Once upon a time long ago, Ballard Power Systems came into existence. In 1983, the company’s founders began working on fuel cells that generate electrical energy from a combination of hydrogen and air.
In 1990, the company began development of a 5 kW fuel cell stack, proving that the concept actually works at a useful level.
In 1991, Ballard entered a joint program between Ballard, General Motors and the US Department of Energy to collaborate on development of a fuel cell powered automobile – (I am well aware of this because I am pretty sure I rushed out to buy some shares (I’m not certain, because years of precision drinking have quite successfully and surgically destroyed any brain cells related to past ‘can’t lose’ stock picks), which I must have sold at some point with typical losses as the stock price cratered and stayed low for the next 15 years.)
Consider the significance of those backers. Thirty years ago, Ballard struck a development deal with the very pinnacles of the government industrial complex – the US government and General Motors – to bring fuel cell vehicles onto the road. Within a year or two, Ballard signed a further partnership with Daimler-Benz to develop fuel cell stacks. Consider the clout, technical ability, and financial wherewithal of those three partners. With that kind of backing, I could build a roller coaster from here to Buenos Aires.
Five years later, in 1998, the first fuel cell buses were trialled in Chicago and Vancouver. But over the 25 years since, progress has been as slow as if I tried to build a rollercoaster from here to Buenos Aires.
In 2023, despite excellent tech and enthusiastic governments/industries, adoption is still remarkably low. Sites such as Fuel Cell Works feature stories like this one about fuel cell city buses being introduced to Australia, one of the most aggressive green energy countries around. The company introducing the bus to Australia does have 1,100 buses in service already, but nearly half of those were home-town specials for the Beijing Olympics (just as Ballard did with the Vancouver Olympics).
There are endless technical challenges involved in rolling out new technology. Furthermore, an entirely new fuelling and distribution system has to be designed, tested, funded, and built, usually over a widespread chorus of howling voices that don’t want anything built. It happens to renewables as well; just ask the poor people that have spent 15 years getting permits for a 732-mile transmission line from Wyoming to California, simply to transmit wind power. And now that they have approval, construction will take another five years.
That is how new tech unfolds when it comes to energy and energy infrastructure. Those wild timelines are not uncommon, with tens of billions of dollars in R&D and testing and grinding it out. There is no magic wand, even if charlatans try to sell you one.
This brings us to the excellent news about Tourmaline Oil’s recently announced plan to supply natural gas in the form of CNG (compressed natural gas) for use in the trucking industry.
Up to 20 stations over next five years will sell CNG to big trucks; up to 3,000 natural gas-powered trucks could be fuelled every day resulting in a reduction of 73,000 tonnes of CO2 per year. Mullen Group, a large trucking company, has signed on in support, and US company Clean Energy Fuels Corp will provide the expertise in developing the fuelling stations.
Those savings are based on 3,000 trucks. There are millions of trucks in the US and Canada that could potentially benefit from this switch. The estimated emissions profile over diesel is a 20 percent reduction.
Compared to virtually any other energy transition scheme that can reduce emissions by 20 per cent, this one is as obvious as betting on a first-round Leafs exit. The natural gas distribution system is fully built out. North America has a lot of gas reserves; at $5 US/mmbtu, a fraction of the global price, North American producers can flood the market at will.
Clean Energy Fuels’ website shows that their corporate heart really lies in manure, not natural gas, because capturing methane from dairy farm manure has one of the highest impacts on the whole GHG reduction scene. Their whole website is devoted to RNG. But the company is clearly wise enough to see the vast and attainable potential by simply converting diesel trucks to natural gas.
Critics will point to the challenges of such conversions, which is why the participation of an actual functioning and smart trucking company is so significant. From the news release, Mullen clearly refers to the cost challenge, noting that natural gas engines cost some 30 percent more than diesel, but that the fuel is cheaper and that “CNG is the future.”
Take a step back and look at energy transitions globally. Coal ignited the industrial revolution. Oil ignited global and regional travel. Both advanced dramatically the ability to make things in one place and sell them in another and for tourists to visit it all without the bank account of royalty.
Natural gas brought reliable heat to hundreds of millions, and fuelled an enormous industrial base that could not have existed otherwise.
Cumulatively, these cheap energy advancements have allowed 8 billion people to walk the earth at the same time.
Now, we are looking towards another energy transition, but this one is quite different – it won’t, in a sense, advance anything; all that will happen (as envisioned) is that our energy sources will be headed towards pollution ‘free’ in one sense or another.
