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Germany needs hydrogen in its energy mix – can Canada deliver?

Canadian energy projects and ports could play an important role in the global hydrogen economy
Mobile hydrogen-powered generator from H2-Portable at the hy-fcell International Expo and Conference at Vancouver Convention Centre.

Germany is very keen on Canadian hydrogen and hydrogen technology such as fuel cells. It is so interested, in fact, that Messe Stuttgart—a German conference and trade fair organizer—held its second Canadian hydrogen and fuel cell conference in Vancouver last week to explore opportunities and challenges in developing a hydrogen economy.

The hy-fcell conference drew roughly 1,000 attendees.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that by 2050, hydrogen will account for 10 per cent of global energy.

While that is a comparatively small slice of the global energy pie, hydrogen is considered a critical part of decarbonization and net-zero ambitions because it fills gaps that other low-carbon energy sources can’t fill, such as energy needs in hard-to-abate sectors and industries like heavy duty trucking.

Vancouver is already a hydrogen fuel cell technology hub, thanks in no small part of fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems (TSX, NASDAQ: BLDP). But Canada also has certain advantages as a potential hydrogen producer and exporter—including an abundance of natural gas, clean hydro power and nuclear power plants capable of producing hydrogen through thermos-chemical processes.

And Canadian ports from Prince Rupert to Newfoundland are well-positioned and eager to serve Asian and European markets, though some logistics surrounding the storage, transportation and processing of hydrogen have yet to be worked out.

Stefan Kaufmann, a member of the German parliament, told the hy-fcell conference that there are “clear geopolitical advantages to a strong energy trade relationship” between Canada and Germany.

Citing Canadian federal government incentives—the Low Carbon Economy Fund, the Clean Fuels Fund and a federal investment tax credit of up to 40 per cent for clean hydrogen—Kaufmann said Canada has “a clear funding framework to address foreign capital investment.”

To meet European targets, Europe will need to import 10 million tonnes of “renewable” hydrogen per year by 2030, Kaufmann said.

He cautioned, however, that there has been “a certain dip in the ramp-up of our hydrogen economy” in Germany.

“That is the big problem at the moment in Germany and in Europe—the lack of infrastructure,” Kaufmann said.

There is less government funding available as the German government struggles with budget shortfalls, he said, and there is still “a very fragmented value chain.”

Germany is also grappling with a lack of infrastructure, such as the ammonia crackers that are needed to decompose ammonia into hydrogen and nitrogen, and associated pipelines.

Hydrogen is a versatile low-carbon fuel. It can be run through fuels cells to provide electric power for vehicles, or can be burned to produce thermal energy with zero emissions.

But it can be troublesome to store and transport, so most exports of hydrogen will likely be shipped in the form of ammonia (hydrogen and nitrogen)—which is easier to transport—and then turned back into hydrogen and nitrogen at the receiving end.

Globally, there are many hydrogen production projects planned, but there have been few final investment decisions made, Kaufmann noted.

Germany is hoping Eastern Canada will become a source of green hydrogen. The wind-blasted Port of Agentia in Newfoundland is positioning itself to become a major green hydrogen producer and exporter using wind power.

The Agentia Renewables project represents a $1.5 billion investment, and Pattern Energy Group plans to build 300 megawatts of wind power at the port to produce green hydrogen.

On the West Coast, Rob Booker, CEO of Trigon Terminals in Prince Rupert, is working to position his company as a hydrogen fuel exporter serving the Asian market.

Trigon’s $163 million Berth 2 Beyond Carbon project is a liquids terminal that would be capable of shipping “hydrogen carriers” such as ammonia. The project received $75 million in federal funding under the National Trade Corridors Fund. Booker said a new berth is expected to be built by 2025.

He said efforts are underway to develop the capacity to transport ammonia by train between Alberta and Prince Rupert.

“We are trying to work very closely with B.C. and Northern Alberta to create a hub that runs from the Alberta industrial heartland, Saskatchewan across the North, through Prince George and out to Prince Rupert,” Booker said.

He added that he was “agnostic” as to how the hydrogen and ammonia would be produced, so long as there are significant volumes coming out of Western Canada.

“I don’t care what the carrier is—I just want to handle the tonnes,” Booker said. “What I need is production on an export scale.”

The majority of hydrogen and ammonia produced in Alberta will most likely be “blue” hydrogen, which is made from natural gas with carbon capture and storage.

“Unlike Germany and unlike Europe, perhaps, Asia does not really care about colour,” Booker said.

“Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan, Singapore care about carbon intensity. And you are going to be rewarded for lowest possible carbon intensity, with highest volume, provided you can be cost competitive.”

Ports in Canada will not only play an important role in hydrogen exports, but they themselves are potential hydrogen fuel cell customers.

The problem with battery-electric vehicles is that they take time to recharge. For drayage trucks and trains operating at ports, fuel cells might be a better option, because they can fuel quickly and operate over many hours.

“If you’re a port truck, a drayage truck or a shunter locomotive, you can actually operate almost 24 hours a day [and] refuel very quickly,” said Nicolas Pocard, vice-president of marketing and strategic partnerships for Ballard.

Toyota shows off its hydrogen-powered vehicle in Vancouver. | Chung Chow, BIV

The many colours of hydrogen

There are many ways to make hydrogen, none of them cheap, and there may even be natural hydrogen reservoirs underground that could be tapped.

Green hydrogen, made from water and renewable electricity, is considered the cleanest from an emissions standpoint, since there are no methane or carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with its production. But it is expensive, due to the enormous amounts of renewable electricity needed.

Blue hydrogen is made from natural gas, but with the CO2 captured and stored.

Vancouver’s Ekona Power is commercializing a method called methane pyrolysis that makes hydrogen from natural gas, but which obviates the need for carbon capture and storage, as the carbon pulled from the methane comes out in a solid form as “carbon black,” which can either be landfilled (a former of sequestration), or used in any number of chemical or industrial applications.

Attendees at last week’s conference also heard of a novel approach for making hydrogen from water using both heat and electricity.

Blessing Ibeh, a chemical engineer with the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, described a process, called the hybrid copper-chlorine thermochemical cycle, that could use the heat generated in nuclear power plants to produce hydrogen from water.

But it’s not just heat from nuclear power plants that can use the copper-chlorine thermochemical cycle. Any significant heat source will work, including waste heat from industrial processes, said Kamiel Gabriel, former professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at Ontario Tech University who is now based at the University of British Columbia Okanagan.

He said electrolysis—using electricity to break water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen—is not an efficient use of energy, but that heat as a main source for electrolysis would be more efficient.

“We can take waste heat from an energy source, such as a cement plant or steel plant, and through a four-step chemical reaction cycle, we can release the hydrogen,” he told BIV.

There may even be sufficient amounts of natural hydrogen in Canada to warrant sucking it out of the ground.

Omid Ardakani, a research scientist at Geological Survey of Canada, said Canada may have the right geology for natural hydrogen extraction. To be viable, deposits would need to have the right volume and purity.

He said there are now two exploratory projects underway in Canada. Chapman Hydrogen and Petroleum is planning some exploratory drilling in Northern Ontario, he said. Another company is looking to do exploratory work in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin.

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