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Don’t Let Fossil-Derived Hydrogen Undermine New Federal Strategy, Climate Hawks Urge

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The Canadian government has a chance to tap into renewably-produced hydrogen as a way to decarbonize key sectors of the economy, but not if it allows that potential to be “undermined by a focus on fossil fuel-derived hydrogen,” a list of 27 environmental organizations and other non-profits warned last week in a letter to Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan and three of his cabinet colleagues.

“Only renewable hydrogen is truly emissions-free, and as such, renewable hydrogen aligns with the deep decarbonization required to tackle climate change,” the groups state [1]. “However, the oil and gas sector is pushing for governments to invest in fossil fuel-derived hydrogen as a way to search for a new market for their products as the world transitions away from fossil fuels,” with one government official citing hydrogen as a possible “net-zero moonshot” for the fossil sector.

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That kind of talk, along with the latest draft executive summary of the upcoming federal hydrogen strategy, have the groups “deeply concerned that the government is caving to the demands of the industry rather than identifying what is in the Canadian economy’s best interest,” even as European planners identify renewable hydrogen as the “only sustainable hydrogen source,” the letter states.

[Disclosure: Energy Mix Productions was one of the 27 organizations that signed on to the letter to O’Regan.]

“The federal government has been working on a hydrogen strategy for three years, following in the footsteps of dozens of countries in Europe and Asia as it eyes the fuel source to help Canada get to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” the Globe and Mail reports [3] in a November 30 dispatch. “That strategy was due for release in the summer, but Ottawa now says it will likely be released this coming month.”

Hydrogen fuel “is enjoying unprecedented global momentum,” the Globe adds. “Countries have spent or earmarked billions of dollars to accelerate hydrogen technologies, and Canada’s federal government is expected to attach funding to its own plan.”

But the most visible provincial strategy to date comes from Alberta, where a 26-page plan from the Jason Kenney government pitches hydrogen, plastics recycling, and even geothermal energy as elements of an economic diversification strategy that leans heavily on natural gas to create tens of thousands of jobs and reboot the province’s sagging economy. (The Mix took a deep dive [4] into the shortcomings of that plan when it was released in early October.)

In the letter to O’Regan, the groups said funding for so-called “blue” hydrogen derived from natural gas would constitute a new fossil fuel subsidy. “To the extent that any public resources are available for hydrogen development, they should be reserved for renewable hydrogen for the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors that do not have viable decarbonization alternatives,” the letter states. “Canada should not be providing any form of financial support for the development of fossil fuel-derived hydrogen.”

While the federal strategy takes shape, and worries about fossil-derived hydrogen continue to percolate, recent studies suggest the technology won’t be cost-competitive for another decade. A mid-November analysis by S&P Global Ratings concluded that green hydrogen “would require a 50% decrease in renewable energy costs and a 30 to 50% reduction in the cost of electrolysis” to be economically viable, Utility Dive reported [5] November 30, the same day the Globe reported on the letter to O’Regan.

“Achieving this, the analysts believe, would require aggressive government policies and a power mix comprised of at least 70 to 80% renewable energy,” the industry newsletter adds. “As this is unlikely to occur before 2030 [in the United States], large-scale adoption of hydrogen to heat buildings and generate power is likely decades out.”

For the trifecta of November 30 news stories on hydrogen, Greentech Media looked at [6] the technical hurdles utilities will face as they try to integrate the fuel with their current operations. The story describes early efforts to blend hydrogen with fossil gas at concentrations of 20% or less, but still points to formidable challenges with engineering, energy density, and supplies.

“Can carbon-free hydrogen augment, or even replace, the fossil natural gas running through pipelines to fuel furnaces, boilers, stoves, and other building applications today?” asks veteran reporter Jeff St. John. “Or will the effort get bogged down in challenges related to pipeline safety and upgrade costs, loss of energy density, the long-term cost discrepancies compared to electrifying natural gas-fired heat and appliances in buildings, or the pressure to direct green hydrogen to hard-to-decarbonize sectors?”

Greentech points to hydrogen embrittlement—the ability of the small hydrogen molecule to “weaken metal or polyethylene pipes and increase leakage risks, particularly in high-pressure pipes”—as an obvious pitfall. “Hydrogen can attack the metal structure under certain circumstances, certain pressures, certain concentrations,” said Antony Green, hydrogen project director at National Grid UK. “That’s an area the materials scientists are trying to tackle.”

Hydrogen also “burns very differently” than fossil gas, said Jussi Heikkinen, Americas director of growth and development for Finland’s Wärtsilä Energy, which Greentech says is investing in 100% hydrogen engines.

“It burns almost as an explosion,” Heikkinen said. “It’s a blast, and then it’s done,” a feature that efficiently converts gas to heat, but comes with its own safety and engineering challenges.

The net result is that “when you go beyond 25% hydrogen in the fuel, in most places in the world, you’re no longer able to use the same equipment,” he said. “Electronics, for example, must be explosion-proof,” and “there should be no sparks, because hydrogen ignites with almost any air-to-fuel ratio.”

On top of that, with hydrogen offering about one-third the energy density of fossil gas, switching fuels would reduce the amount of useful energy a pipeline can deliver.

Greentech has more [6] on the pros, cons, and competitive challenges of a shift to green hydrogen.