Award illustrates local connections and value

UNBC’s Environmental Leadership award from the PG Chamber of Commerce

On the eve of the annual Maclean’s ranking of Canadian universities, UNBC is enjoying two recent honours: one national, one local. The national recognition came courtesy of the Globe and Mail in its annual Canadian University Report, published last week. The Globe’s survey of universities covers topics ranging from class size and quality of teaching to career opportunities for grads. UNBC earned an A or A- in a number of categories, but it was in one category – environmental commitment – where UNBC scored the top mark in Canada: an A. Only 5 other universities in Canada earned an A and UNBC was the only one in BC.

The green theme continued this weekend when the Prince George Chamber of Commerce presented UNBC with the “environmental leadership” award at the annual local Business Excellence Awards. It was at the Chamber’s event where I was reminded how our work related to energy and sustainability involves so many others from business and the community.

One example is a project that has been underway related to ash utilization from bioenergy systems. The aim of the research has been to quantify the composition of ash and its value as a soil amendment to enhance plant growth. Look at how just this one project involved those at the Chamber awards banquet:

  • One of the researchers has been Bill McGill, a UNBC soil scientist and the Chamber’s past-president who was sitting in the front row when I accepted the environmental leadership award on behalf of UNBC.
  • The primary funder of the research was Canfor, sponsor of the Chamber’s service excellence award.
  • Fuel for the bioenergy plant is provided by Lakeland Mills, which is part of Sinclar Group Forest Products (nominated for business of the year) and led by Sinclar CEO Greg Stewart (a nominee for business person of the year).

The faculty and students who were involved in the research took ash from UNBC and other nearby bioenergy facilities and added biosolids from the local wastewater treatment plant to come up with a fertilizer that was rich in nutrients, organic matter, and nitrogen. It was applied in trials at both PRT’s tree nursery near Prince George and Taseko Mine’s Gibraltar copper-molybdenum mine site northeast of Williams Lake. The trials showed that the ash-biosolids mixture can enhance plant growth by as much as 200%.

This research is significant for what it contributes to the continuum of forest management and how “waste” can be valuable: trees are harvested to make forest products, the residuals (formerly called “wood waste”) from sawmills are utilized in bioenergy systems to produce energy, and the ash (waste from energy production) can then be used to foster the growth of more trees. This project is also a perfect example of how a university can demonstrate environmental leadership that has real value to a chamber of commerce, and the business/community interests it represents.

Rob

Creativity in Fort St. John

Richard Florida speaks in Fort St. John about the “creative class”

People involved with the energy industry often lament that “regular people” have a dangerous lack of information about the sector. This ignorance, they say, either leads people to take energy resources for granted or fall prey to emotional perspectives that don’t consider “the facts.”

Fort St. John hosted the region’s annual energy conference this past week and attendees frequently talked about the importance of increasing energy literacy. Pipelines, natural gas, temporary foreign workers, the oil sands, work camps, municipal advancements in renewable energy, the regulatory environment, and First Nations involvement in energy were all discussed. They’re big topics, vital to a comprehensive level of literacy about the energy sector in the region, its impacts, and contributions. It provided a great opportunity to learn, question, and just have a conversation with people who know a lot about the energy sector.

In fact, maybe the only word used more than “literacy” over the last few days in Fort St. John was “conversation.” Tracey Wolsey, a fellow UNBC Political Science grad who now works for oilsands giant Suncor, tapped me on the shoulder during one presentation to whisper that replacing the word “debate” with “conversation” might actually be one of the most important things we can do as a region when we consider our future with the energy sector. She wasn’t the only one to talk this way. Dianne Hunter, city manager of Fort St. John, titled her presentation on work camps “We are in this together” to illustrate the blurred lines between camps, host communities, home communities, big companies, small local service firms, transient workers, and long-time local residents. “Industry talks about projects,” she said. “We talk about communities.”

