Great Energy at the U

The kick-off for UNBC’s 25th anniversary celebrations occurred on Sept 2 and coincided with orientation for hundreds of first-year students. The events of the day have been captured in the news and on various social media channels, but now, one week after the festivities, it’s easy to see that the kick-off also inspired feelings of pride from people with various associations with UNBC. The Citizen published an editorial, a local CBC radio personality wrote a blog post (both authors are UNBC alumni), and long-time faculty member Todd Whitcombe penned a sincere op-ed, and they have served to magnify the atmosphere that was felt on campus that day. As a “UNBC old-timer,” it was gratifying to see new students truly interacting with people whose association with UNBC is much older than the students themselves.

It’s exactly why one of the themes for the 25th anniversary is energy. There was a real feeling of energy at the University last week, and many commented that they had never witnessed anything quite like it at UNBC. I was on campus the day the Queen visited in 1994. I’ll never forget it, but it has been great to see that level of energy resurrected many times over the years: the annual graduation ceremonies, the start of the medical program in 2004, the opening of the sport centre in 2007, and the visit from Rick Mercer a couple of years ago. Last Tuesday was one of those days.

Last Tuesday also marked the start of a new energy project that will foster the evolution of UNBC as a model for northern and remote communities. The Sustainable Communities Demonstration Project (SCDP) will connect UNBC’s bioenergy systems – especially the wood pellet system – to the residences, daycare, and the I.K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Lab. The initial phase will be a district energy system that will circulate on hot water, just like the rest of the core campus buildings. But, unlike the rest of the campus, the new SCDP will deliver heat at a lower temperature, serving as a more effective platform for demonstrating multiple renewable energy technologies, including bioenergy, that may be appropriate for deployment in rural communities. Currently, hundreds of communities across Canada burn diesel or propane to meet their energy needs.

Initial funders for the Sustainable Communities Demonstration Project. Back, from left: MLAs Shirley Bond and Amrik Virk, Michael Weedon of BC Bioenergy Network, and TransCanada Executive VP Alex Pourbaix. Front row: Mayor Stephanie Killam, UNBC President Daniel Weeks, and Brad Bennett of Pacific BioEnergy

The initial funding partners – the Government of BC, TransCanada Corporation, the Omineca Beetle Action Coalition, and the BC Bioenergy Network – announced their participation last week and local wood pellet manufacturer, Pacific BioEnergy, announced their commitment to continue donating wood pellets for the expanded system.

UNBC researcher and graduate, Titi Kunkel

Many communities and businesses care about this project. So do many employees and students. One of them spoke at the announcement. Titi Kunkel is a UNBC graduate and recently defended her PhD dissertation about the relationship between local, renewable energy and the development of Aboriginal communities. When I asked her to describe her interest in the SCDP and its value, she initially responded that it would take a 15-page paper…or two! Titi lives in Quesnel and did her research with 15 First Nations communities in the Cariboo and Chilcotin regions of BC. She’s convinced that rural and remote regions should use their vast, adjacent natural resources to generate energy that will foster their continued sustainability and that the SCDP will help show the way.

It will start on the Prince George campus, and the trailblazers will be the students in residence who will be the first beneficiaries of the new SCDP. They won’t actually feel any difference, except the pride – maybe the “energy” – of being associated with something important for communities across Canada.

Rob

 

Three cheers for good ideas

Bioenergy conference delegates at the opening reception in the Canfor Winter Garden at UNBC.

Over the last two weeks, both UNBC and Prince George have again been front-and-centre regarding energy, and bioenergy in particular. Today was the last day, for example, of the International Bioenergy Conference and Exhibition, which is held every second year in Prince George. This was the 10th anniversary of the conference and there were close to 350 people attending from all over the world: Sweden, Finland, China, New Zealand, the United States, etc. It’s the longest-running conference of its kind in Canada.

UNBC’s David Claus leads one of the tours during the bioenergy conference

For the last few years, I’ve been a member of the Board for the society that puts on the conference. Its relationship with UNBC goes back to the beginning – in 2004, the University was the site of the first conference. This year, UNBC hosted the opening reception for the conference and provided a number of tours of our bioenergy systems. It’s great exposure to some of the leading bioenergy thinkers and companies from around the world.

