The abundance of cheap hydro-electric power that made Quebec a haven for cryptocurrency miners and data centers is now attracting other potential power-thirsty buyers: European green hydrogen producers. 

“We have people right now in Europe who want to decarbonize: They are very interested in coming to Quebec to produce green hydrogen from green electricity, to put that on a boat, and go back,” Sophie Brochu, the chief executive officer of power utility Hydro-Quebec, said in an interview. “They are ready to pay a fortune to decarbonize.”

With the world confronting the challenges of transitioning to cleaner energy this winter as natural gas shortages cripple countries from the U.K. to China, Quebec is in a enviable position. Home to 50 power-intensive data centers for companies including Inc. and Microsoft Corp., the province also has large contracts to export its clean electricity to New York and Massachusetts.

Provided the U.S. projects proceed -- there’s been strong opposition to one of two new transmission lines in Maine -- Hydro-Quebec no longer foresees the kind of excess capacity that made it eager to add cryptocurrency miners and data centers clients just a few years ago.

“Appetite for our electricity has never been higher,” said Brochu, who took over the government-owned company in the early weeks of the pandemic. “We’re not saying ‘Oh my God, where do we push our electricity right now?’” 


The province’s cryptocurrency mining boom hit a wall when a moratorium was imposed, and new rules that followed did little to revive it: Of an extra 300 megawatts allocated to new clients from the industry in 2019, only 22 megawatts have been taken up, according to Hydro-Quebec. Data centers, though, have been going up at a faster clip, from 39 in 2019 to the 50 it has now.

Demand is helped by the post-pandemic economic rebound. But there’s also interest from people wanting to use hydro electric power to make their products greener, she said. 

That’s the case with green hydrogen. Europe’s goal to rely on hydrogen produced without fossil fuels for its heavy industry has prospective power customers from the other side of the pond knocking on Hydro-Quebec’s door. The idea would be to produce the clean-burning gas in Quebec  -- using electricity to break water molecules -- and then ship it across the Atlantic. 

Helping the U.S. and Europe achieve clean energy goals also appeals more to Quebeckers.

“The population right now wants to make sure that when we move forward and use a green electron, it goes as long a way as possible,” she said.

In addition, Hydro-Quebec is taking a more active approach to other sources of renewable energy. Last year it bought a 19.9 per cent stake in Innergex Renewable Energy Inc., a company based outside Montreal that owns and operates hydro electric power facilities, as well as wind and solar farms in several countries. The two also struck an alliance to make joint investments. 

The utility is interested in making more transactions in these industries, with a focus on regions it’s connected with.

“Cash is not an issue,” Brochu said. “Spending wisely is.”