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Canada can be a leader in clean energy

by Alan Bernstein Sep 18 / 17

Earlier this week I was in Mexico City attending a Workshop on “Energy Materials Innovation.”

Alan BernsteinThe Workshop was part of Mission Innovation (MI) a global initiative of 22 countries and the European Union to accelerate clean energy research and innovation.

The Workshop was sponsored by the Mexican Ministry of Energy (SENER) and the US Department of Energy, in partnership with CIFAR. Co-chaired by Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a senior fellow from our program in Bio-inspired Solar Energy, the workshop brought together scientists from around the world, including many CIFAR fellows, in areas as diverse as chemistry and artificial intelligence, to discuss novel approaches to discovering new materials for energy harvesting and storing. The overarching goal is to combine individual research efforts into a global materials innovation effort.

I was pleased that CIFAR was able to contribute to Mission Innovation’s important work. CIFAR and MI share similar goals, and our emphasis on excellence, global participation and tackling tough questions is the best strategy for creating the disruptive technologies needed to address the world’s growing demand for energy.

MI was founded during the Paris Climate Conference of Parties meeting (COP21), at which most of the world agreed to limit the rise in the earth’s temperature to below 2 degrees C. The countries that make up MI recognized that this ambitious goal will only be met through increased research and development, and the initiative aims to both double the amount of funds for renewable energy R&D and to accelerate collaboration between countries and their scientists. MI countries also agreed to share information, undertake a road mapping exercise, explore mechanisms for joint research and capacity building, and engage with the private sector.

The increase in public funding for research, collaboration across disciplines, and information sharing are necessary if we are to create the clean, affordable energy that is needed to maintain economic growth and address the challenge of climate change.

I think that CIFAR has pointed the way towards the sort of research effort that is needed with our BSE program. Over hundreds of millions of years of evolution, plants and algae have figured out how to make efficient use of the plentiful sunlight that falls on the Earth. It is called photosynthesis.  And photosynthesis is lightweight (think leaf), its reparable, and it works reliably under the water and on land. CIFAR’s BSE program brings together a remarkable group of chemists, physicists, engineers, AI experts, structural biologists and photosynthesis experts from seven countries who are working together to understand photosynthesis and who are using widely different approaches to develop new materials for energy storage and harvesting.

The goal of this CIFAR program is not to generate incremental improvements in current technologies. Rather, its goal is to develop disruptive new science that will change entirely how we harvest and store solar energy. If we are going to meet the growing energy demands of the developing world and end the energy inequality between the developed and the developing worlds, we need a moonshot approach. And only government can fund moonshots.

Given recent political events in the US and UK, I believe there is an urgent need and opportunity for Canada to step into this vacuum and champion a global effort. As a country with a strong fundamental research community, Canada has the opportunity and responsibility, especially now with the US vacating the climate change stage, to support research with the potential to transform how we harvest and store energy. Renewable energy science builds on areas of research – such as AI, chemistry and biology – where Canada is an acknowledged leader. It also builds on growing recognition of Canada as an open and knowledge-based society in which diversity, equity, evidence and concern for the common good are pillars.

Prime Minister Trudeau has stated many times that economic development and addressing climate change are not mutually exclusive. I agree. The bridge between them is research and innovation.