One of those leading thinkers is a local person who first had the idea for the bioenergy conference. John Swaan is considered to be a father of Canada’s wood pellet industry. He had his motivation in the beehive burners that were incinerating thousands of tonnes of sawmill residues in Prince George and the region in the 1990s. While some saw a waste product, John saw a business opportunity. He started a pellet-manufacturing operation in the region and was the first to ship pellets from Canada’s west coast to Europe. He was a founder of the Wood Pellet Association of Canada (WPAC) and served as its executive director through much of the 2000s. For all of those reasons, John was the first recipient of a new “Founders Award for Bioenergy Excellence” that was presented by the Board to celebrate the conference’s 10th anniversary.

On behalf of the Board for the bioenergy conference, I presented an award of excellence to John Swaan during the conference

What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that John was also an instigator of UNBC’s bioenergy project…all because of the 2010 Olympics. Seriously. In 2007, the City of Vancouver was planning the construction of the athletes’ village and had proposed that it be heated with wood pellets from northern BC. The idea didn’t garner public support, however, and so the idea wasn’t approved by Vancouver city council. John was visiting UNBC shortly after the decision and was expressing his frustration over the perception of bioenergy in metro Vancouver. The reaction from UNBC was essentially this: “If Vancouver won’t do it, we will.” John was executive director of WPAC at the time and worked with us to acquire federal funding for a small wood pellet system at the I.K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Lab that would serve as a “prototype” for a future energy system that would tie into UNBC’s existing campus district heating system. Funding was provided by the Federal Government in 2008 as part of its pine beetle recovery program and the rest is history.

Today, the two bioenergy systems on campus – the wood pellet system and the larger biomass gasification system – have offset natural gas consumption for heating by more than 70% annually. But maybe even more significantly, the project is serving as a model for northern communities and a platform for education and research.

It also continues to attract awards. The latest was awarded in Toronto last week at the Canadian Green Building Council annual convention. The Bioenergy Plant was one of only eight buildings nationwide to receive a green building award, and the comments of the jury are particularly appropriate:

This project is exemplary for bringing local energy production into view and so elevating public consciousness around ownership and responsibility. An elegant building whose expression is rooted in ’place’; a fabulous example of what more communities in Canada should be doing.

Hear, hear. It’s a story and an opportunity that UNBC is continuing develop and the bioenergy conference provided another opportunity to share it with the world.

Rob

“Close your eyes and swing for the fences”

Honorary degree recipient Michael Green in front of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre he designed

The annual Convocation ceremonies are always the highlights of the UNBC calendar. For hundreds of students every year – this year, more than 800 – Convocation is a time to celebrate accomplishments and transitions.  It’s that “transitions” part that serves as a theme of the day, and always lives in the inspirational speech that is delivered to the grad class by honorary degree recipients.

The honorary degree recipients for 2014 were ethnobotanist Nancy Turner and architect Michael Green. Both are exceptional individuals and both gave “words to live by” to the grads: Turner recounted her decades of experiences with BC First Nations and their traditional uses of plants; Green described a personal mantra to take risks and aim to change the world, which started when he broke his back in a climbing accident and barely survived.

The entrance foyer of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre

Green used a baseball metaphor – “keep your eye on the ball” – as the foundation for his speech. But he described that phrase as conventional and too safe, and chose instead to give it a twist. “Close your eyes and swing for the fences,” he told the Class of 2014. “You’ll miss a lot, but when you connect, you’ll feel like you’ve changed the world.”

Green should know. He has made a career out of turning architectural convention on its head. In a profession dominated by people who use concrete, steel, and glass, Green would appear to have made it his life mission to make wood the building material of choice. And not just for houses; for skyscrapers.

Laminated Veneer Lumber is used in the window frames

His Wood Innovation and Design Centre in downtown Prince George is the start. The 30m building is already being touted as the world’s tallest modern wood building, but Green believes it will be prototype for wood buildings that are 20, 30, or even 40 stories tall.

