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Newfoundland in a hydrogen rush


In Canada, the conditions for producing “green hydrogen” are optimal. A kind of gold rush has broken out on the island of Newfoundland – and Germany is also set to benefit. But not everyone is happy about it.

Antje Passenheim, WDR

The wind is blowing strongly in Newfoundland. Russ Chafe lets him blow his nose. The salmon fisherman is standing at the harbor entrance of Quidi Vidi – close to the provincial capital St. Johns. The fishing village with its colorful houses is still sleeping. Russ enthuses: “Wild Atlantic salmon come through here.”

He looks forward to it. “In a few weeks you'll be able to see fishermen here every morning.” Then icebergs and whales also pass by. Little has changed since Russ grew up here. But now a lot is moving: a kind of gold rush has gripped the Canadian island province. The treasure is called “green hydrogen”. Fishermen like Russ watch it nervously.

The residents of the small town of Quidi Vidi currently live primarily from catching salmon. But that could change soon.

“A very dynamic industry”

Michelle Lethbridge is also in a spirit of optimism. They are pioneers, says the Canadian representative of the German company ABO Wind. The renewable energy group from Wiesbaden wants to amplify the sound of the wind in Newfoundland with turbines. Lethbridge enthuses: “It's a very dynamic industry right now.” Many moving parts would now have to end up in their correct place.

A Canadian-German energy agreement caused a stir two years ago. The goal: climate-neutral hydrogen is to be produced using wind power. It should then come to Europe by sea. This should help countries like Germany with their energy transition. And in the process of coping with the move away from Russian oil and gas.

900 wind turbines on 100,000 hectares

Big changes are coming to your native Newfoundland, says ABO Wind representative Lethbridge. The German company is the first from Europe to set foot on the island in the Atlantic. ABO Wind wants to install 900 turbines there.

“We are first developing green energy through wind power on huge areas,” explains company boss Karsten Schlageter. “On 100,000 hectares. That's about as much as all of Germany's wine-growing regions combined or more than all of Berlin or a third of Saarland.”

The onshore plant is expected to have an output of five gigawatts. This would make the Germans the biggest player among five companies that have already settled in Newfoundland in the hunt for “green hydrogen”. ABO Wind initially wants to use the turbines to help a local biofuel refinery achieve the energy transition. From around 2030, the clean energy will be shipped to Germany – converted into ammonia.

The greenhouse gas-free alternative

Newfoundland already supplies 97 percent of its grid from hydropower, says Sven Scholtysik. He is the research director of the leading Canadian energy research organization “Net Zero Atlantic” in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In the long term, the region wants to use a lot of wind power to produce “green hydrogen” – to help Canada, but also countries in Europe, make their industry CO2-free.

The industrial use of hydrogen does not produce any greenhouse gases. The metal, glass and ceramic industries, among others, can benefit from this. However, hydrogen is only “green” if it is produced entirely using climate-friendly energy.

Optimal requirements

In large systems, water has to be split into hydrogen and oxygen, explains Scholtysik. The Aschaffenburg energy expert, who has lived in Canada for a long time, knows: Newfoundland has the best conditions for this. There is a lot of wind, water and uninhabited land.

But a lot of infrastructure is missing. Hydrogen is a very light molecule and can escape quickly. There are still not enough coated high-pressure tanks, pipelines or terminals. Canada wants to invest billions in development. The federal government is also supporting domestic importers in setting up the trade corridor. Many corporations are in discussion.

A big hurdle with “green hydrogen” is that it is still very expensive, says energy researcher Scholtysik. Because the production quantities are still relatively small. But buyers would also have to be found in the long term. “Building a large electrolysis plant in Canada is expensive. And in order to justify these investments, the companies striving to produce hydrogen naturally also need long-term customers in other European countries.”

Criticism from environmentalists

Alison Dyer calls it “Kafkaesque.” This amounts to great madness. The co-founder of the environmental group “Envirowatch Newfoundland” does not believe in the “miracle of green hydrogen”. Activists like her warn that Newfoundland's large wind turbines, tanker traffic and manufacturing facilities could unbalance fish and bird abundance. Part of the Canadian province is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

While applications are underway for “global geopark” status, industry has been promised a lot of valuable land, says Dyer: “About 15 percent of the island of Newfoundland – which is almost the size of Slovenia. The multinational companies have been guaranteed massive swaths of land, to see their projects through.”

Geologist and environmentalist Alison Dyer fears that the giant wind turbines will cause major damage to the ecosystem.

Fear for the whale population

The geographer stands in the storm at the Cape Spear lighthouse. A fog horn blares. Dyer points into the milky mass: “In the sunshine it's a wonderful place to watch whales.” Many environmentalists fear the turbines could affect their migration routes.

The Newfoundlanders are not against a few wind turbines. And not against hydrogen either. But they asked themselves: Why do these mega wind farms have to be built on their doorstep so that companies can enrich themselves by exporting “green” energy to Europe?

Perspectives for the young generation

“Project Nujio'qonik – Where the Sand Blows”: The traditional Mi'kmaq name for St. George Bay on the other half of the island comes easily to Sean Leet. He is the head of “World Energy GH2”. The Canadian company has named its megaproject with the indigenous name. As a sign to the native people who gave her ok for it. The company has purchased the deep-sea port of Stephenville on the western side of Newfoundland – including a former paper mill that is now being converted to hydrogen production.

Leet does not share the activists' criticism. The project is the best example of good cooperation with indigenous Canadians. Mi'kmaq Chief Peggy White also says this. New perspectives and jobs are important for her community in order to survive: “When our children leave to find work, we lose our culture. This project helps them get training and jobs , so that they can stay here at home.”

Infrastructure in Germany is still missing

But the implementation of the plans is taking too long for company boss Leet. The original goal of bringing the first hydrogen to Germany next year has already been met. Leet hopes that contracts with German customers can soon be sealed. But the infrastructure in Germany is not yet there. “Only when this is built will we be able to ship hydrogen.”

“It’s high time,” says Grant Wach. The renewable energy expert from Dalhousie University in Halifax stands in front of a large screen. A calendar expires in front of a picture of nature. That is the time that remains until 2030, says the professor with the white beard. “That seems like a lot at first. But we have less than six years to reach our 2030 CO2 targets. And I think the government and the population often don't realize how quickly that goes by.”

“It’s high time,” says researcher Grand Wach, pointing out that achieving the climate goals set for 2030 is in danger.

“There's still a long way to go”

By 2030, Canada aims to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels. The North American country aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Canada is still the fourth largest oil and natural gas producer in the world.

Wach is watching the gold rush that the hydrogen pact has triggered in Newfoundland with great interest. He has just returned from Geneva. Wach advises a UN climate panel that deals with “green” energy. He knows that Canada's Liberal government has a great interest in exporting such energy – also as a political signal. “Every form of renewable energy must be exploited in order to sustainably achieve the climate goals. But there is still a long way to go.”

Antje Passenheim, ARD New York, tagesschau, May 17, 2024 8:55 a.m

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