The Energy Futures Lab looks for common ground in energy debate

Oil and gas versus renewables? That’s a false dichotomy, according to the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), an initiative that acknowledges the importance of Alberta’s significant natural advantage in fossil fuels and how it can be used as a stepping stone to a cleaner energy future.

The Energy Futures Lab is designed to allow stakeholders to engage with one another about Canada’s energy future, to find some common ground, and to take action together.

– Chad Park

“The issues around environment and energy are complex and highly polarized,” says Chad Park, director of EFL, which is a project of national charity The Natural Step Canada. “The polarization creates problems whether you’re an energy company trying to get a pipeline built for market access or an environmental group promoting better climate policy. The most challenging issues around sustainable development can’t be solved by any single organization. The Energy Futures Lab is designed to allow stakeholders to engage with one another about Canada’s energy future, to find some common ground, and to take action together.”

He refers to EFL as a “social innovation,” which he says needs to be a focus along with pursuing technological solutions.

“No single step is going to take us to a sustainable energy economy,” he says. “We might disagree on the pace of that transition but we have to recognize ways that we can work with each other to achieve a desired future state using science-based principles. Many oil and gas companies are working hard to reduce emissions and, as energy companies, they’re interested in supplying energy in a low-carbon future.”

EFL participant Apoorv Sinha has his feet planted in both worlds. He’s a research manager at zEroCor Technologies Inc., a Calgary-based oilfield service company, and leader of Carbon Upcycling Technologies (CUT), a spinoff company looking to harvest carbon nanoparticles from sequestered CO2.

“Efficiency and reduction of waste is our vision, in whichever industry we’re working,” says Sinha. “As an oilfield services company, we’re producing tubing, coatings and additives that reduce corrosion and make oilfield production more energy-efficient. At CUT, we’re working to sequester CO2, while creating high-quality carbon nano-materials.”

The company’s process exposes carbon sources such as graphite and coal to gaseous CO2 to produce a wide range of custom-designed carbon nano-materials. These materials show significant promise in making stronger concrete, reducing corrosion in metals and improving the efficiency of commercial solar panels. They can also be used as precise and non-toxic delivery systems for pharmaceuticals targeting cancer cells.

“When you talk about taking CO2 particles that would wind up in the atmosphere and using them to make next-generation pharmaceuticals, it’s a paradigm shift for most people,” says Sinha. “But there’s no juxtaposition between our oilfield services business and our carbon up-cycling technologies. It’s all about making the world run more efficiently.”

Innovation is working not just in the realm of physical resources, but human resources, too. Lliam Hildebrand is a director of strategy for Iron & Earth, a not-for-profit dedicated to ensuring that the skillsets developed by workers in the oil patch can be adapted to renewable energy projects.

“Canada has a workforce ready to meet the challenges of both types of projects,” he says.

Hildebrand is a boilermaker by trade and has worked on projects as diverse as fabricating pressure vessels, flare stacks and biomass stations. Iron & Earth advocates for programs designed to rapidly train oil sands workers to adapt their skills to renewable projects involving wind and solar power, for example.

“We want to ensure that a transition to a net-zero economy takes skilled workers along for the ride,” he says. “We also advocate for integrating renewable energy technologies into existing energy infrastructure. There are 400,000 holes in Alberta, dug into warm sedimentary sand that could be right for geothermal energy projects. Oilfield pumpjacks could be powered by solar energy. There are a lot of opportunities out there.”

Iron & Earth’s involvement with EFL has already netted partners to contribute to its Solar Skills project. A partnership with MetalBoss Industries is looking for a retooling grant to allow the company to manufacture solar energy racking components.

It’s a mindset Park embraces.

“Instead of dwelling on the debates of the past,” he says, “we can use strengths in Alberta’s energy sector as a platform to the future.”

Written by Peter Kenter