UNBC’s Greg Halseth speaks about work camps

Those communities have a lot at stake. UNBC prof Greg Halseth believes that Northern BC is on the cusp of what could be its most significant transformation in 50 years and he is currently studying the state of readiness in four regional communities: Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Terrace, and Prince George. During his presentation, he also identified conversation to be a vital prerequisite of local readiness related to economic growth.

Conversation sounds easy enough, but it isn’t. Part of the reason is the increased concentration of people in big cities. We’ve become Homo Urbanus – people of cities – increasingly divorced from many of the aspects of what sustains our lives and livelihoods. Sure, city dwellers need energy literacy, but they also have little daily exposure to how their food is produced, where fresh water comes from, or what really generates economic prosperity.

Nevertheless, the growth of cities has been described by some as a sign of progress; evidence of the emergence of a new creative class. Richard Florida was a professor in the United States when he wrote The Rise of the Creative Class a decade ago, describing a transformation that had been occurring in employment patterns. Never before, he argued, had “the creative class” (comprised of people in such diverse fields as biotechnology, financial services, education, the arts, engineering, etc) represented such a large part of society and this was especially evident in big cities. He was the keynote speaker in Fort St. John, and I wondered how a presentation about the creative class would go over in a city at the centre of the resource sector. His presentation was spellbinding and later I thought about why I was worried. Why did I think that there would automatically be conflict between cities and rural areas with respect to the creative class? Instead, Florida suggested that natural resources and creativity can go together like a hand in a glove. It’s true.

This may be the essence of our region’s future; to put creativity – more than literacy, more than conversation – at the centre of how we participate in the resource sector. This would change the conversation about our readiness as a region and how we might want to benefit from resource development. It would also make our region an indispensable contributor to new understanding about how resource development, environmental sustainability, and community vitality can co-exist. It implies leadership, innovation, and capacity-building in the place where the resource extraction occurs. I like it.

Rob

Engineering our Future

What will northern BC be like in a decade? This question was in my head today at the annual Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) convention in Vancouver. A special event brought together 300 northern mayors, councilors, regional district directors, and other hangers-on like me to hear Rich Coleman – the BC minister of LNG – speak about how the development of liquefied natural gas export capacity will transform BC and the communities of the North.  Indeed, the promise is spectacular. Coleman suggested the investment in LNG infrastructure (pipelines, export terminals) would be about $100 billion, dwarfing the $3+ billion investment in the modernization of Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminum smelter in Kitimat, which is the largest single project in northern BC presently.

Coleman’s speech was designed to wipe away any doubt that “energy” is the most significant issue in northern BC and the province as a whole. It was also designed to instill a sense of urgency; that BC is in a race with other countries to supply Asia with natural gas. Winning this race, Coleman argues, is essential if BC is to reap the economic benefits that would subsequently fund health care, education, and other government services the citizens of the province enjoy. The race seems to be rapidly reaching a climax, as Coleman indicated that many of the companies pursuing LNG opportunities in BC – Shell, Chevron, Petronas, and BG among them – are eyeing “go or no-go” decisions in the fourth quarter of 2014.  These decisions will coincidentally come as UNBC is celebrating its 25th anniversary and Prince George is preparing to host the Canada Games.

How will their decisions affect northern BC? And how will northerners work to steer these decisions for the benefit of their communities and the environment?

One option was on the UBCM agenda today: the expansion of engineering education and complementary technical training at colleges. In fact, the expansion of engineering education was the City of Prince George’s lone resolution to the UBCM membership, and it passed this morning, just before Coleman’s presentation. Engineering is significant for two reasons:

  • the growth of the northern resource economy is requiring greater numbers of engineers to actually conceive of and design the infrastructure being proposed, be they pipelines or local bioenergy systems. After being in operation for a generation, UNBC possesses incredible evidence that people educated here are likely to stay here and it’s believed that the region needs a few hundred more engineers.
  • Engineers create. They dream up new ideas. They question. They devise solutions. Their ingenuity is needed in the North to develop new opportunities and new businesses, rooted in an understanding and appreciation of the local context and environment.

