Hydrogen a 'serious contender' as the N.W.T. considers greener energy

The N.W.T. government is looking at hydrogen as one of its options for greener energy. But the conclusion of a workshop held last year is that more research needs to be done to understand if its viable and economical in the North. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images - image credit)
The N.W.T. government is looking at hydrogen as one of its options for greener energy. But the conclusion of a workshop held last year is that more research needs to be done to understand if its viable and economical in the North. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images - image credit)

Hydrogen is a "serious contender" as the territorial government mulls its options for greener power, according to the N.W.T.'s director of energy.

But there are still a lot of questions about the emerging alternative — like whether existing hydrogen technologies will work in a northern climate, what the infrastructure would cost, and what would be the best way to use it.

Robert Sexton, the N.W.T.'s director of energy, told CBC News the Department of Infrastructure will commission a hydrogen feasibility study within the next 12 months that will answer those questions.

"There's a lot of hype and excitement about it, there's federal money being put towards it," he said. "There's a lot of investment going into hydrogen, and that's going to change things. It's going to change the economics, it's going to change the quality of the technology."

A report about a hydrogen workshop the territory organized in 2022 just came out this month.

What is hydrogen — and how green is it? 

Hydrogen has been used as an energy source for decades, but there is renewed enthusiasm for the sector as a way to jump-start the transition to a world that uses low-carbon energy.

Hydrogen can be used to power automotive vehicles, but the amount of pollution it creates depends on how it's made.

"Right now, most of the hydrogen in Canada is being made through oil and gas production," said Sexton, referring to what is sometimes called "grey hydrogen." This process creates greenhouse gas emissions.

In order for hydrogen to reduce emissions, it needs to be made using renewable energy — like solar, wind, or hydro power. You might hear this type of hydrogen referred to as "green hydrogen."

(There's also blue hydrogen. It's made using oil and gas, but the emissions are then captured and stored so they aren't released into the air.)

Hydrogen potential in the N.W.T.

Sexton said the N.W.T. could choose to produce its own hydrogen using electricity, or it could import it from elsewhere.

One of its limitations, he said, is that the territory doesn't have any of the infrastructure needed to produce, ship, store or use hydrogen. It would all need to be built. And, as Sexton pointed out, it's usually more expensive to do things in the North than in the southern provinces.

Zachary Cunningham is an energy system analyst with the Transition Accelerator, a non-profit organization set up to help Canada reach its climate goals. As a masters student at the University of Calgary, he worked on a capstone project for the N.W.T. that examined the potential for hydrogen in the territory.

Travis Golby/CBC
Travis Golby/CBC

He said it would be more practical to use hydrogen in the heavy transportation industry — with trucks that either exclusively use hydrogen, or use diesel as well — than to heat homes.

"To have fueling stations in the Yellowknife area, that's something that probably could happen. Generate it in that area and have a fueling station and trucks go and refuel from there," he said.

Filling a vehicle with hydrogen would be more comparable to filling a pressurized propane bottle than filling a vehicle at a gas station, said Cunningham. That's because hydrogen will likely be used as a compressed gas rather than in it's extremely cold liquid form.

Transportation generates most of the N.W.T.s carbon emissions. In order for heavy trucking to switch to hydrogen, Sexton said there'd have to be fueling stations in Alberta and along transportation corridors as well.

Liny Lamberink/CBC
Liny Lamberink/CBC

Although using hydrogen in diesel-reliant N.W.T. communities would require a way of shipping the gas, Sexton sees opportunity there too. That's because hydrogen has the capacity to store energy for longer than a battery.

"Hydrogen could represent a seasonal storage where you can store energy for longer periods of time to balance out renewable energy," he said. "We can capture solar power in the summer and use hydrogen in the winter. But that all depends on the economics."

Sexton said hydrogen is not particularly well-suited to the aviation industry right now because it's not as energy-dense, meaning you need more space to store it.

Exploring other options

Although there's hype around hydrogen, Sexton said electrification and renewable diesel are serious contenders in the N.W.T.'s energy transition as well.

In an effort to reduce its carbon emissions, the territory has also looked into selling its surplus electricity, increasing the amount of renewable energy that can be added to power grids, and is participating in the Yukon's feasibility study into small modular reactors.

The N.W.T. government has also studied a network of electric vehicle charging stations, and has received funding from the federal government to start building one.

The hydrogen feasibility study being commissioned in the next year will help the territory figure out which options to pursue further.

"There's so much happening," said Sexton, noting an explosion in green energy technologies in the last five to ten years. "We have to stay positive," he said.