​Ag-energy collaboration could set stage for sustainable future

Alberta has an important opportunity to put the “capital A” back in the province’s claim to Advantage fame.

As a jurisdiction, it has many important initiatives on the go. Among them:

An economic diversification strategy.

A climate leadership strategy.

An emissions reduction strategy.

An energy efficiency strategy.

A clean-tech innovation strategy.

Each has various agencies and government departments driving them forward. But unless you're a keen student of government affairs, there's nothing noticeably apparent in the public sphere that links and synchronizes these various efforts into what looks like a coordinated and aligned strategy.

Yet, in many cases, these projects have the potential to join Alberta's two major resource sectors – energy and agriculture – at the hip. To do that, however, they need to sync more effectively with efforts going on in industry. Industry itself is just beginning to figure out where alignment opportunities are.

Think air, water, land: the things we need to take care of. Pronto. They're issues as germane to energy as they are to agriculture. They pre-occupy politicians and bureaucrats as much as they do CEOs and presidents. And while some companies are already connected to the government programs, there is the potential to bring many, many more into the various programming folds. In turn, this creates a much more compelling story for what the government is striving to achieve by developing a critical investment mass around scaling these opportunities.

Put more bluntly: these are all significant undertakings; all bear directly on Alberta's future, to say nothing of our reputation domestically and globally.

But who is paying attention?

How does the government convince a skeptical public (citizens, industry, NGOs, investors, other politicians) that it is on the right track with the goals and objectives of these various investment initiatives? That these efforts lay the foundation for next-generation sustainability in which the economy and environment are linked in mutually assured success?

Pop these programs into a Venn diagram and the size of the overlapping sweet spots of common alignment quickly emerge. But give industry and ordinary Albertans a pop quiz on how those programs connect and the likelihood would be relatively low recognition rates.

The answer: an industry-facing catalyzing agent that creates the showcase platform from which the real-life, ROI-producing results can be displayed – while at the same time wowing a skeptical public of what is capable of being achieved.

Step on up Smart AgriFood Supercluster (SASC).

The board behind the innovative industry-led consortium assembled to tap into federal supercluster funding is now pitching the Alberta government for the short-term funding required to create the administrative side of SASC. That will enable it to start executing against the plans set out by its four innovations communities. SASC’s board is currently awaiting a response from its funding request.

SASC may have “smart agrifood” in its title, but it carries another competitive advantage tied directly to Alberta’s other economic backbone: a direct collaboration link to the oil and gas sector’s Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN).

A key element of the SASC plan: to have ag and energy stakeholders work collaboratively on everything from clean tech innovation and job creation to emissions reductions and water stewardship, noted board member and spokesman Bill Whitelaw. SASC would be capable of linking all the various government programs in a way that could substantially boost Alberta’s reputation as a sustainability leader.

“From the outset, we believed we could be the innovation bridge between two sectors and all these government initiatives...and do it in a way that would build effective broader and deeper interfaces between industry and government. Our systems approach is ideally suited to showcasing all the incredible things happening here…and helping accelerate that pace.”

Both agriculture and energy are working hard to improve environmental performance, with a particular focus on carbon emission reduction and water stewardship. By getting two sectors, where appropriate, to share innovation investment costs and investment results, there is potential to achieve far better returns – and in the process, re-establish Alberta’s global reputation as a resources leader, said Whitelaw.

“Imagine what Alberta could say about itself as the only jurisdiction in the world where ag and energy work collaboratively to sustain both the economy and the environment. It points to not only opportunities for what we produce…but also growth coming from how we show the world how we do the things we do.”

Added Whitelaw: “If we really want to lay claim to the Alberta Advantage, in a way that convinces Albertans, investors, the rest of the world…that this is a place that can drive economic results while building a sustainable environment, we need linkages like the supercluster platform to get all the gears meshing.”