Kate Neville appears smiling with snowy mountains and blue skies in the background
It’s important to develop clean energy systems that meet the needs of individual communities, says Kate Neville, one of the lead researchers of the CANSTOREnergy project (photo by Kate Harris)

A University of Toronto-led collaboration developing clean energy technologies that can be tailored to the needs of different communities – from Canada’s remote North to populous southern Ontario – will receive support from the federal government.

The CANSTOREnergy project brings together researchers from 11 Canadian universities, along with community, utility and industry partners, to develop technologies that convert carbon-based emissions into useful products, such as fuels and raw materials, and create a net-zero means of seasonal storage for renewable energy that meets specific community needs.

Led by researchers from U of T’s Climate Positive Energy initiative, the collaborative effort is being supported by $24 million through the federal New Frontiers in Research Fund’s 2022 Transformation Competition.

The project will deliberately focus on two very different regions – Yukon and the southern Ontario city of Hamilton – in recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in a vast country like Canada.

“We want to think about addressing these big global challenges such as climate change. But we don’t solve them at the global scale,” says Kate Neville, one of the project’s lead researchers and an associate professor in U of T’s department of political science and School of the Environment in the Faculty of Arts & Science.

“You solve them by thinking about what those challenges look like in lots of places and working with communities to find solutions that meet multiple needs.”

The project’s two sites highlight the different challenges Canadian regions face when considering how carbon conversion technologies can be successfully adapted to existing infrastructure, economic forces and social goals.

Yukon, for example, is not included in the electrical grid that connects much of the U.S. and Canada, and seasonal extremes limit the availability of renewable energy. As a result, many communities need to import diesel fuel during the harsh winter months – which comes at a high cost both environmentally and financially.

Hamilton, by contrast, is a densely populated urban centre that is plugged into the main North American power grid. Heavy industry fuels the local economy, but the environmental costs, such as air pollution, are unevenly distributed and disproportionately impact low-income and marginalized communities.

“Science and research are essential to solving the greatest challenges facing humanity today and in the future,” says François-Philippe Champagne, minister of innovation, science and industry. “That’s why our government is committed to continuing support for researchers who are pushing the boundaries of innovation, by investing in transformative, high-risk / high-reward research that will address issues that impact Canadians in all sectors of our economy and society.”

At the core of the project is a commitment to engaging community members about their energy challenges and goals and how carbon conversion technologies could fit into their future.

Dave Sinton
David Sinton is the nominated principal investigator of CANSTOREnergy and academic lead of the Climate Positive Energy institutional strategic initiative (photo by Lisa Lightbourn)

This engagement could ultimately determine the success of carbon conversion technologies, says David Sinton, nominated principal investigator of CANSTOREnergy and academic lead of Climate Positive Energy, one of several U of T institutional strategic initiatives, and a professor of mechanical engineering in U of T’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

Technologies that perform in the lab don’t always work as well under real-world conditions, adds Sinton, who notes that the urgency of the climate challenge calls for an expedient way to pre-empt issues that may crop up during deployment.

“Too often, engineers – and I have experience in this – innovate while focusing on the technology, which is totally understandable. But when tech is developed without guidance from an end user … the subsequent iterations can be costly. 

“We don’t have time for that decades-long iterative cycle that is the norm. We need a new approach and are testing that here.”

CANSTOREnergy’s research team comprises engineers, social scientists, economists and other experts from McMaster University, Yukon University, University of Waterloo, University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, University of Winnipeg, Toronto Metropolitan University, University of Calgary, Carleton University and Dalhousie University.

The researchers will receive guidance from stakeholders and advisers in industry, utilities, government and Indigenous nations.

“The University of Toronto welcomes the federal government’s critical support for this important research,” says Leah Cowen, U of T’s vice-president, research and innovation, and strategic initiatives. “Canada enjoys a global competitive advantage in the area of carbon capture research – and the CANSTOREnergy team, with its collaborative and interdisciplinary approach, will build on these strengths and help to optimize this technology to meet the needs of communities across the country.”

Since environmental justice is at the forefront of the CANSTOREnergy project, Neville says it’s vital that communities have a say in developing the clean energy systems that could power and empower them.

“It’s about imagining community futures in ways that meet the goals of equity and fairness,” says Neville.

“It’s thinking about how technology can help us undo some of the unjust systems that we have and help build something that is not only about climate change, but about a more just future.”