$4.4M investment in energy and environmental engineering research at UAlberta

(Edmonton) A new national research program established at the University of Alberta strengthens the ability of industry and government to make evidence-based decisions about energy pathways and resources while finding ways to conserve water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Amit Kumar, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has been appointed as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada/Cenovus/Alberta Innovates Associate Industrial Research Chair in Energy and Environmental Systems Engineering, and is the inaugural chairholder of the Cenovus Energy Endowed Chair in Environmental Engineering.

The $4.4-million investment in these research programs is made possible through a $3-million endowment created by Cenovus Energy, $925,000 from NSERC, $250,000 from Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions and $250,000 from Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions. This research will play an important role in responsible energy development—Kumar has already made significant contributions to environmental and energy modelling.

The unique characteristic of Kumar’s research program is that it integrates economic, environmental and technological assessments to help policy-makers find the best mix of energy sources to use, minimizing environmental impact.

The team looks at the historic use, costs and impacts of different energy sources to make predictions about future use of renewable and non-renewable energy sources and technologies. This analytical work will better enable governments and industries to find the most efficient ways to move forward with resource development. For example, one project examines energy return on energy investment—calculating how many units of energy are required to produce another unit of energy.

“We want to examine the economics and environmental impacts of producing energy. How much water and land does it take to produce a kilowatt-hour of electricity? How much CO2 is emitted? And what happens when we produce that energy using coal or wind or hydro or biomass? We will look at wind, biomass, natural gas and oil and compare the costs and environmental impacts of producing them,” said Kumar, whose research team will also investigate the best technologies to use with different energy sources.

David Lynch, dean of engineering at the U of A, told a crowd gathered for the announcement June 17 that the research program would not be possible without the collaborative partnership between the university, the federal and provincial governments, and a strong industry partner like Cenovus Energy.

Cenovus, Lynch said, first established a $3-million endowment to support the Cenovus Energy Endowed Chair in Environmental Engineering. The Faculty of Engineering and Cenovus then sought to expand the program, finding even more partners for whom Kumar’s research has relevance.

“We’ve built a major collaborative partnership with Cenovus, NSERC, Alberta Innovates –  Energy and Environment Solutions and Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions,” said Lynch. “We have a room half full of graduate students and industry partners. This is a best practice and a model of how to create a long-term sustainable partnership and obtain results.”

Kumar’s NSERC Industrial Research Chair is the 22nd to be awarded to the University of Alberta—and the 18th awarded to the Faculty of Engineering.

Thomas Lukaszuk, deputy premier and minister of enterprise and advanced education, said the collaboration “sounds like poetry to me.”

“This is exactly what the vision of our government and the vision of our premier is,” he said, adding that Kumar’s research addresses urgent issues that are important in maintaining a “social licence” to responsibly develop our natural resources.

“The impact of energy resource systems on our environment is of vital importance to Canada. An international leader in his field, Dr. Kumar’s research program has been a huge success, due in large part to his ability to establish and maintain successful collaborations,” said Janet Walden, chief operating officer of NSERC. “His research will help governments and businesses better assess the costs and environmental impacts of various energy technologies, and ultimately help shape the future of energy production in Canada.”

Industry partner Cenovus predicts Kumar’s research group will continue to have a positive impact.

“We’re excited to be able to support Dr. Kumar’s valuable research into efficient energy systems,” said Brian Ferguson, Cenovus president and CEO. “We expect the work this team is doing will lead to new tools that will help us do an even better job of unlocking the tremendous value of Alberta’s oilsands in a responsible and environmentally friendly way.”

Kumar has been active in investigating the use of biomass as an energy source, and his team’s findings will make a difference in the way energy is produced.

“Dr. Kumar’s new industrial research program will help private-sector industries, investors and government policy-makers make informed decisions about long-term energy planning in Alberta’s agriculture and forest sectors,” said Stan Blade, CEO of Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions. “The program’s modelling tools can assess all stages of the supply and demand chain and provide solid information for Alberta’s bio-industries to become more competitive and environmentally sustainable.”

Addressing issues at the interface of energy and the environment is essential to the province’s economic and environmental well-being. As Kumar educates the next generation of engineering professionals, this work will have an impact on quality of life in Alberta and beyond.

“Our core business is to position Alberta to achieve superior environmental performance,” said Eddy Isaacs, CEO of Alberta Innovates – Energy and Environment Solutions. “We helped Dr. Kumar launch his research on energy and environmental systems modelling several years ago because we recognized the need for an Alberta-specific model and the need for building the innovation capacity in this area. Dr. Kumar’s work has helped inform the Government of Alberta strategy on energy efficiency and our strategy and focus on innovation to support the Government of Alberta’s climate change plan.”

Under this chair program, Kumar is also charged with educating highly qualified engineers who will be able to bring their energy modelling knowledge to industry and government. Kumar supervises 20 undergraduate, master’s and PhD students, research assistants and post-doctoral fellows.

Dean Lynch added that the announcement underscores the importance of collaborative partnerships between the university, industry and government, and demonstrates the ways that research benefits society.

“By providing the basic research foundation, we can promote the development and upgrading of Alberta’s natural resources in an environmentally responsible manner,” he said. “At the same time, we are giving our students a truly world-class education—and they in turn will bring their knowledge and expertise to industry and government as engineering professionals to solve future challenges.”