Canada Announces Blue and Green Hydrogen Strategy

Is this an energy strategy or a political strategy?

Vision of Hydrogen

Government of Canada

The government of Canada has just released a massive hydrogen strategy paper, three years in the making. The minister of Natural Resources is calling it "an ambitious framework that seeks to position Canada as a global hydrogen leader, cementing this low-carbon and zero-emission fuel technology as a key part of our path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050." Minister Seamus O'Regan says "Hydrogen's moment has come. The economic and environmental opportunities for our workers and communities are real. There is global momentum, and Canada is harnessing it."

Canada is already one of the world's largest producers of gray hydrogen, which is made through steam methane reforming from natural gas, mostly in the province of Alberta. As noted in our post "What Color is Your Hydrogen?" this process releases 9.3 kilograms of CO2 for every kilogram of hydrogen.

The Canadian plan calls for using Canada's vast hydroelectric capacity to make green hydrogen through electrolysis, from biogas (no color assigned yet) and a lot of blue hydrogen, which is made by taking all that CO2 from gray hydrogen and making it disappear through the magic of carbon capture, utilization, or storage (CCUS). Many environmental groups reject the idea of Blue Hydrogen, noting that CCUS is "an unproven technology which falls short of a zero-emissions objective and is still prohibitively expensive." However, the Minister says that the government doesn't have a color preference, and is quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying “I’m not going to choose amongst my children. I would make the argument that what matters here is lowering emissions.” 

Meanwhile in Alberta, which is usually bashing the Federal government, has surprisingly nice things to say about the plan, with the Minister of Natural Gas and Electricity saying “We very much support today’s announcement as a positive step toward a hydrogen economy that can help both the province and nation.”

Everyone is so happy for a change, it's a miracle, whoever heard of such a thing! And why not? As energy reporter Emma Graney reports from Calgary,

"Hydrogen as a fuel is light, storable and energy-dense. It produces no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases. That has made it an international energy darling over the past few years, drawing the gaze of countries pursuing net-zero emissions goals."

"This national H2 policy is insane!"


Government of Canada

There is only one problem; as energy expert Paul Martin told Treehugger, "This national H2 policy is insane- a pure example of regulatory/policy capture on the part of vested interests."

The strategy paper says "blending low-carbon intensity hydrogen into Canada’s natural gas networks, for use in both industry and the built environment, provides the largest demand opportunity for hydrogen."

Not according to Paul Martin. In a long article, he demolishes the statement that hydrogen storable and energy-dense. in fact, he demonstrates that is expensive and lossy to transport. Being energy-dense depends on how you measure it; per kilogram, hydrogen has three times as much energy as natural gas. But because it is so light, there is a lot more gas in a kilogram, so you have to compress it more. In the end, " it takes about three times as much energy to compress a MJ's worth of heat energy if you supply it as hydrogen than if you supply it as natural gas. "

As for green hydrogen, it makes even less sense to convert Quebec and British Columbia's electricity into hydrogen gas instead of using the electricity directly. But then people would have to change their furnaces and hot water heaters and stoves.

"Of course, these gas companies and electrolyzer suppliers are not giving their advice without self-interest in mind. They are starting from the position that they need to stay in business, and you need to keep your burners- fair enough! The obvious alternative is to replace your burners directly with electricity and cut out the lossy hydrogen middleman, but that would leave them out of business. For home heating, and even for domestic hot water, a heat pump will not only save you the 30% conversion loss to hydrogen, it will also give you about 3 kWh worth of heat for every kWh worth of electricity you feed. Far, far more efficient."

In Britain and now in Canada, they are talking about mixing the hydrogen into the natural gas to reduce the CO2 emitted, but does it really? Not according to Paul Martin, because it is less dense; if your supply was 20% hydrogen, you would have to burn 14% more volume. In the end, he questions why we are doing this at all.

End Uses

Government of Canada

It is so hard to figure out why they are doing this. We know it makes no sense to use hydrogen for transport (electric vehicles are far more efficient and cost-effective) or electricity generation or buildings, in the age of electric heat pumps. It makes sense for some industries, especially steel where it can replace coke) and as a feedstock, not much else. Paul Martin has his suspicions:

"In summary, it seems to me quite clear that hydrogen's role as a replacement for natural gas has more to do with a need for gas production and distribution companies to stay in business by having something to sell, than any real GHG emissions benefit or significant technical need." 

This is, of course, the key benefit of a hydrogen strategy. Alberta already makes vast quantities of the stuff, they just have to figure out how to get rid of the CO2 and they can stay in the fossil fuel business and make all that pesky talk of secession go away.

In a country with such vast amounts of hydroelectricity and that wastes such prodigious amounts of energy through inefficiency, hydrogen makes no sense. This is fundamentally a political strategy, not an energy strategy.