Blog: Hydrogen and First Nations: a long haul

It’s 1766. British scientist Henry Cavendish is experimenting in his laboratory. Almost by chance, he discovers something he terms “combustible air.”

As The Energy Blog of RWE adds: “Back then, no one suspects that the gas will someday become one of the great hopes of energy supply: introducing hydrogen.”

Hydrogen is a darling of clean-energy fans, a gas that when burned produces only water, and not the carbon emissions associated with fossil fuels.

A great hope indeed, but getting there isn’t that easy. We have a long way to go, and there are carbon costs in producing the hydrogen.

Still, hydrogen is of much interest to a number of First Nations in Canada, and some are involved in the early stages of developing Canadian hydrogen.

The federal government issued a hydrogen strategy in 2020 that said: “Hydrogen might be nature’s smallest molecule but its potential is enormous. It provides new markets for our conventional energy resources, and holds the potential to decarbonize many sectors of our economy, including resource extraction, freight, transportation, power generation, manufacturing, and the production of steel and cement.”

Ottawa spoke of “positioning Canada to become a world-leading supplier of hydrogen technologies,” reducing emissions, offering “unique opportunities for Indigenous communities and businesses,” generating more than 350,000 jobs, and “employing hydrogen as a key enabler to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”

Ottawa’s hydrogen strategy declared: “This will position Canada as a world-leading producer, user and exporter of clean hydrogen, and associated technologies.”

But the strategy was in essence “a call to action” with 32 recommendations. It was more of a plan to develop a plan. Much the same can be said, too, of provincial hydrogen strategies such as BC’s “sustainable pathway” of 63 actions.  There is indeed a long way to go before Canada becomes a world player.

Hydrogen can be produced from sources that include natural gas. Canada is the world’s fifth-largest producer of gas. Its has reserves that are No. 18 in the world, and could last us for a couple of hundred years.

The feds note that “Canada is already one of the top 10 global hydrogen producers.” But only a little is exported, with the main usage being domestic, in oil refining, ammonia production, methanol production and steel production.

When German chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Canada last summer with hopes of securing long-term supplies of LNG, Prime Minister Trudeau declared that “there has never been a strong business case” for LNG exports to Europe. He talked hydrogen instead, and took Scholz to a hydrogen trade show at Stephenville NL. The two then signed a “declaration of intent” to collaborate on the export of clean Canadian hydrogen to Germany. Germany then bought long-term LNG from the U.S. and Norway.

Canada intends to start shipping “green hydrogen,” produced by wind farms, to Germany by 2025. (We’re now up to 11 “colours of hydrogen” depending on how the hydrogen is produced and the carbon intensity of production processes. See the graphic below.)

The Miawpukek First Nation and an Australian company have signed an MOU for a hydrogen project on the Atlantic coast.

It would be developed in and around the Port aux Basques, St. George’s and Stephenville areas, producing almost a million tonnes of green ammonia per year. (Ammonia can be burned directly in an internal combustion engine with no carbon emission, or converted to electricity directly in a fuel cell, or cracked to provide hydrogen.)

Chief Misel Joe called the Miapukek’s inclusion in green energy projects “historical and transformational,” and cooperation in the spirit of reconciliation.

The Miawpukek Nation is also working with two other green energy developers on proposed wind to green hydrogen projects at three other sites. The Pabineau Nation is also pursuing hydrogen development in the same region.

The Miawpukek and Pabineau are not alone. In BC, the Fort Nelson First Nation and Hydrogen Naturally Inc. are working together to study the feasibility of a project to produce up to one million tonnes of “bright green” hydrogen a year.

It would process forest waste into “carbon-negative hydrogen.” The partners see their hydrogen going to utilities and heavy transportation sectors, and offsetting the equivalent of emissions from about 85,000 cars each year.

Australia’s Fortescue Future Industries, which signed the MOU with the Miawpukek, also has an MOU with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation in BC to investigate the potential for producing green hydrogen.

(The Lheidli T’enneh also support Hydra Energy’s hydrogen production facility and refuelling station that is being built at Prince George to serve the transportation industry. It’s billed as the world’s largest hydrogen refuelling station, and is to open in 2024.)

The Sundance Hydrogen project in northeastern BC would produce hydrogen that it says would be added to the natural gas in the current Enbridge/FortisBC transmission system. It would also partner with a First Nation greenhouse business, Sundance Produce, that would use waste heat from the hydrogen plant in Chetwynd.

At Prince Rupert, Ridley Terminals has in mind a hydrogen and ammonia pilot project that would involve the Lax Kw’alaams Band and Metlakatla First Nation.

The Haisla and Nisga’a nations, developing LNG projects, have signed an agreement with the Halfway First Nation in the Fort St. John area that addresses the negative impacts natural-gas extraction has on Halfway River territory. That could eventually lead to projects such as carbon capture and storage — and hydrogen production.

And there are other hydrogen projects proposed or being explored in other provinces with First Nations partnerships or support, such as the Frog Lake Nation in Alberta and the Saugeen Nation and the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario.

Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Hydrogen Task Force proposes  that Canadian hydrogen has a wholesale market potential of up to $100 billion a year.

It identified the Edmonton region as the best launch point for a pan-Canadian hydrogen economy. And, with the Enoch Cree and Alexander First Nations, it is working to develop a $1.6-billion hydrogen hub, with more than 25 projects related to the production, transportation and end use of hydrogen.

Says Chief Billy Morin of the Enoch Cree: “Our goal is to do right by Mother Earth, but also find a balance between making money and creating business and doing so in a sustainable way that honours Mother Earth and our traditional teachings. That is what hydrogen represents.”

All in all, it’s going to be a long haul to establish Canada as that “world-leading producer, user and exporter of clean hydrogen, and associated technologies.”

But at least First Nations will be a part of it all.

(Posted here 11 January 2023)

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