New technologies and new ideas can make it happen. These photos of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre show some of its interesting

The ceiling/floor structure for each floor uses staggered CLT panels

and unique features. From the top, there’s a view from the mezzanine of the entrance foyer. The beams covered with protective plastic are glulam and the floor of the mezzanine as well as the ceiling and walls is cross-laminated timber (CLT), a product made in BC by Structurlam. The next photo shows Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) which is used in the staircase leading from the ground level to the mezzanine as well as in the window

Pipes that connect the Wood Innovation and Design Centre to the City’s bioenergy system

frames (as shown here) throughout the building. Finally, there’s a nice photo from the top storey of the building that shows the ceiling structure of alternating CLT panels. This contributes to the building’s strength while also providing space for electrical and telecommunications cables.

On the outside, the white plastic that has covered the building for a few months has finally been removed, once again providing a good view of the building both from the street and the webcams that have been capturing the progress since the first beam was installed. And now that the structure is complete, pipes are being installed that will connect the Wood Innovation and Design Centre to Prince George’s district energy system. This system, which originates at the Lakeland Mill, brings hot water to a number of buildings throughout the downtown core. The outside of the building also features wooden boards that have been slightly burned, releasing the wood’s natural preservative. Click here for a video about how it’s done.

When it’s completed the Wood Innovation and Design Centre will house proposed new master’s degree programming in engineering that will focus on wood design and the use of wood in large structures. It’s a new area for UNBC, and the program’s first professor was just recently appointed.

All in all, with so many developments on site recently, the presentation of an honorary degree to Michael Green came at a perfect time. And he hit the nail on the head with his message to the grads. Much is said these days of skills and technical expertise and certainly, the Class of 2014 is leaving UNBC with abilities to excel in their chosen careers or professions. But Green’s story – and his experience with the Wood Innovation and Design Centre – proves that passion, creativity, and imagination still count for a lot.

Rob

Sensibility About Sustainability

It’s the largest academic conference UNBC has hosted: nearly 500 academics from 26 countries around the world. They are here for the eighth congress presented by the International Arctic Social Science Association and the theme is “Northern Sustainabilities.” Through hundreds of research presentations, workshops, lectures, and seminars, the delegates are being exposed to various ideas and perspectives on economic, social, cultural, and environmental sustainability – all from a northern lens. It’s great.

Sverker Sorlin speaks to nearly 350 people at UNBC during the International Congress of Arctic Social Sciences

I took in a session from Swedish academic Sverker Sorlin, an expert in the notion of “environmental humanities” – the idea that understanding the environment and sustainability is as much social and cultural as it is technical and biological. The Canfor Theatre was packed for his presentation, which examined the history of glacier research in Scandinavia and how it has been shaped by local and regional perceptions of place while also contributing to international knowledge about the changing global climate.

His presentation came at the end of a week that also saw a UNBC glacier specialist attract international media coverage. UNBC professor and Canada Research Chair Brian Menounos had been interviewed about a major American climate change report that targeted the rapid melt of glaciers in BC and Alaska as a critical issue. Menounos is a leading researcher on the topic and has been working with researchers from Alaska, Washington State, Alberta, and BC to document the changes among BC’s glaciers. And have the changes been significant? Yes, with an exclamation point, according to the US report, with implications for electrical production, fisheries, and sea level rise.

Brian Menounos (right) and Matt Beedle examine a moraine left behind by Castle Creek Glacier

In 2008, I traveled with Menounos and his PhD student at the time, Matt Beedle, to the Castle Creek Glacier near McBride to photograph their research and make the early results available to the media. Later, we worked with a video crew to produce a story for the Weather Network and UNBC’s YouTube channel. Six years later, the research appears to finally be getting major attention: the story on CBC generated more than 1400 comments, with another 1000 on the National Post website. Part of the reason for the high levels of interest must be the striking data that Menounos and his team present: BC’s 17,000 glaciers are permanently losing 22 billion cubic metres of water per year. That’s enough to fill BC Place Stadium 8300 times! Beyond the striking data is the conclusion that global warming caused by consumption of fossil fuels is largely to blame. “We know what we need to do,” Menounos is quoted as saying by the Canadian Press (and subsequently reprinted). “It’s not an easy decision, but we have to start, I would argue, thinking about changing our reliance on fossil fuels.”

