Febuary 27th, 2018
I'll preface this article by saying that I am in no way an energy expert- I'm somewhat new to the energy community and while I have gained lots of knowledge and met some interesting people from the position I've been in since last semester, I'm always wanting to know more and broaden my horizons within renewable and alternative energy solutions. My problem is, how exactly does one go about this? I could watch countless youtube videos and read Wikipedia for days, but beyond an over-arching grasp of some abstract concepts (which is still useful), I don't think students have many opportunities to learn and gain hands-on skills when it comes to renewable energy development or energy research here at the University of Waterloo.
Firstly, to address the resources we do have: If you haven't checked out these organizations or groups at Waterloo and are interested you should! To give full credit, the University does have a Master of Engineering in Green Energy program, which has benefitted its students greatly and is pushing a great initiative of attempting to expediate foreign students into the Canadian workforce in a field that will benefit their country. I, however, will be focusing on undergraduate programs graduating large numbers of students with broad knowledge ready to enter the workforce or pursue further education. The Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy1 is a great resource for students interested in energy research, for starters; I think this is also a great example of the disconnect between the students and faculty when it comes to the energy industry. WISE produces some great research, and while they have public events and are more than accessible when reached out to, they're very much that: a research institute. It is somewhat of a niche community, and as much as we and the WISE team members are trying to connect students with them, it seems that the campus is relatively unaware of WISE or sees it as a faculty-only organization. 'By contrast, other niche research initiatives (I'm going to be biased and use my program to speak from experience) are much closer to the ground and connected to the students through their programs, such as the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology and all its associated professors. A program directly related to it initiates students to try out their interests, helps with the development of related skills, and brings in even more researchers and thus student opportunities. A research initiative without active student influence involvement leaves room for improvement at an academic institution.
The energy industry in its current state is undergoing one of the biggest revolutions of a major economic sector in recent years. The major companies are starting to realize that renewables are being demanded by the public and won't go away, with collectives in the automotive industry developing electric, Tesla driving the market, and oil companies like Shell and BP2 starting to diversify out of just traditional energy sources. Growing concerns about traditional energy, notably public health and climate change, are causing major push from the public to increase the use of renewables, which is why startups have a very attractive place to put themselves at the moment. Citizens in North America overwhelmingly support renewable energy initiatives3, which will drive big money to these projects for positive marketing and demand as long as the technology is there. The market is primed and booming for startups, for example micro and nanogrid energy providers, renewable energy innovators, and analytical software companies to take control and hack away from the traditional share of the energy sector and drive change. This is happening for sure, and there are some majorly successful startups and up-and-comers who are going to do great things in energy.
'My problem in this is our involvement. A large part of the University of Waterloo's identity is our entrepreneurial spirit and start-up culture. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of companies coming from our velocity centre involved in the energy market (Salient Energy, EnPowered, Borealis Wind, and arguably H2nanO), and while these are companies doing great things, this only accounts for 4 of the 160+ companies to successfully come out of the Velocity incubator. The argument could be made that these numbers are skewed by software startups as these are much easier and lower cost/stake to take to a developed, marketable product, however the energy numbers pale in comparison to other 'niche' and/or difficult to bring to market sectors such as nanotechnology(154) or biology(105) which have their own programs. To once again compare to nanotech, this level of startup engagement is obviously coming from the fact that a program specific to this industry exists. To play our own horn for a second, The University of Waterloo has shown itself to be one of the most dominant and leading sources of innovation in the country and we need to pick up the pace when it comes to energy. To look at an example sample: The Bloomberg New Energy Finance picks ten startups6 every year from the energy sector. Looking through the selections from 2017 and 2016, every company was USA, Europe, or Africa based. Startup Energy Transition, another Energy startup award organization, awarded startups from France, Germany, India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria in 2017.' The ATCE awarded 3 energy startups from the US. Evidently Canada is not producing startups that are as competitive as these countries at the same volume in today's market.
