Hydrogen in a Time of COVID-19 by Mark Kirby

News is bleak.  Revenues are crashing as markets dry up and operations are compromised.  Companies are making the tough choice whether to lay off employees and risk losing vital talent.  Everyone is concerned about families and essential workers. In this environment and with apologies to writer Gabriel Garcia Marques, who asked if love was possible in a time of cholera, I similarly wonder…is it possible to have hydrogen in a time of COVID-19?

My belief?  Like love, hydrogen is essential and will find a way. Fortunately, it appears the members of the CHFCA feel the same way.

A few weeks ago, as the crisis was unfolding, I was at a service station in the Lower Mainland to record the first fill at a new hydrogen fueling station. It was a gorgeous, sunny day, perfect for an opening. I approached Colin Armstrong, CEO of HTEC for a statement.

“So, Colin, …”

“Hey!” says he. “Social distancing!”

Chastened, I retreated to a safe distance.  After completing tests, the technicians departed and the new pump was left gleaming in the sun in a strangely quiet station — very different from the usual pomp around such events. But the key thing?  Despite an abrupt unraveling of anything usual, they quickly adjusted and carried through. This was to be only the first of many remarkable examples of astonishing and swift adaptation.

In fact, only a week or so later, I asked the CHFCA Board of Directors to convene over video conference about managing a response to the COVID crisis. I wasn’t sure what to expect…when you host a party, sometimes you wonder if anyone will come.  Well this was no party, but still they came.  Representatives from 15 of the sector’s leading companies, including Nicolas Pocard of Ballard; Rob Harvey of Hydrogenics (Cummins); Grace Quan of Hydrogen in Motion and so on.  Many were working from home and each was busy dealing with unprecedented issues around cash flow, staffing, supply chain,  and in some cases, transforming their operations to produce needed medical supplies.

Take, for instance, CHFCA’s Chair, Rob Artibise of Overdrive Fuel Cell Engineering. He was in a rush to get started.  Not surprising, he was in the midst of safely commissioning a new hydrogen laboratory and engineering facility – while dealing with suddenly necessary COVID-19 safety protocols. His customers in China continue to need his services and disappointing them is not an option.

Given all this, why then the strong turnout for an Association meeting?  It’s simple:  to be heard!  The Canadian hydrogen and fuel cell sector’s message must be heard by government and by the public – and not just in the short term but for the long term. Sector companies are determined to carry on work and, like HTEC and Overdrive, the evidence is that they will. But they need a common voice to ensure they have the support of government to be resilient and emerge stronger.

The good news here is that government hears us loud and clear! It’s strange to think of government as innovators, but we’ve all been impressed with the speed and boldness of government action in the face of this pandemic. Moving from policy draft to program implementation usually takes months, if not years. Now, it takes just days.

Moving at breakneck speed, legislators have now launched a variety of programs to support liquidity and employee retention programs to help ensure critical capabilities are maintained. The CHFCA has been actively engaged throughout providing timely feedback from our sector.

What’s more, far from ‘turning off the taps’ on funding for research development and demonstration, the government has made it clear they’ll support the continued flow of funding as far as possible. These include:  IRAP, ISED, SDTC, NRCan, BC’s EMPR, Quebec’s TEC.  In fact, the whole alphabet soup of funding programs are putting out the word: don’t just carry on with existing projects, bring us new proposals. That’s music to my ears, as it means many CHFCA members can not only continue to work but can take this unprecedented chance to grow Canada’s leadership in hydrogen and fuel cells.  We have a window, perhaps a rapidly closing one, to define this next phase in how to transform our nation’s energy infrastructure.

We can be confident that the heart of Canada’s hydrogen and fuel cell sector is robust and will stay strong – even in catastrophe and drastic upheaval.    This tight focus is critical, because while COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, climate change is ultimately the biggest threat facing humanity. In the words of UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa:

“Soon, economies will restart. This is a chance for nations to recover better, to include the most vulnerable in those plans, and a chance to shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, just, safe and more resilient.”

Let’s truly absorb these words and their implications. And let’s look forward to when hydrogen in a time of COVID-19 gives way to hydrogen in a time of stimulus.  I hope T.S. Eliot was right and that April, and not May, proves to be the cruelest month. Because that would mean, to use the words of yet another great, ‘This is perhaps the end of the beginning.’ We are ready and we’ll continue to be ready.

The CHFCA will do its part by hosting our annual f-cell+HFC 2020 conference and trade fair in Vancouver at the earliest opportunity. We’re planning for September 9 and 10, 2020 to provide the sector a platform to launch marketing and business development activities.