New Brunswick·PODCAST

'This reeks': MLAs want accountability on NB Power's hydrogen venture

Opposition MLAs want NB Power and the provincial government to answer burning questions surrounding the utility’s venture with a Florida company claiming it has breakthrough clean-energy technology.

Utility, province paid $13M in licensing fees for supposed revolutionary tech

NB Power has struck a deal with Joi Scientific, a Florida-based clean-energy startup, to develop power stations that would convert seawater to hydrogen electricity. (Michael Heenan/CBC)

Listen to the full CBC New Brunswick Political Panel podcast by downloading from the CBC Podcast page or subscribing to the podcast in iTunes.


Opposition MLAs want NB Power and the provincial government to answer burning questions surrounding the utility's venture with a Florida company, claiming it has breakthrough clean-energy technology.

NB Power and the province paid Joi Scientific $13 million in licensing fees for the secretive process that generates hydrogen from seawater. The company asserts that it can create more energy — 200 per cent more, according to one of its patents — than what was put in.

Yet, the claim has raised the eyebrows of some experts. Vancouver energy consultant Michael Barnard said it "sounds too good to be true."

"This is Nobel Prize-winning stuff and it's obviously not viable," he told CBC News.

Some MLAs are just as skeptical and voiced concerns about the utility's partnership with Joi on the CBC New Brunswick Political Podcast.

"This smells so bad," said Green Party Leader David Coon. "This reeks all the way from Florida to here."

On top of questioning the viability of the technology, Coon wants to know why NB Power and the Regional Development Corporation, which split the $13 million in fees, spent public money on suspect technology in Florida that could be invested in New Brunswick companies and universities producing clean-energy projects.

Green Party Leader David Coon has plenty of questions for NB Power and the Regional Development Corporation on the deal with Joi Scientific. (CBC)

Coon wondered why NB Power, which is planning annual rate increases of two per cent in its 10-year plan, is investing in a high-risk venture in the first place.

"NB Power's mandate is not research and development," he said. "You can read the Electricity Act. It's not there."

The process remains secret because both the utility and Joi say revealing how it works now would tip off competitors.

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin described the venture as "high risk and no accountability."

Joi Scientific has been hesitant to reveal secrets behind what would be a major scientific breakthrough, pending further patents.

He likened it to walking into a casino and placing $13 million on one number at the roulette table.

"I think it's way too big of a gamble," Austin said. "I hope I'm wrong. I hope they have a eureka moment through this technology and it revolutionizes energy as we know it."

Both he and Coon want to understand how the deal was approved — and they're not the only ones.

Energy minister still seeking answers

Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland, said he's still trying to get answers from the utility.

Holland said on the podcast he had a brief chat with NB Power CEO Gaëtan Thomas about the matter and has been speaking to staff, but he is still trying to understand the framework of the agreement and how it came to be.

Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland speaks during the CBC New Brunswick Political Panel Podcast. (CBC)

"In theory, if that's a project that can bear fruit and do what it says it's going to do, that's tremendous," he said. "But I still need to get to the bottom of it because I'm accountable to the ratepayer, the taxpayer and I got to get a handle on it."

Holland said he will have more access to the secret information because he is the minister.

"Good luck," Coon responded.

'It's possible,' says NB Power CEO

Thomas, who sits on Joi's board, told CBC News he and his colleagues "came out of there actually believing that it's possible, this energy in-and-out, based on what we see in the lab."

Thomas nor NB Power own any stake in the company, and the CEO is not paid for his board duties.

The license agreement gives the utility first right to use it for power generation. NB Power could then market it outside the province and share in the profits.

NB Power hopes it could power the Belledune generating station beyond 2030, when coal is phased out. Alternatively, NB Power would build as many as 20 or 30 smaller hydrogen generating plants around the province.

With files from Jacques Poitras and Karissa Donkin

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.