When Social Innovation Meets Technology Innovation:SPARK 2017 and the Energy Futures Lab

Alberta is poised for a big leap forward in energy innovation.This will be on display in early November at SPARK 2017, a two-day conference in Edmonton co-hosted by Emissions Reductions Alberta (ERA) and Alberta Innovates (AI). Many EFL partners and Fellows will be taking part in the event.

In preparation for SPARK 2017, Energy Futures Lab Director and Chief Innovation Officer of The Natural Step Canada, Chad Park sat down with Steve Macdonald, ERA’s Chief Executive Officer and EFL Steering Committee Member, and Elizabeth Shirt, ERA’s Executive Director of Policy and Strategy and an EFL Fellow.

Please describe ERA’s mandate and approach.

ERA’s mandate is to identify and accelerate development of innovative solutions that reduce GHGs and secure Alberta’s success in a lower carbon economy. Our search for solutions includes all sectors and current sources of emissions, including electricity generation, agriculture and forestry, industrial processes and fossil fuel supply. Notably, the majority of our projects are delivered by small and medium sized companies, the core foundation of any sustainable economic transition. To date, ERA has committed more than $327 million in funding to over 120 projects with a total value of over $2 billion.

How do you work with other entities in Alberta such as Alberta Innovates?

Partnerships are critical to success. It is fundamentally important to us because we are just one piece of the puzzle. Our role is not just about technology readiness, it also has to be about commercialization readiness. It takes many hands to make that happen.

In terms of the partnership with Alberta Innovates (AI). It’s really important because AI also has the ability to take action from an investment standpoint. We leverage their technical expertise to ensure our investments both align with and meet shared technical and commercial expectations. We’re not partners just on paper, but in a very practical, operational sense.

What’s one thing that excites you about energy transition in Alberta and one thing that concerns you?

The alignment of industry, government and the entire ecosystem, saying we need to do better. No one is debating the need for action. That’s what excites us. You rarely get that alignment. What concerns us is whether we are prepared to make tough choices. We all agree we need to do something. But, what do we want to prioritize? If we don’t make choices and instead try to do everything, we’ll overwhelm ourselves. We are optimistic, though, and SPARK will be part of developing that sense of alignment around priorities.

From your perspective, what are the most promising emerging technological solutions?

In the oil sands industry, some of the solvent-based technologies are very promising. Reducing the amount of steam and heat used during oil sands production directly reduces the GHG emissions, and has enormous potential. Novel steam generation technologies that can reduce or eliminate the need for intensive water treatment also provide strong opportunities for the sector.

On the methane side, there are some interesting technologies around monitoring and detection. We can’t effectively monitor progress or calibrate where we are right now without additional measuring and monitoring capacity. So, some of those projects we’re supporting in terms of remote sensing, satellite imaging, are very exciting.

On our grand challenge, we see some really interesting carbon utilization technologies that will transform carbon dioxide from a waste material to an asset.

There are some people who would ask why you are spending any money at all on oil sands. Why is it important to continue investing in that area?

Two reasons, one is that it’s currently the largest source of emissions for Alberta. The transition to a greener economy is happening, and in the interim you need some results in that sector. It is likely that hydrocarbons will be a significant part of the world’s energy needs until 2050 or beyond. So, we need to look at all emissions sources, including oil sands. Secondly, the solutions that the oil sands sector is looking for and developing — how to reduce energy consumption, waste water management and waste to heat — are applicable in other sectors. It really is about the transition to a greener economy by learning from each other across sectors.

We’ve talked a fair bit about technological innovation. What role do you see for social innovation?

That hits the concept of a complete solution. It’s not just about technology. It’s about the supply chain, legal and regulatory frameworks, financing, market conditions, the management team and social innovation. You need innovation in all of these areas to ensure success. The initiatives of the Energy Futures Lab, for example, are really important because experimentation allows you to understand and test ideas with all these conditions in mind. It’s not just engineers who solve problems — it’s a diversity of backgrounds. There is a human element to this, creating a market pull for a consumer to say they want new products, and finding new ways to engage with one another to find better solutions.

To tie it back to SPARK, we have programming at the plenary level about financing and funding models – how do you get the money to the idea? We have conversations about what does the market place want? You have to have a customer at the end of that development chain. It’s an expensive hobby if you’re not investing in something that the market needs. We’re framing conversations in the SPARK conference to try and tease out the other aspects beyond and in support of the technology.

There are a number of innovation type of events happening right now. Why do you think SPARK is unique?

If you want to learn how innovation can be a catalyst for clean technology scale-up and emissions reduction you should attend. SPARK is a place to be inspired by fresh thinking or hear different perspectives that can spark the movement we are creating to de-risk and deploy new technologies in Alberta, create more jobs and adapt policies and regulations that can help us achieve our goals.

SPARK is about putting the conditions for success in place. Whether you’re looking for solutions in technology, policy, regulation, or financing, this is the place to have those conversations.

What role do you see for the EFL in all of this and what advice do you have for the Fellows?

EFL is very unique due to the breadth of its membership. You need spaces to have comprehensive, broad conversations. Welcome the dissidents and the tension because that’s a necessary part of building sustainability. You’re managing risk better for all of us because you have people asking, “What about this? What about that?” The EFL is almost like a one-stop shop for multi-stakeholder consultation. Instead of taking six months elsewhere, you could come into the room at once and get broad and informed perspectives.

No one organization or individual can think this all through so that’s a really huge asset that EFL brings to the table. Someone can say “I’ve got this idea, I need to test it but I need the more than the usual suspects to inform our thinking.” The EFL purposefully built itself into that very turnkey forum and that is a huge asset for Alberta.