From the Shores of Great Slave Lake to The U of A and Beyond

Larry Kostiuk and Alex Hunt hail from the shores of Great Slave Lake - Larry from the sand and muskeg of the south, Alex from the rockier…

Image for Post

Larry Kostiuk and Alex Hunt hail from the shores of Great Slave Lake - Larry from the sand and muskeg of the south, Alex from the rockier north. Both are mechanical engineers, and both found their way from Canada's Northwest Territories to the University of Alberta's Future Energy Systems research initiative. And this summer, they're both leaving.

They burned down his town

Image for PostLarry (centre) in the University of Alberta's Department of Mechanical Engineering in 1983.

Larry's family had lived in the Northwest Territories since 1937, and in 1965 moved to Pine Point - a town that had been built to last.

The community had all the trappings of southern towns - paved streets, sidewalks, basements, and a sense that it was going to thrive forever. Unfortunately its future was tied to the fortunes of the lead and zinc mine rooted between the town and the southern shore of Great Slave Lake - a mine which found itself unprofitable when unleaded gasoline became the standard.

"The community couldn't survive, so the buildings were sold off and everyone moved out," Larry says. "Then they decided to burn down everything that was left. It's kind of creepy: the place is gone but you can still find the street maps on Google."

Larry moved away years before those torches were lit, but he returned twice a year for two decades because his family's construction business was based there. He's not sure why the decision was taken to annihilate the town instead of just abandoning it. Whatever the motive, the lesson was stark: a change in energy technology (in that case, the additives in fuel) literally wiped out his childhood home.

It's no surprise, then, that he often thinks about the true impact of changing energy systems on people's lives.

A lot of options

Image for PostAlex oversees an impromptu visit by a Helmholtz delegation.

The ashes of Pine Point had barely finished smouldering when Alex was born in Yellowknife. As a territorial capital, the city enjoyed more infrastructure than most other communities north of the 60th parallel - Alex's graduating class from St. Patrick High School was over 50 strong, instead of just 5 or 6.

He's not sure where he first got the idea to study engineering, though some of his mother's family had gone that route. When he finished high school, he simply chose the University of Alberta because it was closest to home.

"It's a long drive, but there are better flights now than there probably were when you were going back and forth," he says to Larry, who chuckles.

"Yeah for a while bringing my kids back north to visit their grandmother was really expensive. We got good at doing 18 hours in the car to Fort Smith."

They reminisce for a moment about that roadtrip - where the outpost gas stations are, what ferries have since been replaced by bridges, and how far they could drive without seeing another sign of humanity. Without meaning to, they're both illustrating the unique understanding they share about the energy challenges faced by Canadians living in remote areas, far removed from the electrical grids to the south.

Launching Future Energy Systems

Image for PostLarry addresses the crowd at the Future Energy Systems Open House.

Though Larry taught one of Alex's third year courses in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, these two northerners didn't cross paths - until the government of Canada arrived with $75 million.

Larry was one of the authors of the proposal that secured the support of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund to launch Future Energy Systems. Upon its launch, he was named Director.

Both his expertise and his life experience made him the right person to understand what technologies were on the table, and what societal implications needed attention. He knew that transitioning to new technologies like renewables could have massive consequences for people everywhere.

The design for Future Energy Systems became rooted in two central principles. First, the program had to be multidisciplinary. Second, its priority had to be training people who could keep working on these questions long after the program's end.

Armed with these ideals, he pulled together an executive team from other university research initiatives so that, within just a year, they could launch 67 projects involving eight faculties and campuses.

"When you say it like that, it sounds like we actually did work," he laughs. "But that's all done now, so our job is to let students do their work."

Larry wants at least 1,000 'highly qualified personnel' to move through Future Energy Systems before the program wraps up in 2023.

Alex is one of them.

The outside world's gain

Image for PostLarry with Future Energy Systems Executive Director Stefan Scherer.

Hired onto the project as a Research Engineer, Alex helped organize Dr. David Nobes' graduate students design and build ultra-low temperature Stirling engines for geothermal power (read about them here). Overseeing the entire R&D process for a new engine technology was a unique addition to his resume, and he believes it helped him secure a job in the manufacturing and product development industry.

"My application was picked out of a pile," he says. "I have to believe that some of these unique experiences contributed to that."

Image for PostAlex disassembles an ultra-low temperature Stirling engine.

Alex leaves Future Energy Systems to join Volant Products next week.

Interestingly, Larry will leave the program just a few weeks later.

"I'm always asking people in government why they do particular things, and they say 'it's complicated'. When I ask them to explain it to me, they say 'it'll take too long'," he laughs. "Then they ask why universities do certain things, and why we can't do other things, and I realize that we really are in different worlds with a limited understanding of the other."

Bridging that gap and finding pathways for collaboration will be his next objective. Leaving his Associate Vice-President (Research) appointment and the Directorship of Future Energy Systems, he'll be on Administrative Leave with the Government of Alberta beginning in August.

And from his perspective, Future Energy Systems is ready for him to go. The program is well in hand with more than 110 researchers and more than 300 HQP already at work. Larry will remain a part of the research group, serving as Principal Investigator on one CCUS project, but the administrative reins will soon turn over to a new Director.

Looking to Alex, he grins, "So we both quit. Now we have to change the world."

Alex nods, then replies: "Let's start by not burning down someone's town."

To read the unabridged version of this story, including more about the next Director of Future Energy Systems, click here.

Kenneth Tam - Communications Associate, Future Energy Systems

Image for Post

Kenneth serves as the Communications Associate at Future Energy Systems. He came to Edmonton in 2014 to join the Alberta Land Institute as Communications Coordinator.