The Clean Tech Tsunami
It Alberta plays its cards right, it could ride the coming wave
by Michael Ganley
Illustration Mark Nipp
The Alberta government has launched a series of policies to reduce Albertans’ contributions to climate change. A carbon tax, the mothballing of coal-fired power plants, the capping of emissions from the oil sands and the tightening of regulations around methane are but a few of the initiatives that have put this province on a very different path from that which it had been on.
Whether this is good or bad for business is a matter of considerable debate. On the “it’s good” side – with caveats – is Jason Switzer, a former greenhouse gas engineer at Shell Canada and now executive director of the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTIA). Switzer says the opportunity is there for a “clean tech” industry to thrive if the right policies are put in place. “The question is how to turn progressive environmental policy into successful industrial policy,” he says. “How do we create jobs and build companies that can help the country and, in particular, this province rebuild employment?”
Acknowledging that it’s a wooly term, Switzer defines “clean tech” as a technology or service that produces better environmental and economic performance than the default alternative. “Whatever the benchmark is today for how we do something, in the clean tech space you offer something better environmentally and economically,” he says. “It may have to do with reducing reliance on water or reducing the production of greenhouse gases or any number of things.” Companies in the field include those dealing with artificial intelligence, data crunching, alternative materials, advanced manufacturing and much more.
ACTIA recently wrapped up a survey of 220 clean tech companies in the province. The survey eschewed multinationals in favour of looking at smaller-scale and venture stage businesses. It found that the sector employs 1,800 people in the province and comes with an average wage of about $100,000, substantially above the province’s median of $58,000. Over half a billion dollars in investment has come into the province through these companies and they generate more than $300 million a year in revenue.
Switzer says good regulations will be a driver of further opportunity. “What we have to do is design the regulations as an enabler and not an impediment,” he says. “We have to figure out how we use our domestic market – in oil and gas, agriculture, forestry, fertilizers, specialty chemicals and so on – to help people commercialize stuff.”
He points to the government’s approach to methane reduction. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. “If natural gas is to be part of a low-carbon future, you have to make sure you’re capturing upstream methane emissions,” Switzer says. “If you’re venting due to leaks or a decision to burn or simply not capture – as Nigeria and Russia do – you may be making things worse rather than better.”
Alberta has committed to reducing methane emissions from oil and gas operations by 45 per cent by 2025. The province’s technology fund, Emission Reduction Alberta (formerly the CCEMC), has established a $40-million fund to support methane-removal technology. Both the U.S. and Mexico have adopted comparable goals, as has the federal government. The thinking is that the technologies developed in Alberta can then be taken to foreign markets.
Switzer would like to see government assistance focused on companies trying to progress from initial commercial demonstrations to large-scale production, rather than on startups. “It’s a whole different skill set and not something Canada has traditionally been good at,” he says. “We’re good at developing new technology, but what we haven’t been good at is commercializing them. We need to go from a pretty good idea to a globally dominant platform.”