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Apr 1, 2009

A few months after he spoke at the Unicorn, Keith agreed to chat with me further about the province’s plan to encourage the deployment of carbon capture and storage technology on what can only be characterized as a massive scale. Although the pilot projects the government’s $2-billion handout will help industry finance and build by 2015 will capture a total of about five megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year, Alberta’s Climate Change Strategy released in January 2008 relies on CCS to capture 28 times that amount – 140 megatonnes of CO2 per year – by 2050. It is a daunting task, requiring the mobilization of capital and imagination equivalent in scope and scale to the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway. It is, in short, the first step toward rebuilding the entire energy system, which is exactly what Keith believes we need to do.

Keith’s biography reads like the story of many a mythical boy genius. The son of a prominent wildlife biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service and a Carleton University history professor who went on to found the school’s women’s studies program, Keith was dyslexic as a child. He didn’t learn to read until the third grade.

He often struggled with exams because he couldn’t write the answers down fast enough, even though he knew the answers, in some cases better than his teachers.

Things started to jell for him as he wound up his undergraduate degree. In his third year of university, he took first place in Canada’s national physics prize exam. A year later he fled south for high-profile stints at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he won MIT’s prize for excellence in experimental physics, and Harvard University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, where he became interested in the interface between climate science and public policy. From there he became a professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, where he spent five years working in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

I have heard others describe Keith, now 44, as blunt, prickly, even arrogant and condescending. As he guides me through the nuances of energy policy in Alberta, I can see why some may perceive him that way, but it is likely just a misperception of what is actually a healthy combination of intelligence, irreverence and a deep-seated desire to find answers to some of society’s most pressing problems.

“I think David is widely recognized as one of a handful of top energy-policy analysts working in the world today,” department head Granger Morgan told Canadian Geographic when the magazine profiled Keith as its 2006 Environmental Scientist of the Year. “He is extraordinarily bright and inventive. Rather than accepting conventional wisdom, he will go back to first principles and ask, ‘All right, can I persuade myself this is true using reasonable arguments based on science?’ He also has a willingness to explore things that are politically not at all popular.”

In 2004, spurning serious interest from Princeton University, Keith returned to Canada to lead an energy and environmental systems research group in the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy. At the heart of Canada’s energy industry, Calgary is the perfect place for him to conduct applied research that might actually solve real-world problems.

“What we really need to bring [carbon capture and storage] forward is not just money for university professors to do research and write nice papers,” he told the crowd at the Unicorn, taking a jab at ivory-tower academics whose work rarely trickles down to the real lives of, say, pub-goers. “We actually need to build hardware.”

By hardware, Keith means carbon capture and storage plants, on which he has been working for much of his career. There are basically three ways to capture carbon, he explains, but the leading method, at least for now, may be the post-combustion process, which is the only cost-effective way to retrofit the thousands of existing coal-fired power plants that generate electricity, and gargantuan amounts of CO2, around the world. (Electricity generation, mostly by coal-fired power plants, accounts for 25% of Alberta’s approximately 250 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions; by comparison, oil and gas production and fugitive emissions account for one-third, and auto exhaust, 14%.) In much the same way that a catalytic converter removes unwanted pollutants from automobile exhaust, a scrubber simply captures the CO2 from the flue gases that rise up the chimney after the fuel has been burned.

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