Energy, renewable generation, and the environment are all topics that I believe students, and specifically students at this campus, genuinely are passionate about. The University of Waterloo has done an amazing job creating undergraduate programs in areas that other Universities haven't but at this point an energy program is badly overdue. University of Calgary, University of Toronto, Carleton University, and other top and innovative institutions are creating degrees in this space and I strongly believe that the interest, market space, and resources would easily be filled by students wanting to occupy a space in this field.
Febuary 26th, 2018
Earlier last summer, when America announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, many tried to rationalize what it meant for their country, the world, and the integrity of the agreement itself. Largely unaddressed in this discussion was the impact of various mechanisms that are created as a result of agreements such as this one and other forms of soft law. While many hard laws can often create further issues, division and resistance to implementation, soft law is a necessary tool to facilitate the transition towards more sustainable energy sources.
One way to accomplish this is to use soft law to develop a high-level framework for tackling large scale issues. While more enforceable, harder laws are intended to enforce compliance, there are often unintended side effects that arise as a result of backlash against them, particularly when handled incorrectly. Notably, a previous effort to combat climate change, the Kyoto Protocol of 1995, had mixed success. It had attempted to be hard law, creating mandatory, binding targets for emissions. This is difficult to enforce on an international level, and economic concerns of key countries greatly lessened the intended effects of the agreement.
Soft law, on the other hand, is merely designed to inform what intended action should be, acting as a normative guideline to encourage desired behavior. To achieve a reduction in the rate of global warming, the Paris Agreement was designed to target carbon emissions, from mitigation strategies to financial assistance. This in turn prompted discussion of a carbon budget, with specific action items to be discussed within each member state.
The solution created and implemented for the current agreement was in the form of intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), where countries voluntarily determined their contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. The guidelines outlined by the Paris Agreement formed a proper framework to combat emissions, changing the focus to INDCs from global emissions targets. As of February 2018, 174 of the 195 initial signatories have ratified the agreement. The INDCs formed as a result are the basis of an action plan at the national level, such as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change from December 2016. To fulfil these objectives, these plans will have to propagate through all levels of government in order to have long term impacts.
As opposed to companies simply reacting to hard law, the anticipation of future legislation as a result of initial soft law can often be a driving force for emissions reduction, within the energy industry in particular. Gradual changes in legislation are causing industry to more carefully plan and organize for the longer term, anticipating further policy and societal changes that will affect their bottom line. Larger societal changes such as sustainability, becoming more prevalent and codified in legislation, is having an effect on industry stakeholders. The oil and gas industry in particular is in the process of a transition towards greater sustainability, as can be seen by Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden bracing for ‘lower forever oil’ and investing in renewable energies, Shell being among related companies supporting a carbon tax. While a variety of factors may be affecting these stances, soft law concerning carbon taxes in many nations (such as the Pan-Canadian Framework, mentioned earlier) certainly enabled and furthered this discussion. As increasingly tougher regulation and emissions controls will ultimately affect large corporations’ profits, it becomes imperative for them to reorganize their resources in preparation of this change, so as to ensure optimal returns to shareholders. Changes to soft law, and the likely further policy changes they represent, are a large contributing factor to changes in the energy industry.
While not having the same authoritative power as compared to hard law, soft law also has an increasingly large influence on the very public notion of corporate social responsibility. In short, this is the relationship between organizations and the public, and how a company’s actions are perceived in the context of the greater society, or its shareholders. It is typically a reflection of the general public, and usually, soft law often determines what is socially acceptable for businesses. Shareholders at many companies such as Exxon and Shell have been pushing for greater transparency surrounding climate change since the Paris Agreement, and if recent trends are any indicator, this is likely to continue.
For industry, it is clear that long term thinking is critical for any business. The increasingly uncertain energy and regulatory landscape will require greater transparency and proper corporate governance to reduce emissions and provide long-term profit for shareholders. If these soft laws are any indicator, people and the planet are quickly becoming just as important as profit. In order to survive, major industry players must have as a core focus the development of more sustainable technologies and practices.
Investors and the general public have a role to play too. Pushing for climate action from governments and industry alike will be instrumental to increased transparency on these issues. The energy industry is uniquely positioned to provide leadership on emissions reduction practices and climate action, and as seen, soft law is necessary to ensure that long-term sustainability goals within this industry are realized.