Currently, UNBC partners with UBC to offer a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Engineering. This will be joined by a graduate-level engineering program that will focus on forest products and be based at the new Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George. The typical student in this new master’s program will be an existing engineer who wishes to acquire additional education in wood products and utilization (such as in multi-story buildings). These are important programs for the region, but newly trained engineers are also critical, in such specialties as civil and mechanical engineering.

Adding undergraduate engineering programs won’t be easy. On the flight to Vancouver today, I read the draft first chapter of a new book about the history of UNBC that is expected to be published in 2015. Written by History professor Jonathan Swainger, the chapter recounts the founding of the northern colleges in the 1960s and 70s and how the efforts to create them served to inform the campaign that would come later to establish UNBC. These efforts were defined by local understanding of the critical nature of post-secondary education to regional development/diversification, the reluctance of governments to invest, and the ability of founders to achieve regional cooperation. It may not be so different today. While the colleges and university are in place, the communities of the region (their citizens, businesses, and governments) still play a critical role in identifying and advancing educational programming to increase their capacity and realize their future promise.

Rob

Time to LEED

It can be easy to be skeptical of third-party rating systems. After years of being part of the Maclean’s university ranking system and similar exercises, I tend to feel that local character can lose out when we rush to compare apples with apples.

One rating system that seems to be succeeding (at least to an outsider like me) is the LEED certification program for buildings. LEED (which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has been around for more than a decade in Canada and has gained international credibility. It tracks things like water usage and energy conservation as well as the actual practices used in construction to give buildings a score. UNBC announced on Wednesday that its Bioenergy Plant has received the top mark possible – platinum – making it the first building in northern BC and the first of any university building in BC to earn that mark of achievement. LEED Platinum was the top grade UNBC could have achieved. It’s like getting an A+.

UNBC President Iwama announces LEED Platinum certification for the Bioenergy Plant

It’s more recognition for the Bioenergy Plant, which has attracted more awards now than any other single UNBC initiative. Beyond the details of the LEED certification (which requires architects, builders, engineers, and building owners to track many details related to design, construction, and operation), the platinum certification serves as another reminder that what we’re doing in northern BC around bioenergy is a real achievement. And there’s no need to stop now.

Coincidentally, on the same day as the UNBC announcement, the Vancouver Sun published an article about new analysis from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (which is based at UVic and has other universities – including UNBC – as partners) that calls wood biomass “an untapped resource.” The PICS study essentially says that many rural and off-grid communities could operate local heating/energy systems with wood that is harvested as part of local fire abatement measures; let alone the residuals from the manufacture of wood products. To quote the Sun: “Biomass that is routinely collected and burned in the name of forest management around BC’s small and remote towns could generate clean energy…and replace 30-50% of the fossil fuels used in BC.”

This latest evidence – and UNBC’s latest award – came on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. It would seem that many rural communities, researchers, and citizens also have a dream in 2013: to realize the value of their adjacent resources to provide energy to their communities, create and sustain jobs, and gain independence from diesel-powered generators. It’s time to do it.

Rob

The Remote Frontier

There are nearly 300 off-grid communities in Canada and this province has more of them than any other province or territory in Canada. I’ve been discovering that a number of individuals and organizations are keen to change this statistic and one of them is the Clean Technology Community Gateway (CTCG), which is chaired by UNBC Chancellor, John MacDonald. CTCG is a small organization that is bringing public and private sector organizations together to suggest energy solutions for rural and remote communities. It’s also stimulating discussion through the publication of reports. The latest – The Remote Frontier – is a good guide for companies contemplating deployment of technologies to rural places. I met the publication’s author – Alia Lamadaar – many metres above the street in downtown Vancouver recently. I always find it a bit odd talking about rural and northern communities from the heart of metropolitan cities, but Alia’s report provides an excellent overview of the current situation in rural communities. Her perspective is valuable and led to my request that she provide the “guest blog post” below.

Alia Lamaadar, COO of the CleanTech Community Gateway, a Vancouver-based organization assisting rural communities with renewable energy system deployment.

