In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at:
In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news:
1. Renewable energy surpasses coal for longest stretch in U.S. history
2. Scientists create Frankenstein cement that ‘eats’ carbon dioxide
3. Cleaning up oilsands tailings: new technologies on the horizon
4. Alberta geothermal technology pushes forward as oil and gas industry searches for options
5. Big Oil meets Big Data as oil sands seek to modernize through digital tech
6. Move over, solar panels – wind power coming to a rooftop near you
Renewable energy surpasses coal for longest stretch in U.S. history
In the United States, renewable energy is having a big moment. For the first time, renewables (such as solar, hydro and wind) generated more electricity than coal for nearly 40 days straight. These findings are based on preliminary data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) from the period of March 25 to May 3, 2020, though the trend is expected to continue and could be even longer. Declining coal imports, lower gas prices, warmer weather, decreased energy demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and more renewable energy capacity added to the grid last year contributed to a decrease in coal power demand. This marks a significant increase from 2019, which saw renewables outperform coal for 38 days total throughout the year, with the longest consecutive stretch lasting only nine days. Forecasts by the EIA have predicted that renewable electricity generation would surpass coal in 2021 – but it may happen even sooner than they anticipated. Read the full story here.
As the U.S. is the second largest GHG emitter and third largest coal consumer in the world, this marks a major milestone for the energy transition. Just last year, U.S. GHG emissions fell by 3% due to greater amounts of natural gas replacing coal in electricity generation – and it is likely that the country will witness even larger reductions this year. Yet, it will be interesting to see if coal’s slow demise will continue in the post-pandemic world as the global economic wheels begin to turn again and cheap energy sources are in demand, or if utility-scale electricity generation will continue shutting the door to coal for good.
Scientists create Frankenstein cement that ‘eats’ carbon dioxide
What do you get when you mix photosynthetic bacteria, water, sand, nutrients, and gelatin? As scientists have now discovered, you get living, breathing, carbon dioxide-eating cement. No, this is not a plot to a new sci-fi film, it is a real-life innovation developed at the University of Colorado.
This new ‘Frankenstein cement’ is formed from living photosynthetic bacteria, called cyanobacteria, which can reproduce and absorb carbon dioxide. By mixing the bacteria with warm water, sand, nutrients, and gelatin (yes, the stuff you buy at the grocery store), the team of scientists found that they could create tiny blocks of the material strong enough to withstand a person standing on it; and shoe-box sized molds showed real potential for construction. And when it is chopped in half, each half is able to grow back into a new brick. Even better, the new cement can be made with waste materials such as recycled cement and glass in lieu of sand. Although the U.S. Department of Defense has taken an interest, the product is not quite ready for commercial application yet, as the team continues tweaking it in the laboratory to make it stronger and more practical for a range of uses. Read the full story here and the scientific article here.
As the second most consumed material on earth (the first being water), cement is a critical component of our everyday lives. But it requires energy-intensive processes that make cement production one of the largest GHG emitting industries in the world, in addition to consuming around one-tenth of the world’s industrial water usage and using significant amounts of natural sand from riverbeds, beaches and seafloors. As developing countries continue to expand cities and build infrastructure, new, more sustainable and decarbonized approaches to building cement couldn’t be coming at a better time.
Alberta geothermal technology pushes forward as oil and gas industry searches for options
As the COVID-19 pandemic brings the global oil industry to its knees, Canada’s oil sector is looking for new and sustainable ways to put its rigs and people back to work. And thanks to its new alliance with Clean Energy Canada, it may have found the answer (or at least part of it): geothermal energy. Geothermal energy production involves harvesting the earth’s natural heat (in the form of steam or water) from deep below the surface to generate electricity or heat. Oil wells, which are drilled to thousands of meters underground, can provide the necessary infrastructure and flexibility to extract this energy. With thousands of oil wells currently sitting idle in Alberta and potentially more on the way, geothermal energy could provide an important and sustainable means of energy diversification and job creation for Western Canadian oil producers. Read the full story here.
And thanks to new and emerging technologies, geothermal may soon be even more viable in regions that aren’t traditional geothermal energy producers. For example, Alberta-based Razor Energy is currently constructing a pilot project near Swan Hills for a hybrid geothermal plant that combines geothermal energy with existing oil and gas infrastructure. Read more about it here.
Another Alberta-based company, Eavor Technologies Inc., has created the world’s first closed-loop, geothermal technology. Rather than pumping water directly to the surface, the Eavor-Loop technology circulates a proprietary fluid in an enclosed pipe, which is heated by underground water, and then returned to the surface. This new technology gets around many of the problems associated with conventional geothermal systems by using less water, producing no GHG emissions, and avoiding risk of earthquakes, fracking, aquifer contamination, or production of any brines or solids. Also, because it works at drilling depths, it is not confined to niche geographical areas. Following a successful pilot project commissioned in fall 2019, the company will be partnering with a First Nations group in the Yukon to build the technology, and as of May 1, 2020, the company has also announced that it is partnering with German power company Enex to construct Eavor-Loop heat and power projects in Bavaria, Germany. Read more about Eavor-Loop here.
