NB Power CEO says Joi Scientific technology 'may still work'

NB Power's CEO says Joi Scientific's hydrogen technology "may still work," even after the province's minister of natural resources and energy development says he hasn't been presented with any proof it's viable.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, after announcing Hydro-Québec will provide expertise in refurbishing the Mactaquac Dam, CEO Gaëtan Thomas said he agreed with Minister Mike Holland's recommendation not to spend any additional money on Joi Scientific.

In response to a question about whether the project was scrutinized properly, Thomas said it was "well scrutinized."

"It was a good idea and it may still work," he said.

"But the viability will take longer. And I've been on the record to say that many times."

The Florida-based startup claims to have found an efficient way to convert seawater to hydrogen, which would be a significant scientific breakthrough, but two former employees have told CBC News that it doesn't work as advertised.

NB Power and the Regional Development Corporation spent $13 million Cdn to license Joi's technology. Additionally, the utility was operating a lab at Joi's Florida headquarters and NB Power spent more than $178,000 US to run that lab in 2019.

On New Year's Eve, Holland told CBC News that NB Power had agreed not to spend any further money on Joi, which spelled the end of the Florida lab.

Holland had previously set a deadline of the end of the year to make a decision on the future of the project, as final tests were underway.

"Once that's completed, either you send me somebody from MIT who says, 'Eureka!' or it didn't deliver the results and then we wrap things up," Holland said in November.

But in December, Holland said those tests were delayed and the "Eureka!" moment hadn't happened.

A final decision

According to a briefing note prepared for Holland in November, any financial commitment to Joi Scientific in 2020 would have been "on a month-by-month basis" and would have depended "on testing results."

It described the decision that Holland ultimately made as a "final 'go' – 'no go' decision."

"Testing had not been able to confirm the energy balance due to the complexity of the design," the briefing note, dated Nov. 5, 2019, also says. 

Joi Scientific

"Energy balance is a key area of focus of NB Power's work plan."

Several other details about the current status of the technology were redacted from the copy of the note, which was made public recently via the Energy and Utilities Board.

Thomas will remain on Joi's board

While NB Power won't keep spending on a Florida lab, that doesn't end the utility's relationship with Joi Scientific.

Thomas confirmed he will remain on Joi's board of directors, which is elected each year, until his retirement at the end of May. He isn't compensated for his position on the board and it's tied to the utility, not to him personally. 

As of November, a statement from Joi Scientific's vice-president of marketing, Vicky Harris, said the company was committed to working on its technology "in co-operation with our licensees, including NB Power."

The statement said the company has "encountered delays and technical challenges" but was working through them with partners. It didn't elaborate on those delays and technical challenges.

"We remain confident that Joi Scientific is on the right path to create a new, cost-effective, and clean energy source in the form of green hydrogen," the statement said.