The Abundance Conundrum – by Alia Lamaadar

“Dr. John Macdonald once said that, “in BC, all renewable energy sources known to man are present, and they’re present here in abundance…[BC] could become a global renewable energy centre. All we really need is the will to do it.” Described as the “father of high-tech in BC,” Macdonald is a man who knows a thing or two about opportunity and innovation. But, given the work that I do for the Clean Technology Community Gateway (CTCG), helping remote communities across Canada to benefit from renewable energy, I’m acutely aware that when it comes to abundance, there is a difference between availability and accessibility. While BC’s availability of renewable energy resources could be described as an embarrassment of riches, a much smaller proportion of these resources are reasonably accessible given current geographic, technical, economic and environmental limitations.

Similar to BC, Iceland has an abundance of resources with the potential to vastly exceed their own energy needs. The larger question posed by resource abundance is: if a region has an overabundance of a globally coveted product, should it export it or keep it for its own use?

Export to Market
The most frequently considered development pathway when evaluating resources in BC is that of transporting the power to market either for local consumption or export—in the case of electricity this is usually accomplished through connection to the central power grid. When considering export to foreign markets, market forces typically dictate that suppliers will choose to export their commodity to those markets where they can fetch the highest price—the result being increased domestic prices as supply leaves the country. Eager to reach the better paying customers of Europe, Iceland’s power company has conducted extensive research into the possibility of a massive submarine interconnector to plug Iceland into Europe’s electricity grid. The proposed path for the cable would ultimately reach continental Europe, nearly 2000 kilometers away. While offering higher export revenues and the potential to rely on continental energy supplies as emergency backup, the idea has not been universally well received: the cable has been projected to cost more than $2 billion and disparaging comparisons have been made equating Iceland to an ice-covered version of Middle Eastern nations addicted to easy money from energy exports.

As part of its Integrated Resource Plan, the Clean Energy Act directs BC Hydro to study the potential to acquire electricity for the purpose of export. To date, BC Hydro’s analysis has shown that market conditions are not conducive to selling clean electricity into export markets. BC Hydro has noted that made-in-BC power faces relative disadvantages, including longer distances to market and challenging terrain. “Further, the U.S. tax credits for renewable energy, decreased interest in advancing greenhouse gas emissions regulations, and low natural gas prices create an unfavourable environment for made-in-BC power.”

Stranded resources face even more severe technical and economic realities. As an example, Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of remote communities off of BC’s Northwest Coast, is gifted with an abundance of renewable resources. An undersea transmission line to the mainland grid of the required length and voltage required could cost in the range of hundreds of millions of dollars for a distance of under 200 kilometers.

Local Use & Place-Based Industry
BC has approximately 80 remote communities scattered across the province and largely reliant on dirty and expensive diesel power generation. A persuasive business case can often be made in favour of distributed generation renewable energy to meet their heat and power needs. In the case of Iceland, the country has relied quite extensively on the use of its vast geothermal and hydro resources to meet local demand. Currently 95 percent of Iceland is heated with volcanic hot water and 100 percent of electricity production comes from renewable sources.

Here in BC, the province’s electricity demand is expected to increase by about 50 per cent over the next 20 years. In particular, forecasted new demand from the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry requires close attention, as new LNG demand will arrive in substantial segments, versus growing slowly or incrementally over time. Given that much of the projected industry expansion from LNG and mining will also occur in areas proximal to both remote communities and stranded resources, an obvious opportunity exists to address industry demand, add resiliency to remote community power supply, and access BC’s abundant stranded renewables.

I do not believe that the option of sustainable place-based industry has been given the robust consideration that it is due in BC. Place-based industry, specifically the development of stranded renewable energy resources for local industry use, could encourage the pairing of the needs of extractive industries (e.g. mining, oil and gas) with the utilisation of stranded renewable resources. Much has been written recently about the burgeoning and seemingly unlikely relationship between the extractives and renewables sectors (see here and here).

