New Brunswick

Nothing to suggest Joi Scientific tech works, says minister

There’s no evidence Joi Scientific’s hydrogen technology is viable, according to the province’s minister of natural resources and energy development.

Mike Holland gives NB Power until end of December to show Joi technology is viable

Mike Holland, the natural resources and energy minister, says he doesn't have the experts who can say whether the technology works. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

There's no evidence Joi Scientific's hydrogen technology is viable, according to the province's minister of natural resources and energy development.

Mike Holland said he's instructed NB Power to continue operating its lab in Florida until the end of the year, when the lease for the space expires, while Joi Scientific conducts a "final test" on its technology.

"Once that's completed, either you send me somebody from MIT who says, 'Eureka!' or it didn't deliver the results and then we wrap things up," Holland said on CBC New Brunswick's Political Panel on Thursday.

Last Thursday Holland said he didn't want to have a "knee-jerk reaction" to CBC News reporting that Joi's technology didn't work. He said he wanted a briefing from NB Power, a briefing that took place last Friday.

NB Power has invested millions into Florida-based Joi Scientific's hydrogen technology. There are now questions about whether the technology will work. What oversight and accountability is there when governments are making these investments? Progressive Conservative Energy Minister Mike Holland, Green Party Leader David Coon and People's Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers joined the Political Panel to discuss the issue. 46:53

Joi Scientific has previously told CBC News it is continuing work on its "seawater-based hydrogen technology in co-operation with our licensees, including NB Power." The company has declined to discuss its technology "due to non-disclosure agreements."

NB Power, with the help of the Regional Development Corporation, spent $13 million Cdn to license Joi Scientific's hydrogen production technology.

The utility continues to spend $20,000 a month operating a laboratory at Joi's Florida office. 

While Holland couldn't say who is providing oversight for Joi Scientific's "final test," he said it's "the same testing that has so far come back and shown that the viability isn't what it was initially proposed to be."

"Up until this point, we haven't seen results that prove viability so therefore I'm assuming that maybe there is no viability," Holland said in an interview after the political panel.

"But I'm not in a position to say that because I don't have the expertise required."

Department lacked the necessary expertise

Meanwhile, Holland's deputy minister told a committee of MLAs on Thursday morning that his department lacked the expertise to assess Joi's technology when the province and NB Power committed money to the project in 2016.

"We had very little input into the NB Power initiative," Tom MacFarlane told the public accounts committee.

While the Regional Development Corporation consulted the department, "we wouldn't have had expertise and didn't have any expertise in that area, so we could offer little input."

Joi Scientific received a $13 million licensing fee from NB Power, with $6.7 million from the the Regional Development Corporation. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

MacFarlane said NB Power had its own experts better able to assess Joi's secret hydrogen technology.

"So we weren't in a position to offer much advice to government in terms of whether this technology was viable, not viable. That was an initiative explored through NB Power and all of their resources in terms of expertise around that."

That's despite the presence of, and glowing words from, then-energy minister Rick Doucet at a December 2017 news conference, where NB Power first broached the possibility of a hydrogen-from-seawater option for the Belledune generating station.

Doucet said at the time that the Liberal government wasn't interested in a side deal with the federal government to let Belledune keep using coal past a 2030 deadline, because better options, including hydrogen, were available.

"We want to move in a new direction, something that's very innovative, and we've got great opportunities right on our doorstep here," he said at the time.

MacFarlane was responding Thursday to questions from Green Party Leader David Coon about whether the department had the capacity to offer independent advice to the government on energy questions.

MacFarlane said the department has expertise on "traditional" energy sources, but not new ones.

"The fact that it's research means quite frankly we don't know the answer. That's why they would do research." 

Coon said on the political panel that anyone with any expertise would have known that efficiently extracting hydrogen from seawater was a dubious proposition.

"This seemed too good to be true and when that happens you've got to put up the red flags." 

Tom MacFarlane, deputy minister of natural resources and energy development, told a committee of MLAs on Thursday that the department lacked the expertise to assess Joi’s technology when the investment was made in 2016. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

People's Alliance MLA Rick DeSaulniers also criticized the project.

"They're playing poker with our money and they made a bad bet," he said.

Holland indicated the department hadn't yet decided who would evaluate the December test at Joi Scientific to determine whether the technology is viable. He said he may have to look outside of government for that expertise.

"It has to be thorough and it has to ensure that there are subject matter experts that are very widely renowned and recognized, because this process had some issues with the way it's been rolled out," Holland said in an interview.

"So it's very incumbent on us to make sure that the folks that validate, verify and then report back have credibility."

Alternative energy knowledge gap

MacFarlane told the committee that the department still lacks the resources to assess alternative energy technologies, including current research into small modular nuclear reactors taking place in Saint John.

The New Brunswick Energy Solutions Corporation, a Crown corporation set up by Brian Gallant's Liberal government, gave two companies, ARC Nuclear and Moltex Energy, $10 million to conduct research into the technology. 

Green Party Leader David Coon says the technology 'seemed too good to be true' and that should have raised red flags. (Joe McDonald/CBC)

Though Holland is quoted in a July news release saying New Brunswick is "leading the way" in small-reactor research, MacFarlane told the committee of MLAs his department hasn't been consulted by the province.

"It hasn't called upon our department. Largely, that expertise would rest in NB Power's expertise." 

Holland said on the panel that the Progressive Conservative government would be more rigorous in funding such proposals.

"I know full well that I've got a very high bar that I've got to reach," he said.

No one from the Liberals, who were in power in 2016 and approved the funding for Joi from the Regional Development Corporation, attended Thursday's CBC panel. The party said its energy critic, Benoit Bourque, was away.


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

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