​Energy Futures Lab boosts creative tech solutions to help end polarization around energy

Apoorv Sinha and Luke Carson of Carbon Upcycling Technologies. Image: NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE

An organization created to get past the polarization of the energy debate and find creative solutions is advancing a number of concepts built upon Alberta’s strength—and the main source of the debate—the oil and gas sector.

The Energy Futures Lab is promoting ideas from using wellsites for solar and geothermal power to retraining oilfield workers for the low-carbon economy and finding new uses for carbon.

The think tank—involving industry, government, academia, non-profits and First Nations—was launched to develop ways for the province to transition its energy future. An initiative of The Natural Step Canada, a national charity, the lab recently hosted its Innovating Alberta’s Energy Future showcase in Calgary.

“The impetus for the Energy Futures Lab was really that we could create a forum where people from very different backgrounds could come together and look at the system together and understand the issues from one another’s perspective better and especially to create things together,” said Chad Park, Energy Futures Lab director.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi spoke of the need to get off the resource sector rollercoaster, a path in which some progress has already been made. While the city and province have been the economic engine of Canada for many years, “we have failed to build a truly resilient economy,” he said.

The city went from having the lowest unemployment rate of any major city in Canada for several years to the highest in just 18 months, Nenshi said, and from a downtown core with virtually no available office space to one with a 30 per cent vacancy rate. “I love rollercoasters, but this is a bit much.”

But Nenshi noted there has been some success in diversifying the economy.

“In 1993, 50 per cent of Calgary’s GDP was oil and gas. Between 1993 and 2015, we had more than a trillion dollars invested in the Alberta energy sector flow into the economy and the oil and gas sector went from 50 per cent of Calgary’s GDP to 30 per cent. So in fact we have been diversifying. We have been creating resiliency all over the place, without anybody noticing.”

Nick Parker, chairman of Global Acceleration Partners, said he has seen a sea change in public attitudes about the environment in recent years.

“If you go anywhere in the world, people want to be part of the clean, green economy—they want to figure out how to make it possible that there are jobs and wealth creation that come with that,” he said.

“The whole world is having these conversations, but they don’t have it in the way that Alberta is having it. They are not having the conversation in an inclusive way, they are not having it from having inherited a natural resource bounty.”

He said the province has to show the world it is serious about emissions.

“But there will be a lag between the intention that is here versus the perception that is out there.”

Former NHL player Andrew Ference, now of Fifth Season Ventures, echoed the theme of the think tank: that the province must move beyond the polarization of the debate over energy.

“What I would like to see from Albertans is to resist that urge to be divided in how we think and put ourselves in silos of how we believe. It’s promising to see Alberta really taking big steps over the last couple of years.”

Ference initiated the NHL’s carbon neutral program, which involves shrinking its carbon footprint and using carbon offsets and renewable energy certificates to help compensate for the estimated 550,000 tonnes of carbon the league uses in a season.

He said it’s important to get all stakeholders on side in making the transition.

“One of my most proud moments as an Albertan was seeing some of the oilsands companies come forth and support the carbon tax. To me, that’s the best stamp of approval, when you have big business look at a good idea and say, ‘that is a good idea for all of us—it’s a good idea for business and it’s a good idea for the environment.’”

“Sometimes it just requires that you actually seize the moment,” Arlene Strom, vice-president of sustainability and communications at Suncor Energy, said in a panel discussion. “Sometimes a window opens with an opportunity to move forward on a really complex problem and you just have to step into that space through the door and seize that moment.

“I think that happened over the last couple of years with Alberta’s climate leadership,” she added.

The election of new governments in Alberta and Ottawa, the Paris climate change accord, and low oil prices all converged to create that opportunity, said Strom. “All of these things created a moment where stepping into a climate leadership space and redefining what we could do in Alberta was possible.”

Energy Futures Lab fellows described some of the projects promoted through the organization.

Geothermal

Alison Thompson, principal at Borealis GeoPower and managing director of the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association, said the same model that made in situ oilsands a viable and world class resource—involving government and industry research and field testing—could be applied to other sectors to get them started.

“What if I told you there is another resource in Alberta that needs just a little bit of government support to get going. And even better, what if that industry used Alberta’s existing oil and gas skills set. In fact for people looking for work right now, their skills are exactly the skills needed to energize a geothermal energy future,” Thompson said.

The geothermal industry could benefit from the reams of data already available from the drilling of oil and gas wells across the province, as well as use those wells to provide benefits from micro electricity to heating for greenhouses or even development of hot springs.

“I believe that we can have that industry start right here in Alberta and have it flourish,” Thompson said.

Carbon to pharmaceuticals

Carbon Upcycling Technologies, a start-up focused on the production of carbon nanoparticles from sequestered CO2, is the only Calgary-based company still in the running for the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE to convert carbon into useful products.

While Carbon Upcycling is investigating several uses for its graphene nanoplatelets, CEO Apoorv Sinha said its pharmaceutical applications are the most exciting.

Their ability to carry more drugs to cancer cells makes them a candidate to produce the next generation of cancer fighting drugs, he said.

“Let that sink in for a second. This is a pollutant gas that we capture from industrial conditions like the oilsands. And this can be used to make the next generation of cancer drugs,” Sinha said. “That’s the most encouraging and awe-inspiring result that we have seen.”

Retooling the trades for renewables

Lliam Hildebrand is a former oilsands worker seeking to leverage the industrial trade skills of current energy workers to grow the renewables energy economy through his company, Iron & Earth.

When the price of oil collapsed almost three years ago, Hildebrand said it became apparent the skills of oilsands workers being laid off were readily transferable to those needed to build renewable energy infrastructure.

“I hope that in the near future it is a common understanding that oilsands workers have both the skills and desire to build a renewable energy economy,” he said.

The organization recently submitted a Workers’ Climate Plan to the federal government calling for rapid up-scaling programs for existing tradespeople to transition to the renewables economy, an area in which the group is partnering with Suncor and Enbridge.