I distinctly remember, somewhere around 2000, I was sitting on the couch in the apartment with my then-newlywed wife, when I leaned over to her and told her something profound.

“I think the next car I buy is going to be a hydrogen fuel cell car,” I said.

The media was full of stories about how Vancouver-based Ballard Power was going to change the world with its clean hydrogen fuel-cell technology. It seemed like it was right around the corner – just a few years away.

At the time, my 1998 Geo Metro still had a whiff of the new car smell to it. In the time that’s passed, we’ve bought two houses and raised two kids to high school age. One of those kids, Katrina, just got accepted into multiple trade schools for automotive service technician (a fancy way of saying mechanic). To my knowledge, not one of them has servicing hydrogen-fuel cell vehicles on the curriculum. Nor do they have fully electric cars, either, although Lakeland College references hybrids. I have been telling her she had better start taking some basic electrical courses on the side.

In the meantime, that ’98 Metro provided yeoman service to me, my dad, and then my first kid. I had hoped it would be training wheels for the second kid, Spencer, but it was not to be. We finally sent it to the wrecker this summer when I realized the unibody had rusted out and it was no longer safe.

My beloved Geo Metro on its way to the wrecker. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Let’s think about that – a 23-year lifespan for a car, the most fuel-efficient model you could buy that year, and still, widespread hydrogen fuel-cell based cars have not arrived to replace it before it rusted into oblivion. Not even close.

That hasn’t stopped the powers that be to declare that internal combustion engines are going the way of the Dodo bird by 2035. Our great leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said so at the COP26. “We must find the right solutions for our citizens in their everyday lives. And that is why Canada has set the goal of selling only zero-emissions vehicles and establishing the electrical distribution network for zero net emissions by 2035.”

He said it, so clearly, it will happen. Don’t let reality get in the way.

I will address the electric vehicle side of this issue at great length and in excruciating detail in the coming years. But let’s talk about the alternative zero-emissions vehicles – hydrogen, for now.

At least for electric vehicles, we have a distribution system in place. It is woefully inadequate compared to the amount of electrons it will need to carry to power all the electric vehicles (EVs) we’re told are coming our way, but at least it is very firmly established. There’s electrical power to basically everywhere there’s civilization, power that can be used to plug in and charge your EV. It can be done.

Home-based chargers can be installed. Estevan’s Canadian Tire just installed the first quick charger I’ve seen in the community, across the road from Peavey Mart’s slow charger that I think I might have seen used once over the past several years its been there.

But there is next to zero, I say again, ZERO established infrastructure for hydrogen-based fuel. Not just in Estevan, not just in Saskatchewan, but I mean anywhere. No tankage, no pipelines, no trucking. Zero, or damned near.

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Maybe I shouldn’t say zero as an absolute. It turns that Toyota announced their first hydrogen car in Canada, the Mirai, in 2015, and its second generation in 2019. And their website illustrates the entire fuelling infrastructure in Canada: Three stations in Metro Vancouver with, two to come, one in Victoria, and another to come in Kelowna. Oh yeah, and there’s one more station in Quebec City. Go figure.

Okay, so it’s not zero. But pretty damned close. This is infinitesimal in comparison to the infrastructure currently in place to move around oil and gas. Ever look at a pipeline map of North America, the economic equivalent of our body’s circulatory system? That infrastructure was built out over several generations – basically the last 70 years. Now, rebuild or repurpose basically all of that, and maybe more, and do it in 13 YEARS.

 

Map courtesy United States Department of Energy

 

No one is talking about building a hydrogen version of the Keystone XL pipeline yet, let alone something the size and scale of the Enbridge Mainline. Yet that would be absolutely necessary, not just on a North American scale, but a global scale, at the same time, to reach these goals pronounced by the leaders at COP26.

Where is the hydrogen mainline, anywhere on this planet? Anyone? Buehler? Buehler?

 

Will Citizens Against Virtually Everything (CAVE men) lie down in front of bulldozers building a hydrogen pipeline? Will First Nations blockade, protest, and initiate court proceedings at every step of the way? Will the Impact Assessment Act, (a.k.a. the No More Pipelines Act) give a free pass to hydrogen pipelines? Or will they be burdened by every conceivable (and inconceivable) regulatory hurdle imaginable, as oil and gas pipelines are now? The Trans Mountain expansion project was shut down for four months this year because of a hummingbird nest, as if that particular right of way is the only place in British Columbia (much larger than France) where a hummingbird might lay an egg.

Could the natural gas network, as seen in the above map, be repurposed for hydrogen? Perhaps. But no one is talking about that, let alone doing it.

Telsa has tens of thousands of superchargers around the world, and that’s just one company. Show me where I can go fuel up my hydrogen car?

Tessla superchargers at the Whitewood Co-op. Photo by Brian Zinchuk

Oh, sure, some cities may have jumped on the virtue-signalling bandwagon years ago with hydrogen-powered buses. But can you fill up your pickup? Good luck with that.

We’re seeing lots of talk now about hydrogen being the future. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is jumping all over that like a fat kid on a Smartie, releasing a roadmap on Nov. 5 with the goal of becoming a world leader in hydrogen exports. It has a lot to do with natural gas being used as the source for “blue hydrogen,” where methane is broken down to provide your hydrogen. This is different from “green hydrogen,” which is where you zap water with electricity (perhaps from wind turbines?) to create hydrogen from electrolysis. Green hydrogen is elementary school science. Blue hydrogen is an oilfield product.

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The recent Federated Co-operatives Limited/Whitecap Resources Inc. memorandum of understanding on carbon capture, utilization and storage also referenced a potential hydrogen hub that would be an offshoot of what they’re going to do with carbon dioxide.

And all that’s great. But that’s still a very long ways away from fuelling every new vehicle with either electricity or hydrogen within 13 years.

Car and Driver reported on Nov. 10, “Six Major Automakers Agree to End Gas Car Sales Globally by 2040.”

The sub-headline read, “Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz, and others, along with 30 nations, signed a pledge to eliminate sales of new gas and diesel-powered cars by 2035 in ‘leading markets.’”

Certainly, Canada was one of those 30 nations, as referenced by our great leader’s comments on the opening day of COP26.

If we are going to go all-in on zero emissions vehicles, we have two choices: electric vehicles, or hydrogen. While progress is being made on electric vehicles, the hurdles and basic realities are staggering. Copper, lithium and rare earth elements supply are top of that list. But hydrogen doesn’t seem too much further along today then it was in 2000, when I thought my next vehicle was going to be hydrogen-powered.

It took generations to build out our energy infrastructure, both electrical and petroleum-based. It will take generations more to replace it. That may indeed happen. But the chances that GM or Ford will be able to give up building petroleum-fueled vehicles by 2035 are about are high as my ability to fuel up a hydrogen car, today, in Estevan.

Pretty much zero.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor and owner of PipelineOnline.ca. He used to build those mainline pipelines that would have to be replaced or repurposed, in 13 years, by hydrogen pipelines. Zinchuk can be reached at brian.zinchuk@pipelineonline.ca.

 

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