New non-renewable energy technologies have to be supported while we transition to renewables, which will take decades
The clean energy movement’s enthusiasm for renewables is invigorating, but has it suppressed our appetite for the innovation needed to develop and use non-renewable energy?
“There is a clear global shift to clean energy – globally there was a four per cent increase in clean energy spending in 2015,” observes Sara Hastings-Simon, program director of clean economy at Pembina Institute. Investment in renewables has been sustained, notwithstanding rock-bottom prices for competing oil and natural gas.
For non-renewable energy producers, the pace of change is speeding up. A joint Canada-U.S. commitment to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector was one of the most significant undertakings coming out of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent trip to Washington. The shared goal is to reduce methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2012 levels by 2025.
The Canadian government may still be talking with the premiers about putting a national price on carbon, but provinces are already moving ahead with carbon taxes or cap-and-trade policies. The phase-out of coal-fired electricity is underway, and Alberta, heart of the fossil fuel industry in Canada, has committed to accelerate coal-plant shutdowns and generate 30 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030.
Everyone knows it’s time to dig deeper. If cost-effective ways to deal with carbon, methane, water use and particulates can be designed and implemented, fossil fuels can be competitive with renewables. But people can’t just engage in round tables and talk. Coaching the willing to succeed is hard, slogging work that requires collaboration across government, industry associations, individual companies, post-secondary institutions and communities.
Innovation in non-renewable energy is happening, albeit quietly.
Earlier this month, Texas-based NET Power announced a breakthrough in power generation technology capable of eliminating all air emissions, with the “plant’s only major byproducts being liquid water and a high-pressure, high-purity stream of carbon dioxide that is sent into a pipeline for sequestration or utilization in industrial processes.”
Closer to home, MEG Energy, an Alberta-based oilsands player, claims proprietary technology able to “modify bitumen blends to a product suitable for shipping by pipeline without diluent, at significantly reduced environmental impacts relative to conventional oilsands upgrading processes.” And academics, including University of Calgary’s David Layzell, are figuring out better ways to use the thermal power generated in the oilsands, not just to make the steam needed to produce oilsands but, as well, to improve how excess thermal heat can be integrated into Alberta’s electrical grid.
Who funds innovation in fossil fuels? Carbon levies, charged to large emitters in Alberta, have been directed to the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), mandated by the Alberta government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change. CCEMC reports having funded more than 100 projects in the last five years, including nine projects that invested over $26 million into carbon capture and storage. Industry collaborates, for example, via Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA), where member companies report sharing 814 distinct technologies and innovations that cost almost $1.3 billion to develop. And often, government spends public dollars, through funding to university-based research or directly to invest in entrepreneurs.
Yet barriers to this innovation are real. Renewable energy purists complain about incentives for innovation in non-renewable energy. The financing of entrepreneurial ideas is easier than the financing of a facility to commercially prove a new technology.
And some innovation just seems to be politically incorrect. For example, the concept of clean coal is often a non-starter. The Alberta government’s own website states: “Alberta’s coal contains more than twice the energy of all of the province’s other non-renewable energy resources. . . . Coal in Alberta is generally low in sulphur and therefore burns relatively clean compared to many coals mined around the world.” Notwithstanding the potential, investment in innovation, like coal gasification, isn’t embraced.
Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables isn’t going to happen quickly; it will likely take generations. In the meantime, we need to attract our best and brightest to achieve new frontiers for coal, oil and natural gas.
By Donna Kennedy-Glans
Donna Kennedy-Glans, Q.C.,is a former member of the Alberta legislature..