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Bob McDonald
Host - Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald

How Canada can Fight Climate Change with Tech We Have Now

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Listen to the extended interview:

Takeaways

  1. With all the advancements in alternative sources of energy, Canada already has all the technological solutions it needs to fight climate change.
  2. Canada’s vast landscape and abundance of natural resources allow us to draw from many alternative different sources of energy.
  3. Oil companies can and must play a role in the energy transition by becoming providers of energy and not just oil.

Action

Governments should be taking chances on the new technologies that private industry cannot afford to. Further government incentives and mandates around the energy transition will also help industry, science and the public come together to adopt the right technologies.


What technologies do we have today that will enable us to go carbon-free? What economic and social opportunities do the adoption of these technologies present?

One of the great joys I experienced when I started researching this book was when I realized that no new inventions are needed for us to go green. First of all, there’s no shortage of energy. There is more energy falling out of the sky every hour than we use in a year. We just need to gather that up.

Our country is so large and so we get different technologies for different areas. In the Prairies, we have wind and solar, because there is a lot of it out there. In the Maritimes, we have tidal energy, which is currently being worked on in the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides in the world. People are researching tidal energy over there and the same thing is happening on the West coast where I live. We have tides that are squeezed between islands, which speeds it up and gives us really strong currents. Geothermal energy is also present. It is more of a mountain thing because the magma has to come close to the surface up through extinct volcanoes. That energy will come from the mountains of the West.

“We now have the ability to build really large wind turbines. In both wind and solar, size matters because the energy is spread out over large areas.”

Wind technology has changed because we now have the ability to build really large wind turbines. In both wind and solar, size matters because the energy is spread out over large areas. At the time of writing my book, the largest windmill in the world was called the Haliade-X by General Electric. There is one of those in Denmark. It is two-and-a-half times taller than the Peace Tower on the parliament buildings in Ottawa. It is taller than the Saturn V moon rocket at 260 meters. A single turbine can power 16,000 homes. These things are so large that a single turn of the blade can power a house for two days. That is astounding. It is so big that we do not need huge fields of turbines. People often complain that turbines are ugly, but we can put them offshore. Europe is doing this, where they are putting their turbines out near the ocean where the winds are strong and consistent, and we in Canada can do that as well.  

One of the big criticisms of alternatives is that the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, which is true. This means we have to store energy for when those technologies are not functioning. Hydrogen is one way to do that. We have a company in Saskatchewan that has found a way to get hydrogen out of oil while the oil is still in the ground.  

There are also different ways of storing energy besides batteries. There is a company called Gravitricity that is using gravity to achieve this. They just haul up giant blocks of concrete using a crane in a huge tower and let them fall slowly to the ground. As the blocks come to the top of the tower, there is a pulley that spins around and runs a generator. This means that we can use gravity to store energy. There are five of these cranes and one of them is always working.  

There’s a company in Ontario that is storing energy with compressed air. They have an abandoned mine that they just pump air into and get it up to really high pressures and a large volume. They hold that pressure like a balloon that has been filled. When the energy is needed, they let the air come shooting out through a small orifice. Again, there is a turbine that spins a generator there. This way, we are also storing energy in air.  

“Energy is going to come from a lot of different sources in Canada.”

That is the future. Energy is going to come from a lot of different sources in Canada. Depending on where you live, there is also an opportunity to rethink nuclear energy in Canada. Canada has a great history of nuclear power. Our CANDU reactors have a really good safety record. But, they were expensive. They are big and they are multibillion-dollar projects that take years to build and millions to maintain every year. Well, Canada is now investing in small modular nuclear reactors with cores that are only about the size of an office desk. They are buried underground and they can power a small town. In the north of Canada, we could have small modular reactors running towns that are currently being powered by diesel generators. With our vast geography, we are going to have different sources of energy everywhere. Our own homes can become sources of power as well.  

“Many jobs will be created to help install and maintain the clean and green technology we use.”

From an economic point of view, that represents jobs. Many jobs will be created to help install and maintain the clean and green technology we use. It has been a little frustrating for me to know that all this technology is out there, but we are just not using it. It is like being on the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg and the ship is going down. Luckily, we have a lot of lifeboats. We can get in the lifeboats now, but people start saying, “I don’t know, are those things recyclable? Where do the materials come from to build those boats? What happens after their use? I don’t like the colour. I’m going to stay on the ship.” The arguments against alternative energy sources that I hear just do not add up, especially when we think about what we have been doing to the planet so far. We need to just get on with it. 

What is holding Canada back from adopting and implementing the clean and green technologies we need?

There are a couple of factors holding us back from adopting clean and green technologies in Canada. One of those factors is fear. It is a soft barrier. There is fear these technologies are going to be too expensive. There is fear from the public as well in terms of figuring out how these technologies really work. They are also wondering if it will cost them too much. There is fear from industry, where some of them are thinking that these alternative sources will put them out of business. There is fear from politicians that they are going to lose votes or become unpopular if they implement certain things. But, those fears can be overcome. We saw an example of how we can get the four elements of science, technology, government and the public to work together during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We need to flatten the curve of climate change.”

