Switching to renewable energy is key to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.
A recent study commissioned by the B.C. government, FortisBC, and BC Bioenergy Network explored the potential production of renewable and low carbon gases using solely B.C. resources by 2030, and highlighted the importance of this to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
About 70 per cent of British Columbia’s energy demand is met through natural gas and refined petroleum products like gasoline and diesel. The industrial sector in B.C. has the highest demand for energy, accounting for about 47 per cent of the demand, followed by transportation at 28 per cent.
The province’s electricity is 98 per cent clean or renewable, and while plans to electrify the province’s energy supply are underway, it’s not a practical option for the heavy-duty transportation or high-grade industrial heating sectors that depend on fossil fuels. For these sectors in particular, the provincial government has been supporting B.C.-based companies interested in exploring hydrogen as a fuel alternative, with plans to expand the fuel source to the general market.
How hydrogen fuel works
Hydrogen is the lightest element found in compounds like water and natural gas, and is used to refine crude oil into gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. Hydrogen is also used in making renewable fuels, including co-processing biocrudes from canola oil or oil derived from animal fats. Hydrogen can be made by splitting water or being released from organic material to become an energy carrier.
“It’s used as a gas and allows you to store energy without carbon dioxide, which is what creates the greenhouse gases,” says Colin Armstrong, president and CEO of Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corporation (HTEC).
“It’s similar to electricity, it’s just a gaseous energy carrier,” Armstrong says.
HTEC is a North Vancouver-based company that plans and develops hydrogen infrastructure in the Lower Mainland and across Canada.
Hydrogen can be made through a few different methods. Through a chemical process, HTEC can take the methane (CH4) from natural gas, and separate the hydrogen atoms from the carbon atoms.
This can be done through steam methane reforming, a process in which methane from natural gas is heated with steam to produce a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The carbon is later stored instead of being released into the atmosphere. The B.C. Hydrogen Strategy uses colour codes for the different methods, and refers to this method as blue hydrogen production.
“One of the feedstocks that you can use to create hydrogen is natural gas. So burning natural gas to create hydrogen, again, generates CO2 emissions,” says Bruce Ralston, B.C. minister of energy, mines and low carbon innovation.
One way to store carbon is to inject it underground into geological formations to stay there permanently, he says. However, it’s an expensive process, and he adds that it’s not a cost-effective way to do it. If the hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage, it’s called grey hydrogen.
“Grey hydrogen is a byproduct of standard industrial processes, so it has a lot of CO2 content and it’s not helpful for decarbonizing,” says Ralston.
The third way is producing hydrogen using renewable sources like hydro or wind power to split water (H2O) into hydrogen and oxygen. The strategy calls this green hydrogen production.
“If you’re separating the carbons from all the hydrogen, the carbon-hydrogen chains make what’s called electrolysis,” Armstrong says. “So you take electricity and you split water into hydrogen and oxygen … which continues to advance as a very clean way to make renewable energy to make the fuel.”
Part of the provincial government’s long-term strategy for zero emission transportation and industrialization is to develop a hydrogen fuel network.
Moving away from natural gas to hydrogen fuel
“There’s a real interest in hydrogen for the role that might play in transitioning to a low carbon economy,” Ralston says.
Burning natural gas is the largest source of carbon emissions. In addition to our industrial and transportation sectors, it’s also used in our residential and commercial buildings for heating. To begin the transition from natural gas to hydrogen fuel, the province is supporting trials to explore how to incorporate hydrogen into the gas pipeline network.
“The general opinion at this point seems to be that you can inject up to about 10 to 15 per cent hydrogen into existing pipelines,” Ralston says.
This can be a way for natural gas utilities to meet environmental standards, including the CleanBC requirement for 15 per cent of natural gas consumption to come from renewable gas by 2030, according to B.C.’s Hydrogen Strategy.
Existing pipelines are not compatible with more than 15 per cent of hydrogen because it can cause changes in the metallurgy of pipeline components.