Cleaning up oil sands waste: new technologies on the horizon
For decades, oil sands tailings ponds have created headaches for oil companies and governments alike. Tailings are a waste product comprised of a mixture of water, clay, silt, residual bitumen and dissolved minerals. To ensure that tailings don’t leak into the environment, they are required to be stored in large storage facilities, called tailings ponds, which allow the materials to separate and the pond to be replenished to a natural state – a process that takes up to 40 years. As of 2018, these ponds cover 97 square miles and hold up 340 billion gallons of tailings in Alberta. This has presented a serious environmental challenge for the oil industry and the province in general. But new, promising technologies may hold the key to speeding up the process of restoring tailing ponds.
For instance, a new filter press technology being advanced by the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) may be able to clean up oil sands tailings ponds in just a matter of hours rather than years. The filtration technology works by applying pressure to separate the solids from liquids by squeezing it between plates. While this isn’t exactly a new technology – it’s already being used in other mining industries – it has never been applied to oil sands tailings. Faster cleanup of tailings ponds would not only reduce the amount of fresh water used for oil and gas operations by freeing up more recycled water, but it would reduce the size of the ponds and speed up the reclamation process. Read the full story here.
In addition, Calgary-based Titanium Corporation has developed a new technology, called CVW (Creating Value from Waste), which focuses on preventing the release of bitumen, solvent, and valuable minerals into froth treatment tailings ponds, which are associated with the majority of methane emissions from tailings ponds. Not only could this technology reduce methane emissions, but also create new enterprises that capitalize on recovered valuable minerals, such as zircon and titanium. The company has partnered with Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL) to construct a commercial-scale facility at its oil sands site, which has the potential to recover up to 100,000 tonnes of minerals per year and reduce net GHG emissions by 570 kilotons per year. The CVW technology has received funding from Emissions Reductions Alberta, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Natural Resources Canada. Read the full story here.
Big Oil meets Big Data as oil sands seek to modernize through digital tech
In Western Canada, big oil and big data are joining forces to lower costs, increase efficiencies and modernize the oil and gas industry. Through the adoption of new digital technologies such as cloud computing and machine learning, companies are finding unprecedented ways to transform their operations and unleash new productivity by better understanding and using their data.
In November 2019, oil sands major Cenovus announced a partnership with Amazon Web Services and IBM to incorporate advanced analytics and machine learning through cloud computing to better understand the data produced by its steam-based oil sands facilities. Not long after, Suncor announced a similar alliance with Microsoft to move its data, computing power, and processes to the tech giant’s cloud services. And back in 2017, Calgary-based TC Energy moved its data to Amazon’s cloud services, a process which is now over 90% complete.
Digital technology offers tremendous opportunity for the oil and gas sector to tap into – one that is new, constantly expanding, and evolving. It will be important for Western Canadian oil and gas producers to get in front of technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning to ensure that they stay on the cutting edge of industry advancements to improve efficiency, increase productivity, minimize environmental impacts and free up additional revenue. New digital technology is also providing opportunities for companies to enhance their operational safety through remote, real-time monitoring. As stated by Cenovus’ Vice President and Chief Information Officer, Ian Enright, “I don’t want this to be our grandfather’s industry.” Read the full story here.
Move over, solar panels – wind power coming to a rooftop near you
Looking to generate renewable electricity for your home? Many people are, yet choices beyond solar panels are limited. However, thanks to a group of innovators in Texas, rooftop solar energy could soon have a new (yet complementary) competitor: rooftop wind power.
Using the same principles that allow airplane wings to lift, Dr. Carsten Westergaard and his colleagues have engineered a small aerodynamic device that is able to capture large amounts of wind energy. The airplane-inspired device, called AeroMINE, collects and amplifies wind pressure through two 10-foot airfoils that sit on a rooftop (acting sort of like a wind tunnel), which then activate a small generator below the ceiling. The device can sit on your rooftop, be scaled to fit larger buildings, and can work in conjunction with solar panels to harness renewable energy day and night (as long as some wind is blowing). Read the full story here.
In Canada, wind power accounts for over 5% of electricity production (compared to less than 1% for solar energy). Yet, it has only ever been successful at commercial scales. In the past, others have attempted to create miniature wind turbines to fit small buildings and households, but they were too complex and failed to harness enough energy to be cost-effective, as the size of turbine blades are proportional to the amount of energy they can generate. If the AeroMINE is successful, this could open the door to an entire new market for wind power and expand household access to clean electricity generation.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Jade McLean and Marla Orenstein. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .