Alberta wants more hydrogen vehicles. Experts say fuel infrastructure needs to come with them

A hydrogen-fuelled truck sits on the exhibition floor at the Canadian Hydrogen Convention this week. (Madeline Smith/CBC - image credit)
A hydrogen-fuelled truck sits on the exhibition floor at the Canadian Hydrogen Convention this week. (Madeline Smith/CBC - image credit)

Businesses are touting the potential for hydrogen to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from commercial transportation.

But when it comes to getting more vehicles rolling on Alberta streets and highways, industry officials say they haven't closed the distance yet.

Hydrogen-fuelled buses and trucks were on display at the exhibition floor during this week's Canadian Hydrogen Convention, as more than 8,000 people descended on downtown Edmonton.

Edmonton and Strathcona County each have one hydrogen bus running as part of a pilot project. And in January, a hydrogen fuel cell electric truck towing an empty trailer made a round trip between Edmonton and Calgary — a test run that's part of an Alberta Motor Transport Association (AMTA) pilot to see how hydrogen-powered trucks perform on long-haul trips.

Terri Johnson, the AMTA manager of industry advancement, told a convention crowd that the trip took less than two-thirds of the hydrogen tank. The next step is another test, with the weight of a loaded trailer.

But Johnson told CBC News that there's still work ahead to get more big companies using hydrogen for their Alberta fleets.

"They're really vetting us as much as we're vetting them," she said.

"They want to make sure that we have mechanics, that we have the bays, that we have fuel supply that's available for their specific vehicle — and that when they deploy a truck here in our region, we actually can support the truck."

New hydrogen fuelling network planned for QEII

Regional investment group Edmonton Global is promoting an initiative, launched last year, to get 5,000 hydrogen or dual fuel vehicles operating in western Canada by 2028.

But getting there means working through a big question: Which comes first, the hydrogen vehicles, or the fuelling stations?

The province unveiled Alberta's first commercial hydrogen fuelling station last month, just south of Edmonton, in Leduc County.

And on Tuesday, U.S.-based company Air Products announced plans to build a network of hydrogen fuelling stations between Edmonton and Calgary.

Air Products Canada vice-president Rachel Smith said multiple sites have been identified for new stations along the QEII Highway corridor. The company didn't specify how much the project will cost or when it will be completed, but Smith said the plan is to start moving toward construction as soon as possible.

Smith said each station will be capable of fuelling as many as 200 heavy-duty trucks, or 2,000 cars, every day. The company is currently building a massive hydrogen plant in northeast Edmonton.

Alec Cervenka, manager of zero-emissions sales at truck manufacturer Kenworth, said hydrogen investments have to be worth it for both the companies making the vehicles and building the infrastructure.

Madeline Smith/CBC
Madeline Smith/CBC

"You have to have the right amount of vehicles to make sure the [fuelling] station can actually be useful and stay in operation," he said.

"The catch is in trying to get the vehicles out there. There's a lot of interest. But compared to a diesel vehicle, it's about four times the cost of a similar diesel tractor."

There are federal incentives for medium- and heavy-duty zero-emission vehicles, and Cervenka said setting a provincial program in Alberta would help more companies make the numbers work.

A spokesperson for Edmonton Global said they expect to see the number of hydrogen vehicles accelerate in the coming two years, with more progress on building fuelling infrastructure.

The Alberta government also rolled out more funding for hydrogen transportation projects this week, with money to test new fuelling systems, build infrastructure to support hydrogen-fuelled public transit and help the City of Calgary pilot hydrogen vehicles and equipment.