Green is my favourite colour of hydrogen

When I first made hydrogen as a kid, I wasn’t aware that hydrogen came in different colours.

Back then, I simply attached two copper wires to my model train transformer, immersed the wires in water, turned voltage up and waited for bubbles to form. I held a glass over the negative terminal to catch the hydrogen. A lit match held under the inverted glass gave a satisfying “pop” as the hydrogen ignited.

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The effect was less than satisfying in 1937 for the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg. As the dirigible touched its mooring mast in New Jersey, it burst into a fireball that killed 36 passengers and crew-members.

The second way I made hydrogen as a kid was to immerse pieces of aluminum in a pop bottle filled with lye (sodium hydroxide). I then placed a deflated balloon over the neck of the bottle and watched it fill with hydrogen. I then tied off the neck of the balloon and watched it drift through the house, following the air currents.

I now know that the first method produces “green” hydrogen when made from renewable sources of electricity.

The second method I used is dangerous according to a Wikipedia article. “Don’t try this at home, kids,” –a message I guess I never received, or chose to ignore.

Hydrogen now comes in colours that distinguish the source of production. Grey is the colour of hydrogen produced from dirty fossil fuel sources. Blue is for hydrogen produced from natural gas. Natural gas, so the argument goes, may be a fossil fuel but when burned it’s not as bad as coal.

Hydrogen is a perfect fuel because it produces no carbon greenhouse gases. Making it without fossil fuels is the challenge.

Green might be beautiful, but right now only a fraction of global hydrogen is produced by non-renewable sources. Only one-fifth of one per cent of total hydrogen comes from renewable sources, such as hydroelectric, wind and solar power.

Most of the rest is grey hydrogen. The International Energy Agency says hydrogen production spews out 830 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the combined emissions of Britain and Indonesia.

However, the colour designations for hydrogen may be a bit of a distraction. What matters is “carbon intensity.” In other words, how much carbon is produced in the production of hydrogen regardless of the source?

Dan Woynillowicz, a Victoria-based climate and energy policy consultant says:

“Blue is better than grey. But we can’t ignore the fact that green is cleaner than blue. All that said, the colour labels are poorly defined. Ultimately, it’s not the colour that matters, it’s the carbon intensity.”

Carbon intensity is a measure of how much carbon is produced in the total manufacture of hydrogen. If carbon can be captured and stored underground, then its carbon intensity is reduced.

After losing $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money in the Keystone XL gamble, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is looking to hydrogen to lift his sagging polls.

With much fanfare, he, along with the mayor of Edmonton and two federal cabinet ministers, announced the building of a low-carbon hydrogen plant. Carbon dioxide would be injected underground using existing infrastructure.

Maybe there is a way of green-washing hydrogen.

Renewable energy welcomes the Alberta NDP

Big Oil might be quivering in their boots at the prospect of having to pay fair royalty rates to the province but the renewable energy sector is looking forward to the NDP in Alberta.

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Fossil fuels have had a grip on the province that stifles energy innovation. Renewal energy companies are feeling more optimistic with the NDP. Despite much talk by the previous government, not much happened.

“For six or seven years, the previous government had white papers and round tables,” said Kent Brown, president of Calgary-based BluEarth Renewables Inc. “We were caught in the uncertainty and lack of decision making. The new government has a great opportunity to make some decisions now.”

One of the things holding back the development of renewable energy has been slavish devotion to the marketplace. Yes, free markets are great at determining the price of shoes but energy is a different matter.

Under Alberta’s deregulated electricity market, utilities have no incentive to develop renewable energy says Jared Donald, president of Conergy in Calgary. In Alberta’s energy market, customers get to choose which electricity utilities they want to buy from. With twice as many marketers as there are utilities, there’s no lack of choice. Albertan’s generally select the cheapest utility.

That’s fine for buying shoes as long as the shoes are not choking the atmosphere and threatening the planet. Fossil fuels are not like other consumer items. Alberta currently uses coal for 43 per cent of its electricity and natural gas for 40 per cent.

Jared Donald told the business section of the Globe and Mail that one crucial change the new government could make would be a shift away from the fully deregulated electricity market. Power producers charge fluctuating prices depending on supply and demand at any particular moment. This leaves utilities stuck on fossil fuels.

Deregulated fossil fuel energy means there is little incentive to build anything but the cheapest source, usually new natural gas-fired power plants. Solar, wind and hydro plants have greater up-front costs, and are thus harder to finance under the current regime, even though they require no fuel once they are complete.

“If you are uncertain about what the energy market is going to be, you don’t spend the big capital dollars up front,” Jared Donald. That provides an “incentive to make short-sighted decisions.” It will take government intervention to change the pricing and financing of electricity generation to encourage renewables, he added.

The wind energy industry, too, is keen on expanding in Alberta, but it also has issues with the market pricing of electricity said Tim Weis from the Edmonton-based Canadian Wind Energy Association.

One solution would be for the province to set a “clean electricity standard,” that would force power retailers to sign contracts with some renewable suppliers.

As the province with the youngest population in Canada, Albertans are ready for innovation. Cogeneration plants now produce 31% of needs. While they still use fossil fuels they also use biomass, such as livestock manure, to simultaneously generate both electricity and steam for industrial process. Cogeneration substantially reduces net greenhouse gas emissions.