Illustration by Luke Lucas
The kingdom of Queen Elizabeth I was humming along quite nicely when, around the mid-1500s, Her Majesty caught wind of an environmental crisis in the offing. The forests were disappearing.
Wood was the first energy source and had been so for millenniums. But kilns of industry and hearths of homes had been eating up the English forests at an alarming rate and it became evident all this building and burning might leave the nation without enough for another critical product: its warships.
The monarchy declared that coal shall be burned and the kingdom made it so.
Not easily, of course. There were fears and protests and new challenges. Someone had to figure out how to get the coal into the cities. Homeowners had to maintain their chimneys — an added expense. And there were health risks, too. Coal mine explosions, choking smoke in the air and a nightmare-inducing malady called soot warts, a type of cancer caused by the accumulation of ash in the undergarments of chimney sweeps.
But people adapted, even flourished. Within 300 years, the switch to coal set the stage for electricity and an improved quality of life. Today, Canadians have light at the flip of a switch, life‑supporting medical equipment and everyday comforts that we have come to rely on — cold beer and Netflix, anyone? — all indirectly brought to us by a 16th-century monarch.
But what is the long-term effect of our standard of living?
Canadians are voracious energy consumers, and every year we’re using more. Between 1990 and 2015, the nation’s energy consumption grew by 30 per cent — and we’re not alone. Globally, consumption increased by 2.1 per cent in 2017.
Wonder if the trend will continue? Look around. Population growth is an obvious factor; the United Nations estimates Canada’s population will increase by 21 per cent to 45 million by 2050. Economic growth is also key, especially in countries like China and India where energy use is skyrocketing. And don’t discount the impact of our beloved gadgets: data centres and data transmission networks each account for about 1 per cent of global electricity demand. And what about a future that includes electric vehicles charging in every driveway?
It’s not sustainable.
All that burning — coal, now joined by oil and gas — has fired up another environmental situation. Call it greenhouse gases, CO2 emissions or climate change, this time it’s the atmosphere at risk, and the next energy transition lies in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for energy. Not because we’re going to run out of fossil fuels; our time to address the effects of climate change will run out before the hydrocarbons do, says Larry Kostiuk, ’85 MSc, inaugural director of the university’s Future Energy Systems research initiative. “The Stone Age didn’t come to an end because we ran out of stones. The hydrocarbon age is not going to end with running out of hydrocarbons.”
The conundrum is clear. We need cleaner energy sources but the supply, so crucial to our lives and economy, mustn’t be disrupted in the process.
This is what drives the more than 800 U of A researchers and thousands of students working to solve energy challenges. They are making solar and wind power easier to store. Cleaner processes for the oil and gas industry. Computers that use less energy. An electrical grid that isn’t so leaky. Each small project creates a bigger picture: a future where energy is produced sustainably, reliably and efficiently.
Change is hard. Burning hydrocarbons might not be good for the environment but at least we know how it works. The future, though, is a work in progress, a confusing mishmash of energy sources. Hard, yes. And a bit scary, too.
“What are the problems? What are the issues? How am I going to actually learn all these things that I need to learn?” says Anne Naeth, ’76 BSc, ’85 MSc, ’88 PhD, reeling off the reactions of average folk. People really want to understand what will happen. But if they don’t, that’s when they get anxious.
Naeth, a land reclamation scientist, succeeded Kostiuk in August as director of Future Energy Systems, the $75-million, seven-year, cross-campus research initiative, federally funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund. The group’s mandate is to develop the energy technologies of the near future and figure out how to integrate them into today’s social, economic and infrastructure realities.
The university has further stepped up to the challenge, naming energy one of its official signature areas of research and teaching, with Naeth as the director. After all, the U of A has long had a focus on energy research — perhaps most notably in the 1920s when researcher Karl Clark dumped oily sand, hot water and caustic soda into an old-fashioned washing machine. His experiments eventually unlocked Alberta’s oilsands.
So, what does the future of energy look like to the woman at its forefront? “You’ll get some of your energy from solar and you’ll get some of your energy from wind,” Naeth says. “But the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. We’re going to have to have better storage batteries. We’re going to have to have a better grid through which we can move this energy.”
Underpinning it all, like the safety net to a secure supply, will be fossil fuels.