This has certainly been the case in Iceland where the cheap, 100 percent renewable power has attracted large energy end-users. Invest in Iceland Director Thordur Hilmarsson has astutely noted that, “We already do export the power. We export it through the products that are created by energy-dependent industries.” These products include aluminum from Alcoa, fish from Stolt Sea Farm and silicon metal from Globe Specialty Metals. While exact industrial energy prices in Iceland are not disclosed, a 20-year contract likely wholesales for $0.04 per kWh.

Invest in Iceland is also actively pursuing sustainable innovators in industries including fish farms, industrial-scale greenhouses and large data centers. Countries like Norway and Iceland are competing to become European hubs for environmentally sustainable data centres that rely on naturally cold climates to cool the facilities and clean power for electricity. By emphasising place-based industry rather than power export, Iceland benefits from low residential energy costs, increased jobs and a vastly improved commercial tax base. BC seems particularly well poised to access the US market for affordable and sustainable data centres, considering its proximity, cool climate, and low energy prices.
I’d like to see a paradigm shift in the way that the province envisions our abundant resources. With an eye for innovation and long-term planning I think that there is more than just a dollar value to be extracted from stranded resources. Stranded resources represent the birthright and legacy of First Nations, the jobs of the future, the inherent beauty of the province, the autonomy of the region, and the geopolitical security of the nation. Let’s not confuse abundance with access, or consumption with benefit.”

Alia Lamaadar is the Chief Operating Officer, of the CleanTech Community Gateway (CTCG), a non-profit organization based in Vancouver, BC. CTCG is engaging with rural and remote communities across Canada, to assist them in achieving their goals through innovative clean technologies. By empowering remote communities to deploy clean technology projects, CTCG hopes to not only improve their standard of living and increase the opportunities available to them, but also to elevate the profile and expertise of Canada’s cleantech industry. Find out more through their LinkedIn Group.

Communities and the value of research

One of the biggest topics around the province these days is the shortage of skilled labour. It seems to be the most-talked-about issue in the provincial election campaign and is generally understood to be the greatest constraint on economic development in northern BC. The issue is complex, for sure, and is intertwined with data related to demographic change (and an overall decline in working-age people in many parts of the province), individual aspirations for careers, and the availability of accessible and affordable educational programs. The topic of “research” is rarely mentioned in the same breath as skilled labour shortages, but I’ve recently been reminded about its importance to the North, regional communities, and economic development.

Last week, I was in Quesnel for the annual meeting of the North Central Local Government Association, which attracts mayors, councilors, regional district directors, and senior city administrators to discuss issues of concern around the region. They have a long history with UNBC. In fact, the idea of UNBC was first endorsed by this group in the late 1980s and they were also the first government organization to support the establishment of the Northern Medical Program.

I facilitated a session on the environmental effects of resource development during the annual NCLGA convention in Quesnel. Photo by Teann Ingram.

In Quesnel, a key topic was how communities could prosper in the new resource economy. I was part of a small group that organized a workshop on day 1 of the convention to explore how communities could find balance when weighing the risks and benefits associated with resource development. The session was set up in “world café” style, where participants moved from table to table, contributing their ideas on how increased resource development would affect the environment and the social, cultural, and economic sustainability of their communities. I facilitated the discussion related to impacts on the environment and aimed to gather ideas from these local government officials about how communities could be part of ensuring environmental sustainability while they pursued economic development opportunities related to resource projects. Simply, they responded with one word: science. From table to table, they were consistent in their belief that good science from strong researchers would provide the basis for sound, local decision-making based on evidence, not anecdotes. Interestingly, when all of the facilitators got together to compare notes, this need for long-term planning informed by local knowledge (generally obtained through good research) was a theme that emerged over and over again.

Screen capture from the Global TV broadcast. Click here to watch the story.

One example of this was highlighted by Global TV when it broadcasted its News Hour from UNBC earlier this week. Their story on UNBC included a depiction of the Bioenergy Plant that really focused on how the research associated with it – covering such topics as emissions and the use of ash – is directly relevant to local forestry, agriculture, and mining industries. Ultimately, it would be the communities relying on these sectors that would also benefit.

