As the world shifts to the use of more electric vehicles (EVs) and power grids dominated by renewables, fossil fuel-based economies like Alberta’s face challenges and community leaders across the province are asking how they can respond to changes to help their smaller towns and cities thrive in the future.
A new initiative by the Energy Futures Lab (EFL) hopes to provide that insight.
The Energy Futures Roadshow harnesses the combined knowledge, skills and networks of the EFL Fellows to focus them on supporting Albertan communities to explore their unique opportunities and challenges arising around energy transition issues.
Last fall, two Energy Futures Roadshow pilots were held — in Crowsnest Pass, located in southwest Alberta, and Hinton, located in west-central Alberta.
“We’re thrilled by the community response to the roadshows that were held in Crowsnest Pass and Hinton,” said Alison Cretney, Managing Director of the EFL, an Alberta-based, multi-interest collaboration designed to accelerate the development of a “fit for the future” energy system.
“We’ll be expanding the roadshows to five more communities this year and we’re exploring expanding it to another four or five communities next year,” she added.
Cretney said the roadshow initiative will likely continue for at least another three years, with plans to have participants from various communities interact with one another.
This year, the two-day roadshows will be held in Banff, Drayton Valley, Devon, Grande Prairie and Red Deer.
EFL team members will follow up in each of the communities a few months after the roadshows to ensure that the collaborative projects sparked amongst community members continue to move forward.
Erin Romanchuk, Roadshow lead and EFL Senior Manager of Partnerships, said the process is very much about “community resilience,” as a key to that is finding “a way to leverage what the fossil-fuel based economy has provided us to set ourselves and our communities up for success in the future.”
Hinton and the Crowsnest Pass were selected as the pilot communities for the outreach process after communities throughout the province were asked to submit proposals.
The Crowsnest Pass roadshow was held last October and the Hinton one was held in November.
EFL staff and EFL Fellows, who are experts in diverse disciplines and were hand-selected to participate in the EFL, were involved in both of the roadshows and will continue to be involved as the roadshows continue.
Interviews were held with community leaders prior to the roadshows, with 12 community leaders being consulted in Crowsnest and eight in Hinton.
Partners involved in the initiative include Energy Efficiency Alberta and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
This year’s roadshow process will kick off with the Communities in Transition Accelerator Event, being held on April 9 in Red Deer, which will involve community leaders from throughout the province.
Roadshows this year will be held in late March in Devon, in early April in Grande Prairie, with other events to be held in the fall.
The roadshow process is aimed at helping community leaders visualize what will drive the economies of their towns and cities by 2050. It also aims to explore how Alberta’s human capital can be a major strength the province builds upon — to support the transfer and development of new skills in Alberta’s labour force and help workers thrive in a low-carbon economy.
Dewly Nelson, Councillor in Hinton, and Peter Bubik, Vice-President of the Crowsnest Pass Chamber of Commerce, who were both involved and acted as resource persons in the roadshows in their respective towns, praised the way the meetings were designed.
“It [the roadshow] is based on reality and is solutions-driven,” said Nelson. “The facilitators aren’t lecturing. I felt confidence in how they handled the process.”
In particular, he liked the energy transition simulation exercise, The Newtonian Shift, which was a key part of the first day of the roadshow. The Newtonian Shift is a facilitated role-playing simulation that allows players to experience decades of energy transition in one day.
The roadshow initiative has already led to action in both communities, with high schools in both launching courses in sustainability and renewables, as well as the output from the workshop in Crowsnest Pass being accepted as input to the newly drafted community strategic plan.
The irony is that both communities may be about to experience mini-booms, thanks to new coal mines.
In the case of Hinton, which has a population of about 10,000 and has lumber mills, some oil and gas exploration nearby, tourism and other economic drivers, there’s a new coal mine being built that is aimed at exporting thermal coal, used to generate electricity, to Asia. The company developing the mine, U.S.-based Bighorn, will be creating 250 to 300 jobs. It will start coal exports in May.
This comes at a time when Alberta itself is phasing out its coal-generating power plants.
“It’s an interesting dynamic,” said Nelson.
He said the EFL participants made no value judgment about that irony.
“They don’t engage in the polarization debate [about fossil fuels versus renewables],” he said.
In the Crowsnest Pass, meanwhile, Australian-based Riverside Resources is proposing to spend $700 million on an open pit mine that would produce metallurgical coal, also aimed at exports to Asia. The mine, which awaits final approvals, would be operational by 2021-22 and would create 385 full-time jobs.
Bubik said the project, which is opposed by many environmentalists, is very much in keeping with the history of that area of southwest Alberta and southeastern B.C., where coal mining has long been an economic driver.
“I’m very much a green guy, but the reality is the only way to produce steel is with coke, which is sourced from coal,” he said. “There are already 400 people [from the area] working at a mine in Sparwood [B.C.] and those workers could stay in the community.”
However, he does add that the project “would change the nature of the community,” since the access to the mine would be off of the major highway that passes through the area, near a golf course.
Nevertheless, for a community of 6,000 people, the project would be a “significant” job creator, as well as adding to its tax base.
Bubik believes the prospect of the mine and how it will change the community was one reason the EFL chose the area for one of the pilot roadshows.
“It was very well done,” he said. “I think all the participants learned a lot from it.”
Despite being a “green guy,” Bubik, who has an engineering degree and worked for 18 years helping to develop wind power projects in Alberta and worldwide for an international company, believes fossil fuels will continue to drive Alberta’s economy for many years.
“There will continue to be a need for oil,” he said, although he believes the boom times are over.
The emphasis must be on replacing the economic benefits of fossil fuel development and exports, which he believes will be a difficult process.
His community, which has significant tourism potential and is also billing itself as an attractive retirement location, is dealing with some of the implications of that possible shift, he said, a process which was aided by the EFL roadshow.
Bubik himself heads a company that will play a role in the transition to a lower carbon economy. That privately-owned firm, Turning Point Generation, has received government permits and has Indigenous support to develop the $200-million Canyon Creek Hydroelectric project, which would be designed to produce 75 megawatts (MW) of power, with the ultimate potential to produce 400 MW. Ultimately it could back up as much as 5,000 MW of wind power.
The project, which would tap water from the Athabasca River, would be developed near Hinton.
“It’s such a cool project,” said Nelson, the Hinton councillor, about a project being developed, ironically, by the Crowsnest Pass resident.