An Emerging Portfolio of EFL Initiatives

No one ever said the transition to a new energy economy would be easy.

From the very beginning, The Natural Step Canada (TNSC) was under a great deal of pressure to describe the impacts and outcomes of the Energy Futures Lab (EFL). We resisted prescribing a solution.

Our Fellowship – more diverse than we could have hoped – has created a shared vision and innovation pathways, generated new ideas, and brought existing initiatives into the lab to amplify and scale.

Describing any specific outcome in such a polarized environment could attract those invested in the result and push away the disinterested. Building an EFL Fellowship of diverse opinions and perspectives was critical to designing a fit for the future energy system.

Fast forward to a year later and I could not be more pleased to share the incredible initiatives emerging from our our lab. Our Fellowship – more diverse than we could have hoped – has created a shared vision and innovation pathways, generated new ideas, and brought existing initiatives into the lab to amplify and scale.

Leveraging our strengths and our past to transition to the future

The Fellows agree that prosperity does not lie on the same path that has brought us to where we are today. Nor can we abandon the resources and assets that built Alberta. Our challenge is to leverage our strengths, foster innovation and build the energy system that the future requires of us.

Here are three initiatives developed by the EFL Fellows that exemplify this philosophy:

  • Geothermal from oil wellsAlison Thompson is working with other Fellows and partners on a prototype that is the first of its kind in Alberta and promises a huge upside to over 400,000+ oil wells in the province. The Leduc #1 Living Energy project will convert an old well (previously used for water re-injection from producing hydrocarbon wells) into a geothermal heat source to keep a large greenhouse warm and productive all year around. The Leduc site is synonymous with Alberta’s oil boom and was deliberately chosen for its cultural significance. More initiatives like this will make great use of the engineering and geological know-how for which Alberta is famous by reinvigorating abandoned wells that no longer generate economic value.
  • Pumped hydro energy storage – EFL Fellow Kipp Horton is leading a project with partners that will utilize an abandoned coal mine to establish an innovative energy storage system. As Alberta seeks to achieve a target of 30 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, more solutions like this will be needed. This project will enable more intermittent renewable energy generation by providing storage during times of low demand and output during times of high demand.
  • Workers’ Climate Plan – There is no greater asset in Alberta than the province’s workforce. Lliam Hildebrand is working with other EFL Fellows and partners of his own organization IRON+EARTH to build a movement among Alberta’s workers for energy transition. There is enormous short and long term value in retooling and repositioning a workforce challenged by today’s economic conditions to lead in a more diversified energy economy.

Engaging hearts and imaginations and contributing to reconciliation

The Fellows understand the vital importance of culture and public engagement in building support for energy transition in Alberta. They are also committed to contribute to reconciliation between Alberta’s Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. Two more EFL initiatives aim at advancing these imperatives:

  • Indigenous Renewable Energy Circle – EFL Fellows are partnering with Urban Matters and others to explore how best to contribute to Indigenous communities’ leadership in alternative energy development – all within a culturally and spiritually appropriate frame. As a first phase, the Fellows have identified the need to support an Indigenous leadership network to share best practices across communities. A series of learning journeys will commence in autumn 2016 with a visit to Treaty 7’s net zero TRTL house in conjunction with invitations to establish a province-wide Elder’s circle. Community leaders and elders from this event would then join additional community learning journeys including the Louis Bull First Nation Solar Initiative, Lubicon Cree Piitapan Solar Project, and Pikani First Nation solar pilot project, among others. All of this will assist growing awareness and capacity in support of the Government of Alberta’s newly-announced Indigenous renewables program. The intention is to provide a platform for a strong cohort of Indigenous leaders with the relationships and connections to assist communities to accelerate successes, overcome challenges, support social entrepreneurship, and attract key investment for their energy transition initiatives.
  • Energy transition support materials for Alberta communities – A group of EFL Fellows is working on a set of materials and tools to help municipal governments and economic development agencies across Alberta develop a clearer understanding of the emerging energy transition and how their communities can get more involved.

Learning from Alberta’s history of innovation

Innovation has long been part of the Alberta story. There are enormous opportunities to be realized by refocusing our innovation system on the new challenges associated with Alberta’s continued prosperity in a low-carbon global economy. Here are two EFL initiatives that seek to seize those opportunities:

  • AOSTRA 2.0 – A group of EFL Fellows and other partners are developing a prototype based on the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA). This was a successful Alberta Crown Corporation established in 1974 to promote the development and use of new technology for oil sands and heavy-oil production. The original AOSTRA pioneered many of the technologies used within in-situ oil sands projects through a partnership between the Alberta government, federal government and industry. The AOSTRA 2.0 working group seeks to replicate the success of AOSTRA by establishing partnerships to enable and scale transformational technologies. The goal is to make oil sands oil globally carbon (and cost) competitive so that it can continue to be a source of economic prosperity in Canada.
  • Supporting Alberta’s carbon utilization innovators – Our province needs to not only reduce emissions in energy production, but also find new ways to turn carbon dioxide from waste into useful materials. Two EFL Fellows: Apoorv Sinha and David Lynch are working on projects that address this challenge and have received support from the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) for this work. This is a whole new innovation opportunity with global implications, ripe for Alberta leadership, as exemplified by the COSIA Carbon X Prize. A group of EFL Fellows are developing ideas for how to support Alberta entrepreneurs keen to work in this blossoming innovation field.

This week in Calgary, Fellows will bring these projects and other ideas to their peers and to a broader circle of stakeholders.

The most exciting part is that these initiatives are really just the beginning. In addition to establishing a major platform for game-changing innovation, the EFL has convened a network of influential leaders who are increasingly invited for consultation on Alberta and Canada’s energy future. The stage is also set for a major public engagement effort, building out from the diverse perspectives and collective voice of the EFL Fellowship.

Upon reflection, it was wise not to prescribe specific outcomes. These emerging ideas exceed all of our expectations, and they are only the beginning.

Chad Park is the Chief Innovation Officer at The Natural Step and Director of the Energy Futures Lab