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EXECUTIVE UPDATE

Fragmentation of Effort - The Canadian Energy Research Dilemma

Published on: September 07, 2017

Introduction

Levels of whole country advancement, performance and even future prosperity can arguably be linked to energy. With respect to sustainability, the national effort towards the development of low carbon economies is one that centers around the drive to limit carbon emissions mostly from energy related activities but also related to industrial processes, agriculture and forestry. Because of the integral role energy plays in Canada’s economy, the energy framework is inherently complex with multiple sources of energy, many local, regional and national players, diverse socio-political and regulatory systems, as well as a wide range of research and advocacy groups. In many instances, achieving synergy across energy systems is difficult.

Foundational to energy research in Canada is the nation’s strategic intent to meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement and ensure a less than 2 degrees Celsius global temperature increase by reducing our carbon dioxide emission level to 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. Today in Canada, many energy research organizations and clean energy entities exist, with activities spanning Canadian and North American energy systems. In this article, we review the context of energy research in Canada, identify key constraints to the development of evidence-based decision making and highlight the important role of collaboration amongst research institutions. It is our hope that this material will enhance current conversations and that it may lead to strategic alliances. These alliances could foster a more coordinated effort of rigorous energy research.

Canadian Energy Context

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Canada’s energy supply per capita is ranked highest amongst IEA member countries (IEA, 2017). Canada’s energy production is dominated by oil, gas, hydro, nuclear and bio/waste sources. Consumption activities include industry, transportation, residential, as well as public and commercial services. A comparison of global energy balances for 2014 (IEA, 2017) shows that Canada’s total primary energy supply is approximately the same as that of France, Germany, United Kingdom and Brazil. Over the past 40 years, production and consumption have been on the increase. Looking at more specific contributors to consumption, the share of industry has shown a continuous decrease, relative to increasing transport and, more recently, increasing share in residential consumption. Understanding these energy indices and the underlying drivers behind the trends in part falls within the domain of research organizations and institutions. 

Concerning Evidence-Based Energy Research

Long term evolution in energy balances is expected to be impacted by technological innovation, the competitive landscape and policy initiatives (such as incentivization and tax imposition), amongst other environmental and economic factors. The need therefore for evidence-based research cannot be over-emphasized as strategic decisions based on informed evaluation should enhance the basis upon which resources are allocated to Canada’s energy sector. For example, studying energy flows at the provincial and territorial levels could potentially yield insight on viable pathways for implementing Pan-Canadian energy strategies. Recent work at the Canadian Energy Research Institute indicates that low carbon energy solutions will vary widely by province or territory, or even region. This data can further be interpolated for industrial and municipal developments revealing unanticipated complexities or bottlenecks in adopting prior defined approaches to capital allocation in the energy industry.

An underlying concern regarding fragmentation of effort is the “competing experts” phenomenon. Decision makers in government, industry, environmental groups and Indigenous Peoples grapple with a plethora of information. When faced with different evidence-based reports from different research organizations, it creates a decision-making challenge. Who do you believe? Facts are facts, and the analysis behind the research should be devoid of bias, to the extent possible. Without some way of reconciling the different research outcomes, decision makers are left to rely on their own life experiences, and we all come with a variety of inherent biases of which we might not even be aware. This situation undermines evidence-based decision-making.

The Canadian Energy Research Challenge

Despite, the ubiquitous contribution of the energy sector to Canada’s gross domestic product, a closer look at the structure and organization of energy research in the country reveals that players engaged in this stakeholder space face underlying challenges.

The challenges can be said to result from (but are not limited to) the following constraints:

1.  Organizational complexity: There are two sides to this constraint. First is the intricacy and, at times, multi-layered nature of the system that is often used to manage the allocation of resources and funding at the federal, provincial and territorial levels. In addition, access to support and funding can require intermediate contact with inter-governmental departments that report into higher level hierarchy, which can result in less efficient processing times. Research practitioners and organizations may also face challenges associated with determining the appropriate contact for knowledge sharing, feedback and proposal submissions for collaborative research or support.

Second, some research organizations are nested deep within academic institutions, non-governmental and private/public partnerships, making it, on occasion, a more cumbersome process to start and support collaborative arrangements with other research groups.

2.  Longevity and sustainability of research organizations: Our investigation showed that there is a need to foster support and develop long term strategies in the energy research space. On performing a historical search of non-governmental and or public/private energy research organizations, we observed that certain institutes or enterprises that previously existed are now closed. The disappearance of energy research establishments in the short to medium term creates a business continuity dilemma for research partners and does less to support knowledge transfer and improvement through sustained research.

