New Brunswick

Stop NB Power deal with mysterious Florida startup, Green leader says

The leader of the Green Party is calling on Premier Blaine Higgs to halt NB Power’s dalliance with a Florida start-up and its mysterious, unproven clean-energy technology.

Clean-energy company says its 'major' technology has to stay secret for now

NB Power confirmed that it 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)

The leader of the Green Party is calling on Premier Blaine Higgs to halt NB Power's dalliance with a Florida startup and its mysterious, unproven clean-energy technology.

Earlier this week, NB Power confirmed it has struck a deal with Joi Scientific, a Florida-based clean-energy startup, to develop power stations that would convert seawater to hydrogen electricity.

Joi Scientific CEO Traver Kennedy says the agreement will lead to "the ending of net new carbon emissions in the province."

"Every once in a while, there's a major innovation that resets a whole new area of inquiry, and we believe that our discovery will prove to be something that creates a whole new area," he said.

But to avoid revealing too much to potential competitors, "we need to keep it secret for a little bit longer."

CEO Gaetan Thomas said the technology is "proven at the laboratory level. … The issue will be scaling up" to an industrial-level generation of electricity.

Thomas wouldn't say how much money the utility has committed to the project, though the newspaper L'Acadie Nouvelle quoted Kennedy saying it's $13 million. Kennedy wouldn't repeat that in an interview with CBC News.

NB Power's payment includes a licence fee for exclusive rights to build Joi-designed hydrogen power stations and then help market the technology to other utilities while sharing in the profits.

'No mandate'

Green Leader David Coon said the venture goes beyond the utility's legislated role.

"It has no mandate as a public entity to be spending ratepayers' money on [research and development], to be acting like an angel investor in someone's project in Florida. It's not their mandate.

"They're way beyond the bounds of their mandate. The premier needs to have a discussion with the board of NB Power."

Thomas said the utility is not an investor and does not own a stake in the company.

Green leader David Coon says NB Power has "no mandate as a public entity to be spending ratepayers' money on [research and development], to be acting like an angel investor in someone's project in Florida." (James West/Canadian Press)

He said NB Power is looking at two options for plants that would convert abundant seawater to hydrogen energy.

One would see a large plant alongside an existing gas plant to keep the gas plant's emissions below federal regulatory limits.

We want some proof. Just because you say something, it's not necessarily true. - Olivier Clarisse, University of Moncton

Another is a network of up to 30 smaller "mini-plants" around the province that would reduce the cost of transmitting the electricity.

Besides a share of the profit from selling the technology to other utilities, Thomas said it would reduce NB Power's carbon-tax bill.

"It has zero carbon," he said.

Mystery technology

But Coon questions whether the technology is viable.

"It still remains a mystery," he said. "No one in the hydrogen world is talking about this.

"There's no buzz that I can see about it, mainly because the company has yet to reveal exactly what it is. This remains in the realm of mystery, and it's still at the level of laboratory prototypes."

"The proof of concept is not available to anybody. We want some proof. Just because you say something, it's not necessarily true," said Olivier Clarisse, a chemistry and bio chemistry professor at the University of Moncton. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

University of Moncton chemist Olivier Clarisse said he and his colleagues scoured scientific journals for evidence that the company's method is viable and could not find anything.

"We were expecting to see some papers from the scientific world about this major discovery, but we didn't see that," he said.

"The proof of concept is not available to anybody. We want some proof. Just because you say something, it's not necessarily true."

In a joint news release, NB Power and Joi Scientific said that their agreement comes after "successful third-party verifications … by scientific institutions and experts."

Studies will be released ... eventually

Kennedy said the company is looking forward to releasing peer-reviewed studies eventually.

Water is split into hydrogen and oxygen through a process called electrolysis, but Clarisse said so far no one has found a way to do that without burning more energy than what is produced.

"It's not workable to produce hydrogen in an economic sense," he said. "You receive less energy than what you have used to produce it."

Thomas said that Joi Scientific's process is not electrolysis.

"I can't tell you what it is, but it's not electrolysis," he said. "What we're saying is that it is much more efficient than electrolysis."

"I can't tell you what it is, but it's not electrolysis," said NB Power CEO Gaetan Thomas. (CBC)

Thomas said NB Power hopes to have a prototype ready in two or three years, with commercial operations five years from now.

He said the utility will eventually have to provide more detail when it appears before the Energy and Utilities Board.

NB Power has been unlucky with major investments in new ventures in the past.

It spent $700 million refurbishing its Coleson Cove station to burn Orimulsion, only to see its supply agreement with a Venezuelan state-owned fuel company fall apart. The utility's lawsuit was eventually settled for $338 million.

And the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau nuclear station, the first upgrade of its kind, went $1 billion over budget and was three years late.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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