What is cleantech, and why it’s bigger than you may think

Innovative technologies in the oil and natural gas sector will improve environmental outcomes as part of a $2.5 trillion market opportunity

When you hear the term “cleantech” you likely think of renewable energy sources such as wind or solar. But there’s much more to cleantech than that.

The term “cleantech” is in wide use not only in Canada but globally. It refers to ongoing efforts to improve environmental outcomes, particularly in association with energy production. This includes reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as well as reducing land, water and air impacts.

Within the oil and natural gas industry, cleantech consists of new technologies that address a variety of environmental impacts from GHG emissions to water use and recycling, land reclamation, biodiversity and more. Examples can range from incremental improvements to potential game-changers: everything from improvements in boiler technology so that less water and energy are needed to produce steam for bitumen extraction, to planting techniques that speed up wetland reclamation, to satellites that can detect methane emissions from space.

Advanced methane detection cameras being evaluated by PTAC’s Alberta Methane Field Challenge are one example of how cleantech is a staple of oil and natural gas innovation. Photo by Tung Bui.

According to Export Development Canada (EDC), the annual worldwide spend on cleantech development is expected to be about US$2.5 trillion by 2020. Canada has already established a reputation as a world leader in this space — EDC notes that between 2009 and 2015, cleantech companies in Canada spent $8.2 billion on research and development. But the prize could be much bigger: if Canadian innovators can capture just two per cent of the global potential, some $50 billion could be invested in developing clean technologies across Canada’s industry sectors by 2022.

Cleantech in action

The many initiatives underway through Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and the Carbon XPrize jointly sponsored by COSIA and NRG Energy in the U.S., are examples of ongoing work to develop and deliver cleantech innovations. There are many more examples across the upstream resource industry of work being undertaken by individual corporations as well as by organizations such as the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN), Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada (PTAC), the Natural Gas Innovation Fund offered through the Canadian Gas Association (CGA), the B.C. Oil and Gas Research and Innovation Society (BC OGRIS) and others from coast to coast.

In addition, Alberta Innovates Clean Energy program helps to fund and support a myriad of cleantech developments in the energy sector, from lower-carbon hydrocarbon production and innovative hydrocarbon products to renewable and alternative energy sources, land reclamation and biodiversity, and water innovations. These programs are designed to deliver outcomes not only in reducing environmental impacts but also economic diversification, job creation, and effective resource management.

Size of the prize

Cleantech opportunities are sweeping the globe. Consider that:

China is expected to spend trillions of dollars over the coming years on clean water, air, food and energy as it turns from aggressive economic growth to sustainability.

The European Union’s climate change plan calls for a 20 per cent cut in GHGs by 2020. This goal is only achievable through deployment of clean technologies.

In the U.S., individual states are responsible for climate policy. California alone has a bigger economy than Canada, and that state has aggressive GHG emission reduction targets, creating an enormous market for clean technologies.

All that adds up to economic benefits for innovators across Canada, as well as a big win for the environment as we continue to address and decrease impacts, for a better upstream industry and a better Canada.