The Collective Vision of Canada’s Future Energy Leaders
Student Energy is a global charity building the next generation of energy leaders who will accelerate the world’s transition to a sustainable energy future. It engages youth in unique programs that empower them to become change agents and it works with actors within the energy system to create space for youth to have an impact.
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1- Young people are interested in collaborating with leaders in the traditional oil and gas sector as well as in renewable energy, in order to maximize efficiency and minimize carbon footprint.
2- Universities have a long way to go when it comes to preparing students to be the energy leaders of the future.
3- Young people see a zero carbon future where Canada leverages the energy transition to do important work like decolonization, greater equity and more community focused systems.
Young people bring dynamism, fresh ideas and passion to the table, they should be given outlets to constructively work on energy solutions with other generations.
Who are the participants and originators, and what are the goals for Student Energy?
An important piece of Student Energy is our origin story. Before we were an organization or a charity, Student Energy was a group of students at the University of Calgary who were also simultaneously working in the energy industry. This was in 2009, before the social media boom. There was not a lot of access for young people to reach thought leaders or each other around the world. A level of global connection was not there, but the interest in energy issues was very high. At this time, terms like ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainability’ were not commonly discussed in Calgary. These terms were not being talked about at higher-level conferences, especially within the oil and energy industry. Student Energy’s founders were getting invited to a lot of these conferences, but feeling very much like they were getting seated at the kid’s table. They were not being heard or able to really ask the tough questions. The result of this frustration was the creation of the International Student Energy Summit. This was the first of its kind and it brought together high-level energy speakers and students from around the world. They had speakers like Vicente Fox and Ralph Sims, and they hosted 350 students from 40 different countries. The end result was a conference that was incredibly inspiring and empowering for these students. A disproportionate amount of them went on to be either entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs in the world of energy, starting their own companies or working at organizations like the UN. Another summit in 2011, at University of British Columbia (UBC), was even bigger and better. After that, we formed Student Energy. Since then, we have been working to fill the gap that students experience between graduating from university and making an impact in the world of energy.
We work with university students globally because there is a mass consensus that young people want to get involved in energy as a climate solution. They are very interested in systems-level thinking and working on big global problems where you need to collaborate across boundaries and cultures. For Student Energy, it is important to be activating these people and showing them pathways for working in energy. Everybody knows about energy, everybody uses energy but nobody realizes all of the opportunities in the sector. Once students are turned onto this level of opportunity, they get really excited and motivated.
Transitioning the energy system is one of the greatest challenges of our time and we are quite excited about getting young people into the industry. These young professionals are innovative and very good at bringing forth the new paradigms that we need for energy transition.
How does Student Energy involve youth in the conversation on energy and what vision do Canada’s young share in relation to our country’s energy future?
Everything that we do is for students, by students. Our International Summit, for instance, does not have a conference team. Students from around the world bid to host it, and then it is an organizing team of 20, 20-year olds who raise half a million dollars and recruit people from all around the world. They put on a notable summit that is just like any other major energy summit that you would attend. Our website uses the same concept. When we went to write online content, we wanted to make sure it was really accessible by meeting students at their level of energy knowledge. We had young people write the content and then the content was peer reviewed by experts to make sure that it was factually correct. Student Energy’s chapters program is an interesting model as well. We have university-level clubs where students decide what their community means in terms of energy and taking action on energy. Then they work together with us to leverage our institutional knowledge to make those goals happen.
Recently, Student Energy crafted the Youth Voices Report. It was part of Generation Energy, a larger conference run by Natural Resources Canada. The report showed there is a large-scale general consciousness about where we need to go in terms of energy transition and most Canadian youth can talk to you about these issues. A lot of young Canadians are turned off by the idea of polarization and do not see a need for infighting. What they really want to see is a depoliticization of climate and more of a solutions focused narrative. Unfortunately, young people in Canada are not being engaged by the right organizations about the level of innovation needed for an energy transition. There is a lot that the current leadership in the energy sector could learn from a youth population who are excited about being the next industry leaders.
We had almost 300 youth from across the country contribute to the Youth Voices Report and the vision is very cohesive. It is a zero carbon future where Canada leverages the energy transition to do important work in Canada like decolonization, greater equity and more community focused systems. Canadian youth feel that if we can move beyond polarization, we can start thinking creatively about our energy systems. They want to see a strong target for 2050 both on what the carbon content of the energy system is and what our climate goals are in comparison. They want to see creative plans and inclusive solutions that will be driven by both public and private institutions.
