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University research critical to advancing Canada’s clean energy innovation

September 21, 2016
By: 
Elizabeth Cannon, PhD
President and Vice-Chancellor
University of Calgary

Last year at the Paris climate change conference, Canada and 194 other countries committed to combat climate change through innovation and low carbon solutions. This past June, Canada, the United States and Mexico agreed to strategies to move toward a clean energy economy. These are clear indicators that the global shift to a low carbon future has begun.

Advancing clean, low carbon energy is hugely important to Canada.

We are fortunate to have a vast wealth of hydrocarbons, including one of the world’s largest oil reserves. Developing our oil and natural gas cleanly and responsibly is important to us, given that 17 per cent of our nominal GDP comes from energy and other natural resources. At the same time, Canada, with its diverse geography, has abundant resources — including wind, solar and moving water — that can be used to generate renewable energy. Already we count more than 63 per cent of our electricity generation as renewable.

The single biggest challenge facing humanity this century is how do we make this transition to a low carbon economy. In transitioning towards this future, it makes good sense to build a balanced, sustainable pathway that’s founded on our unique energy strengths and opportunities.

And universities are playing a pivotal role in shaping this pathway. We have world-leading researchers. We train our country’s future leaders, creators and entrepreneurs. And we play a key role in the country’s innovation system. Across the country, university scientists carry out more than $12 billion of research and development each year — about 40 per cent of total Canadian R&D according to Statistics Canada.

At the University of Calgary, we’ve identified energy innovation as one of our top research priorities. We want to harness our capacity for discovery to develop and share the next great energy innovations that the world needs.  

This includes advancing cleaner, more cost-effective ways of extracting energy from unconventional hydrocarbon resources. An example is the work that’s being led by Dr. Steven Bryant, Canada Excellence Research Chair in the field of materials engineering for unconventional oil reservoirs. Bryant is overseeing a multi-disciplinary team that’s exploring the use of nanoscale technology to make steam-driven oil sands development more productive, more energy efficient and better for the environment. In fact, through nanotechnology and our rapidly emerging ability to understanding how microbial communities work, it is now possible to imagine a completely different way to extract energy and derive economic benefit from natural resources that will have no environmental impact at all. This important initiative has recently been endorsed by the federal government with an award of $75 million from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

Thanks in part to this work, we’ve become a magnet for researchers who want to work at a world-class institution dedicated to solving energy challenges. Today more than 270 faculty members and more than 1,500 graduate students and 110 postdoctoral scholars are engaged in energy research.

In addition to oil sands projects, our people are conducting research into reducing the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing techniques. They’re inventing dramatically more efficient processes to capture CO2 and convert it into useful products. They’re contributing to the science behind low emissions fuel cells. They’re investigating ways to integrate more renewable power into the energy system. And they’re studying public policy and regulatory frameworks. All of these elements will be needed as the world moves to a low carbon energy system.

Successful energy innovation requires working across different disciplines and across borders. At the university, we’re not only leading clean energy projects at home; we’re sharing Canadian expertise internationally.

A year and half ago we launched the first of our global energy research institutes in Beijing. To address its growing greenhouse gas emissions, China wants to move from coal to clean natural gas. To do that, it needs advanced research and technologies to develop large unconventional gas resources. Today we’re collaborating with university researchers and energy companies in China to explore ways to help their country move forward in developing this resource cleanly and responsibly.

Undertaking the journey toward a low carbon future is an enormous challenge. But with this challenge comes opportunities, especially for an energy-driven economy like Canada’s.

Continuing to advance Canadian research in our universities will help to forge the technologies that drive cleaner, more efficient production and lead to new sources of low carbon energy at home and abroad. In doing so, we’ll strengthen Canada’s reputation as an energy innovator on the world stage.

In Budget 2016, the federal government committed sustained long-term funding to strengthen research programs at Canada’s universities. And in the coming months, the government will reach out to stakeholders, including universities, to discuss how we’re going to shape Canada as a country of innovators for the future.

Canadian universities look forward to playing a key role in a renewed innovation system — and in continuing to help Canada transition to a low carbon future. We represent an incredible investment in capacity and problem-solving. We have an important part to play in accelerating clean energy ideas and technologies. By unleashing this capacity further, with support from government and the community, great things can happen.