“For a 100 per cent Hydrogen pipeline it would have to be built separately, it wouldn’t be able to rely on an existing natural gas pipeline. It’s a topic that’s being explored intensively, because there’s a lot of interest in it,” he says.
“Blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines is a very easy way to start scaling up production because there’s so much energy flowing through. Even if you can only get 10 or 15 per cent of the gas flow as hydrogen,” says Matthew Klippenstein.
Klippenstein is the branch manager of hydrogen BC and the regional manager for Western Canada at the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.
“The more demand there is, the more fossil fuels will be replaced,” he says.
“One of the steps is to map out the energy flows in different regions to figure out who’s able to switch to hydrogen, and at what price, how close they are, and how much we can deploy without building as much infrastructure,” Klippenstein says.
The government is working with HTEC and other groups to increase hydrogen fuel supply for both heating and transportation going forward.
“That fuel supply constitutes making the hydrogen, distributing it, and then dispensing that into hydrogen stations,” Armstrong says.
HTEC owns the four current hydrogen fuel pumps in B.C., located in Metro Vancouver and one in Victoria, with another five in development.
“The future hydrogen network across Canada and North America will probably look similar to the current natural gas network,” Klippenstein says.
Armstrong says the next fuel station is planned to open in Kelowna, B.C. next summer.
“Hydrogen allows transportation to manage their carbon emissions. So either you don’t use it, or you sequester it. So the more vehicles that do that, the more options, the more consumers will likely convert from their gasoline-fueled or diesel-fueled vehicles, and it sets up a local supply,” he says.
Transportation in B.C. accounts for approximately 41 per cent of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the B.C. Hydrogen Strategy.
“I think where hydrogen in the transportation sector is regarded as having the greatest potential is in the heavy-duty trucking, trains, ferries, where you need substantive motive power to propel whatever the vehicle vessel is,” Ralston says.
Hydra Energy is a hydrogen service company based in Delta, B.C. which specializes in converting vehicles from using diesel to hydrogen fuel. The company installs hydrogen tanks on the roof of a bus or on the back of the cab on a semi-truck, as well as a hydrogen injection manifold in line with the air intake to blend the hydrogen and air before it enters the engine block.
As is required with any fuel, hydrogen has to be well managed, and Armstrong says the organization, knowledge, and standards are now in place to do that.
HTEC designed a 450-bar modular hydrogen storage system for transporting or storing hydrogen, and was approved by Transport Canada and the US Department of Transportation.
Some people are concerned that blending hydrogen with natural gas could prolong the use of fossil fuels, but Klippenstein says when production is big enough the cost will decrease, and when it gets lower, the hydrogen can be re-routed to other uses.
“In the long term, you can’t keep flowing natural gas. [There] will probably be a build out of either twinning the natural gas pipeline with a dedicated hydrogen, or replacing every portion of the gas network so that it’s all hydrogen compatible,” he says.
“There’s an expense to that, but at the same time infrastructure might last 20-30 years before we refurbish it anyways.”
Hydrogen in B.C.’s future
While reducing emissions 20 or 40 per cent can be done with renewable energy and batteries, Klippenstein says getting to net zero emissions that way requires enormous amounts of energy.
“One of my fears is that with the electrification of everything, we’re going to have to triple the amount of power we make,” he says. “That is going to require a lot more transmission.”
To be able to electrify all transportation, B.C. will need to generate up to 60 per cent more electricity than it currently does, according to a study published by the University of Victoria in 2019.
“We will always need some gas energy in the winter because our dams get maxed out, and currently we supply that with natural gas,” Klippenstein says.
“The hydrogen blending into natural gas is a way to get scale, which unlocks the ability to make the hydrogen so cheap that you can replace it in more applications,” he adds.
By embracing the opportunities that hydrogen offers to society like carbon management and the use of renewables and low carbon fuels in transportation, Armstrong says he believes that there will be many opportunities in the hydrogen fuel industry for those that study the technical aspects or the design or business side.
“I think it’s clear that hydrogen will play a significant role in our sustainable energy future,” Ralston says.
“It’s a lot to do — big changes ahead, but is very much a part of the future.”