Sverker Sorlin would agree. People do have a role to play. “If we use the next generation wisely,” he said at the end of his talk at UNBC, “and use our conscience as much as our brains, we might finally deliver on northern sustainability.”

Rob

 

100 years since the last spike

The “famous ” last spike at Craigellachie, BC

Most Canadians associate this photo with “The last spike.” The ceremony marked the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Canada’s first transcontinental railway, in 1885.

It was nearly 30 years before a second route to the west was completed: the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. 100 years ago today (April 7), the Grand Trunk Pacific was completed, connecting Prince Rupert to Winnipeg. The last spike was driven about 137 km west of Prince George, near the community of Fort Fraser.

This other “last spike” ceremony is much less known but it changed northern BC forever. The GTP went on to become Canadian National and remains a vital transportation corridor linking northern BC to the east and, thanks to the Port of Prince Rupert, to the world

The anniversary almost went by without anyone really noticing. Thankfully, deep in the Archives of Northern BC, a photo of the event was discovered and shared.  It was shot by Parker Bonney, who had a long history in northern BC as a forester and surveyor before he passed away in 1977. The photo is one of 600 of Bonney’s images that are being preserved by the Archives.

Click here for more information about the story.

UNBC Archivist Ramona Rose shows Parker Bonney’s photo of “the last spike” for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad

When UNBC was first established, it was described by some founders as the most significant development for northern BC “since the coming of the railroad.” 100 years after the coming of the railroad, it’s appropriate that UNBC has a part in preserving that history.

Rob

“You could work on this for 10 years and still not have all the answers” – UNBC students host a symposium on LNG

The expansion of the BC natural gas industry to possibly include LNG terminals for export is one of the biggest topics in northern BC. And when there’s a big economic topic, you can count on UNBC Economics students to talk about it.

For many years now, they’ve presented an annual symposium on the main economic issues of the day: the BC carbon tax (2008), the 2010 Olympics and Paralympics (2005), the Northern Gateway pipeline (2011). Today, it was LNG and students asked “What Should BC Do With Its Natural Gas?” The event was so popular, extra chairs were needed.

A good crowd on campus for the Natural Gas Symposium

The symposium was sponsored by Fortis BC and the company took a unique approach to the event. Rather than simply provide the University with funds to attract external speakers, the Fortis sponsorship provided four students with $1500 research grants to explore different parts of the natural gas issue. Their papers – covering topics such as the production of natural gas, domestic consumption vs export, and environmental and social impacts – served as the basis for the opening discussion and framed the program for the remainder of the day.

UNBC students Deng Menyang, Joshua Mann, Claire Stechishin, and Adam Vickers

Claire Stechishin provided data on global natural gas consumption and the relationship between producers (Russia, Canada, the US) and consumers (the US, China, Europe) that is based on infrastructure such as pipelines. Deng Menyang followed this with data on the global flow of LNG from countries such as Qatar, Malaysia, and Australia to distant markets in Europe and Asia. Clearly, liquefaction technology is changing longstanding relationships between producers and consumers and allowing countries in Asia especially to rapidly increase their natural gas consumption (from 13-19% of global natural gas consumption in the last decade alone). Adam Vickers then showed how an LNG industry in BC might nearly double the natural gas industry’s greenhouse gas emissions and he highlighted other social factors: the supply of skilled labour, the housing stock available for workers, and consequences for security and sovereignty. Joshua Mann concluded by focusing on the situation for BC, which ended up being presented as a series of questions:

  • Are the people in the northern region likely to benefit from the LNG opportunity in terms of employment?
  • Are the airsheds around proposed LNG terminals able to handle increased industrial emissions?
  • How will First Nations communities and municipalities be affected?
  • Are provincial and federal laws appropriate and will they be enforced?
  • How will we – or should we – invest any royalties from natural gas?

All are good questions and led to Joshua’s statement that “You could work on this for 10 years and still not have all the answers.” True. But all of the students acknowledged that their research project gave them more knowledge than they had before they began five months ago. They also know that there is still much more to learn. Joshua summed it up well: “I know more but I have more questions now than when I started on this research five months ago.”

