Propelling The Future Of Energy Begins In Building On The Past: Webinar

Canada possesses a wealth of energy alternatives — from oil and gas derivatives like hydrogen and carbon to new energy opportunities such as renewables combined with energy storage — from which to cultivate on the strength of existing energy expertise and knowhow, said panelists on a JWN Energy Speaker Series webinar Tuesday.

As with the shale gas and tight oil revolution that saw innovation carve out a vast new sector unimagined 15 years ago, new technologies and applications will create the entirely new sectors of the future, heard the webinar, also presented by the Energy Futures Lab and Energyphile, titled Energy Then & Now: Propelling the future of energy by way of the past, sponsored by Fluor.

“We have developed a technology that essentially connects the dots between upstream oil and gas processes as well as pumps and pipelines with downstream lithium processing that makes battery grade materials and this is all designed to produce lithium in Alberta,” said Liz Lappin, VP corporate affairs and exploration, E3 Metals Corp.

“We can look back and see how [the shale gas and oil revolution] all played out, and I certainly see some parallels there with us being at the beginning of something new with lithium.”

E3 is advancing toward a pilot project that will extract lithium from oilfield brine. It hopes to commercialize the extraction technology and ramp up production to coincide with an anticipated supply shortage mid decade. Much of the extraction process is built on the knowledge and infrastructure of the extractive oil and gas sector.

Demand for batteries is skyrocketing due to both mobility, in the form of electric vehicles, and for large-scale energy storage, Lappin said. “If we want to scale renewables, like solar and wind that are intermittent, that requires battery storage. There are a variety of technologies coming down the line for that. But today, the one that is the most reliable, I think, is lithium ion. That’s part of what’s driving that demand.

“When you look at demand for lithium going forward, it is supposed to increase 300 per cent in the next five years, and that really places Alberta in an interesting spot with our large lithium resources and the development of the technology to get the lithium out of Alberta brine, which is unique and an area that is growing,” Lappin said.

“I think one of our greatest strengths looking forward into the energy future is our energy assets. And that includes both our infrastructure and our people. I think our success moving forward will really be tied to the legacy of assets that we've built in this country, and particularly in energy.”

Circular economy

In Canadian Natural Resources Limited’s case, finding new ways to make use of waste products drove innovation into new areas. “It was that waste-to-valuable-product that actually led us to our first carbon capture and sequestration in our facilities at Horizon [oilsands production facility], because we were actually using the CO2 as an additive in our tailings stream to reduce our tailings footprint,” said Joy Romero, CNRL vice-president, technology and innovation.

“We do that also with tailings, [where we] take out zircon and titanium,” she added. Zircon is used for solar cells. “All of these products in essence contribute to that circular economy. If you look at carbon capture, you have to create that full circle to add value. If you don’t have that full circle, they are isolated [and] they don’t create the economic value.”

In addition to capturing carbon at Horizon, where it’s sequestered on clays as part of its tailings reclamation, CNRL also sequesters carbon from a hydrogen production facility as part of the Quest project and at the North West Redwater Sturgeon Refinery, from which it is pipelined to depleted oilfields for enhanced oil recovery.

The $20 million Carbon XPRIZE is also seeking to commercialize new ways of utilizing captured CO2, with 10 finalists vying for the top prize. One company has already commercialized the production of soap from captured CO2, Romero told the webinar.

Hydrogen economy

Peter Tertzakian, executive director of the ARC Energy Research Institute, said extracting hydrogen from the province’s hydrocarbons “would seem like a natural” progression for use “all the way into mobility applications, even heating and other things.” But the emergent hydrogen economy has not yet matured to the point that it will be an easy prospect.

“The issue is that the supply chain, from source to consumption, and the conversion devices that are all in between, is relatively immature. It’s not only immature in terms of the infrastructure required to create this completely new supply chain, it’s also immature in terms of the markets. You need to have everybody in the chain making money. If there’s one break in the chain, you’re not going to be able to create the full end-to-end system.”

While the province may have the expertise and the assets, it’s “just how you put it together from end to end,” Tertzakian told the webinar.

“The good news is that there’s a lot of effort now being put into understanding the system from beginning to end and I’m optimistic we’re going to get there. But we can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not all about technology. It is about understanding where the money is going to come from to invest in that across the chain, and how to create the market mechanisms to give incentive for companies and people to be able to finance such things so it’s ultimately self-sustaining and doesn’t require a whole lot of government subsidy, etc.”

The overall energy transition won’t come easily, said the author, podcaster and creator of the Energyphile website, which he describes as part museum, part library and part business school. “We are dealing with some of the most expansive, entrenched energy infrastructure anywhere and the ability to shift away from that requires a lot of forces of change, including social, political, geopolitical, technology and many other things.”

The energy sector has already made large strides in collaboration across the country, said Romero, who is also chair of the Clean Resource Innovation Network. But it is still missing the “huge opportunity to come together in technology and export globally that we are just not touching as a country.”

There remain barriers between types of energy — from oil and gas to hydro, geothermal, nuclear, wind and solar — that must be overcome to meet the country’s full potential, she said. There is a need to “look at all types of energy across the country and build lowest life cycle footprint delivery of energy, whether it’s for fuel or heating, at the lowest cost… and then show that model around the globe.

“We aren’t doing that as Canadians yet. We need to get rid of this us-and-they, or this one is better than the other [attitude], and integrate all energy sources in the country. If we can do that there is nothing more powerful that we can share both for ourselves and for the globe.”