World Energy GH2’s proposed wind farm on the Port au Port peninsula is set to produce green hydrogen, an up-and-coming fuel being touted as the answer to decarbonizing and reaching net-zero emissions.
However, the science is mixed on the viability of wind power, and hydrogen in particular, as a green energy alternative to oil and gas. In this two-part series, The Independent is talking to experts and considering what the environmental impacts might be if the Nujio’Qonik GH2 wind farm project actually goes through. Part one examines how the wind farm construction will affect the land and ecosystems on the Port au Port peninsula. This second part looks primarily at green hydrogen and its ability to reduce or increase emissions, as well as its role in managing the climate crisis.
What the Heck is “Green Hydrogen” Anyway?
As World Energy GH2 explains in their project’s environmental assessment registration: “Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel produced by the electrolysis of water. Hydrogen production is categorized based on the source of the electricity used for electrolysis. Green hydrogen refers to hydrogen fuel that is produced using only renewable electric power, such as wind.”
Hydrogen is often produced from non-renewable sources like coal or methane. “Green” hydrogen by contrast, is presented as a zero-emissions alternative where the electricity used to produce it is generated by a renewable source like wind power. The process of electrolysis splits water into its component parts, hydrogen and oxygen (H2O), and the hydrogen is then collected.
Hydrogen has been proposed as the future fuel of many industries, in an effort to decrease carbon emissions globally. It is an attractive option because burning hydrogen does not produce any emissions – only water and heat. Hydrogen has potential use in many large emitting industries such as power generation and transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells for powering cars and airplanes are currently in development.
Thanks to this growing interest in green hydrogen, what will be produced on the west coast already has a potential buyer. European investors, including those from Germany, want to buy Newfoundland and Labrador-produced hydrogen, in an effort to move away from oil dependency. Green hydrogen, although not yet largely developed, is beginning to appear as one of the major solutions to the world’s decarbonization efforts and reaching net-zero emissions.
According to Nick Mercer, a settler researcher with the school for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University, the biggest hurdle to wind development in the province has been not enough domestic demand for wind energy. That, and the limited access to regional markets in order to export electricity. Therefore, green hydrogen is being touted as a solution to this problem.
Mercer explained to The Independent, “They don’t need to produce electricity for Newfoundland and Labrador. They don’t need to produce electricity for Nova Scotia, they can put up these massive industrial wind projects to produce green hydrogen, convert it to ammonia, and then ship it overseas.”
But there are concerns about how hydrogen can be stored, as well as the sustainability of its production.
What are the Environmental Impacts of Hydrogen?
While community members are focused on the more immediate impacts of wind turbines on the environment, the production and use of green hydrogen also needs to be examined. As World Energy GH2 emphasizes, hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, which is what makes it a viable solution to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and reaching net zero. However, not everyone agrees.
Dr. Ilissa B. Ocko, scientist and hydrogen researcher with the Environmental Defence Fund, posted in a Twitter thread that “Conventional wisdom is WRONG. Hydrogen (H₂) made from renewables and water is not inherently climate neutral and can still contribute to climate change.”
“This is because H₂ is a tiny molecule that can easily escape into the atmosphere,” she continues, “and when it does, it triggers chemical reactions that INCREASE the amounts of other greenhouse gases.” Scientists have recently found that H₂ in the atmosphere can indeed increase greenhouse gases such as methane.
According to Dr. Ocko, H₂ has indirect warming effects. Though hydrogen can last only a couple of decades, it still constitutes an indirect greenhouse gas emission. Projects that have been announced in the last few years have hardly mentioned the widely-known concern in the scientific community that H₂ leakages can warm the climate.
Dr. Ocko, therefore, suggests that planning needs to be done in advance to understand, measure, and prevent H₂ leaks. Because the green hydrogen industry is still early in development, there is time and opportunity to make sure hydrogen leaks are fully addressed before moving forward.
The full study on the climate consequences of hydrogen emissions can be found here.
Nick Mercer also believes that this is an area of concern. He explained to The Independent “if we rush into this process of hydrogen development and advancement and we cut red tape, and we’re not careful about how we permit and monitor these projects, we can we can certainly be contributing to the climate crisis in several ways through the propagation of the fossil fuel industry, number one, and [the] mixing with gray and blue hydrogen, and [..] through leaks of hydrogen itself.”
“I’m fearful that there are unintended consequences associated with this industry that we have not certainly had a chance to review,” he continued, “and when industry rushes to develop a new industry and is not thoughtful, and careful to ensure appropriate mitigation strategies are in place, you end up with projects like Muskrat Falls, a renewable source of energy that also poisons hundreds or thousands of lives downstream. So I think we need a more thoughtful and thorough process when it comes to this green hydrogen.”
