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Hydrogen Technology Takes Off

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Lions Bay resident working toward a greener future for BC


Pop quiz: What's the most abundant element on the planet?


If you guessed hydrogen, you'd be right. And as scientists and climatologists look for alternatives to fossil fuels, hydrogen is being touted as a safe, viable option to power vehicles. In 2021, the province of British Columbia committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with hydrogen playing a role in their lower carbon strategy, and – no surprise – there's a Lions Bay connection.


Village resident Norm Barmeier is a founding member of the village Climate Action committee and a professional engineer. He designed and oversaw the construction of Canada’s first hydrogen station, and notably, has had a hand in designing all the rest of the ever-increasing number of stations scattered across the country.


Last month, Barmeier's employer, HTEC Hydrogen Technology & Energy Corporation (HTEC), announced a pilot program to use hydrogen to power commercial trucking.


He says he is excited to be a part of B.C.’s transition to a clean economy.


"Hydrogen has been used in industry for centuries and is a safe and well understood fuel. It can be used to generate electricity for a number of applications, including transportation, and has been made economical through advances in fuel cell technology," he says.


Fuel cells are essentially small engines that use hydrogen to make electricity.


According to the Insurance Company of British Columbia (ICBC), in 2022 there were 115 electric and 51 hybrid vehicles registered in Lions Bay, which is a higher percentage than almost every municipality in the province. This is a population that is committed to alternative fuel sources.


So how do hydrogen-fuelled vehicles compare?


While hydrogen can also be burned directly in traditional internal combustion and hybrid engines, fuel cell technology is different. A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) works much like a battery electric vehicle (BEV) in that the wheels are powered by an electric motor. While the drivetrain is essentially the same, the electricity comes from either a fuel cell or a battery. Barmeier notes that FCEVs are currently on the market in the form of buses, semi-trucks and passenger cars, adding that there are currently roughly 30,000 passenger FCEVs on the road worldwide.


Unlike fossil fuels, hydrogen is not considered an air or ground pollutant, as in its natural state hydrogen combines with oxygen to form pure water. But of course hydrogen use is not without risk. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the U.S., hydrogen gas used in fuel cells is very flammable and can cause fires and explosions if not handled properly. This is complicated by the fact that hydrogen is a colourless, odourless, and tasteless gas. While natural gas and propane are also odourless, a sulfur-containing (Mercaptan) odourant is added to those gases so that leaks can be detected. Not so with hydrogen. Also, when hydrogen catches fire, the flames are invisible, making fighting such a fire even more complicated.


According to HTEC, BC's hydrogen fuelling stations are designed to global standards and are safely in operation in communities around the world. "Hydrogen FCEVs are as safe as any other vehicle on the road and have millions of miles of safe, on-road experience," says HTEC on their website. It also notes that almost 10,500 Californians own or lease FCEVs, all of which refuel safely at the 45 hydrogen stations in operation across the state.


Barmeier explains that 'green' hydrogen is produced via electrolysis, which splits water molecules (H2O) by using electricity, resulting in oxygen and hydrogen gases. The hydrogen gas is then collected, compressed, and distributed to its' point of use. By contrast, 'grey' hydrogen can be generated by splitting natural gas (CH4), which results in carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases, but with a less environmentally-friendly result.


Local gas stations have begun to carry green hydrogen gas. The closest to Lions Bay is the Esso at the Westview exit off the Upper Levels highway in North Vancouver.


Barmeier says the fuelling experience is very similar to filling a traditional gasoline vehicle. "The dispensers look the same as a regular gas pump, and since the gas is buoyant, in the event of a spill, hydrogen goes straight up into the air; unlike liquid fuels which spill onto the ground."


There are a number of planned green hydrogen production sites in BC, including electrolysis plants in Burnaby and Nanaimo and a gas capture plant in North Vancouver.


Closer to home, Barmeier notes that Lions Bay has definite goals to reduce carbon emissions. "As a municipality, our biggest contribution to carbon emissions are the oil-burning furnaces in the community hall and the fleet of public works vehicles." He says the Climate Action committee is addressing village priorities in a more holistic way, but that eliminating the oil furnace in the hall, and transitioning from internal combustion engines to lower emission power trains in the work vehicles could be just the beginning.


"Theoretically, hydrogen could be used as back-up power for the community hall, as stand-alone power for our water intakes, and for fleet vehicles as those options come available."


And while hydrogen infrastructure is still expensive, technically complex, and in the early stages of adoption, it's got solid government support. "BC is the leader in Canadian hydrogen fuelling infrastructure, both in terms of production and distribution," says Barmeier. "Federal and provincial governments are funding a network of stations and production facilities across the country, with BC seeing dozens of hydrogen fuelling stations coming online in the next few years."


While acknowledging that Lions Bay has a few "bigger fish to fry" in the short term, Barmeier says he'd love to see the village take part in this decarbonization journey. "There are certainly synergies with some of the potential power sources like our creeks and energy storage in the form of hydrogen for a variety of applications. In some utopian future we could harness power from our streams and store that as hydrogen to use when needed; each house with its own storage pack."


The idea of a future with a hydrogen-powered solution to village power outages definitely holds appeal, but even an optimist like Barmeier knows that's some way off. Still, with a Lions Bay resident at the cutting edge of this fast-moving technology, a greener future will likely be here before we know it.


Have thoughts on hydrogen or other green fuel options? Share your comments below, or email us at editor@lionsbaywatershed.ca





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I’m hoping that electric vehicles haven’t created an insurmountable lead in the quest for an alternative to fossil fuelled vehicles. Hydrogen has always made much more sense to me as opposed to the mining and the metals involved in battery powered vehicles. Besides, I would be embarrassed to be seen in a vehicle made by Elon Musk!

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Wow, great article. Thanks KC and Norm! Makes me feel more hopeful about the future. Not that easy these days.

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