Industry stepped in and pharmaceutical companies developed billions of doses and distributed them. Then the government stepped in and threw its support behind industry and science. The government supported the shutdown where everybody had to stay at home because the virus was airborne. They put out those mandates. They also supported people who lost their jobs and industries that were affected, and the public bought into it. We started wearing masks and doing all of those things. The four elements of science, industry, government and the public all got together and flattened the curve of COVID-19.  


Now, we need to flatten the curve of climate change. Science has been warning us about this for a long time.


The government is making some moves but they are slow. The public is doubtful, partly because of some media campaigns that have put doubt in the minds of the public. The oil and fossil fuel industry feels threatened. But, that does not need to be the case. We can move forward if we do what we did with COVID-19. We need to cooperate rather than further polarize. We should not be making enemies picking between the oil industry or tree huggers. We need to find other ways to get energy out of oil. I believe we can do it. Hopefully, it would not have to come to as much of an emergency as COVID-19 was, with so many people every year. 

What is needed from a policy perspective to accelerate clean and green technology adoption in Canada?

One of the policies we need is to support new technology and research. Governments can afford to take chances on new technologies that private industry cannot. So, the Canadian government should invest in more new ideas. For example, in solar, there are new materials called perovskites, which are these very thin film materials. You can actually see through them. It seems odd that it is so thin because we want to be able to capture sunlight and have something that sunlight can go through, but this material is still photovoltaic. They can be used to coat windows. Think about all the windows we have in the tall buildings in our cities. If we coat those with perovskite film, they become solar. People are looking into perovskite paints now, where all we have to do is paint our houses and they will become solar. That stuff is in development and we need research to support that.  

Although they are unpopular, the government should also consider making mandates. California is talking about banning the sale of combustion-engine cars in the future. They want all cars to be electric. That creates an incentive for auto companies. Mandates can help new technologies become popular and overshadow old technologies. This will lead to an evolution, where we will still have cars, with just something different under the hood instead of this 150-year-old inefficient combustion engine that pollutes the atmosphere. We can now have an electric motor that is either driven by a battery or a hydrogen fuel cell. We can evolve our technology again like we evolved the phone.

  

What role will the oil and gas sector play in the cleantech and energy transition conversation? 

It would be in the best interest of oil companies to invest in clean energy so that they can continue being the ones to provide us with energy. One interesting example is Iceland. Iceland is a volcanic island and so they have a large number of geothermal resources. They generate some of their electricity with geothermal energy, which is clean, reliable and cheap. They wanted to go to a hydrogen economy because they do not have any oil of their own – they have to import it all, which is very expensive.  

They needed to help them figure out who could help them with the distribution of said hydrogen because it has to go to a service station. Shell stepped in and is now effectively helping a country get off oil. The philosophy is that it does not matter what cars fill up with when they go to a station, as long as the station belongs to Shell. That is smart. The idea is to turn oil companies into energy companies.  

“Is there another way to get energy out of oil, besides just taking the hydrogen out of it?”

I have a challenge that I want to send out to young engineers watching this program. Is there another way to get energy out of oil, besides just taking the hydrogen out of it? Most hydrogen today comes from natural gas. We can also get it from oil and coal. Oil contains tremendous amounts of energy, so we need to figure out how else we can extract energy from oil without having those leftover byproducts. We cannot just throw oil away as it is too densely packed with energy.  

What must government do to accelerate innovation and the adoption of clean technologies?

The Canadian government can live up to its mandates to reduce carbon emissions and they can support new research and technologies, not just in our universities. The Canadian government should give tax breaks or incentives to industries that are trying to develop clean technologies and make it easy for the public to adopt these technologies. There are grants available for implementing solar energy in homes that we should keep. We already tax carbon, so we need to keep that up and invest that carbon tax directly back into clean technology not just into the central pot.

“According to three separate studies on three continents, every year, between seven and eight million people die from causes due to fossil fuel burning.”

There are so many things we can do. I want to leave you with a scary statistic that I found when I was writing my book. During the two years of COVID-19, roughly five-and-a-half million people lost their lives. That is a terrible tragedy, but we beat COVID-19. We are still fighting it with those four elements I talked about: science, industry, the government and the public. We all got together, but five-and-a-half million people died.  

According to three separate studies on three continents, every year, between seven and eight million people die from causes due to fossil fuel burning, mostly from air pollution and the effects of climate change. Twice as many died from COVID-19 and we just let that go. It is not just a climate issue. It is a matter of human health and survival. We need to face this fact, not get scared by it or become fatalistic and give up, but move ahead. The technology is here. Let us engineer our way through this climate crisis that we are in right now. We are smart – we went to the moon, for God’s sake – we are really innovative. We need to get on with it. I am optimistic; I believe in human ingenuity. 

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Bob McDonald Headshot
Bob McDonald
Host - Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald

Bio: Bob McDonald is the host of Quirks and Quarks with Bob McDonald on CBC Radio, a weekly national science radio program. He is also an author and science journalist. He is the national science commentator for CBC Television and CBC News Network. His new book, The Future is Now: Solving the Climate Crisis with Today’s Technologies, explores how Canada already has the technology it needs to combat climate change.

 

Organization Profile: Quirks & Quarks with Bob McDonald is a weekly national science radio program by CBC Radio which draws approximately 800,000 listeners each week. Every week, the program presents the people behind the latest discoveries in the physical and natural sciences. The program also examines the political, social, environmental and ethical implications of new developments in science and technology.