Can Quebec run on only clean energy?
At Polytechnique Montréal on a Tuesday night, four speakers from four institutions sought to provide some perspective on that question, if not outright answers, through individual presentations and a panel discussion: Hans Björn Püttgen of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Claude Villeneuve of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, Louise Millette from the host university, Polytechnique, and Jim Nicell from our own McGill University.
Education was not the only motivation behind this symposium, though. Each speaker and representative from the universities took the time to thank Lorne Trottier (yes, that one), and the entire Trottier family for a donation that has made two new institutes possible – the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design (TISED) at McGill and l’Institut de l’Énergie Trottier (IET) at Polytechnique.
Püttgen provided a global overview of the energy situation, primarily focusing on a complex dichotomy – a “bifurcation” between developed and emerging nations. Particularly, these two groups of countries require different solutions. Developed nations require solutions based on new, initially expensive and sophisticated technologies (such as battery technology to store energy from wind and solar technologies, which are subject to the natural variation of weather), and a focus on reducing energy consumption. In emerging nations, where Püttgen acknowledged that asking such countries to decrease their generally-lower energy consumption was unreasonable if they are to develop, solutions must be, as he put it, “well-suited” for their particular needs, and must be given the support they are promised by developed countries. Overall, he said, energy policy cannot be “stop-and-go” – the policies themselves must be sustainable if we are to see long-term change.
Villeneuve provided a more Quebec-specific view of energy usage and the possibility of a carbon-neutral Quebec. As Quebec’s electricity needs are met almost entirely by hydro power, decreasing electricity is nearly impossible; further, all the “easy fixes” to decrease the impact of Quebec’s industry have already been implemented. However, he identified individual transport as one area that is ripe for improvement. According to his presentation, collective transportation (ie. buses, metro, etc.) accounts for only 1% of the CO2 emissions from its category, and individual transportation could be further electrified to provide more emission saving. On the other side of emissions, he also discussed the St. Lawrence’s particular suitability as a site for carbon storage.
Millette examined the role of the engineer, and also analyzed the difficulty in evaluating the impact of technology. She stressed that although Ehrlich’s famous formula for impact on the environment includes a variable for “technology,” and there is a ridiculous amount of petroleum used to produce the tech we use in our day to day lives, these two ideas alone cannot capture the nuances and necessities of technology. For example, the presence of technologies that are designed to have a low environmental impact cannot be summarized in a variable with oth
er, more destructive technologies, and the petroleum use that seems like overkill doesn’t just go to mobile devices and toys, but also to ca
rdiac pacemakers and other life-saving technologies. Finally, she concluded that engineers must not only work on “discovery and development,” but also have a responsibility to provide information to the public so that society as a whole can make an informed and educated decision about the policies they would like to see from their governments.
Nicell focused, conceptually, on how we must modify our current industrial procedures to better reflect the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra – one that was first conceived of in the 70s and has continued to influence environmental policy and education today. (I personally remember learning about the 3 Rs in kindergarten in the United States, and Nicell shared a story of a kindergartener who was very proud “that she had been reusing the same plastic straw for 6 months.”) He also described one challenge to implementing energy savings – societal constraints and human nature itself. According to Nicell, upon beginning to recycle, people will actually begin to increase their overall consumption. Further, he cautioned against digging into the energy resources of future generations to satisfy our current demands. In conclusions, he stated a need for balance between the competing interests in energy policy: the government, the people, nature itself, and industry, and a careful evaluation of the confounding factors involved in achieving that balance.
The tone of the symposium was generally optimistic, if cautiously so. However, the final word (followed by applause) went to Püttgen, who said that we are not going to be able to do in a vacuum – Quebec cannot move towards sustainability alone, but “our society” and world needs to move towards more sustainable energy solutions. In fact, the prevailing theme, explicitly mentioned at the conclusion of the event by the new TISED director, Gézal Joós was “collaboration.” The Trottier family has invested in two schools, spanning two languages. Nearly every presenter urged collaboration between groups. Nicell called for collaboration between the government, the people, and industry, Millette emphasized a need for dialogue between engineers, the public, and policy makers, Püttgen pled for joint efforts on the part of the developed world and countries in the emerging world, Finally, collaboration between the current generation of academics and the future was also evident, as university-age young adults could be seen sitting in every corner of the (very full) Bell Auditorium. As students, we may wonder where we fit in all of this; however, to some of us, the answer is clear. Nicell one student who told him, “Students are the most renewable resource.” Personally, I agree with the sentiment that with the collective motivation, brainpower, and education of this and the next generations of students, we have every chance for a greener future – as Millette put it, we must believe in this cleaner future, “or we won’t have one at all.”
Photography courtesy of Ariana Aimani, who also served as the editor on this piece. Please note that Püttgen, Villeneuve, and Millette all presented and answered questions in French, so all quotes have been translated and/or paraphrased to English.