Canada needs a new approach to catalyzing a net-zero emission economy

Mark Mann
November 20, 2019

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today. Scientists have been telling us for decades that deep emissions reductions are required to avoid irreversible changes in important global systems like biodiversity and global food production that, in turn, would result in devastating social and political instability. Yet concerns about climate change alone seem inadequate to drive society to take the actions necessary to attain a net-zero emission economy.

The Transition Accelerator, a new pan-Canadian organization, has been launched to present a fresh approach to attaining a net-zero economy. Instead of relying only on policy and regulations that can be divisive and polarizing, the Accelerator adds a positive approach to emissions reduction. The Accelerator collaborates with targeted groups across the country to solve major business or social challenges and identify where significant greenhouse gas reductions can be built into the solutions. We focus on systems, not technologies—we have moved away from the approach where “technologies look for a problems to solve,” to focus on “solutions that find and deploy the right technology, business model, policy and/or social innovations to accelerate the transition to net-zero.”

The Accelerator methodology begins with the understanding that technological, social and business disruptions are transforming sectors and lives. Whether these disruptions solve our societal problems or make them worse depends on decisions we make today. The Accelerator approach is to "direct disruptions"; that is, to foster and drive transitions to novel system configurations that provide multiple superior societal outcomes, including on the climate front.

We focus on finding solutions to challenges that build on existing or emerging technologies to define credible and compelling transition pathways. These pathways must be co-developed and brought forward by key stakeholders who understand that transitions are as much about people and behaviour as they are about technology and economics.

The Accelerator partners with universities and other groups to perform independent, rigorous, data-driven analyses of the technological, economic, social and environmental systems related to the sector or region, to inform and fine-tune a visioning process. The end goal is to launch consortia that track compelling pathways capable of moving the sector to an end state that contributes to a net-zero economy while achieving other objectives.

Where can disruptions be directed to systems that position Canada to win in a net-zero economy? A recognized key to net-zero success is the electrification of society. Yet important parts of the economy, like heavy road transport, trains and ships, and heavy industry, present electrification challenges because of the energy density they require.

Toward a Hydrogen Economy

A national hydrogen economy could be the answer. This is the pathway that Transition Accelerator researcher, Dr. David Layzell, has been exploring in his work with the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) Initiative at the University of Calgary.

Hydrogen, the lightest element, can be used as a fuel by direct combustion, or to make electricity via a fuel cell. Both processes result in energy with water as the only emission. There are two techniques for making hydrogen that align with net-zero emission objectives: by hydrolizing water (“green” hydrogen) or by reforming natural gas, oil/bitumen or coal with the CO2 by-product captured and sequestered or used for another purpose (“blue energy”). Using existing technologies, hydrogen can be produced, transported and used in personal and heavy freight transport, steel and cement production, space heating and electric power generation. Many nations around the world are investing heavily in making hydrogen a core part of their future energy systems (e.g. UK, Japan, Australia, EU).

Canada is one of the world’s lowest cost producers of hydrogen, but we use it now predominantly to crack heavy petroleum or to make fertilizer or other chemicals. Moreover, Dr. Layzell’s analyses shows the wholesale cost for production of hydrogen is about half that of diesel on an energy basis. Despite the evident benefits of a hydrogen-as-fuel economy, we lack both sustained demand and the infrastructure to service that demand.

There are remarkable potential economic, social and environmental benefits of a pan-Canadian hydrogen economy. Such an economy can be fueled with ‘blue’ hydrogen from those provinces, like Alberta, that have large fossil carbon resources, and by ‘green’ hydrogen from provinces that have surplus hydro or nuclear power. This is a national vision that is credible and compelling.

However, efforts to use hydrogen as an energy source in Canada are largely independent and disjunct. The complexity of building a new energy system, including economically-viable production and distribution, as well as the markets for large scale hydrogen use, requires the development of transition pathways that will align policy and investment decisions.

Working with university, industry and government partners, the Transition Accelerator is creating these pathways. One example is the Alberta Zero Emission Truck Electrification Collaboration (AZETEC), an Emission Reduction Alberta funded project to put two large hydrogen fuel cell electric trucks on the road in the province.

The Accelerator is exploring other critical pathways that could contribute to a net-zero economy, such as in agrifood, personal mobility and grid integration.

Driving Canada to help lead the world to a net-zero economy and win economically in the process is too important a mission to be restricted to traditional emission reduction approaches. New approaches are needed.  The Transition Accelerator has one.


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