Edmonton climate committee says blue hydrogen not a solution for city emissions goals

An Edmonton Transit Service hydrogen-fuelled bus sits on the exhibition floor at the 2024 Canadian Hydrogen Convention. (Madeline Smith/CBC - image credit)
An Edmonton Transit Service hydrogen-fuelled bus sits on the exhibition floor at the 2024 Canadian Hydrogen Convention. (Madeline Smith/CBC - image credit)

A group of experts that advises city council on Edmonton's climate change plans is raising concerns about turning to hydrogen to reduce the city's carbon emissions.

The co-chairs of Edmonton's energy transition climate resilience committee say hydrogen is increasingly being presented as a path to meeting the city's emissions reduction targets. But when it comes to hydrogen produced from natural gas, they told council members in a recent letter that they don't see evidence it will help Edmonton decarbonize.

"Grey" hydrogen and "blue" hydrogen are both made from natural gas, and that process produces greenhouse gas emissions — but blue hydrogen integrates carbon capture and storage.

The committee's letter says there are still outstanding concerns about the environmental cost of extracting the natural gas to produce blue hydrogen and questions about the efficiency of carbon capture efforts.

"As we as a city consider throwing our proverbial hats into the blue hydrogen ring, we must understand that there is a real possibility that, by doing this, we may not actually improve affordability, or reduce our emissions, in any significant way," the May 2 letter says.

Without a detailed analysis of the potential cost to Edmonton taxpayers and a third-party analysis of the whole picture of emissions associated with blue hydrogen, the committee recommends that no city projects or plans should incorporate it for decarbonization.

Committee co-chair Jacob Komar told CBC News that there's a time and place for blue hydrogen, pointing to heavy industry like fertilizer and steel production, where hydrogen is the only real alternative to fossil fuels.

"But to use it for space heating or transportation is very wasteful," he said, noting zero-emissions options for personal vehicles and home heating already exist, and they're more efficient.

"It's not just us coming up with this and saying this ourselves. We're saying this because there's huge scientific concern that this will ever be a solution."

Alberta's hydrogen roadmap

Hydrogen has been broadly promoted in Alberta, with the provincial government rolling out a hydrogen roadmap in 2021 for expanding a "clean hydrogen economy." The federal government also released a Canada-wide hydrogen strategy in 2020.

Ryan Fournier, press secretary for Alberta Environment Minister Rebecca Schulz, said in a statement Monday that the province is "technology agnostic" on clean hydrogen development.

"We support any type of hydrogen production, including electrolytic green hydrogen, as long as the produced hydrogen is low carbon intensity, and meets our province's economic and environmental goals," he said.

A City of Edmonton spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday that Edmonton's interest in hydrogen "is aligned with both the provincial and federal governments' priorities in emissions reduction and clean energy."

Hydrogen is considered "green" when it's split from water using renewable electricity, producing no emissions. The climate resilience committee's position is that pursuing blue hydrogen doesn't automatically make it easier to switch.

"By promoting the use of blue hydrogen we risk locking Edmonton into long-term carbon-intensive hydrogen generating
processes. The city's stated goals are exactly the opposite."

The city currently has one hydrogen-fuelled bus in its fleet, running as part of a pilot project. Plans to expand are paused for now, with council opting earlier this year to hold off on buying 40 new hydrogen fuel-cell buses because of financial constraints.

An expert committee that advises council on energy transition initiatives says city projects shouldn't use blue hydrogen without more research. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Ward papastew Coun. Michael Janz, one of two council advisers appointed to the energy transition climate resilience committee, said the memo to council gives him pause.

"I think any time we have someone saying, 'Hey, the sparkle doesn't match the shine here,' we need to take a look at that. If anything, having this information gives us ammo to ask better questions," he said.

Ward pihêsiwin Coun. Tim Cartmell told CBC News he's aware of the issues highlighted by the committee but said it is just one consideration for the city when it comes to making budget decisions and trying to reduce emissions.

"I don't think that we're we're all in [on hydrogen], but there's also a risk of perfect is the enemy of good here," he said.

"We need to replace half our bus fleet over the next 10 years, and we have no way to do that. So you look at overhauling the buses that you do have. ... For relatively little cost, we can go into a blended fuel arrangement where we get far more efficiency from our diesel fuel buses by blending in some hydrogen.

"So it's not perfect. It's not the panacea that saves the world, but it's a lot better than what we have right now."