Tech for Tomorrow’s Alberta: ERA’s Technology Roadmap & Future-Fit Hydrocarbons

Around the world, countries, corporations, and people are picking up the call for a net-zero future. This global rallying cry is highlighting that we need to do more to reach a lower emissions future and we need to do it at an exponential pace. We cannot close the gap between our reality today, and our aspirations for what is possible, without developing and deploying technologies that both manage our greenhouse gas emissions and add value to our economy.

The transition to a lower emissions world can’t happen with the flick of a switch. It will require significant work and investment across our economy and across timeframes. The speed of reaching decarbonization goals will depend on the availability of mature technology and the ability to scale supply chains. So, how might we accelerate the pace of innovation and deployment of new technologies across all sectors to take advantage of the tremendous momentum that exists in a world that has been turned upside down?

We need smart investment. To remain competitive in today’s economy, we need to invest in our existing energy systems to ensure they are as efficient and environmentally responsible as possible. And, looking forward, if Alberta is going to build off its historic strengths as an energy producer, we need to invest in the energy systems of tomorrow that have a place in an increasingly carbon-constrained world. It’s not an either-or scenario — we need to do both.

We need a strong understanding of the possible pathways ahead of us, so that industry can develop sound business plans that lay out a future that is attractive to the flow of capital, and so that collaboration and alignment across the innovation ecosystem can flourish.

We need governments to send appropriate and consistent policy and regulatory signals to set the foundation for net-zero and shape the incentives for the transition. Increasing alignment and coordination across levels of government will only help to create an environment where taking risks and innovating are easier to do.

None of these elements on their own are enough. We will need all components in place for us to succeed. You’ve likely heard the phrase, “there is no silver bullet.” It’s true. We probably need a Gatling gun. The good news is that many, if not most, of the key technology pathways we will need to achieve a low carbon future are already identified and known.

One of the inputs that Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) is bringing to the Energy Futures Policy Collaborative is our Technology Roadmap, a vision to help Alberta and Canada achieve this net-zero future and a key strategic document we use to guide our investments and project portfolio mix. It outlines key technology areas that will enable Alberta to build off its strengths and have a competitive economy that is contributing to a prosperous, lower emissions world.

Some of the substantial decarbonization opportunities outlined in the Roadmap exist in the oil and gas industry. As it happens, there are already big investments bringing that to life. By exploring areas like partial upgrading, advanced recovery techniques, and carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS), Alberta’s energy industry is working to get the carbon out of the barrel just as it got the sand out of the oil a generation before. Since the oil sands industry is the largest and fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Alberta, this has the potential to make a significant impact. Now, we need to achieve an even more ambitious target — not just per-barrel intensity reductions, but overall emissions reductions.

CCUS not only plays a role in reducing emissions from existing industries, it also lays a foundation for exciting opportunities on the horizon that will create new economic activity, new jobs, and new industries and markets. It is integral to developing clean hydrogen which offers a solution to lower emissions in many hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as chemical manufacturing and heavy-duty transport.

The creation and storage of low-emitting electricity is another opportunity to tap into some of Alberta’s existing hydrocarbon infrastructure, innovation, and expertise. From extracting lithium from its oil reservoirs to power the world’s growing fleet of electric vehicles, to taking advantage of Alberta’s existing expertise in drilling wells and applying it to the province’s best geothermal sites and producing energy from those old well sites.

These are just chapters in the larger story for Alberta’s energy and emissions future. Innovation can be found everywhere. Changes to land use practices and urban planning can help sequester or minimize carbon emissions. Support for the province’s bioenergy sector can also deliver some quick and important wins for both the economy and the environment. Likewise, helping large emitters and heavy industry implement energy efficient upgrades and improve their operational processes is low-hanging fruit, ripe for the picking.

ERA’s role is to help Alberta achieve its environmental and economic goals, and our participation in the EFPC will help us shape and learn more about the road ahead. We have shared our vision of what a successful future looks like, and our Technology Roadmap is how we can get there. Crucially for the collaborative, ERA can play an essential role in the de-risking and development of technologies that help both decarbonize Alberta’s existing economy and create technologies and pathways that are critical to the economic opportunities of the future.

We need to cast a wide net. We must imagine, innovate, invent, and invest, across the board. Advances and successes in one sector can benefit and create space for progress in another. Transitioning to a clean energy future is complex and will take time. It requires the right policy signals and appropriate investments to support scaling-up promising technologies and adopting new ones that will help us take us another step toward creating the low carbon future the world is demanding.

Bob Savage is Emissions Reduction Alberta’s Executive Director of Planning and Performance. He is a member of the working group for the Energy Futures Policy Collaborative.