Kiwetinohk Keeps An Eye On Future Technologies While Focusing On ‘Immediate Action’ To Reduce Emissions, Says Carlson
In the DOB’s Engaging with our Future leadership series, Bill Whitelaw, managing director of Sustainability and Strategy at geoLOGIC systems ltd., sits down with some of the best and brightest CEOs in the industry to unpack the issues surrounding the energy transition and what kind of leadership is needed.
Today, a conversation with Pat Carlson, CEO of Kiwetinohk Energy Corp.
Pat Carlson has declared his latest company an energy transition company.
You might then also describe Kiwetinohk Energy Corp. as a “system of systems” company — one which makes contextual energy production choices for contextual energy needs.
That means a longer value chain approach to sustainable energy production that includes a sharpened focus on emissions management in the production of natural gas and electricity — with a clearly defined space for renewables in the production mix.
From a leadership perspective, identifying as an energy transition firm brings with it both upside opportunity and downside risk. For Carlson, managing that risk involves thinking that bridges today’s realities with tomorrow’s expectations.
Question: Leaders always have a lot on their minds. When you left the office last night, how were you thinking about being an energy transition company?
Answer: “There’s a lot on my mind about climate change. Our new company is an energy transition company. We’re looking at using natural gas to produce electricity with carbon capture and sequestration. We also have renewables. So, taken together we have a mix of low-carbon and no-carbon power projects which are also firm and intermittent. Natural gas power is the firm power that enables renewables, so we’ve started to call one type of fast-responding, gas-fired power ‘firm renewable.’
You see, the problem with wind and solar is that they’re intermittent. And so, we have times when there would be inadequate power if we relied heavily on wind and solar, but they’re still a tremendously valuable resource. Of course, the world is working on storage technology, but it’s not there yet. So, what’s the best alternative we have?
Well, the best thing right now is natural gas-fired electricity. Natural gas is inherently less emissions-intensive than coal and oil to start with, and if you capture the carbon, you’re able to produce very low carbon electricity and you can do it on demand.
So, in a place like Alberta, we can have that whole package, including renewables. We can produce massive amounts of no-carbon, renewable power and be able to respond to dips in renewable power supply very quickly with low-carbon natural gas — and in the future, with hydrogen. It makes a very good mix.”
Q: As an industry, and when you think about the leadership dimensions of technology, have we done a good job articulating our competencies?
A: “That depends on the time of reference. If you asked over the past 20 years: Have we done a good job? No, I think the Alberta voice in Canada was that climate change may or may not be real and that we really should wait and see. And that was, I think, the dominant voice or the loudest voice until about two or three years ago. Since the pandemic started that voice has been completely drowned out. I think there’s a general acceptance that climate change is a very real risk and one with severe consequences for humanity. I think that there is in Alberta now an emergence of a voice that was silenced in the past. That voice is saying that we in Alberta have lots of interesting things that we can do with our human resources and our natural resources. We have people who are highly trained in energy and energy transfer and that training can be adapted to meet the challenge of climate change. That’s the new voice.”
Q: Again, in a communicative leadership context, what are the moving parts that need to align to produce a more coherent narrative?
A: “We need to stop talking about the energy transition as an academic issue and create actual investment in projects that reduce carbon emissions. Actual progress and actual investment. When investors and the market see proof of progress, then the technical voices will be heard: the researchers, the entrepreneurs that are planning all kinds of new things, from new geothermal methods to heat recovery engines. So, with investment, carbon sequestration, carbon capture, all kinds of new things can be accomplished and gain mainstream credibility. At Kiwetinohk, we have a business that is clearly focused on reducing CO2 emissions and profitability at the same time.”
Q: How do we think about decoding that message, so the broader public understands that actions needs to be taken now?
A: “If you watch the evening news, you’ll see mini documentaries on people trying new things. But what I think we need to see is a combination of people actually investing in big-impact things with available technology today. And then the new technologies will gain credibility because they’ll be connected to a more tangible and understood story. Right now, many new energy technologies are just scientific curiosities. However, when you start to say, ‘Here's a company whose share price has grown dramatically because it has done something that is a breakthrough in terms of actual physical commercial-scale carbon reduction,’ people pay attention.
There are ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions we can implement today. In fact, some have been around for decades. So, we’re not necessarily dealing with any new, big technical challenge. Remember, the carbon emitted today will stay in the atmosphere for centuries. So, it’s worth doing what we can do immediately. But unfortunately, I think there’s a perception that we should wait until somebody invents a silver bullet that gives unlimited energy with zero carbon dioxide — and in a way that doesn’t increase anyone’s power bills.
