Alberta’s clean-tech sector poised for growth, Calgary seminar hears

Author: Mark Lowey


Publish Date: Thursday, April 6, 2017

Alberta’s clean technology companies are making money but need to get better coordinated, secure more government support and look beyond the oil and gas industry to grow into a “full-blown cluster,” an expert panel told a seminar in Calgary.

Clean-tech firms also should focus on areas of expertise within the province, develop technologies that consumers want to buy and export their products and services internationally, panelists said at the March 15th ConocoPhillips IRIS seminar, presented by the Centre for Corporate Sustainability in the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary.

“Is this a growing sector? Absolutely,” said Jason Switzer, executive director of the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTIA).

But, Switzer said: “We actually need the [various] sectors to get more organized.” Pointing to Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance as an example of how the oilsands industry got itself better coordinated and focused on accelerating innovation of environmental technologies and processes in the sector, he said: “We need to see five more of these” types of organizations in other sectors. Some leading entrepreneurs haven’t been heard because the province is still so dominated by the oil and gas industry, Switzer added.

The clean-tech sector, according to ACTIA’s definition, is comprised of products and processes that contribute to clean air, clean water, clean land and address climate change while improving the productivity and competitiveness of the economy.

ACTIA’s mission is to create an environment that fosters research, innovation and adoption/commercialization of the best clean technology practices. The alliance recently completed a survey of clean-tech companies headquartered in Alberta.

Results of the survey are expected to be publicly released this month. Switzer said it found that 70 clean-tech companies in the province directly employed 2,000 people and generated about $600 million in revenue in 2016.

Although the sector is “very active and substantial,” he noted that more than half of Alberta’s clean-tech companies are marketing only to the oil and gas industry, which is a different picture than the clean-tech sector in British Columbia or Ontario. Many of Alberta’s companies offer large-scale, capital-intensive technologies.

On a national level, clean-tech revenues have been growing at a rate four times faster than the Canadian economy, according to a report from Analytica Advisors. The small but growing industry’s revenues totalled $12 billion at the end of 2014, according to a story by the Financial Post.

Much of the sector’s growth has been focused on Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, each of which the Pembina Institute scored well in a July 2015 policy report card. The environmental policy research institute called for additional support for the sector, including a national approach to carbon pricing and later-stage funding.

The Trudeau government’s 2017 federal budget included more than $2.2 billion in new clean-tech spending, Tom Rand and Tyler Hamilton, senior advisor and business development manager of clean tech, respectively, at MaRS, wrote this month in an opinion column in The Globe and Mail. The budget “shows Ottawa is moving beyond a focus on research and development and now is seriously committed to taking the next step: boosting the demonstration, adoption and export of Canadian energy and environmental technologies,” they wrote.

Now is the perfect time for Alberta’s sector to expand and diversify, since the federal, provincial and municipal governments are all encouraging clean tech and there is the climate change challenge, Switzer told the ConocoPhillips IRIS seminar. “There’s political will and there’s a crisis.”


Several things needed to grow a “full-blown” cluster

Panelist Adam Goehner, director of technical and sustainability services in Western Canada at the Delphi Group, agreed there is an opportunity to provide a much greater set of clean-tech technologies and services across several different sectors in Alberta. Some 2 billion people on the planet are looking for cleaner energy, water and air and sustainable growth, so there is tremendous potential for Alberta clean-tech companies to export their technologies and services, he added.

The Alberta sector won’t be able to compete in all areas of clean technology, so it should focus on those areas where companies already have expertise and skill sets, Goehner said. The federal and Alberta governments’ targets to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is a “huge opportunity,” he said. (See EnviroLine story).

A lot of pieces are already in place in Alberta to grow a “full-blown” clean-tech sector, Goehner said. But he noted that several things are still required, including:   

  • -- more government support, especially early investment in technologies;

-- better coordination by the clean-tech sector to secure government support;

-- crucial infrastructure;

-- improved pace of technology development;

-- a cultural change that brings about reduced risk tolerance by industry; and

-- coordination across the value chain, for example not just energy production but end use in the energy sector.

Panelist Sara Hastings-Simon, associate regional director of the Pembina Institute’s clean economy program, stressed the need for Alberta’s clean-tech sector to diversify beyond meeting the oil and gas industry’s needs. Expanding the sector only to serve the oil and gas industry won’t achieve this diversification, she said.

The world is moving more and more toward clean- tech, so Alberta really has no choice but to join that movement or its industries will get left behind, Hastings-Simon said. Clean-tech will play an increasingly important role in the province’s future, and globally could result in the same scale of change as the Industrial Revolution, she said.

The global technology market was worth more than US$2.56 trillion a year in 2012, and is expected to become more than US$5.13 trillion in size by the mid-2020s (Source: PwC Global Technology Scorecard).

In Alberta, the real sign that clean-tech is growing into a full-fledged cluster will be big investments in the sector, Hastings-Simon said.

Clean-tech companies, like other businesses, need a ‘widget’ they can sell and that consumers want to buy, she added. Companies also need sufficient capital to scale up technology and product, she said, noting that a lot of work is required to scale a technology, such as solar power, to sufficient size to be economic.

Government policy can help convince people to buy new clean technology, especially if government is the first customer, as with the U.S. military and solar power, Hastings-Simon said. “Nobody can do it alone at the end of the day.”

Switzer advised clean-tech entrepreneurs to “go where the puck is going, not where it has been,” and anticipate emerging demands for clean technology. As an example, he pointed to the announcement last month of the new Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre, supported by up to $10 million from Natural Resources Canada. “We have to position ourselves in that market.”

The new centre, at the ENMAX Shepard Energy Centre in Calgary, will provide a venue where research scientists from industry, academic institutions and governments come together to:

  • collaborate on innovative carbon-use technologies at an industrial scale; and

  • test the conversion of carbon dioxide into usable products that would result in new revenue opportunities.

Some of the international finalists in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE competition will test their new technologies at the Calgary centre.

Alberta’s changing electricity market offers huge clean tech opportunities, such as new micro-grids, Switzer said, adding: “We have a ton of skill in micro-grid operation.”

Hastings-Simon agreed that the utility sector is going to be important to clean-tech, because it will require more disbursed, flexible and variable sources of electricity.

She advised, when talking about the potential of clean technology, to frame it with language that emphasizes clean-tech as making business and financial sense.

In April 2016, the BC Cleantech CEO Alliance, Ecotech Québec, MaRS Discovery District and the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance signed a memorandum of understanding to coordinate efforts to promote clean technologies, combat climate change and contribute to a strong, diverse, sustainable economy. This agreement is a first of its kind in Canada and represents a significant step forward in strengthening the clean technology sector in Canada through greater coordination and collaboration.

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