3.  Variable access to funding: Some challenges associated with funding are related to the setup of research in multi-nested R&D organizations; some of which have research objectives that are beyond the scope of energy. This structure can create an internal competition for funds and, as organizational priorities evolve, funding may be reduced or, in more extreme cases, cease to exist. An example could be the re-allocation of capital to low carbon studies, at the expense of environmental performance improvement for fossil fuel development.

In the competition for capital, it is also not unlikely that certain small to medium sized energy R&D firms (which in many cases are non-governmental or not-for-profits) will be left behind as a result of limited access to financial resources, compared to larger more established institutions such as universities. With some of the smaller organizations hosting specialized infrastructure and human capital, the issue of variable access to funding limits the overall ability of the energy research industry in Canada to harness its full potential in the pursuit of research excellence.

4.  Less coordinated distribution of skilled capacity: Arguably this could be a knock-on effect of several factors. Whilst detailed information on the demographics of energy research organizations is not readily accessible, from experience, we have observed that a broad range of skilled professionals can be found in the energy analysis, research and innovation space in Canada. Given the breadth of activities conducted in the energy sector, the diversity in skill set is not surprising. It is therefore typical that researchers of various backgrounds are found in different energy research organizations. However, where the missed opportunity lies appears to be in the less utilized inter-organizational communication and collaboration channels. Perhaps, less readily accessible information on players in the energy research field could be a factor. It may also be the case that individual research establishments focus more on organizational priorities, with less attention being paid to how the research being conducted fits into a larger socio-economic picture.

5.  Variable levels of collaboration: As indicated above, focusing on micro, rather than macro level objectives could be a detractor from collaboration. Given the earlier mentioned constraints imposed by funding availability, uneven distribution of research manpower and skill sets, the need to seek synergies is imminent, especially if energy researches desire to see their research efforts translate into inputs that inform industrial development and environmental or innovation policy.

Regardless of the drawbacks indicated above, it is worth noting that energy research is still vigorously being pursued throughout Canada. However, we believe that given Canada’s long-term energy and environmental strategic commitments, it is imperative that the limitations indicated above be reduced, to give energy research and development (R&D) a fighting chance at making sustainable strategic contributions to Canada’s transforming energy landscape. 

Leveraging Energy Research Capacity

The advantages of collaborative energy R&D go well beyond overcoming the more visible limitations discussed in the section above. Collaborative practices would present risk-sharing opportunities and ultimately better position energy research organizations to take advantage of Canada’s renowned R&D enabling environment.

In recent times, reference has been made to the creation of energy innovation clusters (Energy and Mines Ministers’ Conference -EMMC-, 2015) and, in addition, the creation of a Canadian Energy Information Organization has been proposed (Fogwill, 2017). These synergetic initiatives are examples of mechanisms that can be put in place to strategically harness energy R&D capacity and potentials throughout Canada and improve long term efficiencies amongst energy research organizations.

Conclusion and Way Forward

A well-articulated approach to energy research collaboration would demonstrate long-term benefits to energy stakeholders. Capital and policy incentives by various Canadian governments should encourage private sector buy-in and ultimately facilitate an energy R&D competitive environment that maximizes structural and human capital resources throughout the energy supply chain.

As a starting point, developing a system of shared energy R&D priorities should help in differentiating organizational level objectives from an overall strategy to be pursued by all energy research groups. This definition should inform collaborative actions, the basis upon which certain strategic resources can be collectively accessed in public and private sector domains.

As an example, the EMMC 2016 report presented feedback on Federal, Provincial and Territorial collaborative actions proposed in 2015 in the areas of performance improvement in shale resource development and distributed power generation. Evident success stories from shared funding initiatives, lab-to-lab collaboration and joint research studies were highlighted (EMMC 2016) including projects such as the Mississippian-Devonian shales unconventional gas resources assessment, Pan-Canadian wind integration study and the Centre for Arctic Resource Development (initially established in 2011).  

Whilst still being nascent and considerably missing several energy R&D organizations, lessons from these collaboration initiatives demonstrate the benefits of leveraging capacity and resources across energy research enterprises; an arguably necessary mechanism not to be neglected as Canada seeks to achieve its low carbon economic targets.

The ultimate outcome of reducing our “fragmentation of effort” is better information. Decision makers are faced with numerous challenges to manage our energy systems in Canada. Value based decisions are hard enough with the facts available. Without those facts available, our move to a lower carbon economy will be that much more difficult.