Energy Sector Innovation Can Come From Looking Outside Oil And Gas, Avatar Program Hears

Whether it be in computer technology, aerospace or the energy sector, the innovators are often the ones who are looking outside their particular fields of expertise to see what they can pull in from other sectors to the benefit of their own industries, heard last week’s Avatar Program session.

“Look to the outer world for inspiration, and try to include it in what you’re doing in your innovation process,” said Ian Gates, professor in the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary. “We’ve done a lot of things within our industry, and we’ve gotten better on a sort of incremental basis, but to really disrupt what we’re doing we need to take things from other industries and learn from those examples.”

Gates is the director of the Global Research Initiative in Sustainable Low-Carbon Unconventional Resources. He added that he pushes those within his group to pursue a variety of interests beyond oil and gas. Gates himself reads from a range of genres, such as science fiction, as he tries to “pollute” his mind with ideas and concepts that can potentially provide new solutions in his research — something he sees as helping to revalue core petroleum resources.

“In there, you kind of have the deliberate probing of other industries. Do you ever send anyone to an agriculture conference? Probably not. We do. Do you send anyone to a solar conference even? Probably not. That’s something folks should be doing more. Send them to the arts conference. There are things to be learned in all of it. See what comes out of it in doing it.”

Gates highlighted one “crossover idea” his team is developing, which basically involves looking at the shockwave coming out from a fighter jet or space rocket, understanding the physics of sonic and supersonic flow, and using that to design better steam injection using flow-control devices to achieve more efficient delivery of steam to a reservoir.

He said: “And so, we’re taking [a concept] from another field, adapting it to what we need in our industry, and we’re motivated and energized by what we see in those other industries to create something that works much better today for steam injection in a reservoir.”

Innovation: A ‘slippery’ term

Innovation is a “slippery thing to describe,” said Brian Marrs, senior director of energy markets at Microsoft Corporation. He refers to ‘innovation’ as either a meaningless “buzz word” or the most meaningful thing there is, depending on the context in which the word is being used.

“From my experience, asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions and then asking ‘so what’ [is important]. What would it take to meet some of these long-term technology goals, and what would the impact be of non-linear change?”

When looking at the energy industry, he told the Avatar session, very linear thinking often takes hold, with firms obsessed with attaining small amounts of efficiency in some process. While that is indeed valuable, he said, industry must also address climate change and pivot the energy sector towards long-term declines in carbon emissions. “We have to think of non-linear change.”

He added: “For a lot of folks [attending the Avatar session], we’ll need your engineering skills, and we’ll need your understanding of this industry, to piece together the massive holes and carbon solutions that we actually need.”

At Microsoft, according to Marrs, the company looks at the energy sector through a commercial lens, a regulatory lens, and a technology lens, and is setting its own carbon-reduction strategy based on those. By 2030, Microsoft plans to be carbon negative, and by 2050 the company plans to remove from the environment all carbon it has emitted either directly or by electrical consumption since it was founded in 1975.

Marrs said: “Commercially, we have a carbon fund, we have an internal carbon price. Those are to create supply and demand within our own business, but also to create a very powerful signal externally as to how we think start-ups in the energy space or venture technologies are systematically undervalued relative to their potential market impact.”

Find an innovator near you

George Whitesides, chief space officer, Virgin Galactic, recommends those in the energy sector interested in innovation should look to the either the explicit or inexplicit innovators within their own organizations.

“You’re going to have folks who explicitly have that title, but then there are people who are innovative, everyone knows it, and they’re sort of allowed to be innovative. If that’s something you’re interested in, then connecting with those people is helpful, because organizations in either a soft or hard way will form pockets of innovation. If you can connect with them, then that makes for a rich life and rich career, and an exciting life and exciting career.”

He added: “Having organizational awareness and talking to people so that you know who are the most interesting people in your organization is something I always tell younger people to be thinking about.”

Dear user, please be aware that we use cookies to help users navigate our website content and to help us understand how we can improve the user experience. If you have ideas for how we can improve our services, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to email us. By continuing to browse you agree to our use of cookies. Please see our Privacy & Cookie Usage Policy to learn more.