Welcome to our final essay in Navigating Net Zero: COP26 Series. Navigating Net Zero is JWN Energy’s framework for curating conversations and content related to Canada’s climate opportunities and challenges in a transition to a low-carbon economy. In this special series in advance of COP26, we have asked nine individuals to reflect on where Alberta and Canada fit within a global climate leadership nexus and offer perspectives on navigating collaboratively. Today, Laura Kilcrease, chief executive officer of Alberta Innovates, discusses how Alberta can bring leadership to the energy evolution.
Alberta evolved remarkably over the last century to become Canada’s largest oil and gas producing jurisdiction, and a clean technology hub within a country that ranks among the world’s top energy suppliers.
Alberta has considerable renewable energy potential, yet conventional energy development continues to dominate its economy as does global dialogue about curtailing or stopping its production and use.
Less well known is the degree to which the province is also a centre of clean tech expertise. The two in fact are symbiotic, with a significant degree of the clean tech focus being on energy-related environmental improvement based on industry experience.
Alberta Innovates concentrates at the nexus of Alberta’s conventional energy past, and its clean tech future. This unique blend of expertise drives progress toward economic diversification and the energy evolution of key resources.
Alberta Innovates sees a hopeful path ahead. We see a future where Alberta and Canada can find radically different uses and new value within conventional energy resources and leverage that value in ways that will ultimately support achievement of net zero aspirations.
The large bulk of fossil fuel-related emissions — 80 per cent on a life cycle basis — are associated with end use combustion. What if we reimagine how conventional energy products like bitumen-rich oilsands are used to negate those emissions?
This is the premise of our “Bitumen Beyond Combustion” (BBC) vision, which we introduced in 2016. Instead of releasing carbon into the atmosphere through combustion, we could keep it sequestered within alternative end-use products. The benefits extend much further, since alternative uses can make transportation more energy efficient, infrastructure last longer, and renewable generation and energy storage more economic.
The most promising potential BBC products include carbon fibre, asphalt binder, vanadium, and a suite of what we refer to as high value carbon materials that include activated carbon, graphene, carbon nanotubes, metal carbides, and synthetic graphite.
The properties that make oilsands-derived bitumen more costly to refine into fuels make it potentially more valuable and chemically desirable as a feedstock for other products. These include light-weight composite materials for vehicle parts; carbon fibres that can be blended with polymers for enhanced-strength wind turbines; and activated carbon for use in batteries and other energy storage devices. Alberta’s asphaltene-rich bitumen also has a low wax content making it ideal for creating asphalt that is longer lasting and more durable with less need for maintenance.
Alberta Innovates is already advancing BBC research and development projects, with a focus on products and technologies that are at or approaching commercial viability. These applications are competitive with existing alternatives, and represent opportunities for production at scale.
Compared with revenue from the combustion-only pathway, BBC products could generate C$5 billion in added revenue per year by 2030. And for every million barrels used for BBC, there is potential to avoid combustion related GHG emissions from bitumen by 65 million tonnes.
These are key reasons why Alberta Innovates has prioritized BBC, and why we see it as a tremendous opportunity to develop a new high value product industry that contributes to a net zero economy.
The Alberta oil and gas industry is continuing its long-standing efforts to moderate the carbon footprint of oil and gas production. These efforts have already delivered substantial intensity reductions, with per barrel carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions from the oilsands reduced by more than 20 per cent between 2009 and 2018.
Industry has committed to accelerating this progress, most recently through the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative launched in 2021. Through it, five major oil and gas companies that are responsible for 90 per cent of Canadian oilsands operations committed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Realizing this goal will not be achieved on a single technology. It will take a bundle of complementary emission-reducing approaches. Together with industry and research partners, Alberta Innovates and its subsidiaries are seeking out those solutions — developing next-gen solvent enhanced SAGD, partial upgrading technologies and radio frequency enhanced oil recovery processes to improve efficiency and GHG competitiveness of Alberta’s oilsands. We’re also working on cost-effective wellsite reclamation technologies to reduce methane emissions from 40,000 inactive wells. The expertise resident in Alberta has global impact and significance.
On the clean technology front, we’re working on initiatives that generate energy with less carbon and emissions impact; reduce water usage; and adapt and restore natural environments. Low carbon electricity production, power grid modernization, green building technologies, geothermal, biofuel, biomass and small modular nuclear reactors are among the cleaner power options we’re advancing.
Keeping global average temperature increases within defined limits will take these and yet-to-emerge technologies. It will also take policy pragmatism that acknowledges the global solution to the climate crisis will also require fossil fuels to be part of the global energy mix.
This is where the Alberta oil and gas industry truly excels. Collectively, we are bringing expertise to both the immediate need for carbon capture utilization and storage as well as creating commercially viable pathways for industry’s net zero energy evolution.
The need to avoid adding to the atmospheric carbon load is clear; devising a sustained approach that limits socio-economic disruptions can begin by generating revenue from captured carbon. This is a key point for Alberta Innovates and we are addressing it with our Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre, where teams are already shipping industrial and consumer products to market made with CO2.
Alberta’s economic success in recent decades comes from more than its fortuitous location atop vast hydrocarbon reserves. While the oilsands face environmental challenges today, the initial hurdle was to find cost-effective ways for their development.
That challenge was met through entrepreneurialism and innovation, and in turn this fostered today’s robust and diverse clean technology sector in Alberta. Transformative thinking is embedded in the collective psyche of our province at all levels of business, industry and community-building.
No doubt the challenges ahead are daunting and the private and public investments great. Still, I am optimistic about our potential to avoid stranding assets and eroding expertise essential to address the climate crisis. Instead, I’m confident Alberta can bring leadership to the energy evolution, transforming its hydrocarbon endowment into a key enabler of the global net zero future we urgently need to create.