Where does hydrogen fit into Alberta's energy future?

·5 min read
About two-thirds of Canada's hydrogen comes from Alberta. The clean burning fuel can be used to power cars and heat homes, but producing it is more environmentally complicated. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images - image credit)
About two-thirds of Canada's hydrogen comes from Alberta. The clean burning fuel can be used to power cars and heat homes, but producing it is more environmentally complicated. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images - image credit)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.

Canadian policy-makers will meet with other world leaders at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, starting on Sunday. A big part of their pitch on how Canada can curb its carbon emissions focuses on expanding the country's hydrogen industry, which would have a major impact on Alberta.

About two-thirds of Canada's hydrogen comes from Alberta. The clean burning fuel can be used to power cars and heat homes, but producing it is more environmentally complicated. Right now, most hydrogen that comes out of Alberta is grey. That means greenhouse gases are created during the process that turns natural gas into hydrogen.

Those pollutants can be captured and stored resulting in a cleaner blue hydrogen, but that increases production costs. Green hydrogen is produced using water and renewable electricity — that process is the most expensive but also the cleanest.

Alberta is slated to release its updated hydrogen roadmap in the next few weeks.

Here are two experts in the field offering insight into our hydrogen future. David Layzell is an energy systems architect for the Transition Accelerator, a non-profit focused on moving toward a net-zero future. Assistant professor Sara Hastings-Simon is with the University of Calgary, director of the sustainable development master's program.

  • WATCH | Two experts offer thoughts on hydrogen in our energy future, ahead of COP26 this weekend

Q: How will hydrogen help Canada get to net zero by 2050?

David Layzell: If you look at where our greenhouse gas emissions are located in Canada, at least 50 per cent of them come from the combustion of carbon-based energy carriers: gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, natural gas.

We know the most about those. To finally get to net zero, we are going to have to replace those energy carriers with carbon-free or emission-free net-zero energy carriers. That's electricity made without greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen is another that, when combusted, it doesn't give emissions. Ammonia, which is made from hydrogen, is another. It's pretty clear, we are down to electricity and hydrogen. They are the key pillars in transition to net zero.

Q: We are phasing out coal, we are bringing more renewables online, but does hydrogen have the biggest potential? Is it a game changer?

DL: From an Alberta perspective, you can make hydrogen from natural gas, from oil even, and we can capture the carbon dioxide produced when you make it, and put it back underground. We have the technology. We are doing it already in parts of Alberta.

We can extract the energy from fossil fuels, put it in hydrogen, essentially, and put the carbon back in the ground. That creates a significant opportunity in Alberta, in Canada.

We are internationally recognized as one of the lowest cost places in the world to make hydrogen without carbon emissions.

Q: But it still requires carbon intensive energy to do that? Is that the right path?

Sara Hastings-Simon: There are two questions. What do we need to do in Alberta to address our own footprint? And also thinking about having a strong economy in a net-zero future.

Many of the oil and gas products we export to the rest of the world are carbon intensive when they are burned, and everyone else is looking for ways to transition away from those fuels.

When we talk about reducing emissions in Alberta, we already produce a fair amount of hydrogen today, so decarbonizing the production of that hydrogen is really important.

As far as replacing oil and gas that we export today, there can be some market for hydrogen, but it won't be anywhere near large enough to replace oil and gas.

We need to broaden what we are thinking about beyond hydrogen. The future will be highly electrified.

Q: Our neighbour B.C. often exports hydro electricity to the U.S. We take a bit of it. Why should we not take more of that, rather than go with hydrogen?

DL: It's not an either/or, I think we need to do both.

We have a program that is about getting the provinces with large hydro resources to start co-operating with provinces that have large wind and solar resources.

When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, we might make more electricity, and we can send it to provinces next door, and store it in hydro reservoirs and get it back later.

It's about a more sensible, balanced way to manage electricity. We envisage a doubling or even 2½-fold increase in electricity demand in 30 years that will be part of the greening process.

In the national hydrogen strategy that came out a year ago, hydrogen is in the 25-30 per cent of our overall energy mix. At that scale, it's a significant economic driver and tool for decarbonizing the parts of our energy system which are hard to electrify.

Q: Canada has fallen short on previous commitments. Expectations are high. Is Canada going to make a difference this time around?

SHS: I think we are going to make a difference. Canada has a plan and policies that can enable it to reach its targets, that we have never had before.

But one consequential thing for Canada heading into COP is what the whole world is doing, and what that means for oil and gas demand.

We are seeing scenarios showing a decline in demand, and that's something new and has a big impact on Canada.

DL: I see an opportunity to start shifting the oil and gas sector to, instead of producing carbon-based energy carriers, producing net-zero energy carriers. We can sell them for more per unit of energy than our existing resources, like crude oil. The overall economic benefit can be approaching what we are now getting from the oilsands.

With files from CBC Calgary News at 6

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting