​Organizations reshaping Canadian energy: The Energy Futures Lab

(In a series of articles over coming weeks, I will profile six organizations whose mandates and the ethos backing them have the momentum and credibility to reshape the way Canadians think, and talk, about energy of all forms – and illustrate how those energy forms interconnect and are in many ways, interdependent, on each other. Today, the Energy Futures Lab www.energyfutureslab.com)

In terms of energy narratives, 2017 was a mess.

Instead of moving forward one step, Canada managed to step backward five steps – a regression instead of progression. Most narratives were destructive when they could have – and should have been – constructive.

It didn’t matter whether the subject was pipelines and regulation or carbon emissions and technology, most dialogues failed to reach any threshold of positive progress forward. What passed for progression occurred mainly within small enclaves of the self-ordained and was the result of self-fulfilling and self-defined prophecies.

Progressive narratives, by contrast, are shaped by playing out in a productive way the tensions that define particular points on a perspective continuum. Diverse participants search for points of common truth in a way that builds iteratively toward compromise first and consensus second.

Think about how Canada's dialogues should be approached. Such as, how environment and the economy are part of a powerful interdependent duality. Such as, how good regulation makes for good policy and good competition. Such as, how policy inertia and political hypocrisy thwart investment. The constructive framing of the nut to be cracked makes for effective discussion.

But it seems Canadians for the most part are incapable of shaping a common energy narrative, let alone commonly defining the common challenge. Energy affairs these days seem to pit Canadians against each other in polarizing and paralyzing ways. Even federal initiatives such as Generations Energy didn’t gain sufficient traction because they failed to approach change from a narrative-building perspective – to let participants define a beginning, middle and an (ideal) end to a particular narrative journey after first agreeing to the narrative’s substance.

As a new year dawns, can Canadians expect more of the same?

Not if the Energy Futures Lab (EFL) has something to say about our sorry state of energy affairs.

The EFL is one of a number of bright lights in an otherwise gloomy future – particularly its value as an effective narrative platform. The EFL has a model and a set of related methodologies for the work it undertakes. Properly supported by the right partners, it may become one of the most important voices in Canada’s energy future.

What constitutes an effective narrative platform? It must be something capable of deconstructing (and reconstructing) four dynamics that preclude and prevent constructive narratives in Canada. They include:

  • Recognizing we have an echo-chamber problem in Canada; too many energy dialogues are far too exclusionary in that they involve small cadres of individuals and groups that are too alike in their energy DNA.
  • Recognizing we have to deal with the Self-Interest Discount Syndrome; that is, so much of what occurs in terms of energy communications comes from groups speaking on behalf of corporate shareholders. As a result, there is a tendency within the public writ large to discount important narrative elements because they are perceived as merely something to line someone’s pockets.
  • Recognizing “we” as a society have allowed science to be both politicized and prostituted; this has effectively killed discussions that involve critical thinking. Too much of what passes for narratives are PhDs battling each other over the “scientific method” and whose interpretation of the data should prevail in contentious situations.
  • Recognizing we have an energy literacy problem; Canadians are voracious energy consumers but they are for the most part fundamentally ignorant about energy dynamics. This includes politicians.

Taken together, these four elements present a daunting minefield for anyone (or any group) wanting to move the needle on progressive energy dialogue.

But there are number of organizations focused on these issues. The EFL is one.

Here's what you need to know about the Energy Futures Lab in five simple bullets – and why its undertakings are key to resolving elements of the dynamics described above. It’s a made-in-Canada solution for made-in-Canada challenges.

  1. Its fellows: Now numbering 60, the men and women who commit their time and talents to the EFL are the Lab’s backbone. They come from backgrounds and experiences as diverse as the energy spectrum itself. They are innovators and influencers; leaders and transformers. They’re tackling the tough questions that on the other side of which they see opportunity. One of the fellowship’s key outputs: a 2050 Shared Vision for Alberta’s energy systems future.
  2. Its 2050 Vision: the visioning process recognizes Alberta and Canada are home to some of the world’s most knowledgeable and responsible “energy citizens.” In the vision, Alberta becomes net carbon-neutral for electricity, heat, transportation and industrial processes, while simultaneously becoming a global source for energy technology and future-fit hydrocarbons. The vision also anticipates energy-based partnerships with indigenous peoples.
  3. Exemplar Initiatives: these are built on five key priority themes: “future-fit” hydrocarbons, leveraging energy assets, indigenous leadership, community resilience and workforces in transition. Fellows undertake specific initiatives associated with each priority area. Under future-fit hydrocarbons, for example, concrete projects include radical decarbonization of hydrocarbons; development of a biojet fuel sector in western Canada and clean combustion of waste gases.
  4. Stakeholder alignment: EFL has managed to bring to the same table a diverse collaboration of industry players, post-secondary institutions, governments, economic development agencies and NGOs; each with a different (sometimes dramatically) perspective on energy systems and transition. EFL has become a neutral and safe forum to discuss and debate often-complex energy issues. This has in turn meant the EFL has been requested to lead internal efforts for external supporters such as the National Energy Board, Emissions Reduction Alberta and Suncor Energy.
  5. Public engagement: The EFL doesn’t focus inwardly, as some groups have the tendency to do. Rather, it focuses on leveraging its work on behalf of broader constituencies and communities. It runs leadership bootcamps, for example, that focus on building competencies to manage and lead through energy transition dynamics. In 2017, more than 400 people participated in the Newtonian Shift simulation, which compacts decades of energy transition into a one-day workshop – transition dynamics experienced through a variety of perspectives.

EFL’s management, its steering committee and fellows are now pondering for 2018 EFL 2.0 – the evolution of its efforts. This involves engaging new communities, new stakeholders and new funders.

It’s an investment that is already demonstrating returns.

(The author serves on the EFL’s steering committee. JWN is also an EFL partner. Next up: Positive Energy, out of the University of Ottawa and headed by Dr. Monica Gattinger.)

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

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