​AI and machine learning hold great promise for addressing today's energy challenges

You can Google almost anything in today’s world, but can you use the same kind of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to help Alberta thrive in a competitive, low-carbon emissions economy? The Energy Futures Lab (EFL) believes so and it has launched the Energy.AI series aimed at exploring the role of advanced technologies in solving environmental and climate challenges in Alberta.

The EFL is a social and economy-focused initiative launched by the Natural Step Canada, an organization aimed at accelerating Canada’s transition to a sustainable and prosperous society. The EFL explores how Alberta’s prosperity challenge lies in developing and leveraging resources and assets in a way that helps build the energy system for the future. This means developing “future-fit hydrocarbons" and reducing the footprint of high-carbon oil and gas products. Alberta can lead the world by showing how this balance can be done.

The EFL has already launched dozens of initiatives, including one on the use of biofuels as a future jet fuel and how lithium derived from oil and gas wastewater can play a role in global supply for batteries in electric vehicles, and the Energy.AI series initiative is just the latest.

In mid-June, the EFL held its second Energy.AI workshop in Calgary, supported by technology savvy organizations such as InceptionU and Google Developer Group YYC led by EFL Fellow Greg Bennett, CEO of Calgary-based AIRIA Enterprise. Bennett also spoke and facilitated at the workshop along with EFL Fellow Saeed Nusri, Innovation Data Scientist at ATB Financial.

Gregory Hart, co-founder of InceptionU, was one of the trainers at the June workshop. He co-leads InceptionU’s two-year-old tech program that avoids what he calls the “degree factory” approach of most conventional institutions and is aimed at “helping people become future fit”.

“As Alberta’s economy is going through a radical shift [with less reliance on fossil fuels], there are other areas that are desperate for workers,” he said, adding that there are thousands of unfilled high-tech jobs in the province. Hart has been an entrepreneur for much of his working life, and said opportunities abound in software development, AI, computer game development, virtual reality, and in other high-tech related areas.

While the EFL workshop helped increase the awareness of the growing role of technologies, the focus was on computer-aided data and how the corporate world can make choices that lower its carbon footprint. For instance, Hart cites the pipeline space, where fibre optics, married with AI can detect possible trouble spots and help lower the carbon footprint of fossil fuels moving through them. AI can also be used in oil production, by modifying the way a downhole pump operates to lower the viscosity of the crude being produced, which will reduce its carbon footprint.

“AI is a huge area of growth in the fossil fuel sector,” he said.

Nagwan Al-Guneid, a spokesperson for EFL, said the Energy.AI initiative explores the intersection of AI and machine learning with solving climate challenges within the fossil fuel and utility sectors.

Following the first workshop in September 2018, Al-Guneid said EFL recognized the need for what she called “bridgers” - those are “utility and oil and gas professionals who would also have a deeper understanding of advanced technologies.” This is why the approach taken at the most recent June workshop was focused on two objectives: to develop “bridgers” by building awareness and capacity in advanced technologies, as well as to work together in crafting a set of compelling “problem statements” related to energy, climate and digital innovation.

These problem statements will form the basis of the third event in EFL Energy.AI series: Energy.AI Accelerator taking place on October 1. This Accelerator will engage technology innovators and related experts in co-creating solutions. Technology solutions often require historical and good data to create machine learning models that can be used, for instance, in forecasting electricity generation and demand and for better grid management in the utility sector, she said.

“We need quality data that is comprehensive from both the electricity and oil and gas sectors,” she said.

Matt Toohey, Senior Advisor, Sustainability with TransAlta Corporation, was a participant in the June workshop and for him the session was eye opening.

“This was new for me,” he said. “I work with a lot of data in my job, but you don’t realize how far it (AI and machine learning) has come. I think it will change our world.” In the utility sector, which is responsible for about one-third of global GHGs, better management of data, with the use of AI and other approaches, has become essential, said Toohey.

The irony is that, as the world shifts to electric vehicles and becomes more affluent, electricity consumption continues to grow by 2.4 to 3 per cent a year, according to BP plc.

“Meanwhile, the world has invested trillions of dollars in renewables, without making a dent in emissions,” said Toohey. The better management of the world’s electricity consumption, through the use of AI and other technologies, holds out the hope of reducing the environmental impact of the sector - just as individuals can better manage their consumption by the use of smart home technologies, he explained.

Learn more about the EFL Accelerator on October 1 here.

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