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Alison Cretney, Managing Director of Energy Futures Lab
Alison Cretney
Managing Director - Energy Futures Lab

The Creative Middle Ground: Opening Space for our Energy Future

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Takeaways

  1. Polarization on energy issues is significantly slowing the progress being made towards a sustainable energy future.
  2. Economic stimulus and recovery decisions must be made with a future-focused lens so we’re not only creating good jobs today, we’re also creating the energy system of the future.
  3. Exploiting and producing hydrogen would have up to four times the economic impact of crude oil or diesel in Canada.

Action

Canadians need to recognize that divisiveness is holding the country back from creating the energy system of the future. The world is changing, and there are huge economic opportunities for Canada in this transition. Canadians must engage productively with one another and act on delivering the energy solutions that the world needs.


What is your perspective on the future of the energy industry in Canada in light of COVID-19?

The global economic collapse triggered by COVID-19 has resulted in some challenging and critical conversations about the future of Canadian energy. While the pandemic has certainly been devastating for many industries around the world, the Energy Futures Lab has been applying a long-term lens to these conversations, which helps highlight opportunity over loss.

Another important realization many Canadians have been reflecting on is the fact that structural change is inevitable—whether that be to our energy system or other systems. People are learning that change comes knocking whether we’re ready for it or not, so we might as well prepare as best we can. And there’s much we can do. For example, the Energy Futures Lab and its partners submitted to the federal government 53 “shovel-ready” projects from 28 organizations that are aligned with a low emission economy and have the potential to create over 25,000 jobs within six to 12 months.

“This doesn’t mean we ignore the oil and gas industry, which has also been hit hard by this crisis. It simply means that efforts by the federal and provincial government can’t just focus on sustaining what Alberta already has.”

Many of these investments made today can help enable structural changes that unlock longer term opportunities that will be key to future prosperity. This doesn’t mean we ignore the oil and gas industry, which has also been hit hard by this crisis. It simply means that efforts by the federal and provincial government can’t just focus on sustaining what Alberta already has. We need to also be working to build new industries and opportunities, along with the jobs and investment these industries will sustain. Since COVID-19, the Lab has been working to raise the profile of these shovel-ready projects and create awareness around the breadth of opportunity available to Albertans and Canadians to thrive in a low emission economy.


What is your perspective on Canada’s energy industry? What are some of its strengths and weaknesses?

It is clearly a challenging time for many parts of the energy industry in Canada. This is definitely true for oil and gas, and dire news is piling on as oil prices plummet around the world. We hear a lot about the challenges—things like heavy reliance on single industries, that Canada is not diversified, and that there are limited markets for Canadian products that we have a hard time reaching. We also have much higher emissions, on both production and consumption of energy, than where we need to be.

With that said, in order to rise above the polarization, it is important to emphasize the many strengths that we can build on—which are a combination of Canada’s abundant resources, including solar, wind and geothermal energy. We have an abundance of oil and gas, and great reservoirs for storing carbon. Canada also has a highly skilled workforce from an engineering base to a thriving innovation ecosystem. That is really one of the big untold stories—certainly in Alberta—and in many other parts of the country as well.

“In order to rise above the polarization, it is important to emphasize the many strengths that we can build on—which are a combination of Canada’s abundant resources, including solar, wind and geothermal energy.”

There has been a lot of attention on some of the very public disagreements on resource projects in the country. And yet, I see many positive examples of cooperation, especially in the Energy Futures Lab. 

I am inspired by the collaboration on different energy projects, in the Energy Futures Lab and otherwise. Different groups are reaching out and working together in areas where they never have before. We see this in particular with some of the cleantech innovations. For example, tech entrepreneurs work alongside energy companies, government agencies and utilities to deploy distributed ledger technology. This is literally taking small scale renewable energy production from farms and rural businesses and aggregating them to access additional revenues in emission credit markets. Approaches like that are setting us up for a more integrated electricity system.


The EFL’s mission is to work towards “transitioning to an energy system that the future requires.” What does that mean, and what does your energy future look like?

The diverse participants of the Energy Futures Lab have established a vision for the country’s energy system in 2050. A primary element of that is net zero emissions for electricity, heat, mobility and industrial processes. This means becoming net carbon neutral for both production and consumption of energy. 

The vision also includes Canada continuing to provide products and innovations that meet the world’s changing energy needs. We recognize that we must build on our strengths in the energy industry, and export energy technology and products that suit a low-emission economy. It also includes partnerships with Indigenous communities in ways that respect Indigenous rights, traditional knowledge and values, and that truly honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

“We must build on our strengths in the energy industry, and export energy technology and products that suit a low-emission economy.”

