Tag Archives: Technology

Subatomic ambitions

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NB Power’s thoughtful CEO, Gaetan Thomas, is probably right to downplay the possibility of building a second nuclear power plant in New Brunswick. At the moment, such a massive project doesn’t make much economic sense.

As he told the Telegraph-Journal in an interview the other day, “I’ve had some discussions with the province. I know that our premier is favorable to the idea, but at this stage, there is no business case yet.”

Still, if the Gallant government wants to resuscitate the province’s ambitions to become a Canadian energy hub, other options are available and are becoming increasing practical and attractive.

Some months ago, Clean Energy Canada found that spending on the clean technology sector in amounted to $10 billion in 2015. That was the second-best performance on record. Said the group’s executive director, Merran Smith, in the report: “We’re living in a new era of political resolve to tackle climate change. . .Spending on clean energy will likely grow again in the years ahead.”

Intriguingly, Clean Energy noted, spending on the sector in Atlantic Canada last year jumped by 58 per cent to just about $1.2 billion. Given the region’s relatively small population, that result compared favourably to Ontario’s $5.3-billion investment in renewable energy in 2015.

Now, rip a page from a recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. It found that the sector “employed 7.7 million people, directly or indirectly, around the world in 2014 (excluding large hydropower). This is an 18 per cent increase from the number reported the previous year. In addition, IRENA conducted the first-ever global estimate of large hydropower employment, showing approximately 1.5 million direct jobs in the sector.”

Moreover, “The 10 countries with the largest renewable energy employment were China, Brazil, the United States, India, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, France, Bangladesh and Colombia. . .The solar PV industry is the largest renewable energy employer worldwide with 2.5 million jobs, followed by liquid biofuels with 1.8 million jobs, and wind power, which surpassed 1 million jobs for the first time. The employment increase extends across the renewable energy spectrum with solar, wind, biofuels, biomass, biogas and small hydropower all seeing increases in employment.”

What this should tell us is that there is a good life beyond fossil fuel without complicated benefits of nuclear energy. Of course, none of it will be easy. As the IRENA report notes, “In the coming years, renewable energy employment growth will depend on the return to a strong investment trajectory, as well as on continued technological development and cost reductions. Stable and predictable policies will be essential to support job creation. Finally, in a year when negotiators aim to carve out a global climate agreement, the broader policy framework for energy investments will also move to the forefront.”

Then there is the Donald Trump factor. He’s on record as a climate-change sceptic and his determination to speed up the clock on coal-fired power plants could present a competitive disadvantage to Canadian sources of renewable energy, especially in export markets. Sustainability costs money; and the return on investment is more often a long-term proposition for governments.

On the other hand, back in 2015, the CBC reported that NB Power would encourage small-scale green energy. At that time, Keith Cronkhite, NB Power’s vice-president of business development and generation said, “The beauty of community energy projects is that they would enter into a power purchase arrangement with NB Power. The revenues that we would pay toward those projects stays within New Brunswick and that’s an important part of any renewable program.”

Hope, it seems, does spring eternal.

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Is Energy East back on track?

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It will take more than the appointment of a New Brunswicker as a “temporary” member of the National Energy Board to persuade the more skeptical constituents of the chattering classes in this province that the Energy East pipeline project has again found traction.

Don Ferguson is, by every account, a capable and experienced guy. He was a deputy minister of health in the government of Shawn Graham. At the moment is the “chief strategy officer” at a University of New Brunswick think tank. He also co-owns a consulting firm in Fredericton.

All of which, and the fact that he’s bilingual, eminently qualifies him for the job on the NEB, which is expected (in some distant, sunny corners of the pundit-o-sphere where optimism grows like daisies in July) to reignite the regulatory process for Energy East. To which I snort: Don’t hold your breath.

For many reasons, in this country pipelines have become lightening rods for controversy and public outrage. Part of this is the result of the sometimes breathtaking arrogance of the companies and corporate stakeholders that support the oil and gas industry. Part of it has to do with bucket loads of misinformation about the relative safety of these overland structures. And part of it points to the ardency of the anti-fossil fuel movement across North America.

