The southeast Alberta region has the energy sources and demand, transportation infrastructure and industrial complex necessary to become Canada’s second hub for hydrogen fuel, according to a new report.
With large quantities of both natural gas and renewable energy, the region is well positioned to start producing both “blue” and “green” hydrogen for regional and export demand, said the report prepared for the Southeast Alberta Hydrogen Task Force.
“This is an energy region,” report author and engineer Randy Litun said in an interview. “It has historically always adapted and accepted energy transition. Whether that was from coal to natural gas, or from natural gas to renewables, the area has always been at the forefront of moving forward.”
Blue hydrogen is made by steam-reforming natural gas while capturing the carbon emissions from the process, while green hydrogen is typically made through electrolysis using clean renewables such as wind and solar power.
“When you look at southeast Alberta, I think one of the truly remarkable things is that it really has the potential to develop multiple different processes [for producing hydrogen],” Litun said.
Canada’s first hydrogen hub was launched — with $2.25 million in government funding — in April 2021 in the Industrial Heartland region northeast of Edmonton. The Edmonton Region Hydrogen HUB aims to produce blue hydrogen for municipal and commercial vehicle fleets, and home and industrial heat and power.
The new report on the feasibility of the Southeast Alberta Hydrogen HUB was partly funded with $50,000 from the federal Prairies Economic Development Canada agency.
The potential demand for hydrogen in southeast Alberta is an estimated 1,250 tonnes per day, or about 10 per cent of the estimated total provincial demand, according to the report. That would reduce 1.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in southeast Alberta — or about 14 per cent of the region’s total GHG emissions.
“Southeast Alberta could realize a total future hydrogen generation potential of greater than 10,000 tonnes per day by 2050,” said the report, which noted an annual economic impact of more than $7 billion for the region.
The Southeast Hydrogen Task Force includes: the City of Medicine Hat; Brooks Newell Region, APEX Regional Innovation Network; Palliser Economic Partnership; CF Industries; Methanex Corporation; Rockpoint Gas Storage; Campus Energy; ComTech Energy; and the Transition Accelerator.
“This report provides the strategic context needed for southeast Alberta to leverage its regional strengths, expand its role in Canada’s hydrogen transition, and create a foundation for long-lasting success,” said Dinara Millington, Western Network Lead for the Transition Accelerator.
Region offers different set of opportunities
According to Litun, the Southeast Alberta Hydrogen HUB, which would be in a rural area that includes a network of secondary roads, railway lines, and pipelines, offers different potential than a hub in a large, urban-based industrial centre.
The opportunities include hydrogen to fuel personal vehicles and for home heating, for the high energy-demand agricultural sector, and to provide baseload power to balance the intermittent electricity generated by wind and solar power in the region, he added. Southeast Alberta already generates 20 per cent of the province’s hydrogen in the form of ammonia (used mainly as fertilizer) and methanol (used as a chemical feedstock), which are both carriers of hydrogen.
These hydrogen carriers are produced by reforming natural gas and through pyrolysis. This technique utilizes high-temperature heat in the absence of oxygen to produce bio-products from biomass — a process used in the Cancarb Limited facility in Medicine Hat.
The region — particularly the City of Medicine Hat’s industrial complex — could be a keystone in accelerating the development of hydrogen, getting it accepted by the public, and deploying it across multiple applications.
“From a hydrogen feedstock point of view, [the region] is very advantageously situated,” Litun said. “It’s already got infrastructure moving hydrogen, in the bigger sense of the word.”
Several things needed to build functioning hydrogen hub
The next step for the Southeast Alberta Hydrogen Task Force, Litun said, is to develop an educational campaign to inform people in the region about hydrogen’s opportunities, and to start building a “coalition of the committed” among industry and other stakeholders.
The federal and provincial governments initially will need to provide some funding and incentives to help de-risk the transition from fossil fuels to hydrogen and encourage industry to spend capital on hydrogen infrastructure. There could be incentives for building hydrogen-generation facilities, fueling stations and buying hydrogen-fueled vehicles.
“Ultimately, it [the hydrogen hub] has to be economically sustainable from a free enterprise perspective,” he added.
Government also needs to ensure regulations and standards are consistent and encourage hydrogen technologies to move forward, Litun said.
As for industry, it needs to step up and get started on a planned large-scale carbon capture, storage and utilization project in southeast Alberta, he said.
“Project Clear Horizon,” led by the City of Medicine Hat which is seeking federal support for the project, is expected to permanently store underground up to three million tonnes per year of carbon dioxide.
“Part of that [project] is to enable the blue hydrogen production,” Litun said. “It also is to address existing CO2 emissions which aren’t necessarily addressed by hydrogen.”
Litun said he expects to see at least one hydrogen fueling station built along the TransCanada Highway in southeast Alberta within two to four years after Alberta’s first fueling station is built in the Edmonton Region Hydrogen Hub — expected by the end of this year.
There is also huge potential in southeast Alberta, where the electric transmission and distribution system is at near-capacity but more renewable projects are planned, to convert electricity to hydrogen or a hydrogen carrier, he said.
Discussions are needed with regulatory authorities and renewable power proponents to include green hydrogen as part of Alberta’s long-term electric generation strategy, according to the report.
“With our continued demands of moving more and more to [low-carbon] electricity, hydrogen has to be part of the solution for that to work,” Litun said.