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
01| Dairy farm turned energy producer
02| Sustainable aviation takes off with WestJet
03| Sustainability – no longer just for earthlings
04| Bringing sails back to ocean freight
05| World’s first electric lithium mine
Dairy farm turned energy producer
Last month, the Ontario natural gas and power grids received their first taste of ag-based renewable natural gas—the result of an unlikely partnership between Enbridge and Stanton Farms, a local family-owned dairy farm. The renewable natural gas is sourced from bio-gas—an energy product composed primarily of methane and carbon dioxide which can be processed and used for heating and electricity generation. Bio-gas is created in bio-digesters when bacteria break down organic waste through the process of anaerobic digestion.
While Stanton Farms has already been running a single bio-digester for a decade and using the gas to provide net-zero electricity to the town of Ilderton, the partnership with Enbridge has enabled the construction of a second digester and a hook-up to the provincial natural gas distribution system. With this increased capacity, the dairy farm can now divert more than 60,000 tonnes of farm waste—manure, cattle bedding, and food—away from local landfills and instead use it as an input for high-quality renewable energy. And, in addition to producing this valuable carbon-neutral fuel, the project will also prevent the release of 11,000 tonnes of methane—equivalent to 275,000 tonnes of CO2 or removing 55,000 vehicles from the road.
Sustainable aviation takes off with WestJet
A three-month pilot program that started in November 2022 will see all WestJet flights between San Francisco and Calgary partially powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Although SAF has been used before in Canada (WestJet’s first SAF-powered flight was from LAX to Calgary in June and Air Canada has tested a few flights as well), this will be the first program in the country to fuel all flights on a given route.
The fuel is produced by Neste, a hydrocarbon company based in Finland, and is made from renewable and residual materials such as used cooking oils and animal fat waste. The SAF in WestJet’s pilot program will be blended with traditional jet fuel to make up 35-40% of the final product. Neste offers the fuel through a small number of hubs worldwide. San Francisco is one of those hubs, which is why WestJet chose the SFO-YYC route for this program. A purely Canadian route was not possible, as SAF is not yet being produced in Canada—although this problem is currently being worked on by the Canadian Council for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (C-SAF), and SAF may be produced in Western Canada as early as 2026.
While sustainability is top of mind, it comes with a cost. SAF is priced between two and eight times higher than regular jet fuel. WestJet will cover the additional cost for the duration of the pilot program – so, while the program will test technologic and logistic viability, it won’t answer the question of whether consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable flights.
Sustainability—no longer just for earthlings
While WestJet has started down the path of decarbonizing passenger flights, a UK-based space start-up has its eyes on a higher prize—1,000 km higher. The company, Orbex, was founded in 2015 with the goal of developing the world’s most environmentally friendly rocket; and with the successful completion of a $46 million funding round last month, it is closer than ever to realizing it. Thanks to this latest round, the Orbex Prime—a 19-metre two-stage low-emission rocket—could have its maiden voyage as early as 2023.
From its recoverable and reusable components to its use of Europe’s largest 3D printer in manufacturing, the Orbex Prime has been designed with sustainability in mind in every aspect of its operation. But the biggest factor in reducing its environmental impact is in the choice of fuel. By fueling the rocket with bio-propane, the rocket’s emissions will be 90-96% lower than similar launch vehicles. And while these low emissions are impressive, bio-propane also completely eliminates the black carbon emissions associated with traditional rocket propellants. This is especially important as the fine particulate matter within black carbon can hang in the atmosphere for four years, contributing to global warming at a higher rate than CO2 alone, and weakening the ozone layer.
Space travel may seem like a strange focus for decarbonization efforts, but commercialization of the space industry in the past several years has drastically increased activity in the sector. Between the early 1960s and 2010, the number of objects launched into space each year remained fairly stable, hovering between 70 and 170. Since then, however, things have really taken off, reaching a record level of over 1,800 objects in 2021. At these levels, emissions from rocket launches will soon rival those from the entire global aviation industry. Acting now to reduce their impacts is certainly worth the effort.
Bringing sails back to ocean freight
In an age where products are often delivered to your door in a matter of days, it may surprise you that ocean freight is still responsible for 90% of global trade. But with nearly all those ships powered by fossil fuels, the sector is also responsible for a lot of emissions—about one billion tonnes of CO2 per year. Reducing those emissions is no easy task. Much like other modes of heavy transport, the massive power requirements of the shipping industry make it difficult to decarbonize. This problem has led some organizations to look to the past for a solution through a return to sails.
Imagine making your vehicle 5% more efficient with a single retrofit. That is exactly what Mitsui O.S.K. Lines has done with their Wind Challenger hard sail system, installed on the transport ship the Shofu Maru as it travels between Australia and Japan. The 55-meter-tall collapsible fibreglass reinforced plastic sail is attached near the front of the ship, harnessing the wind on the open ocean to assist with propulsion. The hard sail has built-in sensors that detect the speed and direction of the wind, automatically rotating, collapsing, or extending to always match the conditions the vessel finds itself in without diminishing stability or cargo capacity.
Mitsui O.S.K Lines isn’t the only one harnessing the wind either. Other shipping companies have taken notice of the promising nature of wind propulsion such as Michelin and their inflatable prototype WISAMO wing sail, as well as the hard sails adorning the New Aden built by China’s Dalian Shipbuilding Industry Co. While the approaches they have taken are different, all of them are using the captain’s best friend—wind—as a path forward for emissions abatement in the shipping sector.
World’s first all-electric lithium mine
The world’s first all-electric lithium mine—powered entirely by renewable energy—is set to open in Snow Lake, Manitoba in 2025. Snow Lake will be a hard rock mining operation rather than brine mining (such as the E3-imperial partnership highlighted in June’s EIB), and will therefore use traditional mining techniques and vehicles to extract spodumene that will then be refined into battery-grade lithium. This traditional approach to mining makes electrification even more challenging. The heavy equipment used in mining has historically suffered from barriers that passenger vehicles do not encounter when it comes to decarbonization such as massive frames, heavy loads and long hours of operation, all of which require enormous energy input. However, Snow Lake’s partner, Epiroc Canada, is up for the challenge. The company brings with it the lessons it learned at the world’s first electric gold mine—Borden mine, also in Ontario—as it designs and manufactures a first-of-its-kind all-electric fleet of equipment for Snow Lake.
In addition to technological advances, the policy environment is beginning to also favour the electrification of mining and the development of critical mineral supply chains within North America as well. The Government of Canada’s 2022 Fall Economic Statement contained a proposal for a Clean Technology Investment Tax Credit that would cover 30% of the capital cost of eligible equipment, including industrial zero-emission vehicles such as the hydrogen or battery electric heavy-duty models used in mining. And, the Inflation Reduction Act recently passed in the United States requires that at least 40% of the critical minerals in batteries–including lithium–must come from the United States or a Free Trade Agreement partner. These two government actions are likely to further encourage sustainable mining practices in Canada.
The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Brendan Cooke and Marla Orenstein. This month’s edition features contributions by Brendan Cooke, Tyler Robinson 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 .