As UNBC aims to expand its experience with local, renewable energy to be of greater value to northern, rural, and remote communities, research will play a critical role in both advancing technologies and translating their application to communities. And as we continue to work to address the skills shortage, it’s our region’s ability to innovate through research that will make our communities and industries more competitive, attractive, and resilient.

Rob

 

Looking to the North for Heroes

Imagine a region the size of Oregon with only one road. This is how famed adventurer, naturalist, and anthropologist Wade Davis described the remoteness of the far northwestern corner of BC during a speech in front of 600 people Saturday night in Prince George. Davis was in the city as the headliner for the annual Bob Ewert memorial lecture and dinner, the University’s biggest annual fundraiser for the Northern Medical Programs Trust. He holds an honorary degree from UNBC but he is more famous as an “explorer in residence” for National Geographic.

Davis spoke for an hour, mesmerizing the crowd with stories of his life in a spectacular place that serves as the headwaters for three of BC’s great rivers: the Stikine, Skeena, and Nass. He told stories of First Nations elders who had changed his life, battles waged with industry and environmentalists, and relationships with governments that were both productive and frustrating. Mainly, he just showed beautiful photographs of the Sacred Headwaters region and shared his passion for a place that has shaped his relationship with the land and the peoples who have occupied it for thousands of years.

In addition to being a place of incredible ecological value, it is also a land of amazing people, he suggested. “In the US, they look west for heroes; in Canada, we look north.”

Is this actually true? As a northerner, I’d like to think so, but who or what are the heroes we’re seeking? And are we really looking for “heroes” or are we actually looking for “leaders”?

Coincidentally, in the two days leading up to Davis’s talk, Prince George hosted the Council of Forest Industries (COFI) conference, which brings together forest industry officials to discuss the future. They talked about forest inventories, skilled labour shortages, and the emerging bioeconomy. Mark Feldinger of Canfor suggested that we have seen “peak lumber” and that growth of the industry will require innovation and focused R&D. Much of this would be applied “at the margins” – in fact, about three-quarters of the biomass in the forest is either not currently accessible or not of “saw log” (ie used for lumber production) quality. Community-based bioenergy is one response. Rory Gilsenan, chief of resource economics and bioenergy for the federal government, suggested in his presentation that “the space is dynamic” when considering the future bioeconomy. There are two areas where bioenergy makes sense, he says: the forest sector (where use has doubled since 1990) and remote/off-grid communities.

UNBC’s David Claus explains infrastructure upgrades to UNBC that will enable it to model a community energy system.

UNBC used the COFI conference to provide an update on its energy plans, and representatives of industry, small business, First Nations, municipalities, and even the Canada Games were in attendance. There was broad support for UNBC’s initiative but this was primarily an opportunity for feedback and discussion. Industry talked about barriers related to the competitive market for sawmill residue and the low price of natural gas. Others talked about a new “sustainable energy trust” at UNBC that would help fund the capacity for renewable energy systems in remote communities. Ultimately, attendees felt that communities themselves, working in collaboration with UNBC, were in the best position to identify the value of such a trust by identifying the needs that it could address.

Addressing those needs requires leadership. Perhaps some day our response will also be considered heroic.

Rob

Prince Rupert: local AND global

UNBC alumni and local residents gather for a UNBC update and discussion at Cowpuccino’s cafe in Prince Rupert

As communities grapple with shortages of skilled workers in all sorts of areas – from trades to engineers to health care workers – the University is keen to be part of the solution. This was the backdrop to some conversations in Prince Rupert this week. Even though UNBC has a presence here (it has space in the local college campus) and has offered a variety of courses and degrees (primarily in social work and Tsimshian language) over the years, it seems that more can and should be done. This is the city, after all, that has produced two UNBC chancellors: founding chancellor Iona Campagnolo and current chancellor John MacDonald.