Rob

Ottawa – “Linkages are key”

Both the governments of Canada and British Columbia have clearly expressed their desire to move landlocked energy (both gas and oil) to the Pacific Ocean for export to Asia. Northern BC literally sits in the middle of this issue, giving the region unusual prominence in Ottawa. UNBC has never had a high profile in our nation’s capital, but it’s appropriate for that to change if the North is to increase the local pool of skills and add capacity in related research and innovation.

One group critical to building the UNBC profile in Ottawa is alumni. Though still relatively small in number, UNBC graduates in Ottawa include Industry Minister James Moore and dozens more. I met with a group of alumni in Ottawa last week to get their ideas on how UNBC can best meet the challenge of responding to the energy issue in ways that respect economic development, environmental sustainability, and community vitality.

UNBC grads in Ottawa. From left: Jamie Campbell, Patrick Sampson, Natalie Vogt, Mike Speakman, Judy Mitchell, Paul Way, and Laura Way.

“Linkages with decision-makers here are key,” said one.

“UNBC could be a knowledge broker,” said another.

“You could be a source of expertise on federal aspects of natural resource developments.”

“UNBC could promote itself as the University of the corridor from northern Alberta to the west coast.”

These alumni have a certain insight, being employed in ministries such as Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development and Natural Resources Canada. One is a specialist in cross-border issues. Another is coordinating a national study on First Nations food, nutrition, and the environment. One developed the new strategic framework for the Canadian Forest Service that involved two years of consultation about sustainable forests. Another is a finance specialist. One is a manager for the Treasury Board. The group even had expertise on the oil sands.

Did this group of alumni represent the upper echelon of decision-making in Ottawa? No, but they represent something perhaps more important. They’re bringing new ideas and northern perspectives to the capital and contributing to an emerging sense of “open innovation.” It’s rooted in an appreciation that not all of the smart people are in Ottawa. In fact, “the idea of this city being the central source of knowledge is disappearing,” said one graduate. There’s increased appreciation for diffuse and diverse expertise that can contribute to better decisions, he said. It was this statement that offered a glimpse into UNBC’s potential contribution. It may be precisely that UNBC is NOT in Ottawa that makes it most valuable to the national discussion on energy, but also to policy discussions in any number of areas of consequence to Canada and its northern regions. If there’s a greater interest in assembling knowledge from across the country in the pursuit of better decisions in Ottawa, northern BC is well-positioned.

Rob

 

 

Natural + Human Resources = the New North

The annual natural resources forum earlier this week has become one of the most anticipated events of the year in Prince George. Launched nearly a dozen years ago by former MLA Pat Bell, the event draws residents from around northern BC to hear the latest information from high-ranking executives of the companies doing business in the region. And they shared a lot of information. Topics covered multi-storey wood buildings (“the future of the industry” according to West Fraser), Liquefied natural gas (“literally transforming the face of our country forever” according to Premier Clark), mining (“BC’s competitive edge is the availability of freshwater and power” said Tony Jensen of New Gold), electricity generation (“It’s delusional to think rates won’t go up” predicted Donald McInnes of Alterra), and bioenergy (“all of the knowledge we have of this sector is going to double in the next 18 months” suggested Ken Shields of Conifex Timber and President of the Canadian Bioenergy Association).

For all the talk of resources, a significant part of the conversation also focused on people. The LNG proponents all talked about the challenge of attracting skilled labour to both construct and operate the export terminals as well as in upstream gas extraction. Leroy Reitsma of Pinnacle Pellet linked the attraction of talent to cost-competitiveness.  And Heather Oland of Initiatives Prince George presented two imperatives: training labour for industry and educating citizens for communities.

MLAs and UNBC alumni meet to discuss the future of the North during a breakfast held prior to the start of the Natural Resources Forum

Heather was one of three UNBC alumni who occupied the podium during the forum (the others were Tracey Wolsey of Suncor and Jason Fisher of Dunkley Lumber). She is the head of Prince George’s economic development agency and was also one of 30 graduates who participated in a breakfast with about 25 MLAs immediately prior to the start of the Natural Resources Forum. The MLAs were in Prince George for a caucus meeting the day before and the gathering with grads was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When else could a small group of grads have access to so many MLAs, including the Ministers of Health, Education, Advanced Education, Jobs, Aboriginal Affairs, and Community Development? The alumni group included CEOs, Executive Directors, entrepreneurs, and chiefs representing sectors ranging from forestry, energy, and mining to local government, public health, and education.

