you don’t have demand, you can have supply; but you don’t supply, you can’t have demand,” airport vice-president Myron Keehn said. When it comes to lowering emissions, he added, “it’s about having all the tools in the toolbox.”

Still, there is some skepticism about the role hydrogen will play in decarbonization efforts – particularly because most hydrogen production relies on natural gas coupled with carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, which traps CO2 emissions and stores them deep underground.

Indeed, Canada’s federal environment commissioner said in a report this week the country’s hydrogen strategy contained “unrealistic assumptions” and likely overstated the role that the element can play in meeting 2030 emissions targets.

Ottawa has also been criticized for its rollout of a less lucrative tax credit for clean technology investments than for CCUS used in hydrogen production. Dan Woynillowicz, an energy policy consultant with Polaris Strategy + Insight, says the decision will incentivize blue hydrogen made from natural gas (which has higher life-cycle emissions), when the focus should be on hydrogen produced from renewable energy.

Instead, he said, the government should create an even playing field, and then let the different technologies compete to figure out “how can we deliver the cleanest hydrogen at the lowest cost.”

A hydrogen car on display at the convention. Hydrogen as a fuel is light, storable and energy-dense, and it produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

But Mr. Wilkinson said the CCUS tax credit was based on the economics of bolstering the sector.

“If we did something that was not going to be sufficient to incent private industry to actually put capital on the table to do this, then we haven’t achieved anything,” he said.

“In the short term, we need to do everything we can to drive down the carbon intensity of hydrogen that’s derived from natural gas, because it is significantly more cost effective.”

Like many people who spoke with The Globe during the conference, Mr. Wilkinson balks at labelling hydrogen based on its production process, which has until recently been something of a rainbow – blue for natural gas, green for renewables.

Instead, he and others focus on the carbon intensity of the product, arguing that capturing pollution during manufacturing significantly reduces the fuel’s overall carbon footprint.

Hydrogen will be a critical part of the transition to a low-carbon future, he said, so a push for the fuel will likely continue.

“We’re running out of time in terms of making the emissions reductions that we need to make.”

With a report from Marieke Walsh in Ottawa

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