Hydrogen is so hot right now.
The chemical element seems to have the magical power to unite disparate Canadian interests in common purpose. As The Globe and Mail reported this week, both Justin Trudeau’s federal government and Jason Kenney’s Alberta one, which don’t see eye to eye often, are aiming to release industrial strategies for the fuel source by summer’s end. And environmentalists and members of the oil-and-gas industry are equally likely to be on board.
It’s easy to see why. Hydrogen appears to be emerging as a key component of global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially through fuel-cell technology replacing diesel to power large-freight transport, as well as helping clean up industrial processes and energy generation. And Canada may have a competitive advantage in producing it at lower cost than other countries, because of the ability to leverage oil-and-gas infrastructure and processes.
But if hydrogen’s success as a domestic industry were a sure thing, governments wouldn’t need to step in to the extent that they’re considering doing so, with public investment in related infrastructure. The push for government support, by an emerging hydrogen lobby, reflects risk – in a long-term bet on a product not yet widely adopted despite past waves of excitement – that the private sector won’t accept on its own.
It’s a dynamic that also applies to other clean-tech plays that Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Kenney and others are currently under pressure to make – “bitumen beyond combustion,” carbon capture, geothermal – as a way of using coming stimulus spending to prepare resource provinces to compete in a lower-emissions world.
That doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t take such gambles. But this strange summer, in which they’re trying to develop policies for a postpandemic economy, is a window for making sure they understand what they’re getting themselves into.
It’s not as though anyone in a position of power has to look far for examples of how industrial strategies around new forms of resource development can work out, for better and worse.
Advocates of government intervention point to Alberta’s oil industry. Then-premier Peter Lougheed placed a big bet in the 1970s on in-situ oil sands extraction to diversify from traditional oil reserves, including through the creation of a new provincial agency to help spur technological advances. Decades later, that investment – pivotal to developing processes to pull bitumen from deep in the ground – paid back so exponentially that it now seems impossible that it was initially greeted with skepticism.
Critics of government trying to pick winners can point to former premier Dalton McGuinty’s attempt, coming out of the 2008-09 financial crisis, to position Ontario as a green-energy hub. After it briefly appeared that Mr. McGuinty had captured the zeitgeist, the expensive industrial strategy proved to rest on several faulty assumptions, including that paying large premiums for wind and solar energy would cause manufacturers to permanently set up camp in the province. It was abandoned by his successors.
Perhaps more alarming for governments considering such strategies are examples in which they’ve had considerable success, but been defined by their failures. Barack Obama’s inclusion of about US$90-billion in green-energy supports as part of his administration’s 2009 economic-recovery plan helped spur a booming U.S. wind and solar industry, among other benefits. But it became best known for the collapse of the solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which defaulted on a US$528-million guaranteed loan.
When it comes to hydrogen, the prospect of wearing any disappointments evidently isn’t deterring some other countries. In fact, it’s an increasingly crowded space, with Germany, South Korea, Australia, China, Norway and others having launched their own strategies.
That, in turn, is contributing to calls for Canada to quickly plunge in. In an interview, Dan Wicklum – who heads the Transition Accelerator, a new non-profit leading the Canadian hydrogen push – said he expects the strategy that Ottawa is promising this summer will “set a context” rather than commit funding. But he argued for the public money to start flowing very shortly thereafter, ideally through the establishment of a new independent entity. This would drive the “complex system retooling” needed to create enough of a domestic hydrogen market to put Canadian producers on a path to compete globally.
“We don’t have years,” Mr. Wicklum said of avoiding falling behind international competitors. “We’ve got weeks or months.”
If weeks might be an overstatement, he’s right that a race is on. The same likely applies to some of the other clean-tech areas to which Alberta in particular hopes to diversify, amid the oil sector’s woes, as governments around the world roll out green stimulus.
That may not be an ideal scenario in which to make assessments about where bets are best placed, as Ottawa and the provinces cobble together their own recovery plans. They could surely use more time to do their homework.
Based on the talk of a hydrogen strategy coming soon, Mr. Trudeau’s government may feel that it doesn’t have that luxury, if it wants to make the most of the best opportunity for some time to introduce lots of new spending aimed at clean-economy transition.
If so, the Liberals would do well to start trying to bring the public along and cement cross-partisan consensus, since we’re not talking about a short-term project to be completed in the lifespan of one government.
And it should be gut-check time, for them, as to whether they believe strongly enough in the technology’s potential to invest heavily enough for it to be worthwhile, and to stand by that investment even if the hype cools.