It is also important to think about how we show up as citizens, so the vision created by the fellows of the Energy Futures Lab includes different groups thriving and being champions for innovative and responsible energy systems. That is what really gives me hope in the progress we are making at the lab.

To accomplish this vision, we have invited all perspectives in the room—from oil and gas, to utilities, environmentalists, Indigenous populations and community and special interest groups. We have created a space where people can be heard, and different perspectives can be shared. We coach towards respectful engagement and orient the discussion towards seeking a common goal. That gives me real hope for our ability to work together. 

Part of the challenge of our times is that we live in an incredibly polarized space, and some tools that are helpful to us can also create division—like social media, for example. Unfortunately, we create little echo chambers around ourselves and stay in our silos— and it has really become increasingly easy to live within our own camps. That is why it is crucially important that we have these spaces where there is an open invitation to engage constructively and focus on solutions. 

The next step is orienting towards action. Sure, we spend time talking about solutions, but we also coach people to identify areas of common ground, where there’s enough shared value to move something forward together. In all our engagements, it is not simply about attending an event and sharing your opinion—it’s about leaving with clear next steps forward, through local or regional projects, or to contribute to something much bigger. 

“My energy future is inclusive—it is a mosaic of solutions to make reliable, affordable and low-emission energy available to everyone.”

I see a future of energy that is full of possibilities, and I see a very different leadership role for Canada. Certainly, we have been a leader in the energy system of the past, and there are a number of good reasons for that. But we can also be a leader in tomorrow’s energy system, and that requires focus and hard work. I hope to see Canada making great strides in developing some of the biggest opportunities in front of us—like building a hydrogen economy, for example, or using bitumen resources to produce carbon fibers. Or, enabling efficiency gains in facilities, homes and businesses through digital innovations. 

My energy future is inclusive—it is a mosaic of solutions to make reliable, affordable and low-emission energy available to everyone. The reality is, access to energy is vital to our lives, but we need to produce it in a way that is healthy for people and for the earth.

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What new energy projects are underway in Alberta and what do you hope for the future of Alberta’s energy industry?

An exciting opportunity in Alberta, is turning the province’s inactive wells and facilities—which today are considered a liability—into tomorrow’s assets. A lot of collaborative work is happening towards repurposing those wells, whether through geothermal energy, metal production like lithium, using the wells to sequester carbon or repurposing them for renewable energy use. Applying that innovative, cleantech approach to create economic opportunities is a good example of how we can address challenging problems.

There is also work being done to leverage our strength in oil and gas and grow a whole new industry. The province can leverage its assets and skillset in oil and gas to grow the lithium industry—and lithium, of course, is used for batteries and for energy storage for electric vehicles. That is one part of the transition towards clean energy.

Personally, one of the really exciting opportunities—with huge economic potential—is developing a hydrogen-based economy. Hydrogen is well suited to displace diesel in the fleet transport sector, and it can also be used to store renewable energy from solar and wind. This could really integrate both sides of our energy system in Alberta. We can produce it economically from natural gas and capture the carbon to generate zero emission fuel.

An analysis by Dr. David Layzell and his team, from the University of Calgary, shows that producing and exploiting hydrogen will generate up to four times the economic impact currently produced by crude oil or diesel in Canada.

“Producing and exploiting hydrogen will generate up to four times the economic impact currently produced by crude oil or diesel in Canada.”

The hydrogen example shows how the natural gas resource can be utilized to enable a zero-emission future. It is really important to understand those two concepts, oil and zero emissions, as complex and interrelated. I would agree with Dwight Eisenhower, who said if you cannot solve a problem, make it bigger. Climate change is a big, hairy problem—as are energy security and sustainable development. But if you look at the interconnections between all of these things, it becomes clear that the future of the energy system must be low emissions. 

“There is really something to be said about thinking global and acting local—we are going to see more local, distributed energy that is connected to global markets.”

From that perspective, we cannot leave anyone behind. The energy system of the future must be equitable, affordable and accessible. There is really something to be said about thinking global and acting local—we are going to see more local, distributed energy that is connected to global markets. 

Alberta is also looking at using bitumen—the resource that underpins our economy—for the future. We have to think about what we can do with bitumen that does not involve combusting. Alberta Innovates has been leading a stream of work looking at uses for bitumen beyond combustion. Again, the economic estimate for that is really significant. A report from 2018 projected that the oil sands could be making over $200 billion by 2030 by making carbon fibers from bitumen. Suddenly, the high intensity of the bitumen resource becomes a huge asset, because that is what is needed for carbon fiber production.

