Governments are asleep at the clean-transportation wheel

If our region wants to walk the talk about its environmental commitment, it has to make a home for those greener, cleaner industries to employ and generate prosperity.

Yet a new report from the region’s economic development arm suggests that the opportunities offered by the burgeoning clean transportation sector stand to be squandered if urgent action isn’t taken.

Invest Vancouver, the region’s service to spur economic development, released a report Monday that is politely written but profoundly worrying. The report cites a lack of land, a laconic permitting process and a lax strategy as urgent themes in need of attention.

The obvious inference from the report is that our region might have its attractive attributes to launch companies that eventually compose a cluster, but that several ingredients are missing from the mix to make that cluster commanding.

Invest Vancouver’s senior economist, Gregory Freeman, and its senior policy advisor, Megan Gerryts, canvassed a sizable portion of the region’s roughly 60 clean transportation companies and concluded that a significant opening exists, for instance, for Greater Vancouver to become a hub of the hydrogen value chain in supply, transportation and storage. It’s the strongest of 13 recommendations.

But it is evident that the region’s, province’s and nation’s governments are not keeping abreast of the sector’s needs. Industrial land, a problem cited across several sectors of the regional economy, is a critical issue for the sector. A provincial fund needs to be extended to upgrade warehouses to meet the power needs and to provide subsidies to create below-market leases for the firms, among other things. As far as subsidies go, the report recommends that government support of zero-emission vehicles be extended to those with hydrogen fuel cells.

The sluggish permit process needs to be updated to harmonize “patchwork” rules governing hydrogen industries, the report notes, but the larger issue is how “delays to obtaining permits are a significant barrier to success ... and risk future investments in the sector.”

Clean hydrogen is expected to comprise one-quarter of the world’s net-zero energy mix by mid-century. While the region has an enviable hydrogen cluster emerging, along with a strong talent pool fostered by post-secondary institutions, the report notes its development is “at a critical juncture.”

Regulations don’t recognize hydrogen as a fuel source, for instance, and governments don’t serve as first customers to test the technologies. This isn’t a novel problem; other industries have the same complaints. But given the consistent messaging from this provincial government and many of the local ones about ambitious net-zero goals, it is difficult to understand how industry can deliver if the words aren’t matching the deeds.

The report suggests that a showcase for the industry would be a large-scale heavy-duty vehicle demonstration project. At the moment, we are more of a market of than a maker for the industry.

For example, the report notes there is an opportunity to “assert global leadership in hydrogen certification” to test fuel cells and components.

Access to capital is only seen as a medium-level concern, while talent development and training are lower priorities. The trouble there is that both money and people will flee to other jurisdictions if they have what we lack.

What is clear is that the region has its work to do and very little time to achieve results, otherwise an available bridge to a more modern, clean, knowledge-based economy will be lost. Anyone wish to take a bet on this? Considering the players at the helm, the odds are not favourable at the moment.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.