Gradually, it’s becoming apparent that while alumni may not – yet – be occupying senior positions in the corporations making major investments in the region, it’s easy to find them in influential positions throughout the region. And they’re trailblazers. Derek Baker is one example. Even before he graduated with his Commerce degree in 2011, he was the first-ever economic development intern at the Northern Development Initiative Trust. He was posted in Prince Rupert and since then, the Prince George native has gone on to become the first employee of Pacific Northwest LNG, a proposed natural gas liquefaction facility within the District of Port Edward (just south of Prince Rupert) that would export natural gas extracted by Progress Energy in northeastern BC and delivered by a pipeline to be constructed by TransCanada. The majority shareholder in the project – Petronas – estimates the total investment at $36 billion.

UNBC grad Derek Baker: “The opportunity to learn and work in the North has never been greater”

And this is just one of the proposed projects.

It’s an opportunity not lost on Derek Baker. “Potential investments in the tens of billions of dollars represent significant employment opportunities in a diverse range of professions including engineering, environmental studies, business analysis, and administration to name a few,” says Baker, who is the company’s community relations advisor. “The education I received at UNBC has been the foundation on which I have built my career. UNBC is the only school that provides education through a Northern BC lens; introducing you to and preparing you for situations, opportunities and challenges unique to working in Northern BC.”

Good luck to all of the UNBC alumni applying their education, skills, and values to the many diverse resource development questions currently being explored in Northern BC. The region depends on them.

Rob

“People Feel This” – the effects of natural resource projects explored at UNBC

I remember a conversation that I had early in my UNBC career with a visiting forestry expert. I can’t remember his name or title but he was involved with a national forestry organization. It was probably 15 years ago. He was describing a revolution that he was witnessing in balancing economic, environmental, and social values related to the forest and how this was affecting forest practices, policy, employment, and forest products. His was a call to forestry programs to change what they were doing to reflect this new reality. I didn’t get it – I thought pursuing the balance between all of those things was already happening at UNBC. “Am I missing something?” I asked him. “No,” he acknowledged, and then he impressed upon me how fortunate we were at UNBC to have new programming and to be based in a region that understood and valued the forest.

UNBC Dean Dan Ryan addresses participants during a workshop on cumulative effects

I was remembering this during a workshop that was held at UNBC this weekend. The workshop was historic in that it brought together three UNBC research institutes – on community development, natural resources and the environment, and health – to host a single event for the first time. But it was the topic – the cumulative effects of multiple natural resource development projects around northern BC – that attracted more than 100 people from throughout the region. The event was financially supported by the BC Oil and Gas Commission.

“Cumulative effects” are generally understood to be the additive and often unpredictable outcomes of multiple development activities over a period of time and in a particular place. Of course, the topic is a big one in northern BC today as multiple projects, such as pipelines and mines, are discussed in places that may also already have active forestry, agriculture, and/or fishing and hunting activities. What might be the consequences of all of these activities? Jobs and economic growth represent part of the answer but attendees also sought to understand the environmental, social, cultural, and health effects.

For those curious about the future consequences of an expanded oil and gas sector in northern BC, for example, the presentations from the Northeast proved to be eye-opening. Fort St John mayor Lori Ackerman was quick to remind the crowd that the “NG” in “LNG” comes from the northeast corner of the province and that for every dollar invested on the North Coast in the form of LNG terminals, six dollars would be invested in her area in extracting, processing, and sending natural gas. She spoke about the deliberate transformation the community has made from being “destitute” in the 1980s and ’90s to the bustling city of 21,000 that it is today, en route to projections of having 40,000 inhabitants before leveling off. Not so fast, suggested Lana Lowe of the Fort Nelson First Nations. She spoke emotionally about elders feeling unwelcome on their own lands, heavy water use for fracking, and ecological disruption for roads to service new well-sites. As noted in my first blog post, the Fort Nelson area is at the frontier of natural gas development in BC and if LNG goes ahead, Lana predicted that there would be a 600% increase in drilling activity over the next 20 years, representing 3,000 new wells and 4,500 km of new roads. The comment was reminiscent of a remark made during a presentation earlier in the day by Chris Johnson, UNBC’s first PhD graduate, who described the general public’s understanding of cumulative effects as “Death by a thousand cuts: a thousand clear-cuts, a thousand roads, a thousand wells.”

