Quirks & Quarks·Bob McDonald's blog

The future needs the energy of new ideas

We need to fund more innovative research to solve our fossil fuel conundrum

We need to fund more innovative research to solve our fossil fuel conundrum

A field of solar panels surrounding an oil pumpjack symbolizes Canada's energy and climate conundrum. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Canada is facing a dilemma. We produce fossil fuels that support our economy, but are committed to reducing carbon emissions produced by those fossil fuels.

This conflict has pitted energy companies against Indigenous groups, local governments against the federal government, and environmentalists against oil patch workers. But perhaps longer-term thinking could help bring a compromise to the situation.

Canada sells coal, oil and natural gas to a world market, providing jobs, supporting the economy and generating taxes. Pipelines and rail lines already crisscross the continent moving our products south to the United States and to shipping ports along the coasts. If the economy is to remain healthy, it makes sense that the network should expand.

Electric cars could help drive development of better batteries and energy storage technology (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

Unfortunately, our product is seriously damaging the environment in a number of different ways, from oil spills, to water contamination to the big problem — the carbon emissions that drive climate change. This has created a conundrum for governments caught between the need to preserve jobs and the economy by supporting the industry, while upholding commitments such as the Paris Agreement to cut emissions and protect the environment.

Those two goals are obviously incompatible in the long run. Even if we reduce emissions within Canada, our exported fossil fuels are still going to be burned somewhere else. If we are going to avoid climate change, fossil fuels must be phased out and remain in the ground.

So how do we solve the short-term need to preserve jobs in an industry that needs to be phased out as we move toward a fossil fuel-free future?  

One possible compromise is to allow the fossil industry to continue in the short term, but at the same time, create a large fund, derived from fossil fuel profits and government subsidies, that would be exclusively dedicated to research on clean alternatives. This fund would be managed by an independent agency, and should be substantial enough—in the billion-dollar range—to enable universities and colleges to explore innovative, new and clean ways to produce and store energy.

Oil pumpjacks (file photo) (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

There are many ways this research can proceed. First is to investigate ways to make current alternatives more efficient and cheaper. Perhaps it is to make solar technology more easily available for homeowners, so they can turn their houses into power plants. Battery technology needs to be improved to make them lighter, cheaper, able to hold more charge and be rechargeable in minutes rather than hours. This would greatly reduce the cost of electric vehicles and help smooth out the power fluctuations inherent in sources like wind and solar.

Energy storage is a big issue because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow at a particular location. The problem with electricity is that we have to use it as we make it. If there was a way to store it, either through mega-batteries, or some other means, we would have a constant supply from variable sources.

Nuclear energy may be re-conceived toward smaller, self-contained reactors such as the type used on submarines and naval ships that would be buried underground to power small towns in remote areas.

Even fossil fuels themselves could be still be used if there were ways to extract the energy from them without carbon emissions. Carbon sequestration — which captures and buries the carbon from fossil fuels as they are burned — may have unexplored potential.

The Auenland Farm solar farm in New Brunswick. Despite our cold climate there is still great potential for solar energy in Canada (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Many solutions to the energy/environment conundrum are out there already. But the most exciting of all are those that haven't been thought of yet — the great ideas gestating in the minds of a new generation of young scientists. All those ideas require is the freedom to be explored that would come from funding for new research.

An energy fund would be an investment in the future, so that as we phase out fossil fuels, the alternatives will be there, ready to take over. Canada is in a perfect position to carry this out. Our universities and colleges are among the finest in the world, so that a day could come when our country is still an energy provider, but it is the form of new technologies that we can sell to the rest of the world, providing jobs, supporting the economy and preserving the environment.

But this research needs to be taking place now, not in a panic in the future when we face a planet too warm to thrive on. Let's let the old energy technology provide the fertilizer for the new, so fresh ideas can lead us to a clean, sustainable future.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

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