A long-running annual conference in St. John's that's typically laser-focused on oil and gas made way for renewables Wednesday, with a U.S.-based wind energy leader pitching a green hydrogen project for the Port of Argentia.
"Today I guess we've taken the next step in Argentia transitioning in the green economy," said Wayne Power, chairman of the Port of Argentia board of directors and deputy mayor of the nearby town of Placentia.
Pattern Energy, based in San Francisco, is a major player in renewable energy, producing more than six gigawatts of electricity globally.
It also has a strong presence in Canada, with wind projects in five provinces.
Now it aims to include a sixth province in its business portfolio but wants to take it a step further by using wind power as an energy source to make green hydrogen to supply a rapidly growing market in Europe and elsewhere.
The man in charge of Pattern Energy's Canadian division, Frank Davis, is a Canadian expat from Newfoundland who wants to tap into the province's legendary wind resource.
"We think Newfoundland is a very logical and very exciting place to be developing these projects to service the international demand for these fuels," Davis told reporters after his presentation to delegates at the Energy N.L. conference.
Argentia has caught Pattern's attention because of an abundance of land, fresh water and a ready supply of wind off Placentia Bay. And with a well-developed port, it's also strategically positioned as a gateway to markets in Europe.
"All of those things are coming in line now," said Power.
Pattern has signed an option to lease up to 4,000 acres of undeveloped land at the former U.S. naval base, in a forested area called the backlands.
The company plans to carry out a study to determine whether it's feasible to develop a wind energy farm, a hydrogen electrolysis plant and storage facility, and related green fuels infrastructure on port lands.
The company hopes to form partnerships with other companies in the sector and aims to export green fuels, including carbon-free green ammonia, to global markets.
Davis said the company is not looking for "subsidies or handouts" from the provincial government but said, "We need a transparent and streamlined permitting process, and an ability to construct some projects on Crown land."
As for incentives from the federal government, Davis said "progressive policies" will be required to ensure such projects are competitive with those being pursued in other countries, especially the United States.
"We expect the feds will have a role to play," he said.
"What we will need from the province is a willing and co-operative host that we can work with productively, and those discussions have already started."
Davis added that the company plans to consult widely, including with Indigenous groups.
The size and scale of the proposed project will be determined in the coming months, and Pattern Energy expects to have enough information about whether it will invest in a full-scale project in about a year's time, said Davis.
"This very much will be a major employer for the region, we believe, both during construction but also for the entire life of the operations," he said.
Davis says Newfoundland and Labrador has the potential to become a global export leader in renewable energy such as green hydrogen.
"We're hearing from the Europeans that this demand is real and it's coming, and by 2030, they want to be utilizing 20 million tonnes of hydrogen a year. So this is a project we need to act on quickly and deploy a lot of resources to get this constructed as soon as possible," he said.
Green hydrogen is an emerging technology, with a process that will require an abundance of fresh water, land and — of course — a stiff breeze.
Experts say Newfoundland has great potential and developers are taking notice.
"All those key elements are here for Newfoundland and Labrador to become a significant hydrogen producer in the future," said Nathan Ashcroft, who is studying the potential of hydrogen for Stantec, an international engineering and consulting company.
Roughly 75 per cent of the world's energy supply comes from combustible fuels, and Ashcroft says he believes that will be the case for decades to come. But, he said, there's only one combustible fuel that has zero greenhouse gas emissions: hydrogen produced from renewable energy such as wind or hydro power.
Many countries are rushing to meet what is expected to be a big demand in the coming years, but Ashcroft says Newfoundland and Labrador has a competitive advantage.
However, he said, "the regulatory environment is going to need to move quickly to enable this industry."
Pattern Energy is just the latest company to show an interest in this province, lured by the government's recent decision to end a moratorium on wind energy projects, and a scramble by European economies to end their dependency on Russian natural gas.
Davis says there's room for multiple developments in the province.
"We think the scale of the potential here in Newfoundland is that there will be more than one project location. And in that respect we look forward to working with other developers."