Carbon Economist talked to Michele Evans, assistant deputy minister, Alberta region, from Prairies Economic Development Canada (PrairiesCan) about how the Prairies are tackling the energy transition.

Can you broadly outline the work of PrairiesCan?

Evans: PrairiesCan is the federal department that supports economic growth in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Our programmes and services help businesses, not-for-profits and communities grow stronger. Our mandate is to support economic growth and diversification in the Prairie provinces and to advance the interests of the region in national economic policy, programmes and projects. We have four primary roles. First, as an investor, we make strategic investments that support the ability of businesses and sectors to expand and create jobs. Second, we are a convenor, which means we connect economic actors to support collaboration and growth. We are also an adviser, which is to say we inform economic decision-making and advocate for Prairie interests. And finally, we are a pathfinder, helping people navigate federal economic programmes and services.

How do the economies of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan differ from other provinces in Canada, especially with regard to the energy sector?

Prairies are an economic, agricultural and energy powerhouse, contributing significantly to Canada’s prosperity

Evans: The Prairies are an economic, agricultural and energy powerhouse, contributing significantly to Canada’s prosperity. We also have significant strengths in the digital and clean tech sectors, which are driving innovative approaches to efficient resource extraction and value-added activities. This is why, in 2021, the federal government created PrairiesCan and Pacific Economic Development Canada from the former Western Economic Diversification Canada to better focus on each region’s strengths. The Prairies’ rich natural resources include world-leading reserves of commodities such as oil, natural gas, potash and uranium. Its vast landscape spans nearly 2mn km² of land and freshwater, which accounts for over 82pc of Canada’s farmland. In 2021, oil and gas extraction, including support activities for oil and gas extraction, accounted for more than 22pc of the Prairie provinces’ GDP.

To what degree does the transition to a low-carbon economy represent an economic opportunity to firms in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan?

Evans: The low-carbon economy is a huge economic opportunity and it drives the work that we are undertaking on the Building a Green Prairie Economy Act. At its core, the act is about working collaboratively with partners to focus efforts to grow a Prairie economy that supports well-paying jobs in a net-zero economy. Consultations are being done with Prairie provinces, municipalities, Indigenous peoples, industry, labour organisations and Prairie residents to develop a framework for local cooperation and engagement to grow the green economy. Among the act’s themes is supporting the continued development of clean energy across economic sectors.

As the energy industry evolves, our Prairie provinces have the knowhow and determination to be leaders in innovative clean energy solutions. The recent PrairiesCan-funded Alberta Energy Transition Study suggests the clean technology sector could create 170,000 jobs and contribute $61bn to GDP by 2050 in Alberta alone. For example, if we can use clean technologies to capture carbon or reduce methane emissions, there is going to be a seismic shift in our region’s ability to take on economic opportunities. We need to share our big ideas and products with the world.

CCUS and hydrogen are likely to be key technologies in the future. What is happening in the region around these technologies and how is PrairiesCan helping?

Evans: PrairiesCan is focusing on supporting small- and medium-sized firms to commercialise new technologies in relation to both CCUS and hydrogen. We recently provided $1.5mn for CarbonNext, Canada’s commercialisation hub for CCUS and monitoring technologies. When it comes to hydrogen, we are actively working with partners and recently invested nearly $10mn to build Alberta’s expertise throughout the entire value chain to develop new hydrogen supply, distribution and end-uses that will support a green economy, enable a low-carbon energy ecosystem and sustain good-paying jobs. Given Alberta’s existing expertise in the energy sector, the province already has the skilled workforce here to drive the emerging hydrogen economy. Construction on the largest hydrogen plant in the world is proceeding in northeast Edmonton. The $1.6bn plant, led by [industrial gases company] Air Products Canada, will produce up to 100,000t/yr of hydrogen when fully operational and was supported with federal funding. 

How does PrairiesCan make decisions on how to allocate funding?

Evans: PrairiesCan administers a number of grants and contribution programmes that enable us to strengthen productivity and competitiveness across the Prairies. Each of our core programmes accepts applications on a continuous basis. Eligible organisations submit an application for funding, which is then reviewed against programme criteria to determine eligibility for funding. Our core programmes reflect our three priority areas: the first is new value and competitiveness, which translates into accelerating economic growth through new sources of value and innovation in traditional sectors. The second is the green economy, which means enabling success in a net-zero future. The third is inclusivity, which involves supporting a more equitable and inclusive economy through the economic participation of underrepresented populations.

How is PrairiesCan helping foster relationships between the business and Indigenous communities?

We are making strategic investments that connect small- and medium-sized firms with investors, larger companies and academia

Evans: PrairiesCan is growing its capacity and role in the federal government’s commitment to support Indigenous communities, entrepreneurs and economic reconciliation. For example, we fund early-stage entrepreneurship development for new and existing Indigenous entrepreneurs through our Indigenous Business Development Services initiative. Another example is our support of the Forward Summit—a leading economic reconciliation event in Canada that brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses and organisations, providing participants the opportunity to connect, engage, learn and unlearn. In addition, through the federal Strategic Partnerships Initiative, we partner with other federal departments to support Indigenous communities to take advantage of economic opportunities.

What is PrairiesCan doing to encourage outside investment in the region, and can you give some examples of specific projects?

Evans: Supporting the World Petroleum Council in hosting September’s World Petroleum Congress is just one example. The federal government has made international commitments and, along with many countries around the world, is advancing a plan to address climate change and reach net zero by 2050. Part of this plan relies on close collaboration with industry, governments, researchers and other partners to develop innovative clean energy solutions to reduce emissions across the country.

Furthermore, through our Business Scale-up and Productivity programme, we are also providing high-growth companies across the Prairies with non-dilutive funding so they can scale up. Specific investments in companies have included $3.9mn for Calgary-based Kathairos Solutions to grow its emission-reduction business to serve oil and gas well sites, $5mn for Calgary-based Genoptic LED to establish a manufacturing operation to mass produce advanced hybrid solar panel and battery storage technology, and $1.34mn to enable Edmonton-based G2V Optics to increase manufacturing and export capacity of its solar simulation technology.

What is PrairiesCan doing to foster innovation in the energy sector?

Evans: We are making strategic investments that connect small- and medium-sized firms with investors, larger companies and academia. For example, in January 2022, we announced support for an Energy Transition Centre in downtown Calgary. This centre provides a space where Canada’s largest energy companies are collaborating with clean energy startups, innovators and investors. It is facilitating access to specialised equipment, energy transition subject matter experts and entrepreneurship programming. As a central hub for energy transition, we expect at least 25 new businesses to emerge from this centre over the next few years, as well as the growth of many other firms operating in the clean energy sector. Another example of an organisation we are collaborating with is the Energy Futures Lab, an Alberta-based coalition of diverse innovators and leading organisations working to accelerate the transition to a low-emission and socially equitable energy system.



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