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. Rise of the Robot Dogs
2. Plugging in to fast-charging battery technology
3. The air battery solution to intermittent renewables
4. Let the cow fart jokes begin
5. Suncor and Shell invest in biofuels
Rise of the Robot Dogs
Last year, we reported on Boston Dynamics’ robot dog, Spot, being used for inspections in remote North Sea oil platforms. Now, the dog has come to Canada’s oil sands. Shell’s Scotford Complex in Fort Saskatchewan is training two of the dogs, which they have named Bolt and Gadget, to perform basic maintenance inspections as well as to help out with security and emergency response. The move, Shell says, is prompted mainly by employee safety; the dogs join other autonomous robots at the operation that perform tasks including aerial reconnaissance and cleaning the inside of the refinery’s tanks. There is no indication as to whether the dogs, which cost around US$75,000 each, will come pre-programmed to dance. Read the story here.
Canada’s oil sands are a hotbed of innovation. The robot dogs are a particularly striking example and will have many people turning their heads. However, most of the developments that significantly further both environmental and economic goals in the oil sands are ones that aren’t as easily seen. To help bring them into the light, the EIB will have a special issue later this year focussing on innovation in the oil sands. Keep your eyes open!
Plugging in to fast-charging battery technology
One of the drawbacks for electric vehicles – and other battery-powered devices – is how long they take to charge. Fortunately, a large number of startups are tackling this problem with next-generation fast-charging battery technology designed to dramatically decrease the length of time it takes to charge devices.
A recent analysis by Startus Insights looked at 175 fast charging battery startups and featured their top picks. These included Addionics, based in the UK, which uses 3D-textured electrodes to increase the surface area for ion exchange without increasing battery volume; and StoreDot, whose technology integrates nanotechnology with proprietary organic compounds. A Canadian company, GBatteries, has dealt with one limitation of many fast-charging batteries – compromised life cycles – by using Artificial Intelligence to design a battery that does not heat up during ultra-fast charging. The range of approaches being taken is enormous: using sand, seawater, foams, graphene, urine, sound and lots more.
The focus on solving this problem may yield a double benefit. First, fast charging may be a necessity for full adoption of electric vehicles. But the drive to find better battery solutions may also lead to environmental benefits, as many battery innovators are developing technologies that require fewer mined materials and reduce waste.
The air battery solution to intermittent renewables
Speaking of batteries, the salt caverns of Saskatchewan may be an excellent place to store wind and solar energy for grid-scale power. Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) – also known as “air batteries” – is a technology in which ambient air or another gas is compressed and stored in an underground cavern or chamber. When energy is needed, the compressed air is released to an electricity-generating turbine to produce power on demand. Like pumped hydro storage, air batteries exploit a combination of natural geologic features and physical processes rather than chemical reactions to store energy. Currently, just two bulk CAES facilities are in operation: the 290 MW Huntorf CAES plant in Germany, and the 110 MW McIntosh facility in Alabama, USA. However, there is some indication that Saskatchewan may also be a prime location. The province’s salt caverns have been in use for years for storing natural gas and other petroleum liquids.
While the technology is still relatively young, it definitely holds promise, and competes against very little else that can store energy at such a large scale. The fact that a single 160 MW CAES power plant could provide much of the household electricity for cities the size of Regina or Saskatoon makes it an intriguing innovation to consider.
Thanks to Energy Innovation Brief reader Brian Brunskill of Helix GeoConsultants in Regina, SK, for submitting this story idea.
Let the cow fart jokes begin
Methane emissions from cattle are an enormous contributor to climate change. The amount of methane a dairy cow produces in one year is equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions from a mid-sized vehicle driven 20,000 kilometres. (And contrary to popular belief, it is mostly cow burps, not farts that are the problem.) The beef industry alone accounts for about 8% of Canada’s total GHG footprint. However, a solution may be on the horizon.
A two-year trial – the largest and longest trial for methane reduction in beef to date – wrapped up at the end of last year. The study tested a novel feed ingredient that suppresses the enzyme that triggers methane production in a cow’s rumen. The additive takes effect immediately and is safely broken down in the cow’s normal digestive system. The study found that the feed additive– which will go by the name of Bovaer –– reduced methane emissions by up to 80%.
This news will be welcome at a global level, but it also has a distinctly western Canadian twist. The trial was conducted by a Canadian research consortium that included DSM Nutritional Products (the product developer), with support from Agriculture and Agrifood Canada and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, among others. Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) committed $1.5 million to this $3 million project through its Methane Challenge. Read the full story here.
Suncor and Shell invest in biofuels
Between the $170 carbon tax and the impending Clean Fuel Standards, investing in biofuels makes a lot of sense – at least, it does to Shell Canada and Suncor, two of the biggest oil and gas companies in the country. Both Shell and Suncor have teamed up with Enerkem, a Montreal-based company that produces biofuels from non-recyclable waste.
Suncor has invested over $125 million in equity financing, a stake that sets them up as a significant shareholder of Enerkem. Shell’s $350 million investment, which closed in December 2020, was for a new project in Varennes, Quebec that will open in 2023. The project will take waste material, including plastics, contaminated wood, construction and demolition leftovers, as well as municipal waste, and convert it to methanol and ethanol.
Not only will Enerkem’s biofuel products help industry incorporate clean energy into their daily operations to reign in carbon emissions, but the investments made by Shell and Suncor in Enerkem underscore an important shift in thinking by industry giants. For Shell and Suncor, staying energy leaders is a clear priority, and requires setting their sights on clean energy alternatives. For more on Suncor’s investment, read here. For the full story on Shell’s investment, read here.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Marla Orenstein. This month’s edition features contributions by Marla Orenstein, Jamie Gradon and Marissa Dimmell. 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 .