Mercer also explained to The Independent, that another concern is the “greenwashing” embedded in the hydrogen industry. Most of the hydrogen currently being produced is not “green hydrogen” but rather gray or blue hydrogen. Gray hydrogen is produced from coal and natural gas extraction, and blue hydrogen involves the capture of coal and natural gas emissions that are stored underground. According to Mercer, “less than 1% of global hydrogen right now is green hydrogen. So if we put all our efforts and intensity into developing green hydrogen, and it really represents a drop in the bucket, when the vast majority is gray or blue hydrogen, are we just helping to perpetuate our dependence on fossil fuels?”
The Independent asked John Risley, director of World Energy GH2 if he is aware of current research surrounding hydrogen’s ability to increase global warming. He responded, “yes, indeed hydrogen is a very tiny molecule and therefore care has to be taken to avoid leaks. For instance,” he added, “not all pipelines are suitable for transporting hydrogen. Those that are must be suitably designed. In our case, we don’t intend to transport hydrogen but rather to convert it to ammonia, which is much easier to transport and solves the leak issue.”
Risley also noted that right now there are 90 million mega tonnes of hydrogen being produced and consumed in the world today, indicating that it is already a massive industry. “Unfortunately, it is being produced using fossil fuels,” Risley noted. “We intend to help or be part of a Government sponsored or endorsed movement to produce hydrogen using renewable energy. Just our project alone will remove carbon emissions equivalent to those produced by all the cars and trucks in Newfoundland and Labrador.”
He continued, “One must ask, is this a good thing, or not? Of course, we have to do so in as environmentally benign a way as possible, a goal to which we are committed. But fundamentally this is the direction we must go if we are to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”
Do we Even Need Hydrogen?
While the production of green hydrogen itself does not directly create emissions, its development and export do have the potential to generate some greenhouse gas emissions, and World Energy GH2 should address this. Green hydrogen projects require electricity to be generated from renewable sources. That electricity is then used to make hydrogen, and that hydrogen is then exported to be used to create electrical power for other industries.
In Mercer’s opinion, producing hydrogen is “innately a wasteful process, just converting wind directly to electricity is way more efficient.”
“I’ve read a paper recently,” Mercer explained, “that suggested that if we’re going to produce hydrogen, ship it off to Europe, convert it to a usable form, such as in a household furnace for instance, [it] would take 6 to 14 times more the amount of energy than [would] be required if you just stuck up a wind turbine, and then use the electricity directly in an electric space heater.” He concluded, “I question why would we pursue this when we could just focus directly on electrification at home and the build-out of electric vehicles and conversion to electric heating. It can be a pretty wasteful process.”
Corporate vs. Community Projects
Mercer’s research looks at community-driven power projects. He explained to The Independent that “renewable energy projects typically have more positive social, economic, environmental impacts when their community-led as opposed to the billionaire or corporate-led.”
Mercer cited Dr. Chad Walker’s research, where he conducted a comparative analysis between the wind industry in Ontario and the wind industry in Nova Scotia. The research found that in Nova Scotia, public acceptance of wind energy was three times higher than in Ontario.
“People love wind [projects] in Nova Scotia and they don’t believe it affects their health, but people hate wind in Ontario, and they do believe it affects their health.” He explained further, “And what their conclusions were, was that Nova Scotia has followed a community-led process through a policy mechanism called the Community Feed-in Tariff program [COMFIT]. And essentially, what the concept program guaranteed was that projects are really small, so less than 10 megawatts.”
Mercer believes that community-led projects are better received by community members, and do less harm to the environment due to their small scale. Furthermore, corporate-led processes tear communities apart, because the projects are often forced upon them.
“In Newfoundland and Labrador–I think we could learn from the success of Nova Scotia, instead of giving the keys of our renewable energy industry to billionaires or to outside corporations,” he said. “I think it should be communities themselves who are empowered to lead these projects and to be the principal beneficiaries of these projects. And I’m not seeing that happen in the green hydrogen industry.”
Finally, Mercer is also skeptical of the company’s efforts to consult Indigenous communities. “I’ve read mixed reviews. I’ve seen some great consultative efforts of municipalities and local services districts coming together. I’ve seen other feedback provided where people were absolutely shocked and dismayed that this project was being proposed like this, this environmental assessment was filed with the provincial government. And it was the first time many people on the Port au Port peninsula even heard of it.”
He shared something a Mi’kmaq mentor once told him: “If you approach us with an idea that is already fully developed, you have already violated your ethical obligations to us.”
For Mercer, corporate-led development of renewable energy projects means that communities and rights-holders are left out, and communities deserve to make their own decisions about their economic, environmental, and social future.
While renewable energy development is a step in the right direction towards decarbonizing and reaching net-zero emissions in Newfoundland and Labrador, hydrogen may not be the answer to creating efficient and sustainable energy. The consequences for the land and everyone and everything that lives on it must be considered.
The Nujio’qonik GH2 project, however, is generating important discussions about renewable energy production in the province going forward. Hopefully, this will encourage governments and industries to move away from fossil fuel extraction altogether and toward a greener, more sustainable future.
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