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How can Alberta reduce greenhouse gas emissions, attract investment, and build a more diverse, lower carbon economy?

That’s the question Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) aims to help answer at its SPARK 2019: Carbon Positive conference in Edmonton on October 28-30. The three-day event features speakers from across Canada and around the world to engage delegates and share knowledge in advancing lower carbon technologies into widespread commercial use.

Hackathon brings digital technology to bear on emissions reduction

This year ERA is bringing an added focus to the role digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can play in a lower carbon future through a unique “hackathon” with Suncor and ATB and partners.

The hackathon will feature teams drawn from the province’s post-secondary data science programs, supported by experts from research institutes and subject matter experts from industry. They will be tasked with answering the following challenge statement: How can the industry create a digital platform that gives consumers a trusted and transparent system to choose premium low- and no-carbon and ethically sourced (ESG) energy?

“The hackathon is a unique approach to come up with new ideas,” says Mark Bohm, Director of Environmental Engineering at Suncor.

Bohm compares the current state of low carbon fuels and energy to the organic food industry 25 years ago. As the organic food industry has grown, customer choice expanded along with it.

“As we work towards low and no-carbon energy and renewable energy along with renewables, we allow consumers more choice as well,” he explains, adding that in today’s world the mechanism to make that choice will likely exist in the virtual world. What Suncor is hoping to explore through the hackathon are potential digital platform concepts informing energy consumers of their choices in low- carbon or ethically sourced energy.

While Suncor is making no guarantees it will pursue any of the winning teams’ concepts, it sees great value in engaging with the innovation community through the hackathon and by being part of the SPARK conference in general.

“It’s a way to highlight the work we’re doing in digital innovation to improve our business processes as well applying digital solutions in areas such as energy efficiency,” Bohm says. “Digital technology is making our people safer, it increases reliability and productivity, it reduces costs and it improves sustainability as we transition to a low-carbon economy. Participating in events like SPARK help us keep up with the trends in industry, academia, and research.”

ATB has experience putting on similar events, says Dan Semmens, head of Artificial Intelligence at ATB. Recently, ATB held a massive datathon that attracted close to 350 participants to answer a variety of challenges facing the province.

Semmens says the ERA hackathon provides ATB with the opportunity to bring together the tech community with the energy industry to showcase how AI can help solve industry challenges surrounding lowering carbon emissions.

“It’s an objective near and dear to our corporate customers’ hearts,” he says. “We want to support our customers and the province in working on lowering carbon emissions. And, from a tech perspective, it is important to build the AI community and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) community in Alberta. We have globally recognized institutions and we want to support their growth to keep more STEM jobs.”

To register for SPARK 2019, click here.

New gas panel focused on greening supply chain

This year’s SPARK conference also features a new panel focused on the role natural gas can play in a lower carbon economy. Elizabeth Shirt, Executive Director, Policy and Planning at ERA, says the gas panel was introduced because ERA recognizes the opportunity Alberta’s large reserves and strong gas industry present for the future.

“We see opportunity in natural gas. Some say it is a transition fuel but we believe there is the opportunity for it to be more than that,” she says.

The gas panel features senior executives from throughout the natural gas value chain, including ERA Board Chair, Dave Collyer. The panel will discuss why investment in innovative, greenhouse gas-reducing technologies is a critical part of building and growing a successful business in today’s economy.

With the Alberta government supportive of growing the natural gas industry, Shirt says introducing the new panel at SPARK makes sense. The government recently formed a panel of its own to improve industry’s competitiveness and sustainability. One of the goals of the panel was to increase domestic use of gas, along with exporting it through LNG terminals. It also recently introduced an Associate Minister of Natural Gas to ensure the industry is represented in government. The Honourable Dale Nally will be joining the panel to share the Government’s perspective.

Graeme Feltham, VP Customer Experience and Innovation for the Natural Gas Division of ATCO Utilities, will be on the natural gas panel. Feltham says there are a number of opportunities for gas in lowering emissions.

“Carbon capture is one,” he notes. “But not just to store it but to make something useful from it.”

There is also a need to make sure the right type of energy is used for the right end use, Feltham adds. He points out a substantial amount of the energy used by households is gas used in heating and cooking.

“When we talk about greening the electrical grid it is important to green the gas grid too,” he says. The creation of renewal natural gas could help with this greening, he adds, with the use of biomass offering potentially huge reductions in emissions.

Another opportunity he sees is the use of distributed generation to potentially help manage impacts on the electrical grid as electric vehicles become more common.

“Rather than central gas generation maybe local gas generation in neighbourhoods could be used,” he says. “If you scrounge the heat you could get up to 90 per cent efficiency.”

This year’s SPARK 2019: Carbon Positive conference will also have a special guest. Professional contractor, television host, educator, and influencer Mike Holmes will discuss how an industry-wide approach to a high standard of clean energy building practice helps grow the economy and reduce our environmental impact. Local partners Effect Home Builders, ATCO, and the City of Edmonton will join Holmes to discuss how their partnership is helping meet higher energy-performance levels in Alberta’s homes and office spaces.

ERA’s Grand Challenge Round three winner will also be announced at the conference. This Alberta initiative supports bold ideas from around the world that will make significant and verifiable GHG reductions. ERA has committed $35 million in funding for the most innovative technologies that will convert CO2 emissions into new carbon-based products and markets.

Seating is limited and the event did sell out in 2017. To register for SPARK 2019, click here.

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