So what are the natural next steps? I joined a group of local alumni and residents to discuss this question during an informal presentation and conversation at Cowpuccino’s (the great local café in Cow Bay) earlier this week. We talked about big things like the port developments and promise of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals, as well as health and social service education, and connecting with regional First Nations communities regarding economic development. On that last point, many of the attendees were pleasantly surprised to hear about UNBC’s plans for demonstrating community energy systems, food security, and integration with housing to model sustainable, northern communities.  With so many remote communities around Prince Rupert (along the Coast and on Haida Gwaii) often disconnected from electrical grids or gas pipelines, people understood the idea and could imagine many applications and benefits in the region.

I also had the opportunity to visit two of Prince Rupert’s port assets during my visit: the Fairview container terminal and the coal port on Ridley Island. Both are witnessing significant levels of growth. In fact, the local newspaper this week has been reporting that port traffic in Prince Rupert continues to set records. Container traffic is up 53% in the first two months of 2013 compared to the same time period last year, and growth is even more pronounced with exports of two commodities: coal and raw logs.  Originally built in tandem with the development of the coal mines around Tumbler Ridge in northeastern BC, Ridley Terminals is exporting coal at levels never before seen in Prince Rupert. And year-over-year stats are showing that nearly three times as many logs have been exported in 2013. Clearly, Prince Rupert is a major distribution centre for so many of northern BC’s natural resources.

So while Prince Rupert is a location for massive infrastructure geared to global trade, the region is also home to many small, remote communities that have their own aspirations for local economic development. This characterizes, in some ways, the dichotomy of this region. For UNBC, the challenge is to be responsive and relevant to both. Perhaps the evidence of some early success can be found among the University’s alumni, who can already be found everywhere from port facilities to remote communities, applying their education and local perspectives.

To the UNBC graduates in Prince Rupert and beyond: where are you working and how do you see the future of community evolving? Share your ideas here.

Rob

Students today. Game-changers tomorrow?

From left: Dawn George (Takla Lake First Nation), Allanah Kenoras-Schwandt (Adams Lake Indian Band), Tara Badine (Fort Nelson First Nation), Robert Russ (Haida Nation), Paul Michel (First Nations Centre director), Brenda Drazdoff (Prince George), and Adam Thomas (Saik’uz First Nation)

Tara Badine says she came to UNBC from Fort Nelson largely because of her interest in renewable energy. She was one of a small group of Aboriginal UNBC students who joined me for a discussion about UNBC’s proposed energy project this week. The students came to UNBC from a variety of communities: Haida Gwaii, Takla, Grand Forks, and Saik’uz, for example, and they were keen to understand how the expansion of the bioenergy systems on campus could lead to deployment in rural and remote communities. The idea is to connect the Bioenergy Plant and a wood pellet system at the I.K. Barber Enhanced Forestry Lab to the residences and the daycare – creating a small district energy system in the process. This energy system would serve as the platform for adding new energy technologies on campus and for adding new infrastructure such as an expanded greenhouse for food production. The whole thing would act as a classroom for people interested in learning about how local energy systems could be integrated with housing and local food to create sustainable, northern communities.

It’s an opportunity that’s fundamental to why these students are at UNBC in the first place. They’re here pursuing degrees in Planning, or Social Work, or resource management, or health sciences, but they’re also at UNBC to learn things that will make them effective leaders in their communities. They have a commitment to making a difference that is both palpable and inspiring. And they know that making their communities better is more complicated than simply swapping out a diesel generator for one that uses biomass.

For example, we talked about community-based governance, provincial policy, accessing funding for new initiatives, the current cost of power, family-oriented housing, and health. We also talked about local education that would lead to technical understanding and implementation of energy systems that could stimulate local economic development, create jobs, and produce healthy food options. These are complex issues, but there’s some belief that local, sustainable energy systems are critical catalysts.

