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Province sees a hydrogen-powered future

Posted on February 8, 2024 by Ryan Dahlman

By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers

With the federal government calling for all vehicles sold in Canada by 2035 to be zero-emission, the provincial government has its eyes on a solution to reducing the impact of emissions on the environment.

But its eyes are on hydrogen, not electrification.

Dave Nally, Minitser of Service Alberta and Red Tape Reduction, said in an interview recently that electric vehicles are not a realistic alternative to gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks in Alberta.

But hydrogen power is.

Alberta is the biggest hydrogen producer in Canada, said Nally who adds the 2035 goal of the federal Liberals is unrealistic and not in tune with the 2050 plans of other nations.

The electricity system, he says, also isn’t capable of handling more than four to 12 electric vehicles per neighbourhood in Alberta because sufficient distribution infrastructure doesn’t exist yet.

“It’s incredibly challenging,” he said of the conversion to EVs.

“We know that battery-powered electric vehicles lose their efficiency the colder that it gets. It’s just not realistic in a population of 4.3 million in Alberta. With a province the size of ours and the cold temperatures, it’s just not realistic, said Nally.

The province isn’t saying EVs are irrelevant or a poor option but rather “any illusion that we’re all going to be driving a battery powered vehicle by 2035 is child-like optimism and nothing more,” added Nally.

Farmers generally have 27 combustion engines, mostly diesel, at their operations said Nally, who knows that from personal experience with his family’s three-generation farm. He represents the electoral district of Morinville-St. Alberta.

“Any illusion that you’re going to convert all of those vehicles over to battery power is not realistic.

“We’re not suggesting that there’s nothing we can do because certainly there are.” 

For people in warmer climates such as California, electric vehicles may be a better option than gasoline-powered cars, said the minister, adding that may be the same for people in communities such as Edmonton or Calgary who don’t have long distances to travel.

“But in addition to them not being a great fit for many Albertans, it’s not a great fit for our electricity grid. We can’t support wide-scale adoption of battery-powered electric vehicles because our electricity grid could not support it.”

To upgrade the electricity grid and get transmission and distribution infrastructure built would cost multiple billions of dollars, suggested the minister.

“It’ll be billions of dollars to upgrade our electricity grid to the point where we could have wide-scale adoption.

The UCP, said Nally, is excited about the future of hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles instead.

“Alberta is the biggest producer of hydrogen in Canada. We already have a hydrogen economy and our experts are telling us that by 2050 we can expect hydrogen to be an $11 trillion industry. We are positioned well in Alberta so we are taking a serious look at hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.”

The province did an expression of interest last January, asking what the private sector needs for them to invest in infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles.

If fueling stations existed, everyone could drive one and it wouldn’t affect the energy grid, he said.

The minister has driven one and he calls them fun to drive. And they don’t come with the challenges of battery-powered electric vehicles, he said.

Fueling stations are the biggest challenge, he noted. A couple exist in Alberta with one mobile station by the Edmonton airport and a second one is coming to the provincial capital. A third station is also being planned in Edmonton.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are facing the same challenges electrics did a few years ago with a lack of infrastructure but as the infrastructure grows and more stations are built, Nally said more people will be adopting them.

One of his responsibilities is the government vehicle fleet which has 3,000 units and the province is looking at how many could be realistically converted to hydrogen fuel cells.

“We know we can’t convert all 3,000 of them but there is a number we can convert” and the government wants to find out what that number is and move forward.

“We’ve got a handful of mobile fueling stations in Alberta right now and more will be coming online.”

Electric vehicles have their supporters who are willing to deal with the lack of winter driving range but many Albertans “aren’t as enamoured,” and not just farmers, he said.

He said Edmonton’s electric bus fleet hasn’t been overly successful and that city has taken possession of its first hydrogen fuel cell bus and is looking at converting the fleet to hydrogen.

“There’s a lot of different groups that are very bullish of hydrogen. There’s a lot of work to do but we’re moving forward with that work to make it happen.”

Nally believes the federal government has shown a lack of strategic vision with its 2035 plan. 

“The only way it can be done is through great pain and cost to Albertans and increased liability issues. We’re not thrilled with the date of 2035. It comes with some challenges for sure.”

Alberta doesn’t have the hydro power of B.C. and Manitoba to produce electricity so it relies on “the most reliable form of electricity generation that we have and that’s natural gas-fired generation,” said Nally.

Because of the 2035 ambitions, the private sector isn’t stepping up to invest in reliable natural gas generation for the electricity grid, he said.

“So we’re going to have a challenge come 2035 but the federal Liberals have been obtuse to this fact. All the experts are saying we’re going to freeze in the dark if we continue down that path.”

According to American website driveclean.ca.gov, hydrogen vehicles “are powered by compressed hydrogen gas that feeds into an onboard fuel cell stack that doesn’t burn the gas, but instead transforms the fuel’s chemical energy into electrical energy. This electricity then powers the car’s electric motors. Tailpipe emissions are zero, and the only waste produced is pure water.”

The website says hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are quiet, energy-efficient and have equivalent range and performance to gasoline vehicles and they produce no emissions.

The Natural Resources Canada website shows fuel economy for the 2024 Toyota Mirai XLE has city fuel economy the equivalent of 3.1 litres per 100 km and highway economy of 3.3 litres per 100 km. That means 0.8 kilograms of hydrogen used per 100 kms in the city and 0.9 kg on the highway.

Edmonton International Airport and Toyota Canada entered a partnership last year to have a fleet of 100 Mirai sedans put into operation.

The Mirai, according to Toyota Canada’s website, is currently only available at “select authorized dealers” in B.C. and Quebec.

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