It’s the sustainability challenge of our time: achieving economic growth while lowering environmental impact.
Walter Mérida, director of UBC’s Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC), is confident it can be done, pointing to history and examples close to home.
“Over the past few centuries, we’ve seen significant transitions in our energy system architecture, from biomass to coal to oil and natural gas,” he says, noting that each shift has brought with it a progressive de-carbonization.
“And it has been technology breakthroughs, not scarcity, that promoted changes in our primary energy source of choice. When we moved from coal to oil, coal reserves were as plentiful as they are today. We didn’t abandon the stone age due to a scarcity of stones!”
Historically, the shift to new energy systems was driven by pushes for innovation and convenience. That’s still the case, but other forces are steering us to adopt new technologies and approaches for energy use, with efforts to minimize the impact of climate change now being prioritized.
Canada has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 and 30 per cent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels). Big changes are needed if we hope to come close to this target, says Mérida, citing a report from the International Energy Agency stating that incremental improvements will not be enough to ensure a sustainable energy system.
That means there’s a pressing need for the kind of multidisciplinary breakthrough research taking place at CERC. Led by Dr. Mérida, the centre brings together over 50 researchers currently focused on finding clean energy solutions in areas that range from carbon capture to zero-carbon fuel production and smart-city solutions for urban well-being.
Many of the centre’s research projects offer a revolutionary approach to the transportation and energy sectors, such as efforts to develop an integrated system of vehicles, refuelling stations, buildings, roads and parkades as part of a city’s smart grid capable of utility-scale energy transactions.
Some of these ideas are being tested out at UBC, allowing researchers to identify promising technologies that can be scaled up and widely adopted. These technologies are complementing the university’s many clean energy initiatives that have made the institution a leader in sustainable growth.
“Over the past decade, although we’ve significantly grown our campus in terms of number of students and buildings, our overall emissions have dropped and we’re on track to being carbon neutral by 2050,” says Mérida. “That’s remarkable, and it comes from using the campus as a living laboratory to test our ideas.”
UBC’s bioenergy research and demonstration facility, a district energy system that replaces steam with hot water, and energy storage and smart grid technologies are just some of the many projects that are enabling UBC to meets its aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.
That success is getting noticed. “We are being approached by universities, cities and partners from around the world, who are eager to learn more about the innovative technologies and approaches we have in place,” says Dr. Mérida.
A professional graduate program at UBC is helping early- and mid-career engineers, architects and planners deepen their technical and business skills to tackle some of our world’s most pressing issues. Interdisciplinary programs are offered in nine areas – including clean energy, green bio-products, integrated water management and urban systems – with courses taught by world-leading researchers from the UBC Faculty of Applied Science and Sauder School of Business.
Ivan Lapczak graduated from the Master of Engineering Leadership program in Clean Energy Engineering in December 2016 after working for eight years in the oil and gas sector as a process engineer. Now working for the City of Surrey’s district energy utility, he says that the MEL program has deepened his understanding of the challenges facing the energy industry as it transitions away from fossil fuels. “During both the engineering and leadership portions of the program we discussed the many barriers to achieving this transition – technical, financial and societal. I hope to continue developing innovative energy solutions as part of this energy transition.”