Are students generally more pragmatic about the energy transition or is there also a group who say no more oil and gas and only renewables in the future?
I would say it is a minority who feel like oil and gas should be turned off tomorrow. The majority of students are very keen on creating cohesion and collaboration in the Canadian economy so we can all move forward together. When we brought 14 students from 11 different provinces and territories to Generation Energy, only 1 out of those 14 said she would like to see oil and gas all turned off tomorrow. Most of the students were very interested in how you work together with all aspects of the Canadian economy to reach clean energy goals. One of the main barriers for clean energy collaboration is young people are not given outlets for constructively working on solutions with other generations. Often, the only outlet they have to be heard is something more extreme like protesting. That is not to say that all of the protesters would switch gears overnight if they were given the ability to collaborate, but that inclusive culture has come from people who care about green issues being marginalized.
“A lot of young Canadians are turned off by the idea of polarization and do not see a need for infighting. What they really want to see is a depoliticization of climate and more of a solutions focused narrative.”
What is the academic path for students today to prepare themselves for the energy world of tomorrow?
Students are considering careers in renewable energy as well as the oil and gas industry. There are a lot of students that I collaborated with who now work at Shell, Suncor, and all of the bigger oil and gas companies. Students are drawn to companies with plans for what they will look like in a carbon-constrained future. They are much less attracted to companies that are not thinking actively about the energy transition. Today, there is more differentiation than there was in the past around what your career could look like. Young professionals are very driven by purposeful occupations; they are not just looking for a large paycheck. They want to feel good about their work.
“Students are drawn to companies with plans for what they will look like in a carbon-constrained future. They are much less attracted to companies that are not thinking actively about the energy transition.”
In the world of energy, there is a massive gap between what you can learn in the university classroom and what you actually need to be effective in the industry. That is across the board for oil companies as well as renewable energy companies. Those industry skill sets are quite different from university teachings. Therefore, Student Energy spends large amounts of time training people on the soft skills for sponsorship, communication, recruitment and general systems thinking. Globally, universities have a lot of work to do to maintain relevancy in the energy future. Students have been able to leverage appealing mentorships and project opportunities that will build their skills from far outside the classroom. In Canada, there are ongoing discussions about creating more academic disciplines for people who want to be energy transition professionals.
What is Canada’s future energy mix and system? What will energy leaders look like in this evolving economy?
I firmly believe that our future energy mix will be zero carbon. There are a lot of different pathways for us to get there. We need a lot more electrification, especially for inner city transportation and heating systems. Those kinds of changes are low hanging fruit and it would be silly for Canada not to go after these green solutions as quickly as possible. There are some emissions that we may still need to mitigate through things like capture storage as well. What I really want to see in the future of energy is – and I we are starting to see this – much more collaboration among industry as well as better sharing of technology and ideas. Young people have grown up in this technological era where a lot of change is happening. Canada could stand to leverage young people’s innate abilities to transition quickly for the energy industry.
“[Canada’s youth’s future energy] vision is very cohesive. It is a zero carbon future where Canada leverages the energy transition to do important work in Canada like decolonization, greater equity and more community focused systems.”
Ultimately, I see our energy future as a much more inclusive place where we are more creative and more willing to take risks on things that only might work. Right now in Canada, there is too much risk aversion to get to real clean energy solutions. We have to be ready for some mass experimentation, in responsible ways of course. We cannot turn off the lights for anyone or shut down personal transportation, but we do need to start figuring out how to experiment and work better together on a clean energy reality.
“There is a lot that the current leadership in the energy sector could learn from a youth population who are excited about being the next industry leaders.”
In terms of future energy leaders, what we are seeing in the younger population is totally different than what you have in leadership today. For instance, Student Energy’s conferences, website and chapters are almost all equally male and female. It is also a large mix of ethnic backgrounds with indigenous participation as well. This young generation of leaders are more diverse and more interested in collaboration than what we see today at the upper levels of organizations. There is still a lot more potential to harness in this collective vision of our energy future and use it to accelerate Canada’s own economy and opportunities.