Hydrogen could revolutionize the global energy system and Saskatchewan and Manitoba are hoping to be a part of this transformation.
Saskatchewan has been working towards getting into blue hydrogen production, while Manitoba has been exploring the potential of hydrogen since 2003, when it released an opportunity report on the chemical element.
Globally, hydrogen is increasingly used in power generation, transportation fuel and feedstock in the chemical industry.
What is hydrogen?
Hydrogen is colourless, odourless, tasteless, non-toxic, and highly combustible. (The Hindenburg airship was filled with hydrogen, and it caught fire).
When hydrogen burns, it generates energy in the form of heat, with water as a by-product.
This means there’s no atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide.
The use of hydrogen could help us reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming, in theory anyway.
Currently, according to the International Energy Agency, 96 per cent of hydrogen produced worldwide is made using fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – in a process known as reforming. This involves combining fossil fuels with steam, and heating them to around 800°C. Eventually, you get carbon dioxide (CO₂) and hydrogen.
These two gases are then separated, and the CO₂ is often emitted to the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. The hydrogen, however, is extracted and used in everything from car engines to boilers, releasing water vapour.
Most of the hydrogen is grey hydrogen and is created from natural gas, which is mostly made up of methane and ethane.
Blue hydrogen in Saskatchewan
Blue hydrogen though is produced using the same reforming process that is used to create grey hydrogen, but the CO₂ that would ordinarily be released is captured and stored underground.
Recently, the Saskatchewan government gave $100,000 to the Saskatchewan Research Council and a charity called the Transition Accelerator, to research and write a report about the commercial-scale hydrogen opportunities in Saskatchewan and how it can be connected to carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS).
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Two companies, Whitecap Resources and the Federated Co-operatives Limited (FCL), also kicked in $50,000 for the report.
In Saskatchewan, blue hydrogen would capture, store and reuse CO2 from refineries, as well as potash and fertilizer facilities, and use it for something else, like enhanced oil recovery.
Enhanced oil recovery uses gas, thermal or chemical injection to extract oil that can’t be recovered any other way.
The FCL, also known locally as the Co-op, owns all the grocery stores and gas stations across the Prairies, as well as the refinery in Regina, along with several other businesses across multiple sectors.
(The FCL is owned by 160 cooperatives across the Prairies, including Co-op Saskatoon and Co-op Calgary. This is why you can’t use your Co-op number from Regina in Winnipeg.)
FCL would like to use hydrogen at its Regina refinery and for a new project—producing renewable diesel at the Integrated Agricultural Complex, which will be built in the Regina-Moose Jaw-Regina corridor.
The FCL plans to decarbonize and be net-neutral by 2050.
Last October, FCL signed a memorandum of understanding with Whitecap Resources to explore opportunities around CCUS, enhanced oil recovery and CO2 transportation infrastructure.
In June 2020, Saskatchewan announced that Proton Technologies would start extracting hydrogen from existing oil reservoirs, while keeping carbon dioxide trapped in the ground, making it the first project of its kind in the world.
The project was supported by the Saskatchewan Petroleum Innovation Incentive, a 25 per cent transferrable royalty credit on eligible innovation projects, which is open to pilot and commercial scaling projects that demonstrate oil and gas innovation in an operational environment.
The problems with blue hydrogen
When it comes to blue hydrogen, making it requires a lot of energy.
For every unit of heat in the natural gas at the start of the process, only 70 per cent of that potential heat remains in the hydrogen product.
In other words, if the hydrogen is used to heat a building, you would need to use 25 per cent more natural gas to make blue hydrogen than if that natural gas was used directly for heat.
Methane – the primary component of natural gas and a byproduct of using it to produce blue hydrogen – is a much more potent global warming gas than CO₂ over shorter timescales.
The methane that needs to be extracted to make blue hydrogen must pass through reformers, pipelines and ships, providing opportunities for leaks: enough, the research indicates, to make blue hydrogen 20 per cent worse for the climate than just using fossil gas.
Hydrogen-fueled buses in Winnipeg
Winnipeg Transit has been working on short-range fast-charge battery-electric buses, which are fueled with hydrogen.
Each new zero-emission bus added to Winnipeg’s fleet is expected to eliminate nearly 62 tonnes of greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions annually.
Manitoba can generate hydrogen using energy from electricity using hydropower. This hydrogen is called green hydrogen, which is produced by using zero-carbon electricity. It’s currently very expensive to produce.
This green hydrogen costs $5 per kilogram but it’s hoped this cost will come down by 2030 as technologies improve, allowing production to be more efficient.
Despite the cost, by 2027, the City of Winnipeg plans to have 110 battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
The first of these zero-emission buses could be in service by 2023 or 2024 if all goes according to plan.
Hydrogen fuel cell buses can be fueled in five to 10 minutes and offer 500 km or more of range. However, hydrogen is a costly fuel to import, so Winnipeg Transit plans to build an onsite hydrogen electrolyzer, which uses electricity to break water into hydrogen and oxygen in a process called electrolysis.
Winnipeg Transit would also have a dispenser to support the fuel cell vehicles.
The biggest challenge for Winnipeg has been procuring charging infrastructure and getting the power to the city’s garages. Winnipeg Transit needs a substation to adjust the voltage.
The city is hoping to benefit from the federal government’s 2022 budget, which has funds to assist with such grid modernization projects, but the application process is pending.
Green hydrogen in Selkirk
This January, Selkirk entered a Memorandum of Understanding with the Charbone Corporation, a Quebec-based company that plans to bring Manitoba’s first green hydrogen production facility to the city.
This facility would supply and sell green hydrogen throughout Manitoba and elsewhere.
Despite the hopes that hydrogen offers a path to a cleaner energy, there are critics. A study released this year said green energy isn’t efficient enough to be used broadly as an energy source.
In producing and storing green hydrogen, one only gets 37 per cent of the energy back out for use in something like buses.
Despite the challenges and inefficiencies, it is hoped that Canada could become a leading blue and green hydrogen exporter.
The global hydrogen market is estimated to be worth $2.5 trillion.
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