Hydrogen As A Future Energy Source


To the seasoned industry professional, using hydrogen as a future energy source (at face value) is riddled with challenges.  Transportation pressures exceeding 2,500 psi(g), liquefaction temperatures below -250 degrees Celsius and an energy density approximately 1/3rd that of natural gas.  These are some of the immediate challenges that come to mind when considering using hydrogen as a future energy source.

However, when one takes time to “look under the hood”, there are potential future uses for hydrogen that present compelling economic and regulatory arguments against the naysayers.  Couple with that, corporate sustainability disclosures regarding commitments to “net-zero”, an immense focus on reducing GHG emissions and a lack of clarity around the most appealing pathways to meet net zero commitments. 

The energy transition has shifted into hyperdrive over the past 24 months.

Fluor Canada Ltd. (Fluor) and GoobieTulk Inc. (GTI) have taken an in-depth look at whether hydrogen as a future energy source has potential in Western Canada.  Early results are compelling, and if you haven't given it a second thought, I recommend doing so.

The business case success criteria was centered on a meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the potential for immediate technology implementation, the use of proven world-scale hydrogen production plants, an acceptable cash-cost of hydrogen production and standalone competitiveness as an alternative energy source.

The study itself involved comparing steam methane reforming, autothermal reforming and electrolysis as alternative pathways to future hydrogen production.  Cast against the business case success criteria, autothermal reforming shows enormous potential in Western Canada.  With the ability to capture 96% of the emitted CO2, the lowest quantity of natural gas required per gigajoule (GJ) of hydrogen produced, the ability to produce over 50 petajoules (PJ) per year of hydrogen using a world-scale plant, combined with practically the lowest-cost hydrogen production location in the world - Western Canada has a compelling storyline.

Layer on top an attractive cash-cost arbitrage, when using hydrogen as an alternative to traditional fuels – to the tune of 1/6th the price on an energy-equivalent basis.  Combine with that Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric (HFCE) vehicles being 44% more efficient1 than gasoline internal combustion engines, the capacity of one autothermal reforming plant to replace over 30% of Alberta's annual gasoline consumption and a 10% reduction in Alberta’s transportation GHG emissions further amplifies this opportunity.

HFCE cars are at a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of eight (8) and a small number of manufacturers produce HFCE vehicles.  Nearly 10,000 HFCE vehicles are operating in South Korea, 10,000 in California and 4,000 in Japan, with initial market adaptation in British Columbia’s lower mainland.  By some estimates, British Columbia’s lower mainland hydrogen demand is (aggressively) forecast to exceed 20,000 tonnes per year, by 20302.

 For Western Canada, the one challenge that remains is the hydrogen transportation fuel market does not currently exist.  Advances in infrastructure would promote HFCE vehicle adoption in specific regions of Western Canada.  Fueling infrastructure is in service in Europe, Japan, China and California.  HFCE vehicle refueling times are on-par with internal combustion engines (approximately 5 minutes) and HFCE vehicle range estimates are 550 to 650 kilometers for certain models.    

Despite the infrastructure hurdle, the economics are compelling enough to warrant continued investigation of a world-scale hydrogen project in Alberta.  This will require government leadership to de-risk investments required to create a Western Canadian opportunity.

Another potential hydrogen market discussed in the report is the replacement of “grey” hydrogen with “blue” hydrogen.  Replacing grey hydrogen with blue hydrogen requires retrofitting existing facilities with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or alternatively sourcing hydrogen from blue supplies.  To accomplish this, Fluor has developed patented CO2 recovery processes including the Fluor SolventSM Process, Fluor EconamineSM and Fluor Econamine FG PlusSM technologies.  Econamine FG PlusSM has been applied in more than twenty-five (25) commercial installations globally - in refinery, chemical and power plant applications.

Other potential hydrogen markets discussed in the report3 are 1) hydrogen as an alternative to natural gas, 2) Alberta-British Columbia hydrogen markets, 3) blending hydrogen into natural gas pipelines, 4) ammonia and methanol production and 5) hydrogen overseas export markets.

In summary, the hydrogen ecosystem in Western Canada although currently nascent, is on the right trajectory.  A multipart view is required to see the complete picture. If you haven't given it a second thought, I recommend doing so.  

[1] – Transition Accelerator, Building a Transition Pathway to a Vibrant Hydrogen Economy in the Alberta Industrial Heartland, November 2020.

[2] – Zen Clean Energy Solutions, British Columbia Hydrogen Study, 2019.

[3] – The report abstract is available by contacting David Mercer (david.mercer@fluor.com) or David Tulk (dave@goobietulk.com).

Related: Ingredients Of A future Hydrogen Economy: Fluor



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