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June 16 2021

Opportunities for Alberta: Heather Campbell on clean technology

Heather Campbell’s diverse 25-year energy career includes technical, policy, and business roles in a full range of energy industries. She is currently the Executive Director, Clean Technology with Alberta Innovates. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Clean technology refers to the set of technologies and processes used to reduce environmental damage which includes, but is not limited to, using more sustainable energy sources, and optimizing energy efficiency. Heather Campbell met with us (virtually) to discuss her insights into the clean technology sector in Alberta, its growth, and the opportunities it presents for our economy.

Describe the clean technology landscape in Alberta today.  

Clean technology is an exciting and dynamic place to be, and it’s growing fast. Calgary is ranked among the world’s top 15 clean technology ecosystems and 70 per cent of Alberta’s clean technology head offices are in Calgary. Clean technologies are necessary for building back better post-pandemic and for sustainable economic development in Alberta. They are also an important vehicle for the economic diversification we are hoping to achieve in the province.

Are there any developments that are particularly exciting?  

Yes! Bioenergy, and more specifically bio-jet projects, for sustainable aviation fuels. One example is at the University of Alberta, where students are doing patented research on technology that converts lipid feedstocks (fats) into gasoline and diesel. We have an opportunity to commercialize bio-jet fuel as an avenue for reducing the aviation industry’s carbon footprint and creating jobs.

Another exciting development is grid modernization. Alberta Innovates, in partnership with the City of Lethbridge, is working on testing smart meters and grid optimization technology. The goal is to reduce power consumption and give the utility company real-time data, which can potentially increase grid efficiency by 33,000 MW of electricity. From a consumption perspective, this is the equivalent to removing 4,000 homes from the grid. Rural communities can especially benefit from having a smart meter that adjusts based on grid performance.

What are the barriers to growth in the clean technology sector?  

First, there is a perception that clean technology will replace or subvert the oil and gas industry in Alberta. With diversification, there is enough room at the table for everyone. Clean technology is a growing interest in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and with large energy players. Alberta can be a player in the clean technology sector and a leader in the traditional oil and gas industry.

Another barrier is that there is declining investment in research and development (R&D) in Canada. R&D investment impacts a company’s ability to grow domestically to achieve commercial economies of scale. Market access challenges and the current regulatory process also leads to investment uncertainty, making it difficult to attract capital and to develop and scale technology. This makes operating in the energy sector more challenging.

We often think of technology as the sole piece of innovation, but an entire structure or system requires innovation. The technology, the business model, and the regulatory framework need to move in together for successful implementation. If we could build an innovation system where all these pieces can be tested and allowed to succeed or fail in a safe space, we can accelerate the development and integration adoption of new technology.

What government supports are needed to advance the clean technology sector?  

Some of the policy framework and a considerable amount of government support both provincially and federally, are already in place and driving much of the innovation we’re seeing today. We need broad collaboration to be successful and we cannot just think about it jurisdictionally anymore. This requires eliminating the barriers for collaboration that exist, including those that exist between orders of government.

The best example of this is the work happening on small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs), where there is partnership between industries, provinces, the federal government, utilities, and stakeholders.

Alberta is also part of an SMR memorandum of understanding with Ontario, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan. With this agreement, Ontario, which already has broad technical and regulatory expertise in nuclear technology, can share that expertise with other provinces.

How do you bring an equity, diversity, and inclusivity perspective to your work?  

By nature of who I am, I bring an equity and anti-racism lens to everything I do whether it be work or play. Racism erodes people’s health, prosperity, and well-being. It is about preventing the opportunities of others to thrive and prosper. Canadians, Albertans and Calgarians all need to come to grips with the reality that Canada has deep roots in racism. We must call out racism each and every time it occurs, that’s the daily work of being anti-racist. With racism, silence is merely an act of complicity.

Our work at Alberta Innovates is tied to the economic growth of the province and racism is an economic issue, so we very much apply the anti-racism and inclusion lens to our approach. We owe it to ourselves as Albertans to have this conversation in every aspect of our engagement with each other including in recreation, in energy, in the boardroom, and in faith communities - everywhere.

For alternative energy approaches like grid modernization, we have an opportunity to include metrics like sustainability, equity, and access as part of the effectiveness of the energy system. There are many tools, like energy storage and grid modernization, that we can use to enable and contribute to energy independence, energy access and energy equity for Indigenous and remote communities.

What are ways the industry can support equity, diversity, and inclusivity efforts in clean technology? 

It is challenging enough to scale a business in clean technology and innovation development. It is even more challenging for women in this space - especially to raise capital. It has been that way for too long. Support given to women entrepreneurs often gets classified as a social project, but we need to shed that notion – it's not charity.

There is a business case to be made for investing in female entrepreneurship.

Investors can get a 35 per cent higher return when it’s a woman-led startup, according to data from a UN study on Making Innovation and Technology Work for Women.  

If we can close the gender gap in innovation and technology, the global economy would be lifted by $10-17 trillion. In Canada, closing the gender equality gap could bring an additional $150 billion in GDP. Alberta, for all the challenges it has, can at least be considered a hospitable place for women entrepreneurs since about 30 per cent of women are involved in startups compared to the 13 per cent average across the country.

What is the trajectory of the clean technology sector over the next few decades?   

There is a lot of growth already happening in this sector and you can expect more. Calgary is uniquely positioned to use this growth as an opportunity to drive economic diversification, because many of the clean technology companies are here. We have skilled trades, technicians, entrepreneurs, discovery-based researchers. and academics that are attractive to a clean technology ecosystem and space. We have educated people, one of the youngest populations in Canada, and a province rich in natural resources – both knowledge based and in the ground. We have the right ingredients.

About Heather Campbell

Heather Campbell holds a Bachelor of Engineering Science degree in Biochemical and Chemical Engineering from the University of Western Ontario (Western University) in addition to a Master of Laws in Energy Law and Policy from the University of Dundee. She is a licensed Professional Engineer practicing in Alberta, Canada.

Heather is an engaged, lifelong community volunteer, actively sharing her talents, resources, and time by participating and often leading a purposely diverse range of organizations. She is a board director with Arts Commons, a member of the Advisory Council for Western Engineering, the People’s Warden at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church in Calgary, and a Commissioner with the Calgary Police Commission. She is also the former co-chair of Alberta’s Anti-Racism Advisory Council.