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Green hydrogen could be Nova Scotia’s answer to a greener grid: climate policy expert

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Canada and Germany have signed an agreement to ship hydrogen from a new plant in Newfoundland to Europe.

The countries' new hydrogen pact will kick-start a transatlantic hydrogen supply chain, with the first deliveries expected in three years.

On Tuesday, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck signed the deal in the port town of Stephenville, N.L., where they attended a hydrogen trade show along with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The five-page agreement is a “declaration of intent” to create a hydrogen alliance between the two countries.

Thomas Arnason McNeil is a climate policy co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. He says the agreement comes with many benefits in reaching a more green grid.

"Green hydrogen is what the deal that was signed with Germany entails, and essentially what that is, is fuel that is developed using green electricity through a process called electrolysis," explained McNeil.

"So, green hydrogen can be used in a variety of different transportation uses. For example, there's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, it can also be used in some cases to decarbonize jet fuel and it has different applications within the electricity sector as well."

McNeil says the use of green hydrogen could also play a role in Nova Scotia's transition towards a greener grid.

"I think, ideally, we need to look domestically and ask ourselves, 'What are we doing to move the grid away from coal?’" he asked. "So, should we be looking for applications for green hydrogen here at home in Nova Scotia, as opposed to shipping it out? I think the answer is likely yes."

"We know from studies and modelling that we have done that electricity demand, for example, is going to increase. The electricity sector is predicted to double by 2050 in Nova Scotia, and in New Brunswick as well. So, I think we should be asking ourselves, can green hydrogen play a role in both moving off of coal, and then helping us adapt for what's going to be a higher demand for electricity as a result of electric cars and other technologies?”

According to McNeil, about 50 per cent of Nova Scotia’s power currently comes from coal.

"We have some good targets that the province set in place last year, so we're going to attempt to get 80 per cent of the grid reliant on green energy sources, which is great. The only problem is, how do we get there? So, we need yearly reporting and we need data and a plan to get there. It's really not good enough to just say, ‘We have some of the highest targets in the country.' We need to show how we're making progress. Otherwise it's just magical thinking."

Some goals in Nova Scotia's climate change action plan include:

  • phasing out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030
  • pledging to have 80 per cent of the province's energy supplied by renewable sources by 2030
  • requiring zero-emission vehicles to account for 30 per cent of vehicle sales that same year

Currently, Nova Scotia operates its own cap-and-trade program for large industrial emitters, sheltering it from the federal carbon tax. The program has been in place since 2019, but will expire at the end of 2022.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston has asked Ottawa to exempt Nova Scotia from the national carbon tax, saying the federal government's signature bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions amounts to "punishing" the province.

The Progressive Conservative premier said imposing a carbon tax on Nova Scotians would unduly penalize them because the province's existing efforts to reduce emissions already exceed federal targets.

The federal carbon tax will increase the price of carbon by $15 per tonne, and then rise again every year until it reaches $170 per tonne in 2030.

Houston said the tax could cost the average Nova Scotian household more than $2,000 in 2025 and over $3,100 in 2030. He argued the province should move ahead with its own plans "rather than be punished by a 14-cent-per-litre increase in the price of gas."

He also noted that Nova Scotians already pay some of the highest power bills in Canada.

McNeil says it's extremely unlikely the federal government will park the carbon tax for Nova Scotia.

"I can't imagine why they would halt what is the cornerstone of their environmental policy," he said. "As we seen a couple years ago, a couple of different provinces have tried to challenge carbon pricing in court and did not succeed. So, I think it's fairly unlikely that the federal government would halt it."

What is needed, McNeil says, is a clear plan to show how the government plans to reach its renewable and electricity targets.

"I think that they're correct in some places. I think we need some clarity from the federal government, especially on projects like the Atlantic Loop, which would connect our electricity up to Quebec's, connect us to hydropower. So, we do need some clarity from the federal government there because ideally, these are a big part of our de-carbonization efforts."

Energy poverty, which is when residents pay more than six per cent of their income towards power bills, is a significant issue in Nova Scotia, according to McNeil.

"For example, Nova Scotia has one of the highest energy poverty rates in the country. So, the government is correct that energy poverty is a big problem in Nova Scotia, but what we'd like to see ideally is more funding for things like heat pumps, things that will get folks off of oil heating, and in some cases, reduce their demand for base-work electricity. So again, this is another case where it's good and fine to complain about energy poverty. It's a serious issue in Nova Scotia and one that we've been advocating for the reduction of energy poverty for decades now. But we need a concrete plan in terms of how are we going to get there."

With files from The Canadian Press.

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