Could hydrogen replace fossil fuels as Halifax’s main source of fuel?

Experts say hydrogen can be used for vehicles and heating

A Halifax regional councillor wants the city to consider exchanging fossil fuels for a cleaner energy source.

“Anything you can do with fossil fuels, can also be done with hydrogen,” says Coun. Richard Zurawski, who represents Timberlea, Lakeside and Beechville.

On Thursday, Zurawski will ask the environment and sustainability standing committee to request a staff report on the feasibility of starting programs to implement a hydrogen economy in the municipality.

A hydrogen economy is the use of hydrogen, in place of fossil fuels, as a source of low carbon fuel for vehicles and heating. It can be produced by applying heat and pressure to methane or by electrolysis of water, which decomposes water into hydrogen with an electric current.

Michael Fowler, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Waterloo, believes because we are running out of fossil fuels, a future hydrogen economy is unavoidable.

“It’s just a matter of when,” says Fowler.

But he says before a hydrogen economy is adopted, a lot of work will need to be done.

Hydrogen can be difficult to work with. Both methods of producing it can be costly and can also require fossil fuels to produce. Fowler says hydrogen can also be difficult to contain because it needs to be pressurized and can’t be allowed to escape. Hydrogen is highly explosive when exposed to air, so infrastructure needs to be put in place to store and prevent hydrogen from leaking.

Fowler says despite these difficulties, hydrogen could be a huge benefit for Halifax. Hydrogen is one of the most abundant elements on the planet. If it is produced without fossil fuels, hydrogen fuel will have no emissions. Vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells are more efficient than gas vehicles.

Jon Pharoah, a professor in the fuel cell research centre at Queen’s University, says if Halifax councillors are looking at implementing a hydrogen economy, they should start by focusing on vehicles.

“The quicker way to get up and going, and the cheaper way, is to look at street applications and transit buses,” says Pharoah.

Hydrogen economy expert Jon Pharoah says a good place to start with using hydrogen for fuel is transit buses.   Jakob Postlewaite

Pharoah says if Halifax decides to adopt a hydrogen economy, it should start by installing hydrogen fuel cells in transit buses. He says that would give the city a chance to experiment with hydrogen storage because it could set up a private fuelling station for transit buses.

Zurawski says if the city had embraced a hydrogen economy long ago, the concerns would have already been dealt with. He says there are many unknowns when it comes to a hydrogen economy, which is why he wants city staff to look into the costs and infrastructure needed.

“If we adopted this economy 30 years ago we would have our own hydrogen generating plants, burning plants and our own technology built around the hydrogen economy,” says Zurawski. “It’s important to get onto the leading edge of this.”

Jakob Postlewaite

Jakob Postlewaite

Jakob Postlewaite is a fourth-year journalism student at the University of King's College. He has worked as a columnist and reporter for the Cape Breton Post under his own byline. He also studies film at Dalhousie University.

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