On September 4, 1882, Thomas Edison flipped the switch at his coal-fired Pearl Street Station power generator in New York City, providing 110 Volts of direct current to 59 customers in Manhattan. In the decades that followed, the world became a tangle of transmission lines, distribution stations, power generators, and every sort of electric appliance imaginable. The spread of the electric power grid represented a great shift forward for humankind, on a scale not seen since the Romans built their highways. Today, electric power is a fundamental component in the infrastructure of the developed world.
In most of northern Canada, there is no electric power grid. Instead, communities rely on diesel generators, importing over 100 million dollars in diesel every year. If our country is really serious about developing the North, that needs to change. A traditional power grid doesn’t make sense in this sparsely populated giant expanse of wilderness, but neither does diesel. At all.
Diesel fuel is sub-optimal for a few reasons, but I’m going to focus on the one that is most likely to interest decision-makers: money. There is a way to bring power to every remote corner of our country which is (a) independent of oil price, (b) a fraction of the current cost, (c) far more eco-friendly, (d) amenable to gradual change–no “all or nothing” projects–and (e) provides a path toward complete self-sufficiency, or supplementation, with renewables. In a word: hydrogen.
I know that the potential of hydrogen fuel has been over-hyped for years, and that seemingly nothing has come of it, but that’s not entirely true. Hydrogen fuel is commercially viable, and is currently used to power everything from forklifts to buses to entire factories. It might not be the right choice for powering cars, but nevertheless the technology is here to stay.
Hydrogen has a specific energy (amount of energy per unit mass) which is three times that of diesel. Even when you stick it in a heavy stainless steel cylinder for transport, the total package still has a specific energy which is about twice that of diesel. So it’s more efficient to ship.
It’s also far cheaper to acquire, since hydrogen can be extracted from water via electrolysis. It’s true that electrolysis is a reasonably expensive process, but it’s still far cheaper than extracting oil from the ground and refining it into diesel. It helps that in Canada we have plenty of water and fairly clean, cheap electricity.
Here’s my favourite part, though: a system which relied on hydrogen could easily move toward generating some of that hydrogen with renewables on-site, thus reducing the amount of imported hydrogen required, potentially to zero. Such a system would be able to take advantage of advancements in renewable energy technology as it occurs, on a location-specific basis, while still always retaining the option of supplementing their power output with cheap, clean, imported hydrogen fuel. But that is all a hypothetical future possibility; even if it never happened we would still be far better off choosing hydrogen over diesel.
Hydrogen fuel cell technology (the part that turns hydrogen into electricity) is about ten times the cost of comparable diesel generators, but the fuel savings more than justify the initial expense, and it would be easy to make this change incrementally. (For example, as diesel generators need to be replaced, replace them with equivalent fuel cells. This distributes the capital expenditure over time and anticipates the continued price decrease of fuel cell technology.)
I believe that bringing a modern standard of living into every region of Canada is both a moral imperative and an economic one. This would be a crucial step toward that goal. (By the way, about 2/3 of the astronomical electricity costs in northern Canada are paid for by the federal government, so solving the problem is in every Canadian’s best interest, even if they never plan on going further north.) That being said, I have little idea how to actually make it happen. If you have any thoughts, please let me know.