Alberta expands blue hydrogen development despite U.S. study raising environmental concerns

Mark Lowey
September 1, 2021

Alberta is expanding initiatives to produce blue hydrogen from natural gas while capturing and storing the carbon emissions—even as a U.S. academic study disputes the environmental benefits.

The Southeast Alberta Hydrogen Task Force, a new group led by Invest Medicine Hat, aims to establish a framework for implementing a hydrogen economy in the southeast region of the province.

Researchers at the Transition Accelerator, a charitable organization that helped spearhead the launch of a hydrogen hub in the Edmonton region, will write a paper examining the opportunities and challenges of a hydrogen economy in southeast Alberta.

“We believe there are opportunities for target markets,” Dr. David Layzell, PhD, energy systems architect and a research director at the Transition Accelerator, told Research Money.

The region, which includes the city of Medicine Hat, already has three companies that are major hydrogen producers, Layzell said. “The region also has lots of natural gas, and it has good geology for carbon capture and storage."

The Southeast Alberta Task Force includes members from the municipal, provincial and federal governments, as well as industry and academia. It was modelled after the Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Hydrogen Task Force, whose research paved the way for the Edmonton Region Hydrogen HUB — Canada’s first hydrogen hub.

The Edmonton region hub launched in April, with $2.25 million in total funding from the federal and Alberta governments and industry for technical and economic analysis and stakeholder planning.

In May, Suncor Energy and ATCO Ltd. announced a joint venture to build a clean hydrogen project in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland region. The project, which would produce more than 300,000 tonnes per year of low-carbon hydrogen, could be operational as early as 2028.

In June, Air Products, the world leader in hydrogen production, announced it will build a $1.3-billion hydrogen production and liquefaction facility in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland. The facility, scheduled to be completed by 2024, would capture three million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and produce 1,500 tonnes of hydrogen per day.

U.S. researchers question blue hydrogen’s benefits

The intensifying activity in Alberta comes amid a peer-reviewed study by researchers at Cornell and Stanford universities that raises concerns about the carbon emissions produced during the full “lifecycle” (across its entire supply chain) of blue hydrogen production and use.

Their study, published Aug. 12 in Energy Science & Engineering, found the carbon emissions footprint to create blue hydrogen is more than 20 per cent greater than using either natural gas or coal directly for heat, and about 60 per cent greater than using diesel oil for heat.

Even when incorporating carbon capture and storage in blue hydrogen production, the carbon emissions remain very large, according to researchers Robert Howarth at Cornell and Mark Jacobson at Stanford.

“The use of blue hydrogen appears difficult to justify on climate grounds,” they said. “Society needs to move away from all fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”

Study doesn't take new tech into account, Layzell says

The U.S. study is useful in highlighting the need for a lifecycle approach in assessing hydrogen’s carbon intensity and for a significant reduction in upstream methane emissions in industries such as oil and gas, fertilizer and agriculture, Layzell said.

The Alberta and federal governments have set targets to reduce the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions by 45 per cent by 2025, with Ottawa providing a $750-million fund to help do so.

But Layzell said an analysis by the Transition Accelerator concluded that the U.S. study overestimated the amount of methane emissions, and their global warming potential, released from upstream natural gas industry operations. The study similarly didn’t take into account the newest technologies for producing blue hydrogen, which can reduce carbon emissions to a level far lower than that reported by the U.S. researchers, he said.

The study focused on producing blue hydrogen for space heating, whereas the largest emission reductions, along with other environmental benefits, are in using blue hydrogen to replace polluting diesel fuel in long-distance transportation by heavy-duty trucks, trains and ships, Layzell added.

“Certainly if we felt that blue hydrogen had the carbon intensity anywhere near what they’re talking about, we wouldn’t be promoting it,” he said. “We wouldn’t be talking about it as a net-zero solution.”

Air Products’ planned hydrogen facility will use state-of-the-art “auto-thermal reformer” technology to convert methane to hydrogen and CO2, not the older and much less efficient steam methane reforming method that the U.S. researchers cited, Layzell said.

The Air Products facility will capture more than 95 per cent of the CO2 from the feedstock natural gas and store it safely underground. The plant also will produce clean electricity for the entire facility as well as for Alberta’s electricity grid, offsetting the remaining CO2 to achieve net-zero emissions.

Suncor and ATCO’s hydrogen facility also will use advanced technology to capture more than 90 per cent of the carbon emissions and produce more than 300,000 tonnes per year of clean hydrogen, including using it to reduce emissions in Alberta’s natural gas distribution grid.

Contrary to scenarios presented in the U.S. study, “we’re not talking about producing blue hydrogen as a patch on an existing natural gas facility as a sort of band-aid,” Layzell said.

“We’re talking about a massive increase in the amount of hydrogen we produce in Canada and having state-of-the-art technologies and deploying them in Canada. We’re talking about transforming an energy system.”


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