Last year, two BC energy leaders wrote an article in the Vancouver Sun about the growing involvement of First Nations in clean energy. In the editorial, Paul Kariya of the BC Clean Energy Association and Dave Porter of the First Nations Energy and Mining Council described “a quiet revolution taking shape with First Nations that has everything to do with energy and relationships.” After my meeting this week, I predict that Adam, Robert, Dawn, Tara, and Allanah will be a few of the revolutionaries who will bring their knowledge, education, passion, and experiences to bear for the benefit of their communities.

Rob

Southern media, northern resources

One of the tensions in northern, resource-based regions relates to the fact they generally have had very little control over their own destiny. This has been because the companies (and even governments) in charge of resource extraction and export have often been foreign from the region itself, as have been the customers. In more recent years, another “foreign” actor – the media – has also played a prominent role.

The big city media has had a field day with places like Prince George, or so it feels. From being named the crime capital (Maclean’s) to regular stories about the Highway of Tears in the national and even international media, it can feel as if the metropolitan-based media has it out for places like this. Complex stories related to energy development, First Nations self-determination, and forest management are usually boiled down to over-simplified depictions of yes versus no; pro versus con. Even worse, the mainstream media often portrays resource regions as stagnant or in decline, with their industries either destined for extinction or environmentally harmful – or both.

Two venerable media outlets – CKNW and the Vancouver Sun – both visited Prince George this past week and talked exclusively about the promise of northern BC. CKNW’s Bill Good radio show traveled here to broadcast in conjunction with the annual convention of BC foresters and Good talked about the forest industry, its evolution, and its growing need for qualified employees. The topic commanded almost three hours of airtime, with a number of local guests, including UNBC professor Kathy Lewis and me.

UNBC prof Kathy Lewis and I on Bill Good’s radio show

Prince George-based wood pellet manufacturer, Pacific Bioenergy, was represented on the show by Brad Bennett who was asked about the emergence of the wood pellet industry relative to coal, which is used in steel manufacturing and energy production. While the pellet industry is on the rise in this region, and has even doubled its production over the last half-dozen years, it will never replace coal. This region produces about 1.5 million tonnes of pellets per year, a drop in the bucket compared to the 6 billion tonnes of coal that are consumed annually around the world. The production of pellets here will, however, likely rise as governments around the world aim to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Interestingly, coal shipments from BC are also up. In fact, PricewaterhouseCoopers has reported that coal shipments from BC in 2011 were up 10% over 2010, with coal now representing 22% of the total value of exports from BC – much more than forest products and oil and gas combined. http://www.mining.com/coal-mining-brought-3-2-billion-to-bc-in-2011-92664/

So what does this all mean? For Vancouver Sun associate editor Fazil Mihlar, it proves that resource development, extraction, and export are critical to the BC economy and should continue to be pursued. Mihlar was in Prince George to promote the Sun’s “BC 2035” series, which profiles the various sectors that make up the BC economy. The last one featured education and training and included a full-page story about UNBC. http://www.vancouversun.com/business/bc2035/North+little+university+growing+fast/7967062/story.html

I toured Mihlar around UNBC and the Bioenergy Plant and he was impressed with the University’s appearance, programming, and potential as a model for rural/off-grid communities. He was surprised to hear that BC has more off-grid communities than anywhere else in Canada; that while being surrounded with biomass (trees) and other energy sources, they still require diesel to be trucked (or flown) in.

During a lunch speech to about 80 people, Mihlar gave a no-holds-barred account of what he calls an emerging BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) philosophy in BC. The “banana crowd,” he suggested, are quick to critique and oppose BC’s resource extraction industries, but slow to provide solid alternatives for economic development. Pipelines, mines, dams, and mills are critical to BC citizens’ quality of life, he argued, and shouldn’t be opposed at every turn.

So what are we supposed to do? Oppose everything, or let it all happen without limits or regulation? One thing is certain: northern BC is on the media radar like it has never been before. As those media increasingly tell stories about the region, I would like them to convey our knowledge and capacity for leadership in balancing resource extraction with sustainability for all citizens and communities. We deserve to be involved in a meaningful way and see our communities prosper; and not just in the short term.

Rob