Still, here’s what we know: No society will ever progress to a sustainably green economy without the essential, if paradoxical, contribution of refined petrochemicals; and there’s no safer way of transporting crude to downstream facilities than by piping it.

As for Energy East, we know a few other things, thanks to an admittedly outdated, yet still relevant, economic benefits report by Deloitte & Touche in 2013, which stipulated “$10.0B and $25.3B in additional GDP for the Canadian economy during the six-year development and construction phase and the 40-year operations phase, respectively (note: while 40 years was used as the time horizon for the purpose of this economic analysis, regular maintenance is expected to extend the life of the pipeline significantly beyond 40 years). This economic activity will occur within Ontario (37% of total), Alberta (22%), Quebec (18%), New Brunswick (8%), Saskatchewan (7%), and Manitoba (5%).”

It also predicted “2,341 additional annual direct full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs during the 2013-2015 development period (7,118 annual FTE jobs total for three years including direct, indirect and induced impacts) and 7,728 additional annual direct FTE jobs during the 2016-2018 construction period (23,498 annual FTE jobs total for three years including direct, indirect and induced impacts), or a total of 91,849 one-year FTE jobs over the entire period, primarily within the construction and engineering industries in Quebec (31%), Ontario (26%), Alberta (16%), New Brunswick (12%), Saskatchewan (6%), and Manitoba (4%).”

Meanwhile, the report estimated between “$3.0B and $7.2B in total additional tax revenue for federal, provincial and municipal governments during the six year development and construction and 40 year operations phases, respectively. Considering both phases, this revenue is primarily generated in Ontario (36%), Alberta (21%), Quebec (20%), Saskatchewan (8%), New Brunswick (7%) and Manitoba (6%).”

Finally, and most pertinently for this province, Energy East would provide a “supply of domestic crude oil sources for eastern refineries, which is expected to result in an annual feedstock cost savings of between $1.55 and $11.49 per barrel based on current refining configurations and the refinery location.”

Times change, of course, and so do commodity prices. But the argument for Energy East is still sound. One can only hope that the NEB’s new members – temporary or otherwise – will find it a compelling one.

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We are all connected

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It should surprise exactly no one that not one Canadian municipality makes the World Economic Forum’s list of most successful cities – not Toronto, not Montreal, not Vancouver, and certainly not any of New Brunswick’s three major urban areas.

We are, after all, in this province mere cartographic postscripts comporting ourselves in much the same way we always have: with one toe tentatively dipped in the future and one foot firmly planted in the past. I sometimes think we like it that way. In fact, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.

Armies of retirees, fresh from their career conquests in other more economically vigorous parts of the world, have chosen communities like Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John to settle into their sanguine senescence. Here, crime rates are low, house prices are stunningly reasonable, and the natural environment is, by every comparison, downright pristine.

But, ultimately, no region can survive its own sleepy traditions and predilections by insulating itself from the rest of the world. What is virtuous about a place can eventually become disadvantageous. Whether we like it or not, we are all connected on this planet.

Over the years, the urgent conversation among those here who recognize this simple fact of life in the 21st Century has concerned the character of progress. How far can we go without compromising that which makes this part of the world unique and efficacious? We’ve not settled on a definitive answer, but we have found some enlivening clues.

The World Economic Forum offers some insight. “Forces of globalization, urbanization and technological advancement are transforming the definition of a ‘successful’ city and reshaping the global urban hierarchy in the process,” it recently posted on its website. “Success can no longer be measured simply by considering a city’s size and historical attributes. Today it is more likely to revolve around innovation, ‘liveability’ and the ability to transform and adapt.”

On this score, it elaborates, “Many of the top 20 cities in the 2016 City Momentum Index – including London, San Francisco and Sydney – are home to vibrant mixed-used districts which create and amplify opportunities to conceive and commercialize new ideas. This reinforces the idea that city momentum involves much more than GDP growth. It also requires building an innovation-oriented economy through technology. It means creating cutting-edge new businesses. And it involves attracting talent and nurturing a diverse and inclusive workforce.”

