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Renewed interest in hydrogen as a northern fuel alternative

Last modified: February 22, 2022 at 9:23am


The NWT government is exploring whether hydrogen is ready to form a practical alternative to fossil fuels in the North.

An online hydrogen workshop in January involved 35 people representing northern industry, non-profits, Indigenous organizations and academia. Experts discussed how the technology works and provided an update on an Alberta hydrogen energy complex worth $1.3 billion that is expected to be fully operational by 2024.

“Knowing that Alberta is heavily investing and planning to export hydrogen energy to Japan, Australia, Germany and Saudi Arabia is very interesting,” said Eric McNair-Landry, who attended the meetings and sits on Ecology North’s board of directors. 

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Former NWT MP Dennis Bevington, who said he wrote to the GNWT suggesting a discussion about hydrogen months ago, felt the workshop was a long time coming. 

While mayor of Fort Smith in 1992, Bevington said, he saw an opportunity when an outgoing mining company left behind a working hydro dam. The problem? Water flowed through the dam and provided excess energy for half of the year, but the water froze for the remaining six months when the community’s electricity need was greatest.

“We created a sustainable development committee to try to find a way to utilize all that excess energy,” said Bevington, who now runs a company named Stand Alone Energy Systems.

“We stumbled onto hydrogen. Hydrogen is basically pure energy.”

Bevington’s idea was to use the dam to create hydrogen fuel, effectively storing the energy for later use. Hydrogen is essentially a way to carry energy, and must be produced by a process called electrolysis. Excess energy produced by the dam in summer could power electrolysis, in which electricity splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The resulting hydrogen can then be stored for extended periods – longer than batteries, advocates say – and gradually used later on.

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Bevington and his 1992 committee worked with University of Victoria researchers to see if this process was feasible at the dam. He says their research even piqued the interest of French power giant Air Liquide but, just as the effort was beginning to take off, things fell apart. 

Bevington said the northerners involved wanted their work to help provide power at a low price, but Air Liquide “didn’t want to do that.”

“So this energy has been wasted for 30 years,” he said.

Professor Andrew Rowe in his lab at the University of Victoria. Credit: Andrew Rowe

On the same path as solar?

Andrew Rowe, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria and an expert in energy systems, is no stranger to this kind of story. When it comes to fossil fuel alternatives, it’s often not that the technology doesn’t work – the challenge is making it work financially. 

“It’s kind-of like solar and wind power,” said Rowe. “For quite a long time there were subsidies required and support needed because it just didn’t work based on pure economics. But that didn’t matter. We saw the value in it and we did it.

“We learned how to deploy them at scale, we’ve learned how to make them more efficient… it’s that learning by doing.

“Right now, we’re at a similar place with hydrogen. We need to learn by doing so we can make these technologies more effective and less expensive.” 

For Rowe, the upfront costs associated with developing hydrogen infrastructure are worth it. He believes hydrogen can make an entirely green energy system more viable by enhancing the capacities of wind and solar.

In the Northwest Territories, he thinks, hydrogen could ultimately supplant diesel as a backup energy source. The excess energy produced by solar and wind on sunny or windy days, trapped as hydrogen, could be expended when those systems aren’t producing power in dark, still conditions.

The dream scenario is that hydrogen would “make the energy system more secure, affordable, and sustainable in the NWT,” said Robert Sexton, the territorial government’s director of energy and an organizer of the January workshop.

Rowe added: “That’s one of the reasons hydrogen keeps coming back into the discussion – this ability to take renewable supply, turn it into a chemical energy carrier, and then store it for quite some time.”

During the workshop, McNair-Landry said, attendees learned another famously cost-efficient company is on board. “Hydrogen-powered forklifts are already popular in Amazon warehouses and airports worldwide,” he said. Indeed, Amazon has been using the technology since 2017. In 2021, the company also made significant investments in hydrogen-powered aircraft development and hydrogen fuel cell start-ups.  Other companies, such as Hyundai, are already releasing hydrogen powered vehicles.

Hyundai Nexo Fuel Cell vehicles. Credit: Andrew Rowe

‘It would cost too much’

Tom Hoefer, executive director at the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, attended the workshop but came away less than impressed from a mining perspective.

“Pretty quickly,” Hoefer said, “it came out that if you want to ship hydrogen around, it’s probably not going to work for our remote mines. You have to keep it pressurized in tanks and have to keep it refrigerated for very cold temperatures. It would just cost too much.”

For Hoefer, while there is a possibility mines could invest in technology to produce their own hydrogen off-grid, there remains a lack of research and consensus that this would be in their best interests.

He believes government needs to take a leadership role to demonstrate what’s possible with hydrogen.

“If government can demonstrate they’re using this technology and that it’s effective, the way they did with biopellets, then I think that makes it easier for the marketplace,” he said. 

Even McNair-Landry, as involved as he is with Ecology North and environmental advocacy, agrees the inertia around the North’s move away from fossil fuels is understandable.

“It’s stable at room temperature. Doesn’t freeze. High energy density. [Fossil fuels] are a miracle. It’s a weird thing to say as someone so involved in a green organization, but they are difficult to replace.”

While the conference in part studied whether hydrogen could work at all, for Rowe, that kind of question is misleading.

“You know, the technology is really ready in terms of performance,” he said. “It’s just a cost and infrastructure thing. And technology is just one of many factors in terms of solving this. 

“There’s this sense that we just need to invest more in technology and that solution is going to come, a kind of a wait-and-see thing, instead of: there are things we can do right now, there are just some hard choices that have to be made.

“Energy system transformation or energy system planning is about bridging this complex storytelling between technological systems, society, behaviour, policy… where do things need to change? And it’s not just one point, it’s multiple points that need to change in order to bring down our carbon emissions.”

The GNWT will summarize key themes and findings from the conference in a report to be released later in 2022. Already, organizers believe the conference met its objectives. “There is a lot of excitement around hydrogen,” said Sexton.

Bevington said seeing people across the NWT come together to learn more about this technology, after so many years of advocacy, felt like a victory.

“I’m getting a bit long in the teeth myself but I was really excited to see so many fresh, interested people talking about this,” he said. 

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