Workshop participants share ideas during a break-out session exploring environmental effects of resource developments.

So what to do? Just say no? Just say yes?

After numerous passionate presentations from university and community people alike, UNBC professor Mike Gillingham noted that “People feel this; it’s more than just a research area for us.” Indeed, it’s about the future of the region. And it’s about values and priorities.

It’s also about being educated, and not just in ecological processes. UNBC professor Kathy Lewis gave a fascinating presentation about how economics and politics have become primary forces on the land and how “good things” like local economic development can often bring unintended consequences that greatly reduce the resilience of the forest. One of her examples was the recent outbreak of the mountain pine beetle. The beetle’s population explosion has been blamed on climate change; that winters aren’t as cold as they used to be. But lack of species diversity in the forest has also been a major factor. Simply put, on the eve of the beetle infestation, our forests were full of mature pine trees. And mature spruce and Douglas-fir. The forest industry’s preference for those species had the effect, Dr. Lewis says, of gradually reducing the biodiversity of the forest, thereby making it more susceptible to insect outbreaks. A solution would appear to be planting more different kinds of trees, thereby increasing the diversity and resilience of the forest. But doing so would exacerbate a looming post-beetle timber supply shortfall and put local sawmill operations at even greater risk. Many communities that rely on the jobs in the existing forest industry model wouldn’t be able to accept this scenario and so the current cycle continues.

UNBC professor Kathy Lewis says that when thinking about cumulative effects, don’t forget about economics and politics.

But maybe there’s another way. Maybe, just like that conversation I had 15 years ago, UNBC can take advantage of its youth and location to foster a new, modern discussion that truly involves people, brings industry and governments together, and fosters educational experiences for all students within the diverse communities and environments of the region. The results would be enhanced access to information and an army of alumni possessing unique skills and attitudes oriented to addressing the complex social, environmental, health, economic, and cultural issues of the region with respect to resource developments. In this regard, gaining an understanding of cumulative effects and impacts is more than a topic for a weekend workshop; it’s an approach to delivering on the mission of the University.

After all, as UNBC Canada Research Chair Margot Parkes identified, words that begin with “eco” have their origins in the Greek word for “house” and the Latin word for “household.” That is, ecosystems and economies aren’t distant; they’re where we live.

And for Lana Lowe, living with the multiple consequences of energy development, “It lifts me up just knowing that there are people like you talking about these things.”

Rob

Iceland: opening both eyes and minds

I’ve worked at UNBC for more than 21 years now and one of the best parts has been meeting students who have a certain attitude or charisma; you just know they’ll change the world. Over the years, some of these students have become politicians and CEOs but many more have quietly brought their values and smarts to their workplaces and communities and simply made things better.

I hope to use this blog to introduce some of these future leaders to you and have them share some of their perspectives and ideas. Jordan Carlson is the first. He attended a summer school on energy in Iceland over the summer and was really inspired by the experience. Here’s his story, the first of what I hope will be many guest blog posts from UNBC students.

UNBC student Jordan Carlson, recently back from Iceland

In July and August this year, I was lucky enough to attend a renewable energy summer school program at Reykjavik University in Iceland – then known as part of the REYST (Reykjavik University programme in Sustainable Energy), and now a part of the university’s Iceland School of Energy. The reason I say lucky is because the financial support of UNBC’s Green Fund, UNBC’s Department of Physics, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, and UNBC’s Dean of Student Success allowed me to be in Reykjavik from July 26th until August 17th, attending the program.