Given the realities of climate change, I don’t think we can wait. I think we’re better off investing in the best things we can do now. And I worry if the transition gets disrupted because voters experience price shocks, we won’t be able to get it back on track until it’s too late.”
Q: If I was to sit in on a management meeting, what would I hear from a leadership perspective when it comes to technology choice? What would I sense or feel?
A: “You would see that we’re trying to do new things with proven low-risk technologies. It’s about technology adaptation. We’re taking the next steps with some adaptations, and we’re doing the things that are just a little bit different. We’re worried about the carbon that’s being emitted today and next year and the year after. And so, we have a long-term vision and we monitor the technology really closely.
Technology in an energy business that’s changing fast with the transition is either your friend or your enemy. And it can start off your friend and be your enemy in the long run, because somebody will come up with a replacement idea before you are paid out. We are really focused on this need for immediate action. We ask: ‘What are the best technologies today and what are the risks associated with them?’ We’re watching future technologies closely, but we also need to be investing in the transition today. Execution is a major for focus for us.”
Q: So, making those right technology choices comes with leadership responsibilities to shareholders and stakeholders?
A: “We are investing mostly in very well-established technologies with innovative adaptations and we’re putting these things together and bundling them in a way that causes a significant reduction in our emissions intensity. But the key is we’re dealing with proven technology because we are a business actually doing something to address climate change and lead the energy transition.
We’re doing something different, but the difference involves small technical risks and with these small technical risks we’ll be able to attract investment. With this investment in cleaner technology, people will see it can be done on a commercial scale and more investment will follow. Business doesn’t look to support technology without knowing it has a commercial future.”
Q: You founded a company, Seven Generations, that honoured an Indigenous way of knowing — thinking about how impacts are trans-generational. Your current company has an Indigenous name … why?
A: “My exposure to working with Indigenous people has been mostly successful. I think it is due to treating people with respect. And inclusion in the business is far better than exclusion and confrontation. Inclusion is something companies should do because it’s the right thing to do, but if that’s not a good enough reason, then inclusion should happen because it’s just the better way to get things done.
I would like to think that my companies have done it because it’s the right thing to do, but we certainly enjoy great relationships, too. The name Kiwetinohk was given to us by two of the Indigenous leaders that I worked with on a day-to-day basis as the CEO of Seven Generations. When we started to build this company, I thought we should use an Indigenous name. One aspect of Indigenous history that bothers me is that as people from European backgrounds came into Canada, they renamed the landforms. They renamed the rivers … they renamed the mountains. So, naming of things is important. It indicates a respect.”
Q: What guidance on leadership might you give to someone on your staff with 25 years left on their career runway, based on what you have learned over time.
A: “Everyone has their own passions and it’s adapting your passions or finding a way to use those passions in what you do for a living that makes somebody successful in business. It’s getting an understanding of what are the technologies and the business trends. Where is the business going? What's the long view … where are we going to be and what are the steps to get there?
In helping someone in my company build out that vision, we ask those questions and others. What are the threats to the next thing we do with our technologies? How do we need to deploy resources to make sure we’re doing something that’s going to be profitable? The long view is important. Why do something today that’s not going to be of value in two decades?”
Q: Thinking ahead, what are the three biggest leadership opportunities in the next 20 years?
A: “First, the technology change from the energy transition, because we’re going from carbon dioxide and methane emitting systems to something where the systems will be intolerable of carbon dioxide and methane. That’s what (net zero by) 2050 means.
So, the technologies associated with that are a place to lead and to have a vision that gets us there. But between now and 2050, we need to ask how much CO2 we plan to put in the atmosphere because if we wait for the right technology, and say in 2049 we're going to invest massively and we'll meet our targets at 2050, we will have created damage that we didn't need to create that will last for decades or centuries.
And so, moving quickly is one of the best leadership things we can do. That, and maintain a focus on the economics and produce investor returns over the time. Doing our part to prove transition economics, providing products and developing markets is also leadership.
So, we have to be commercial and we have to be technical. But I think that we need to tackle the education challenge — engaging our youth and engaging Indigenous peoples. The transition must be inclusive. It has to be like the US Marines. We don't leave somebody behind, and we have to open the doors for participation. So those are three things: technology, investment and inclusion.”
- Kiwetinohk Energy Corp.