A crucial time for hydrogen development: Phil De Luna on cleantech in Canada

Hydrogen is a key fuel on the path to net zero, with the potential to reduce emissions in some of the most difficult-to-decarbonize sectors of our economy. Few people know this better than Phil De Luna.

In his role as Director of the Materials for Clean Fuel Challenge Program at the National Research Council, Phil supports cutting edge research on hydrogen across the country.


Last week I shared the first part of my recent conversation with Phil, tackling climate change and the clean energy transition. This week I'm sharing the second part of our conversation, focused on how government and industry can work together to advance a hydrogen economy.


DC: Where does hydrogen development in Canada stand relative to other countries?


PDL: Hydrogen has a rich history in Canada. Some of the first patents ever in the space of hydrogen and hydrogen fuel cells are actually Canadian patents, and hydrogen has had a really strong amount of technology presence in Canada.


I think of hubs like Vancouver, which was really strong in fuel cells in the early 2000s, late 90s, and gave rise to companies like Ballard Power. Or I think of hydrogen electrolysis in in places like in Ontario, which was where Hydrogenics (now Cummins), which is a water electrolyzer company, came to be.


The reason why hydrogen is so interesting for Canada is of course—like many things in Canada—our abundance of natural resources and our ability to use these natural resources in a sustainable way. Canada, for example, already has a relatively clean electricity grid; the majority of our electricity is non-emitting (does not emit CO2). This is because we have an abundance of hydroelectricity, and we have nuclear in Ontario, making up a large majority of baseline electricity.

The other aspect is that Canada has an abundance of natural gas, and leading technologies in carbon capture utilization and storage.


Natural gas can produce hydrogen through steam methane reforming, which is how hydrogen is primarily produced today. When combined with carbon capture, this allows for what people call blue hydrogen. This is hydrogen that is effectively zero emission, but is still produced from fossil fuels.


So because of Canada’s abundance of natural resources, and its abundance of relatively emission free electricity, it's a perfect playground to produce clean hydrogen and become a net exporter of clean hydrogen.


We have to remember the production of hydrogen will be different depending on jurisdiction—what works in Québec and BC, which are rich in hydro, will not necessarily work in Alberta, which has a lot of natural gas. We have to approach this from a bespoke perspective and not as a one size fits all.


DC: What is the role of government in enabling a hydrogen economy?


PDL: The government has a role to play at every step of the supply chain. Everything from production, to transportation, to storage, to end use.


In December, the government released Canada's national hydrogen strategy. It's quite a long document, but it outlines in detail the steps that Canada should take in partnership with the public sector and the private sector and universities on how to essentially build the hydrogen economy in Canada.


The government also plays a role in defining regulations, such as setting the safety standards and the codes and protocols for hydrogen, as well as supporting research and innovation, technology transfer and start-up companies that are in this space.


And then of course there’s the importance of procurement.

The government has a huge role to play to actually procure clean energy technologies or be the first customer of these nascent technologies like hydrogen.

They need to work with established companies or industry that want to decarbonize their operations, by going in through public private partnerships to show that these sorts of first-of-their-kind demonstration plants are feasible and economically viable.


But it is the private sector’s job to take the technologies and scale it. Government plays a facilitation role, but really, the private industry has to be there to take it the rest of the way.


DC: What do you think industry should be doing today to accelerate hydrogen adoption?


PDL: I actually think that we're at a very crucial point in the hydrogen landscape. There are a lot of investors who are piling into this space, buoyed by investment of public capital through governments.

What people don't realize about cleantech or hard technology in general, hydrogen included, is that this is capital-intensive, labor-intensive, and time-intensive technology that requires patience in order to get right and to generate a return.

This isn't Google or Apple or Wealthsimple or Facebook or Shopify where you just need a laptop and some coffee and some really intelligent coders, and then you can go change the world, get bought by one of these companies in two years, and generate the return of investment of a 10X or more multiplier. That's not how it works in cleantech.


So what industries need to do first is understand the limitations of the technology and become educated on what it can and cannot do. Do not get swept up with the hype and all of the investment. There are people who are piling into this sector not because they understand the fundamentals but because they think they can make a quick buck. So that's number one.

Number two is to really think about how hydrogen can be used in your industry. Do the background work and, you know, reach out to the NRC!


For example, if you need to look at some experiments or projects or need to do some technology evaluations on what is available in the market, or that's not yet available in the marketplace and what could be available with a little bit more investment.


That leads me to my third point, which is look to the innovators, the start-up companies, the people in this space. Do some technology scouting of your own or pool with colleagues to create a consortium and then start thinking about the technology scouting in that space so that you all benefit.

Because when it comes to new technologies like hydrogen, it's not a race to the bottom, it's a highly integrated sector where the success of one is dependent on the success of another.

You can have a fantastic hydrogen electrolysis company, but if you don't have the demand side of a fuel cell or of another hydrogen use case to be a customer for that, then it's not going to work.


In cleantech, especially hydrogen, and all the different kinds of carbon management or mitigation technologies, it's so important to collaborate and work together.

I've always said there's more than enough carbon dioxide to go around. We all need to work on this problem, and it doesn't do anyone any good by being protective or non-collaborative in this space.

--David Campbell is the Director of the Bruce Power Centre for Next Generation Nuclear.