So, there are very clear signals that point to the energy system transitioning towards a low emission economy—and Albertans are not tone-deaf to that. There are certainly people who might not be ready to hear that—but there are many, many more who are, and who see the opportunities from being proactive now. Often, transitions can be painful, they are definitely not comfortable, but there are many positive things happening across the province.


What should key stakeholders do to lessen the divisions around energy in Canada?

Yes, energy tends to be highly divisive and polarizing. It was actually for this reason that the Energy Futures Lab was born: to address polarization and the ‘with us or against us’ attitude that so often pervades on this topic. Of course, that attitude only serves to further divide and entrench views on both sides.

However, when you scratch below the surface, most Canadians don’t identify strongly with the poles, they are not so widely divided as it might appear. In the COVID response, we’ve seen almost unprecedented levels of cooperation between the federal government and the provinces, and that gives me hope for what this ‘Team Canada’ approach could accomplish when applied to energy and climate. 

The top three things I would love to see stakeholders reach an agreement on is first, recognition that divisiveness on our energy future is not helping and, in fact, it is keeping most of us stuck. It is dangerously slowing us down from being prepared for the future that is coming. So, a general agreement that these levels of polarization are unhelpful and are holding us back from creating the energy system that the future requires of us, is first.

“Divisiveness on our energy future is not helping and, in fact, it is keeping most of us stuck. It is dangerously slowing us down from being prepared for the future that is coming.”

Second is that the world is changing, and there is a shift to a lower emission economy underway globally. It does not matter what your personal motivation is behind that— maybe it is a climate motivation or economic motivation, or you might be motivated by health or a prosperous future. Whatever your motivation, if you look at the energy issue, there are big changes underway. That is not necessarily asking people to change their deeply held beliefs and values, but instead to connect people and what they care about to the changes that are happening with or without us. There are huge opportunities if we take a more proactive approach.

That gets me to the third piece — we must agree that those changes bring Canada opportunities to grow its jobs and economy, and to deliver energy solutions to the rest of the world. With this shared understanding, we can enter the conversation and engage with one another from a different place.


How can we reach a national consensus on our future energy system? Where do we find common ground?

Common ground needs to start with a shared vision. It needs to begin with getting clear on where we are going.  That would look like some version of the vision that the fellows have created in the Energy Futures Lab. Of course, every group that creates a vision is going to differ slightly—but I think one place where there is opportunity for common ground at the national level is zero-emission electricity systems. We are also seeing personal transport moving towards electrification, and in the future things like lithium and carbon fibers will be of huge value to an electrified transport system. Canada needs a strategy to support producing carbon fibers in the country and utilizing them in a low emission economy. That is a huge opportunity right now that is just beginning to gain traction.  It is slowed by a dominant narrative in the country to shut down the oil sands as fast as possible. 

In that narrative, Albertans are seen as being on the other end of the spectrum—just drill, baby, drill! But the common ground is not explored. So, I would argue that we need more spaces where people are literally sitting down together, hearing one another out, and focusing on ultimately finding solutions together.

We must also be listening to our citizens, especially our youth. From my experience, when youth have participated at the Energy Futures Lab and challenged ideas, it is incredibly powerful. 

“Of course, every group that creates a vision is going to differ slightly—but I think one place where there is opportunity for common ground at the national level is zero-emission electricity systems.”

Since COVID-19, many Canadians have been exploring the intersection between energy and economic recovery as a way to enable the economy of the future. The Lab’s “Our Energy Future” campaign is also focused on helping to depolarize the energy and climate conversation by demonstrating how Alberta-based solutions can help in the transition to low emission, reliable and affordable energy for all. At its core, the campaign is really about expanding the conversation, inviting new voices to participate and creating a space where we can focus on solutions—instead of focusing on why things are not getting done.

We see this as an opportunity to invite more Canadians into a creative middle ground. We have learned in the lab that doing that is both possible and productive, as long as we keep alive the vision of what we want to achieve together.

Alison Cretney, Managing Director of Energy Futures Lab
Alison Cretney
Managing Director - Energy Futures Lab

Bio: Alison Cretney was on the founding team of the Energy Futures Lab and became its Managing Director in 2018. She oversees the strategic direction and operations of the lab. She is a professional engineer and holds a Master’s degree in Strategic Leadership Towards Sustainability from the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden. Alison began her career in the oil and gas industry and was a Senior Advisor to the Pembina Institute for 11 years.

 

 

Organization Profile: The Energy Futures Lab is an initiative that promotes the integration and production of clean energy systems in Alberta, and works at transforming the province’s position as a leader in energy towards a sustainable future. The Lab provides 60 fellowships to thought leaders from various backgrounds to find solutions for a new energy landscape. The Energy Futures Lab was founded in 2014 and is funded by Natural Step Canada.