But the human condition won’t support this hoped-for energy transition at any cost. This isn’t a race towards something that will revolutionize their lives as past transitions have. Citizens will look at the sacrifices required of them, then will look at China building the equivalent of two new coal-fired power plants per week, and they’ll look at their grocery bill, and they’ll move on. They will continue to demand affordable energy, affordable food, and reliable power. And that’s the few billion that can count on these things now; the other 6 billion are wanting the same thing and we have no right to stop them.
As such, this energy transition, if it is to succeed at all, must leverage off the existing system and morph it over time. Short of some wild breakthrough in fusion or other similar, there is nothing on the horizon that tells us a clean energy revolution is anywhere near ready to supplant hydrocarbons.
The closest we have is nuclear, and look at the insanity that’s invaded that scene – Germany just closed three perfectly good nuclear reactors – emissions-free energy – at the insistence of the ‘green’ movement; that power is being replaced by Russian (!) coal; and at the very same moment, German reactors are being shut down on ‘green’ grounds others are opening in western Europe. It’s all enough to make one’s head explode.
On top of that, the environmental destruction caused by wind/solar supply chain requirements is being recognized even amongst hydrocarbon haters. The Tyee, a hydrocarbon-hate publication, recently ran an article by one of their top haters entitled “The Rising Chorus of Renewable Energy Skeptics.” From the article, an astonishing admission could be right from the mouth of anyone in the hydrocarbon industry: “For largely ideological reasons many greens and “transitionists” have presented the transition to renewables as a smooth road with no potholes…In so doing they have ignored much basic geology, energy physics, and even geopolitics.”
I do think hydrogen has a great future; it’s going to be awesome to see fuel cells take off as the hydrogen economy advances (don’t bother taking to the keyboard to tell me all the bad stuff about hydrogen; if an energy transition is going to be rammed through I’ll take that over a battery-based nightmare any day, because I am a big fan of natural habitat, and any alternative at all to what we have is going to be wildly expensive and disruptive).
But after all this time and all the funding, the industry is only part way there, and the hydrogen fuelling system remains largely nonexistent.
That’s why announcements like the Tourmaline/Clean Energy Fuels/Mullen program are so relevant. That’s how the energy transition will happen, one step at a time, with real measurable emissions reduction taking place at a pace the system can handle. Maybe it will be far easier to roll out a hydrogen fuel system if gas stations begin to sell CNG en masse in addition to diesel.
Consider this statement by Ballard’s founder, Geoffrey Ballard: “It will take a combined effort of academia, government, and industry to bring about the change from a gasoline economy to a hydrogen economy. The forces are building and progress is being made. It is of major importance that a change of this magnitude not be forced on unwilling participants, but that all of us work together for an economically viable path to change.” I don’t know exactly when Mr. Ballard made this statement, but it was some time before August 2008, because that is when he died.
By then, the problems created by animosity were obviously evident to him.
If the animosity disappeared, it seems likely we’d see even more programs like this come into existence, rather than seeing capital flee the hydrocarbon industry. We don’t need anything from the federal government other than to stop poisoning the minds of voters. Putting a wildly anti-hydrocarbon Greenpeace activist in charge of anything remotely related to energy tells everyone all they need to know.
The global fuel system is still about 80 per cent hydrocarbon-based, yet the squeeze is on the hydrocarbon industry from several directions: banks/insurers/investors are actively discouraged from investing in that dominant fuel supply, and investors within the hydrocarbon sector want to extract remaining capital via dividends and share buybacks.
People need to realize the danger they’re in, robo-voting in politicians that make outlandish promises about energy transitions for which, for example, there aren’t enough metals/minerals/processing facilities to handle it. Sure, shovel billions at new battery manufacturing facilities – and what will they assemble? Are we banking on a new, 21st-century alchemy whereby political rhetoric and grandstanding is turned into energy?
We have to look beyond politicians to keep the wheels turning and the lights on. They are a formidable barrier to reality, but we can’t give up. Good job Tourmaline and partners. Ballard and co will get all the help/encouragement imaginable; you, I suspect not so much.
Energy dialogue should be exciting and positive – if you’re going to wade into the current energy mess, might as well enjoy it. Pick up “The End of Fossil Fuel Insanity” at Amazon.ca, Indigo.ca, or Amazon.com. Thanks!
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here, or email Terry here.