Fuel for thought

Mindshare panel brings global experts together to tackle tough questions on the future of energy.


As the world tries to move away from fossil fuels to cleaner, more renewable forms of energy, the quest comes with difficult questions about what the future holds.

What energy will look like and how society gets there were the subjects of What’s Fuelling Our Future?, a panel discussion co-hosted April 18 by Universities Canada and the University of Alberta that presented perspectives from Canada, the United States, Europe and China about the challenges and opportunities of energy systems.

The first in a nationwide lecture series sponsored by Universities Canada called Mindshare, the panel event at the U of A  focused on energy, one of several issues critical to the planet that will be featured in other Mindshare events in partnership with universities across Canada.

The pinch of low energy prices is being keenly felt in Alberta, and as a leader in many facets of energy research, the U of A is producing critical work on the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on climate, health, the Arctic, forests, water and food, said David Turpin, U of A president.

The U of A is also a place where “difficult, controversial questions can be asked and discussed,” he added.

“With events like Mindshare, we create arenas in which people from different sectors can meet and attempt the challenge of confronting and unravelling the complexities of a problem together.”

Experts from the U of A, the University of California, the European Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy shared their work on various aspects of the complexities of the energy question, laying out what they see as global challenges and what comes next.

Europe: toward a common energy system


In Europe, there are several challenges the European Commission is working to overcome, said Andreea Strachinescu, head of the commission’s New Energy Technologies and Innovation Unit. A strong dependence on fossil fuels, low use of renewable energy and a need to integrate 28 member states of the European Union into a common energy system all pose issues. “We are working on this; currently we cannot speak about an integrated energy market, but that is where we want to go,” she said.

Creating a secure, affordable energy supply and improving energy infrastructure are among top goals for the EU, Strachinescu said. Their targets by the year 2020—the target year to cut emissions as set out by the Paris climate conference—include cutting greenhouse gas emissions and increasing energy efficiency by 20 per cent. The policy pillars they will work from include secure energy for all Europeans; energy that flows freely across all borders; energy-efficient jobs, products, skills and technologies; an environmentally friendly economy and new technology, she noted.

China: business as usual for now

One of the globe’s greatest users of energy, China, faces a huge challenge of its own in the form of air pollution, even in the face of rising consumption, said Junjie Zhang, an associate professor in the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California.

An economist, Zhang presented what he termed a “business as usual” forecast for China, predicting that energy consumption—which is largely coal-based at this point—will continue to rise and that carbon emissions will not have peaked before 2020.

He believes that even with unhealthy side-effects of the country’s massive industrial energy use, it is unlikely that usage will decrease in the near future, as the potential for household energy increases. The vast majority of households use a small amount, so “this leaves room for future energy consumption.”

Additionally, to protect its job growth in the fossil fuel industry, China will limit its development of renewable energy, Zhang suggested.

Advancing the science of energy

Energy is at the crux of “the most compelling challenges of our time,” noted Thom Mason, director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy. The need for new energy sources brings with it many repercussions for everything from the environment to the economy to global security, and while there are technological fixes for some of these dilemmas, there is no complete answer, Mason said.

“We don’t have the whole package of solutions yet.”

Scientific advances and partnerships between academia and industry are crucial in finding those integrated energy answers through research and innovation, and that work is beginning to happen through national labs such as the Oak Ridge facility, Mason noted.

He sees potential in developments like low-cost carbon fibre for vehicles and low-energy fabricated houses, and sees rich potential in a new initiative coming onstream, called Mission Innovation, announced at the Paris climate conference. Supported by 20 countries that have committed to doubling research and development investment over five years, the initiative will expand new energy technology to establish a global energy mix that is clean, affordable and reliable for everyone on the planet, regardless of their standard of living.

Shifting consumption will mean shifting culture

A shift in how we view that standard of living is also a necessary component for a healthy energy future, said Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair of Cultural Studies and co-director of the Petrocultures Research Group at the U of A.

While scientific research is well underway on finding solutions, little exists about the social shift people need to make about the fossil fuels that permeate every aspect of life, from cosmetics and medications to detergents and eyeglasses, he said.

“The next steps in addressing the environmental crisis will have to come from the humanities and social sciences,” Szeman said, adding that modern society needs to “map out other ways of being, behaving and belonging in relation to both old and new forms of energy.”

Though the changes we need to make to shift away from being a petroculture “are hard to name, see or grasp,” it is as important to tackle them as it is to develop new or more efficient forms of energy or carbon capture, Szeman noted.

“Without changing who and what we are, we will never manage to make the shift from petrocultures to other cultures.”

Held to mark Canada’s upcoming 150th anniversary, the Mindshare lecture series will also explore other pressing topics as it moves across the country, including cybersecurity, the Canadian immigrant experience, the new Atlantic Canada economy, and truth and reconciliation efforts, said Paul Davidson, Universities Canada president.

As problem-solvers, universities are a natural place to foster such conversations and provide a valuable opportunity to “have critical reflections about the issues that remain unfinished in this country,” Davidson said.

Watch the Mindshare panel event