Fasken plants a flag for cleaner power with hydrogen energy advisory team

Co-lead Dan Brock says recent Canada-Germany hydrogen alliance highlights growing potential

Fasken plants a flag for cleaner power with hydrogen energy advisory team

What struck Dan Brock about Canada’s recent pledge to export clean hydrogen to Germany by 2025 is that the agreement happened at all.

“The challenge has not necessarily been a technology challenge, or, strictly speaking, a regulatory challenge,” says Brock, who heads Fasken’s government relations & strategy practice at Fasken LLP. “It is a political challenge and a perception challenge.”

What he means is that governments and other stakeholders must streamline and expedite the processes for studying and implementing potential clean energy sources such as hydrogen.

“We could be a clean energy powerhouse,” Brock says, adding that Canada has been somewhat late to the party in pushing hydrogen energy solutions to fight climate change.

“That’s why this agreement with Germany is important – it provides a target around which we could focus on the potential of hydrogen,” he says. “We don’t want to be forsaking our obvious advantages when it comes to being a leader in hydrogen energy.”

In August, Canada and Germany announced the Canada-Germany Hydrogen Alliance. The agreement commits both countries to promote investment in hydrogen projects through policy harmonization and developing secure hydrogen supply chains. Though it’s a non-binding letter of intent, the alliance pledges to establish a Canada-Germany supply corridor to bring clean Canadian hydrogen to Germany within three years.

Brock says he was impressed that this agreement came during a whirlwind visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Accompanied by a contingent of leaders from Germany's largest companies, including Bayer and Volkswagen, Scholz toured Canada to drum up alternative energy sources to Russian natural gas.

The contingent visited Stephenville, Newfoundland and Labrador. World Energy GH2 has proposed to produce so-called “green” hydrogen in the town, using energy from 164 wind turbines it wants to build on the Port au Port Peninsula. Yet the proposal has yet to undergo provincial environmental approval, and residents only found out about it in meetings that started in June.

“We can be a major, major producer and exporter of hydrogen, and the Germans know, which is why they came to us,” says Brock, who is also a co-lead of Fasken’s hydrogen energy advisory team (H2EAT). It advises companies who are lobbying governments to support the infrastructure needed to transition to clean hydrogen.

He points out that Canada has a wealth of resources that could produce clean “green” hydrogen, including wind, hydroelectric power and even nuclear. There are also ways of taking hydrogen from sources such as oil and gas and making it “cleaner” through the sequestration of carbon dioxide or steam reclamation (so-called “blue” hydrogen). Brock also argues that “grey” hydrogen from the oil and gas industry and waste products of manufacturing processes could still be a cleaner option overall, as it would take gas-powered cars off the road, for example.

Germany’s desire for other energy sources, especially those more environmentally friendly, comes as it tries to reduce its reliance on Russia for most of its natural gas supplies. While it has recently reduced its dependence on both Russian gas and oil, Germany is still vulnerable to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threats to cut supplies in retaliation for its support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion in February.

Brock says the agreement with Germany will strengthen its ability to transition away from Russian energy sources and provide added impetus for Canada to ramp up clean-energy production.

"As important as it is for German and European energy security, this announcement has the potential to unlock and accelerate Canada's enormous potential in clean hydrogen production and technology development, and to position Canada as a leading supplier of low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen solutions to markets around the world."

Canada has recently declared its intent to increase clean energy production significantly. In 2020, the government set ambitious goals for developing hydrogen production in its "Hydrogen Strategy for Canada," a framework to boost hydrogen's domestic role as an energy source while positioning Canada as a global supplier.

Brock acknowledges there are infrastructure challenges to developing hydrogen power – potentially repurposing pipelines used for oil and gas for transport, or using special rail cars, for example. The hydrogen would likely be converted into a liquid form, such as ammonia or methanol, for transport. Then a customer like Germany would have to have the infrastructure for processing and distributing the hydrogen it receives.

Brock says that Canadian governments have generally not been as specific as they could be on hydrogen's merits. “They tend to be focused more generally on clean energy, and programs to support transition to electrification in clean energy, or lower carbon energy, but not so much for hydrogen.”

Brock says his interest in exploring the commercial uses of hydrogen started more than five years ago. That is when one of his automaker clients came to Fasken looking for ways to gain government support for the infrastructure needed to support the commercial use of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. He helped build a coalition of automakers (including Hyundai, Toyota, Kia, Mercedes Benz, and BMW) interested in seeing this infrastructure built in Canada. Through this work, he became more broadly interested in hydrogen as a clean energy source.

Regarding the potential for hydrogen cars, Brock says the main challenge is that there is no infrastructure for refuelling them, as there is with the growing network of electric vehicle charging stations. While a hydrogen fuel cell car is a fully electric vehicle, the main difference is that with EVs, the energy is in the battery, but with the fuel cell car, the power is in the hydrogen itself. The hydrogen combines with oxygen to create water and, in doing so, creates an electric charge that fuels the drive train and powers the battery. The only emission is water.

Brock, who drives a Hyundai Nexo fuel cell EV, says that the technology is “not demonstration technology,” but at the same time, hydrogen cars aren’t a commercially viable option yet. “The trouble is the infrastructure to fuel it,” he says, adding that he knows only one place in the Greater Toronto Area where he can fuel up his car. He adds that in California, where there is more infrastructure for fuel cell cars, the cost of refuelling is about US $16 a kilogram, or about $80 to fill up the car with hydrogen.

He adds that right now, the commercial viability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is an open question. These cars are not produced in large quantities, making them expensive, and there's no strong refuelling infrastructure. But Brock says they would become much cheaper if you could build a lot more of them and have good access to the refilling infrastructure.

Governments have generally favoured supporting the infrastructure for conventional electric vehicle charging stations, as the upfront cost of building these charging stations is cheaper than for hydrogen-fuelled cars. However, Brock points out that the refuelling time for hydrogen vehicles – similar to the few minutes required to fuel traditional gas cars – is a significant advantage compared to the much longer times for even the fastest EV charging stations we have today.

He also notes that he has gotten as much as 700 kilometres on one hydrogen tank, far more than the 400-kilometre range of the commercial EV vehicles on the road today.

While the specific challenges around hydrogen-fuelled vehicles were Brock’s introduction to the potential of the technology, he has become more interested in the overall importance of hydrogen as a clean energy source. “So, as we saw an increasing number of clients interested in hydrogen, we at Fasken decided we wanted to plant our flag in this area,” he says. The firm is now lead counsel to the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, advising it on legal, regulatory and governance issues.

He also thinks it is essential to teach politicians, bureaucrats and the public about hydrogen energy and its potential “in an objective, fact-based way.” Brock notes that when people think hydrogen, “they think of hydrogen bombs and the crash of the Hindenburg airship back in the 1930s that makes it seem quite scary.

“So, there is a lot of education and public awareness raising that has to happen for this to work, but it can happen with a focused strategy around this, and if we have a project like the proposal to export hydrogen power to Germany you can start that education process.”

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