Sustainable Business News (SBIZ)
c/o Squall Inc.
P.O. Box 1484, Stn. B
Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 5P6
Canada: 1-855-569-6300

The hydrogen industry leader who guided HTEC to new heights

Co-founder and CEO Colin Armstrong talks about his path to hydrogen, the challenges along the way

Colin Armstrong, co-founder, president and CEO of HTEC, and Hydrogen Leader of the Year by the Canadian Hydrogen Convention Awards. (Courtesy HTEC)

Optimism in hydrogen to help decarbonize the economy underpins the vision of Colin Armstrong, the co-founder, president and CEO of HTEC, and the latest Hydrogen Leader of the Year recipient at the Canadian Hydrogen Convention Awards.

The award recognizes the career trajectory of the near 30-year veteran of the hydrogen industry, who has seen interest in the element develop as a replacement for fossil fuels.

Vancouver-based HTEC is behind Canada’s first retail hydrogen refuelling station and British Columbia's largest green hydrogen production facility, located on an industrial waterfront property in north Vancouver.

HTEC’s growth was guided by Armstrong; growing under his leadership from five people in 2004 to a company 150-strong today.

“We have ambitions to expand and continue to be the leader in British Columbia,” he said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada. “Predicting exact adoption rates of cars and buses and trucks is difficult, but we do believe that share will certainly increase as we go forward and have an opportunity to have a very substantial business not just in British Columbia, but we really see that as a stepping stone for building out our ecosystems in other jurisdictions.”

Armstrong’s background

Armstrong graduated from the University of British Columbia as a mechanical engineer, working 20 years in the field. He designed high-pressure gaseous storage cylinders for natural gas and hydrogen, gaining exposure to the clean fuel.

Fascinated by clean energy since university, he found a path to explore his interest. “I wanted to lend my talents to that whole initiative . . . I think the writing has been on the wall for quite a while. From a gasoline and diesel standpoint we have emission issues — whether they are local pollutants or carbon emissions leading to climate challenges.”

He, along with four co-founders, started HTEC 20 years ago. Armstrong said he spent the first third of his time as a director doing the engineering projects related to the company.

Then in the early 2010s, the hydrogen model shifted, he said. The support in Canada fell, but “dramatically increased” in California, and hydrogen-powered vehicles made by companies such as Toyota were maturing. He volunteered to develop a new business model to get ahead of the trend, moving away from just producing hydrogen to distribution, refuelling stations and vehicle adoption support.

Starting off as a “CEO of three people,” he had to find opportunities such as government policies and available capital, he said. “We just slowly built up, understood when vehicles were going to be available.”

HTEC’s progress to date

Today, HTEC has five hydrogen refuelling stations in B.C. geared toward passenger vehicles. Its Burnaby green hydrogen production site it expects to open by the end of 2024 will produce enough hydrogen for a fleet of 2,000 to 3,000 cars per year. The North Vancouver clean hydrogen facility will make enough hydrogen for 30,000 cars and is planned for operations in 2027.

Its green hydrogen production facility will take hydrogen from an adjacent sodium chlorate factory and capture, purify and process it into a clean fuel for the transportation sector. Operations will be powered almost entirely by hydropower.

In an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada, HTEC's vice-president of clean fuels Sabina Russell said the company plans to build 12 more hydrogen refuelling stations in B.C. Though its current market is for light duty vehicles or passenger cars, she expects more demand from heavy-duty trucks in the future.

HTEC raised $217 million in 2021 by Chart Industries, Inc. and I Squared Capital to fund its green hydrogen production and expand its refuelling network.

Its next areas for expansion are Alberta, Quebec and Washington state.

Learning to lead

There is no formal CEO training in Canada, Armstrong observed, speaking to the difficulties of taking up the leadership mantle. Management is particularly important to the cleantech industry, he added, putting pressure on figuring out the pace of investment. There were problems along the learning curve, leading to problems like over- or under-investment, and challenges in understanding the evolution of hydrogen technology and market demand.

Since starting as CEO, Armstrong believes he has improved on his knowledge, being “more cognizant” and “think(ing) shorter term and longer term” about the company.

He said he was very surprised he won the Hydrogen Leader of the Year award from the Canadian Hydrogen Convention Awards, handed to him on April 24 in Edmonton.

But all the glory cannot go entirely to him, he said, crediting HTEC’s progress to his team as well.

What hydrogen needs to succeed, according to Armstrong

The choice to focus on B.C., Alberta, Quebec and Washington state is due to the jurisdictions’ supportive environments. Policies such as a zero-emissions vehicle mandate and carbon pricing in B.C. make HTEC’s business plan viable in early-stage markets, Armstrong explained.

To ensure the clean fuel transition can happen, he advocates for helpful government policies such as low-carbon fuel standards to drive adoption of hydrogen. Armstrong said it is crucial to understand how hydrogen works region-by-region so fleet proportions can be optimized.

As interest rates impact investments into capital-intensive clean energy infrastructure like HTEC, the company is also being cautious, Armstrong said. “We just continue to evaluate our opportunities and our access to capital.”

Industry Events