Now, what most people have asked me about this trip is simple (and you’re probably already thinking it): why go to Iceland to study renewable energy? The answer is equally simple; no other region on the planet gets as much of its energy from renewable sources as Iceland does. Approximately 85% of Icelandic energy comes from either hydroelectricity or geothermal heat and power; the remaining 15% of their energy consumption is fossil fuels, used for transport both by consumers and by industry. All of the country’s electricity comes from renewables – roughly 75% hydroelectric, 25% geothermal – and more than 95% of the country’s heating requirements are met by geothermal hot water sources, piped throughout homes, businesses, and the rest of the country.

Though a unique situation, what lessons can be learned from Iceland’s energy sector – especially for BC, a region that similarly relies on hydro power? In my opinion, quite a few.

A geothermal heating plant near Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland’s choice of renewable energy sources is primarily due to its geography. Few other regions of the planet have the volcanic activity and water resources that Iceland does, giving Icelanders nearly unrivaled capacity to make use of hydro and geothermal energy sources. Through exploiting the natural bounty of the region, they are able to pump incredibly hot groundwater throughout their towns, cities, and industrial regions to provide the heat they require in their day-to-day lives. The water is then pumped back into the ground to rejoin the geothermal cycle after its heat has been captured and used by Icelanders. As a result, so long as overdrawing is avoided, Iceland’s geothermal resources are entirely renewable and sustainable. The country’s freshwater, glacier-fed rivers, which provide a great deal of hydropower for its citizens, are similarly sustainable so long as they are managed properly.

The way that Iceland uses its energy is also instructive. Over 75% of the country’s electricity production is consumed by industry – primarily aluminum smelting. A large portion of Iceland’s energy projects, in fact, are designed from the outset to enable the creation of new industries to strengthen the Icelandic economy. British Columbia has done some of this in the past – such as the dam that was built to provide power for a Rio Tinto Alcan plant – but the choices behind dam location, construction, and other controls can be controversial. Nevertheless, the idea of using a power project to create the necessary grid capacity for new industries is a very powerful one – especially when combined with developing new knowledge in emerging technologies, and using that knowledge as an economic boost through exporting it.

Finally, one of the most surprising things learned while I was in Iceland was the scale of historical ecological devastation the country has seen. Since settlement, Icelanders have (primarily prior to the “Little Ice Age” of the 18th Century) destroyed over 90% of the country’s initial vegetation, whether forest or otherwise. Less than 5% of the birch forest that existed prior to settlement still stands. The result of this massive loss of vegetation has been vast deserts of black, volcanic sand that are not natural: they are a result of settlers cutting forests in order to build their homes and get wood for fuel, and allowing sheep to massively overgraze the local vegetation.

The extent of damage done to the environment was so extreme that, when the local environment suffered between 1700 and 1900, the Icelandic population crashed from over 300,000 to less than 60,000 at the turn of the 20th Century. Over the course of the past hundred years, Iceland’s population has rebounded to 320,000, but this population crash due to lost vegetation is a very clear warning of the danger posed by ecological damages over time. It gradually took place over nearly a thousand years, but the cumulative damage caused by Icelanders to their homeland nearly caused their own extinction.

To me, the primary lesson from all of this is that the best way to approach a sustainable energy system is to look at what resources are locally available – and to make use of them. Through building local expertise in geothermal and hydroelectric energy systems, Iceland has created an industry they are able to export, both through consulting firms and education programs, such as the one I attended. As British Columbia is a region rich in energy resources – natural gas, biomass, wind, hydro, geothermal, and even solar and waste energy – this serves as a potential model. By choosing a sphere in which few other parts of the world currently have expertise, British Columbians could develop a world-leading program in, for example, energy from forest biomass, and then export this knowledge directly through consulting engineering firms and designing energy systems for other parts of the world, and indirectly through attracting students and researchers who wish to investigate that form of energy. As a result, it is possible to look at the choices we make with regards to energy resources as a form of double-investment. First, we will be using those sources for as long as the infrastructure lasts (typically, between 40 and 100 years). Second, we can, by developing specialized knowledge and expertise, create an exportable commodity – knowledge and experience that only our province would have – thus resulting in economic gains for the province as a whole.

Feel free to share your own opinions on Jordan’s conclusions.

Rob