Are we, in New Brunswick, doing enough of this? If the size of a place no longer matters as a determinant of economic and social health, where are the large and small innovations that really do make a difference? The New Brunswick Innovation Foundation insists they’re out there. “With over $70 million invested, plus $380 million more leveraged from other sources, NBIF has helped to create over 90 companies and fund 400 applied research projects since its inception in 2003, with a current portfolio of 42 companies,” its website declares. “All of NBIF’s investment returns go back into the Foundation to be re-invested in other new startup companies and research initiatives.”

Fair enough, but we need more of this. The fact that I can count the number of business incubators in this province that regularly garner mainstream media attention on one hand suggests that we haven’t truly leveraged the global innovation agenda to our full advantage.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, Silicon Valley was a craggy patch of earth on California’s west coast. Shall we, in New Brunswick continue to consign ourselves to a similar condition, or shall we make our success stories convincingly and finally resonate?

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How (not) to breed a culture of innovation

Think about tech at least once in your freakin' life!

Think about tech at least once in your freakin’ life!

Once again, a major Canadian think tank concludes that the nation’s private sector is not spending enough of research and development, on science and technology. Once again, the news runs buried in the tech sections of the day’s print organs, all but guaranteeing the predictable reader response of “so what.”

For decades – at least since the early 1980s – experts have warned that unless industry picks up the pace of innovation, the consequences for Canada’s productivity and competitiveness in the global economy will be dire. But what, exactly, does that mean and why should anyone outside the pearly gates of academe give a fig?

Not long ago, the Conference Board of Canada took a shot at answering the question. In a report entitled “How Canada Performs”, the organization had this to say about the country’s low ranking, compared to other economies, on innovation:

“Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. It is also critical to environmental protection, a high-performing education system, a well-functioning system of health promotion and health care, and an inclusive society. Without innovation, all these systems stagnate and Canada’s performance deteriorates relative to that of its peers.”

What’s more, the Board said, “With new key players – such as China, India, and Brazil – in the global economy, Canadian businesses must move up the value chain and specialize in knowledge-intensive, high-value-added goods and services. Although Canada has some leading companies that compete handily against global peers, its economy is not as innovative as its size would otherwise suggest.”

Now, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) – a creature of the current federal government – adds its voice to the chorus. “Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001,” it reports. “In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies). . .The more recent declines in the country’s total R&D funding efforts are attributable predominantly to private sector funding of R&D.”

The Council also notes, somewhat cheerfully that “Canadians understand that, if we want to create jobs and opportunity in a competitive world and address the key societal challenges that confront us in the 21st century, STI must be an integral part of the national agenda.”

But here’s the thing: I’m not at all sure Canadians do – understand, that is. If they did, then this conversation, which feels like a toothache, would be over. So would the chimerical debate, in government circles, about funding hard, “blue sky” science at the “expense” of applied, commercially viable research. Notice where these discussions almost never occur: Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, and, yes, even the United States.

That’s because these nations, unlike Canada, have recognized the truth of their circumstances, which is, both simple and elegant: If you want an innovative culture, you have to breed a culture of innovation. And silos of self-interest won’t help you accomplish the task. All segments of society – government, industry, higher education – must pull in the same direction if we’re going to get anywhere.

Or, as the STIC observes, “The responsibility is shared: all participants in our STI ecosystem have a role to play in driving enhanced performance and lifting Canada into the ranks of the world’s leading innovative economies. It is not just about investing more, but about investing more strategically and coherently, focusing our resources and efforts, learning from the experience of global STI leaders and improving agility to seize emerging opportunities. That is how Canada will truly be able to ‘run with the best.’”

It’s also how you convince average Canadians, who may not often read the tech sections of their newspapers, that their material well being – their wages and standards of living – depends directly on the quantity and quality of the innovations they enlist in the service of their respective futures.

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