Technology & Science·What on Earth?

There's a lot of buzz about 'green' hydrogen, but actual projects are slow in coming

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the promise of 'green' hydrogen, Elon Musk's attitude to the COVID-19 lockdowns and what the federal government is doing to protect killer whales.

Also: Tesla's Elon Musk takes on the pandemic lockdowns

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • There's a lot of buzz about 'green' hydrogen, but actual projects are slow in coming
  • Tesla's Elon Musk takes on COVID-19 lockdowns 
  • Canadian government expands killer whale protections

There's a lot of buzz about 'green' hydrogen, but actual projects are slow in coming

(Eric Piermont/AFP via Getty Images)

The idea of hydrogen as a green fuel source has been whispered about for decades, but the conversation is getting louder. And recent talk has involved real money. 

From Australia announcing more than $270 million Cdn to boost industry projects to the European Commission's trillion-euro "Green Deal," which touts hydrogen as a "priority area," it seems there's keen interest in investment — even as part of a post-pandemic recovery.

Hydrogen has been proven to be a zero-emissions source of energy, capable of fuelling cars, trucks and power plants. It has powered spacecraft for 60 years. But the economics of it have always been in question. 

"We are seeing a bit of an acceleration in the number of small pilot projects which are being announced," said Kobad Bhavnagri, head of industrial decarbonization at research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance. 

"What we aren't seeing is a sort of broad-based opportunity to invest in hydrogen projects and infrastructure. The policy mechanisms that would need to support that sort of investment aren't in place."

The money being pledged right now could be used to overcome some of the hurdles of creating hydrogen cleanly.

In addition to being a fuel source, hydrogen is used to make fertilizers and iron/steel and to refine oil. To get it, the most common industrial process involves reacting natural gas with steam, which produces hydrogen but also carbon dioxide. 

Fossil fuels used to create hydrogen emit as much as 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, according to the International Energy Agency.

There are other ways to create hydrogen — and you may remember one from high school called electrolysis.

"It's just a big word for something super simple," said Alexander Lemieux, a hydrogeologist at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. "We take water, we run an electrical current through it and then it splits into hydrogen and oxygen." 

Of course, the rub is how you get that electrical current. It's not "green" hydrogen if it's powered by fossil fuels. That's why wind, solar and nuclear power are seen as ways toward low- or no-carbon electrolysis. 

As an example, Lemieux suggests Ontario's stable supply of nuclear power could be good for a hydrogen plant during off-peak demand. 

The province could also be useful for another hydrogen hurdle: storing it. Lemieux authored a preliminary assessment last year exploring underground hydrogen storage in Ontario. The province's salt caverns, more than 70 of which are used for natural gas storage, are seen as potential candidates.

"Salt is basically Silly Putty. It's very plastic in the way that it moves. It has very low porosity," Lemieux said, "so there's not a lot of holes from which this hydrogen gas can escape." 

Even if a country can cleanly create and store hydrogen, there's still the challenge of transporting it — whether as a gas or liquid, hydrogen is a different beast than natural gas — as well as enticing industries to build green hydrogen into their processes.

"Broadly speaking, the current mix of incentives is not really that strong," said Bhavnagri, who recently analyzed the hydrogen industry's future

"You need about $300 billion [US] of investment over the next 10 years. And that in turn would require about $150 billion of subsidies to be offered by governments to build experience and reduce the costs of producing hydrogen from renewable energy." 

During the current pandemic, hydrogen isn't likely to be seen as a critical investment by some governments. And as Bhavnagri points out, there are few "shovel-ready" projects to be funded. Which suggests the dream of a hydrogen-powered society will remain chatter, for now. 

— Anand Ram


Reader feedback

Kate Walker wrote in to share her feelings about the state of the environment amid the pandemic. "During these last couple of months we have seen what reducing carbon emissions by less driving, less flying and halting cruise ships can do to clean our air and our marine environments. Nobody I talk with wants to go back to the way things were before," she said. 

"In my neighbourhood, I have seen families cycling together and more people are walking. Hope this continues. With cleaner air we can breathe easier [and] our animals, birds and plants will do better. Marine life won't face as many threats and will return to greater numbers. If we don't take advantage of this opportunity to turn a corner and do things sustainably … then we are condemning ourselves and our planet to a much shorter life."

Write us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.


The Big Picture: Tesla vs. COVID-19 lockdowns

Many people consider Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, to be a visionary who has been instrumental in popularizing electric vehicles (and, to a lesser extent, "power walls" of home energy storage). In other words, he's something of a green hero. But as a businessman, he's also shown himself to be highly unpredictable — like the time he flouted securities laws on Twitter. Judging by his tweets, Musk has been exasperated by media coverage of COVID-19 and the measures imposed to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, including the lockdowns on factories in his home state of California. This week he openly defied the decree by keeping the Tesla factory in Fremont open, while also threatening to move the plant and the company's HQ to another state. He was roundly criticized for putting profits ahead of the health of his workers, to which he responded — by tweet, of course — that he would be on the production line himself, and "if anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me." Local officials eventually backed down, saying the plant could reopen next week.

(Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Canadian government expands killer whale protections

(Dave Ellifrit/Center for Whale Research)

For the second year in a row, the Government of Canada is enacting restrictions to help protect the southern resident killer whale population.

The new rules from Fisheries and Oceans Canada include protecting access to chinook salmon, reducing contaminants affecting killer whales and their prey and asking all vessels to "go slow" when whales are around.

Many of the regulations laid out are similar to those announced last year.

New elements include expanding closures for recreational and commercial fishing in key killer whale foraging areas in B.C. and creating interim sanctuary zones off Pender Island, Saturna Island and at Swiftsure Bank that will last from June 1 to Nov. 30, 2020.

The DFO is also asking all fishermen to temporarily cease fishing activities when killer whales are within 1,000 metres of their vessels year-round throughout Canadian Pacific waters.

"At this point, the measures are voluntary but we saw last year that they were utilized by fisheries pretty well," said Terry Beech, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of fisheries and oceans.

"We don't get a second shot at this. We have to not only protect the existing whales that are here but are investing in restoring these populations."

Beech said there will be ongoing monitoring by DFO scientists to make sure the regulations are effective.

But not everyone is on board with the new rules. Don Mollard, who owns the Victoria Fish Company and worked as a commercial fisherman around Vancouver Island for 45 years, said many of the rules are redundant because there isn't much commercial fishing left in the lower southern strait.

"Saying you can't commercially fish near [killer whales], well, we aren't near them anyway. It's stupid. It's like they have a hate-on for the commercial fishery," said Mollard.

He said he has little faith in the government's ability to properly manage fish stock on the coast and questions whether the science behind the regulations is more political than practical. "If they were good at managing fish, I would still be actively fishing salmon, wouldn't I?"

Kieran Oudshoorn


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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