Canada is a resource-rich country and Alberta is a global centre of energy production. However, resource extraction and production tend to come with significant emissions that increasingly threaten our planet (and future economic livelihoods). Net-zero emission goals for 2050 have been adopted by many countries, including Canada, in order to limit global temperature increases and the associated economic, environmental, and social impacts.
“The fundamental challenge is how do we maintain the prosperity that we have enjoyed while simultaneously moving into a net-zero world, and in fact, not just surviving, but thriving.”
The dynamic raises an interesting question: how can our economy, which is currently reliant on resource extraction, evolve to reach net zero?
One of the many people working to answer this question is Bryan Helfenbaum, the Executive Director of Advanced Hydrocarbons and the Hydrogen Centre of Excellence at Alberta Innovates. Speaking with BetaKit, Helfenbaum explained why an “all of the above” approach is the only way to truly move to net zero without causing either an economic or energy crisis in its wake.
An “all of the above” approach
Significant research indicates that increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is damaging to the planet and risks making it uninhabitable. But Helfenbaum doesn’t necessarily see the push for net zero as solely an environmental consideration.
“The fundamental challenge is how do we maintain the prosperity that we have enjoyed while simultaneously moving into a net-zero world, and in fact, not just surviving, but thriving,” said Helfenbaum.
To Helfenbaum, the way forward is broken into two buckets: the first is transitioning from emissions-producing energy into non-emissions-producing sources like wind, solar, hydrogen fuel cells, or small modular reactors. This is the type of energy transition we hear of most, including examples like eliminating fossil fuel use altogether and powering our world solely on renewables.
The second is decarbonizing current emissions-producing energy, using technologies such as carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) (Helfenbaum noted Alberta is already a CCUS world leader), circular economy biofuels (something Helfenbaum said is already happening in Edmonton), direct air capture (what Helfenbaum called the “cousin” of CCUS), and bitumen beyond combustion (turning bitumen, a crude oil typically turned into gas or fuel, into carbon fibre used in hard goods like hockey sticks or into asphalt for roads).
Many people say that we should go all-in on renewable sources and remove fossil fuels from our economy immediately. However, Helfenbaum doesn’t see this as practical in the near term. Despite massive international investment in renewables over the last 20 years, the energy share of fossil fuels has only dropped 4 percent. However, a growing population needs more energy so the overall, or absolute, use of fossil fuels has increased by 36 percent. Helfenbaum added that demand for oil and gas will continue into the foreseeable future as renewable sources deal with infrastructural scaling and applicability and intermittency challenges—such as not having predictable solar in all areas of the country or heavy transport being difficult to decarbonize.
“I frankly don’t see a credible path to net zero that doesn’t include a lot of CCUS,” he said.
The second is the reality of the innovation process. Relying solely on one path means eliminating potential solutions we can’t afford to disregard given the size of the challenge and the urgency of the climate problem. As a result, making an impact in the immediate term requires an “all of the above” approach to both decarbonization and renewable energy growth.
“Some of these opportunities may not be commercially successful, but we don’t know which ones,” said Helfenbaum.
A big part of solving this challenge is funding and supporting startups working on new energy innovations, particularly those that are in what Helfenbaum calls the “valley of death”: innovations that are too expensive for academia but too risky for VC or other commercial investment. This is where Alberta Innovates hopes to help, added Helfenbaum, with its programs acting as a conduit to expertise, different funding sources, network connections, and coaching for startup founders.
“The role of public funding is to help bridge that gap and de-risk it further,” he said.
According to Helfenbaum, funding usually comes in one of two ways: for more mature industries, such as technology to improve recovery of oil sands, Alberta Innovates plays the role of connector, helping those organizations find funding that’s already available in the ecosystem, such as corporate or VC investors.
For more nascent industries, such as the development of the hydrogen economy, a different approach is required. While there are dozens of funding programs available for all kinds of energy innovation in the province, those resources can be difficult to navigate for niche innovations. With this in mind, Helfenbaum said Alberta Innovates can design a “more directed call,” explicitly advertising a funding program for a certain type of opportunity. One key example is the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a $15 million competition to accelerate large-scale production of carbon fibre.
If funding isn’t the right path, which may be the case where an entrepreneur has a great technical idea but limited business acumen, Alberta Innovates plays the role of coach. In this case, the organization provides access to potential end users to interview, business experts, or academics who can help further their research for commercialization such as the Accelerating Innovations into CarE (AICE) – Validate Program or the Executive Business Advisor Program.
Image courtesy of Unsplash.