The Ontario government’s new hydrogen strategy reflects a “lobbyist feeding frenzy” and lacks “evidence, analysis, and critical thought,” says a climate policy expert.
A new provincial report, Ontario’s Low Carbon Hydrogen Strategy, is a “cheerleading” document that is overly optimistic about hydrogen’s potential for decarbonizing the economy, said York University professor Mark Winfield. That’s unfortunate, he added, because hydrogen has legitimate niche roles in Ontario’s energy future.
“We have to separate the sales pitch from a rigorous technical and economic analysis of where hydrogen makes sense,” Winfield said.
One pathway outlined in the strategy is the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to turn “grey hydrogen,” a carbon-intensive approach using natural gas feedstock, into ostensibly low-carbon “blue hydrogen”. The strategy doesn’t acknowledge that the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of CCS have yet to be demonstrated at scale.
Moreover, most of Ontario’s geology is unsuited to underground carbon storage, Winfield said. The strategy identifies potential in the southwest of the province, but geologically speaking, the area is “fractured Swiss cheese,” subject to earthquakes, and riddled with 200 years of often uncharted oil, gas, and brine wells. Winfield cited the August, 2021 gas explosion in Wheatley, Ontario, thought to have resulted from a leaking abandoned well, as an example of the hazards that could be in store.
The report advocates the use of surplus electricity to create hydrogen through electrolysis, said to be low-carbon because the grid is largely carbon-free. “This makes no sense at all,” Winfield said. The evidence is readily available in official electricity system projections that the province’s baseload surplus will soon disappear, and that any grid electricity used for hydrogen will add directly to fossil generation. A generating shortfall is expected due to the impending retirement of the Pickering nuclear plant, beginning in 2024, and the refurbishment of reactors at Darlington and Bruce.
“The plan is to make up the shortfall by activating Ontario’s natural gas fired generating capacity,” Winfield said, so that electricity used to create hydrogen will contribute directly to GHG emissions.
Although the initial focus is on using a purported surplus of electricity in the Ontario grid, the strategy implies that new nuclear capacity—a small modular reactor planned for the Darlington site—will be available to make “green hydrogen.” But nuclear is “not cost-effective” relative to renewables, Winfield said. The cheapest sources for electrolysis of hydrogen would be dedicated solar and wind generation.
The Ontario strategy cites biomass as another path to hydrogen. But Winfield said that approach be costly and energy-intensive. “Very specific and targeted technological analysis is needed to identify where this might be appropriate,” he said.
The most promising applications for hydrogen in Ontario are “hard to decarbonize” sectors such as steel, cement, petrochemicals, fertilizer, marine transportation, and road freight. But the strategy doesn’t engage in “useful reflection on cost-effectiveness, limitations, and problems” with particular hydrogen applications, Winfield said. The alternative is to replace fossil fuels directly through electrification rather than using electrolysis to manufacture hydrogen, an approach is “on the order of 10 times less efficient.”
Hydrogen fuel cells, promoted in the strategy, are “desperately expensive,” he said. “Twenty years ago, fuel cells were going to be the next big thing. But nothing happened.” Winfield said there has been “no breakthrough” in the past two decades that would improve the prospects.
According to the strategy, the Ontario government takes its lead in hydrogen development from the private sector. This shows in the document, which is largely an amalgam of the campaigns of the private sector players who were at the table. Working group members were almost entirely industry representatives.
“The government has to engage in some serious investigation and analysis before it starts handing out large taxpayer subsidies to these hydrogen initiatives,” Winfield said. The federal government has its own Hydrogen Strategy for Canada, he added, but it’s “not really any better” than the Ontario plan.