The Energy Innovation Panel
HAT IS ENERGY INNOVATION? Where does Canada stand in a global context? Has our focus on commercial-driven innovation hurt fundamental research and development? Are our funding systems sufficient? And what does the future hold? Dawn Calleja discussed these questions and more with three energy innovation experts to delve into the core focus of this issue.
Richard K. Lester is the head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding director of the Industrial Performance Center, which focuses on innovation systems in energy and manufacturing.
Ian Philp is the director of partnerships at Ontario’s Advanced Energy Centre, whose mission is to develop and test made-in-Canada energy technologies and then market them internationally.
Dan Wicklum is the chief executive officer of the Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, a collaboration between 13 oilsands companies to collectively develop and launch new technologies to accelerate the pace of their environmental performance in four areas: water, land, tailings and greenhouse gas emissions.
What is energy innovation from your perspective?
Ian Philp: What we look for is a real improvement that will drive either efficiency or the ability to deliver services more quickly. That can be a technology, like flywheel energy storage, or an application, like data technologies that help customers to better understand and reduce their energy use, or even innovation in business models — so, how we can deliver services to customers better.
Dan Wicklum: At the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, we decided not to formally define the term innovation because it means so many things to different people. We define things we want to do and accomplish, then we do them. The bottom line is that we are accomplishing what we set out to do.
Richard K. Lester: I have a very simple definition of innovation: the application of new knowledge to create value. It’s not invention — invention on its own isn’t enough. You have to apply it. And applying it isn’t enough — it has to create value. In the energy space, the problem we have is pretty simple: Most low-carbon alternatives either cost more or are otherwise difficult to scale. And so the innovation challenge for us in the energy sector is to reduce the cost of a broad range of low-carbon technologies.
Where does Canada stand in terms of energy innovation?
Wicklum: Less than 20 years ago, you could not extract bitumen from deep deposits in an environmentally responsible, economically viable way. Now, one of the largest oil reserves in the world is being developed responsibly and economically, using in situ technology. So, in some regards energy innovation in Canada is extremely healthy. The issue, of course, is pace and adoption. The fact is, it can take six to eight years for a new energy project to go into production, owing to technological complexity and rigorous regulation.
Philp: In Canada, the classic story everyone’s heard is that we are very good at creating new technology. Where we sometimes fall down is commercializing it. And in the energy sector, where there’s a premium placed on reliability, and when utilities are regulated entities that need to justify the adoption of innovation, there are other dynamics at play than just the newest cutting-edge thing. The trade-off between stability and reliability of the electricity system and new initiatives that could drive efficiency but do have some embedded risk is a systemic barrier to innovation in the energy space.
I have a very simple definition of innovation: the application of new knowledge to create value.
— Richard K. Lester
Commercially driven innovation has been a huge focus in Canada. Are we losing something by not funnelling more money to fundamental research, finding a new way to power our cars and homes, rather than just finding more efficient ways to do things we’ve been doing for 150 years?
Philp: I don’t think you ever lose out by investing in fundamental research, but without commercialization, it will languish. And you need somebody to drive that connection between idea and execution. So I don’t see it as an either/or proposition. But the commercialization piece has the nice benefit of also driving benefits for Canada and efficiencies, and that’s something that will lead to high-skilled, high-quality job creation.
Wicklum: Deliberate innovation relies on making deliberate investment decisions, and we use a funnel model inside COSIA that starts with ideation and progresses to a commercializable product. Admittedly, the private sector almost always plays a larger proportional funding role, closer to the commercialization end. The public system and universities play a larger role in the ideation end of the funnel. Having said that, there has to be good communication across that whole ecosystem to make sure the really good ideas are accelerated through the funnel and actually commercialized.