The Electric Chair

Amit Kumar takes charge of new energy and environment research program


One day a modest University of Alberta mechanical engineering professor conducting important research into the use of biomass as an energy source; next day the chair of a $4.4 million research program focusing on energy and the environment.

That is the story of Amit Kumar.

After a June 17 announcement that the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Cenovus Energy, Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions and Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions would be collectively contributing that $4.4 million in funding to support work that could lead to important decisions around energy production, water conservation and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions, Kumar found himself the new NSERC/Cenovus/Alberta Innovates Associate Industrial Research Chair in Energy and Environmental Systems Engineering and the first ever Cenovus Energy Endowed Chair in Environmental Engineering.

"This is quite a big honour for me," said Kumar.

Kumar's relationship with Alberta Innovates - which is contributing $500,000 of the $4.4 million in funding, split evenly between the Bio Solutions and Energy and Environment Solutions groups - began about seven years ago, shortly after Kumar joined the University of Alberta engineering faculty in 2005.

"Our core business is to position Alberta to achieve superior environmental performance," said Eddy Isaacs, chief executive officer of Alberta Innovates Energy and Environment Solutions. "We helped Dr. Kumar launch his research on energy and environmental systems modeling several years ago because we recognized the need for an Alberta-specific model and the need for building the innovation capacity in this area. Dr. Kumar's work has helped inform the Government of Alberta strategy on energy efficiency and our strategy and focus on innovation to support the Government of Alberta's climate change plan."

"At that time, one of the projects was to study the energy flow diagram for Alberta," Kumar said of the early days of that partnership, adding that questions of interest included what the various energy sources might be and what sources of energy are used by what energy consumers.

That was just the beginning for projects in that general topic area, a list that would eventually feature a project with Cenovus looking at the cost of converting biomass into charcoal.

"Over the last two years," said Kumar, "we have been discussing [starting a] research program that looks at all the energy systems in a holistic way and trying to assess them in terms of their environmental footprint and cost."

That is how the partners involved in this research program were brought together.

"The overall mandate is to basically assess the different types of energy systems," said Kumar.

The program includes research in three key areas, the first of which is long-term energy and environmental modeling.

"Basically, we develop computer models which have detailed data on the energy demand sector, energy supply sector and the energy resource sector," said Kumar.

The energy demand sector is essentially all energy consumers from residential and commercial buildings to transportation and industry. The models for that sector not only look at energy requirements for items such as lighting, cooking and space heating, but also look at the types of technologies used for all of those purposes.

"This model has details on how [many units] of energy are actually used per household per year," said Kumar.

"What it helps us in assessing is, if there is any improvement in, say, efficiency of these furnaces, than what is the impact in terms of GHG," he added.

That work can be useful to scientists and engineers who develop the technologies as well as those in government who set policies.

"Dr. Kumar's new industrial research program will help private sector industries, investors and government policy-makers make informed decisions about long-term energy planning in Alberta's agriculture and forest sectors," said Stan Blade, chief executive officer of Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions. "The program's modeling tools can assess all stages of the supply and demand chain and provide solid information for Alberta's bio-industries to become more competitive and environmentally sustainable."

"We have built in details of each and every power plant that we have in Alberta," Kumar continued, turning his attention to the energy supply sector.

"You're looking at the whole system of demand and supply in a holistic way."

Kumar and his team can look at differences in potential future GHG emissions depending on the percentage of power generated by methods such as wind, high efficiency coal power plants and power plants making use of biomass energy.

"We have other models that look at water footprints - how much water is required to produce a unit of energy using a certain pathway?" he added.

"And we are also looking at land footprint - how many square kilometres would be required to produce a unit of energy?"

Another team studies the full lifecycle GHG emissions of a unit of energy from a specific source, as well as the energy return on investment.

"How much energy you put into producing a unit of energy from a certain source," said Kumar, adding that they look at both renewable and non-renewable energy resources.

"You're looking at conventional systems like coal, oil and gas, but you're also looking at the renewable energy systems like wind, biomass, geothermal," he continued.

A third team looks at the cost of producing energy.

"There are people who are working on a specific technology and a specific resource, but you will find very few people are working on the whole system, taking all the different types of energy ... in a comprehensive way, and looking at the options and assessing the different technologies," said Kumar.

"The impact of energy resource systems on our environment is of vital importance to Canada," said Janet Walden, chief operating officer at NSERC, which is contributing $925,000 to the program.

"[This] research will help governments and businesses better assess the costs and environmental impacts of various energy technologies, and ultimately help shape the future of energy production in Canada," she continued.

"We're excited to be able to support Dr. Kumar's valuable research into efficient energy systems," added Brian Ferguson, president and chief executive officer of Cenovus, the biggest contributor to the program with their $3 million investment.

"We expect the work this team is doing will lead to new tools that will help us do an even better job of unlocking the tremendous value of Alberta's oil sands in a responsible and environmentally friendly way," he said.

"This will help us look at the whole spectrum of energy technologies for Canada and Alberta and beyond," said Kumar.

"We talk about [how] in Alberta we have this many megatonnes of GHG we have to mitigate," he continued. "Now what are the options? You can mitigate it by [improving] the efficiency. You can mitigate it by going to renewable energy. ... Or you can also mitigate it through carbon sequestration."

The program will assess all these options in terms of GHG mitigation over the long-term.

"And what gives you the best bang for the buck - dollar per tonne of CO2 mitigated," said Kumar.

The program isn't only about shaping the future of energy production and consumption, but it is also about shaping the futures of graduate students who could be responsible for making the necessary technological changes in their careers.

"The students will be trained in this area and will have a special skill set where they can look at these energy systems in a holistic way," said Kumar.

"If you look at a cross-section of my group, almost all of them are engineers," he continued. "They have different backgrounds. They come from mechanical, chemical, agricultural. But these Chair programs will train the students in energy systems research where they would be able to look at these energy systems and assess these energy systems, which is kind of a critical area for a country like Canada where natural resources is such a big factor."

David Lynch, the University of Alberta's dean of engineering, appears to share Kumar's views.

"Partnerships between the public and private sector have a real impact - by providing the basic research foundation, we can promote the development and upgrading of Alberta's natural resources in an environmentally responsible manner," said Lynch.

"At the same time," he added, "we are giving our students a truly world class education. And they, in turn, will bring their knowledge and expertise to industry and government as engineering professionals to solve future challenges."

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