“Oil and gas are going to have a future. But that’s not the question we should be asking,” says Peter Tertzakian, ’82 BSc(Spec), an economist, author and public speaker on future energy issues. “We get too hung up in trying to predict [whether] we’re going to use 100 million barrels a day, or 90, or 80. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a huge amount. It’s a ridiculously unsustainable problem when it comes to emissions. The better question is … who is going to be the most efficient supplier?”
Then he lobs the ball into another court. “And how are we going to use it more efficiently?”
When Larry Kostiuk launches into his narrative about the history of energy, he starts at the beginning. It quickly becomes clear that this is a story he has told often — and one that he needs people to hear.
In his telling, this is not just a story of wood and coal, steam and horses. It’s a story of curiosity, innovation, comfort and desire. It’s a story of people as energy consumers. The first human need, he says, is warmth. The second is light. The third? “The innate laziness of mankind,” says Kostiuk with a mischievous grin.
Tertzakian observes the same human propensity, if not for laziness, at least for making life easier. Consider how far removed we now are from our energy. Once upon a time, heating our homes meant finding the wood, chopping the wood, getting it into the stove and lighting it. Now we adjust the thermostat. No wonder we take energy for granted. Even a few years ago, we would have at least had to write a cheque to the utility company. How can we be aware of our environmental impact, Tertzakian wonders, if we don’t even go through the motions of paying the bill?
If we were paying attention, though, we might notice that things have been getting cheaper over the last decade.
The energy industry is in what Tertzakian calls an era of abundance; oil and gas companies are more efficient at getting products out of the ground. Lower prices, as anyone in Alberta can tell you, can hurt the economy. The drop in oil prices has contributed to a dramatic increase in the length of unemployment in the province, which has tripled in the last 10 years.
Tertzakian points to another effect of this abundance: consumer trends. Seventy per cent of all vehicles purchased in Canada are trucks or SUVs, which emit significantly more CO2 than a small Toyota car. “And not even a hybrid one,” he emphasizes. “This is a social issue. This is based on consumer behaviour. But who is going to implement policy … that says you can’t buy a pickup truck? Politicians, they’re not going to touch it. Because if they do, they’re going to get voted out.”
If consumers aren’t changing, it becomes even more vital to ensure the energy we use is cleaner and more efficient. Solving these challenges will require people, research and fresh perspectives.
Anne Naeth deals with a lot of pointed questions. Will people lose jobs? Will everyone need an electric car? Will the old appliances still work? Will this affect my life?
And those are just the ones from her mom.
Mary Naeth is 86 and lives on a farm near Paradise Hill, Sask., a village of roughly 500 people just northeast of Lloydminster. It’s also a place where the power, too often, is out.
In answering this barrage of questions, Naeth would tell her mom about localized power sources like wind or solar or geothermal, and super‑duper batteries that will store energy until needed. She paints a picture of a world with fewer centralized power plants and fewer electricity outages due to a downed transmission line kilometres from her mom’s farm. It all sounded very familiar to Mary. “And she said, ‘Oh, so it’s just kind of like back when we got the generator,’ ” Naeth says with a smile. “So we’ve gone full circle. And my mom made that connection.”
We’re all going to need to use our imaginations when it comes to how society will change along with the energy sources. In five, 10 or 20 years, we won’t have centralized systems in which the energy flows in one direction, but multiple systems in which individuals are both consuming and producing energy. Will this mean that urban downtowns densify? Or will the prospect of reliable, localized energy encourage the proliferation of smaller, remote communities? Will everyone have a car? Or will ride‑hailing become the norm?
“Our communities might need to be organized in entirely new ways, around social and environmental sustainability, instead of around the easy flow of traffic and consumer goods,” says Sheena Wilson, ’98 BA, ’06 PhD, a co-lead of the energy humanities theme of Future Energy Systems. “We can ask ourselves all sorts of questions about why we live the way we live, and if changing the way we access energy will change everything.”
In other words, by looking ahead and envisioning future challenges, we can start now to figure out the best way to address them.
At the centre of this energy transition is knowledge, or the lack of it. For researchers and thinkers at the U of A, it’s a matter of tackling those questions one project at a time.
Perhaps the true future of energy, says Kostiuk, lies with the 1,000 grad students who will work in Future Energy Systems and beyond. Mechanical engineers talking to land reclamation practitioners. Mining engineers talking to political scientists. Assuming each student goes on to a 40-year career in energy, that adds up to 40,000 total years of work that will stem from the university’s investment in energy.
“That will leave a mark,” Kostiuk says with a smile.
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