Port Moody, B.C., will be home to an innovative low-emission hydrogen power plant, according to the three companies behind a pilot project slated to start construction late next year.
The test project would be the first such plant in B.C., and possibly Canada, to produce what's known as "turquoise hydrogen," an almost zero-emission method for capturing and converting methane from burning natural gas. Similar projects exist in Germany and France.
The Port Moody project is now in the planning stage, said a FortisBC Energy spokesperson.
"Hydrogen has a load of potential for British Columbia," said Sean Beardow in a phone interview Monday. "It's potentially a huge resource for us … an important piece of how we expand our renewable and low-carbon gases."
Hydrogen has long been seen as having major potential for climate-friendly electricity production and fuel cells for transport.
As British Columbia and other jurisdictions vow to dramatically curb emissions in the face of climate change, developing large-scale, greener energy sources is a key technological challenge — especially electricity that can be transported over large distances or traded abroad.
The pilot project in Port Moody would be small scale at first. But if developed commercially, the plant could eventually produce up to 2,500 tonnes of zero-emission hydrogen fuel a year, equivalent to 300,000 gigajoules of energy, its proponents say.
That would be enough energy to power more than 3,000 homes, says FortisBC.
The natural gas firm is partnering with Australia-based Hazer Group — which already generates hydrogen power at a pilot project in that country — and Suncor, which will host the plant on its Burrard Terminal property.
The process of using natural gas to create hydrogen fuel has been criticized because it still uses fossil fuels.
But supporters of the project say it will not release greenhouse gases. Using a method called methane pyrolysis, the plant would essentially separate carbon from hydrogen in the methane released when natural gas is burned. The hydrogen can be used as energy, while the carbon is stored as solid graphite, which could then be used in other industries like construction.
In April, the National Research Council of Canada described methane pyrolysis as a "completely new approach." Last year, a methane pyrolysis plant opened in Nebraska, claiming to be "the world's first commercial-scale methane pyrolysis unit."
Werner Antweiler, an associate professor at the University of B.C.'s Sauder School of Business who is currently working on a research paper looking at this type of hydrogen power in international markets, said it's "very exciting" that this project is happening in B.C.
"That is the beauty of the future," he said in a phone interview. "Hydrogen is a tool to allow us to trade and store clean electricity."
Antweiler explained the approach is known as turquoise hydrogen because it falls between so-called green and blue methods of production.
In "blue" hydrogen generation, fossil fuels are burned, and some but not all carbon emissions are captured and converted, he said. "Green" hydrogen is the most sustainable and relies entirely on large supplies of renewable energy.
Currently, the dominant way of making hydrogen energy is nicknamed "grey" hydrogen, which burns fossil fuels such as coal and has a high environmental price tag.
Antweiler sees most promise in turquoise hydrogen, but the downside is that it's costly to produce.
He said the pilot project planned for Port Moody could improve the technology and, hopefully, help bring its costs down.
"This is really the Holy Grail of making it economical," he said.
"We hope, long term, we can scale it up and make it much cheaper than it is today. So it is a pilot project for that reason, but we expect the demand for hydrogen to grow in the future.
"And that is something that would be groundbreaking territory."