Taking new clean technology solutions out of the lab and putting them into the real world. This is Sustainable Development Technology Canada’s (STDC) core mission and it’s helping Canada’s clean tech community to thrive.
“SDTC is mandated and funded by the government to build a sustainable development infrastructure in Canada. That sounds like a complicated set of things but really what we’re doing is looking at the clean-tech opportunities, we test them out in a real world application”, said CEO and director Vicky Sharpe, during an interview in Toronto at the Ontario Global Water Leadership Summit which took place in mid-May.
“If a first customer says, ‘We’re not going to buy it because we don’t know it performs’, what we do is help finance projects that prove out the performance of that technology with the customer”, she added.
Sharpe, a British-born expert and advocate of sustainable technology with a PhD in microbiology and chemistry applied to water pollution control, takes a pragmatic approach to sustainability. She says what SDTC offers is a “real world solution.”
Through the organization, the government of Canada puts in 30% of the money and the rest of comes from the private sector. The money also comes from the company with the idea and the company who will be the project host.
“A lot of people have ideas. But how will they build them to the point where the investment community will put money into them? So our job is to help them through the innovation chain”, she explained.
STDC is, in Sharpe’s words, a catalyst and she hopes her work will help join up the efforts carried out by people who create technology and those who finance them. “We want to create a critical mass of all these key players so the ecosystem from end to end is functional and strong”, she said.
In order to do that, STDC holds two competitions a year. Applicants must provide environmental and economic benefits, which translates into reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved air quality, water conditions and land. “All the elements of our natural capital need to be protected. We take a very holistic vision”, she says.
Clean tech is often associated with renewable energy, which evokes images of solar panels and wind turbines. But Sharpe is quick to dispel that. “Most people talk about clean technology and new ways of generating power, so the conversation is always about wind, solar, biomass, ocean energy … Our point is that the way we use energy is so inefficient. So many of the technologies we support look at ways we can use less energy and produce a better product. So we look at the demand side of the energy equation, not the supply side. We look at the complete end-to-end value proposition. That interests us every bit as much as renewable power,” she explained.
That doesn’t mean traditional renewables are out of the equation in Sharpe’s view. “We are going to look at wind turbines but we will look at the reliability of those wind farms, which is still quite poor. We concentrate on areas of strength. Canada is renowned for its software and digital technologies and communications technologies for Nortel and RIM and others and you could take that kind of technology and apply it to how you could manage data systems and manage information around wind and solar farms. We do things that improve the reliability, bring a technology down a cost curve. We also look for innovative ways to do things. So we’re involved in renewables but not in the classic way.”
She cites the example of biomass, which is a low intensity energy solution and needs a huge amount of feedstock to produce power. “When you grow biomass you mustn’t destroy the current forest because then you’d be releasing all that carbon. So at some points you may need masses of one thing to compete with a small amount of the other. Is that actually the right thing to do? The answer is always a sophisticated one. People always want simple answers but there isn’t a simple answer.”
Sharpe is also a firm believer that a lifestyle change is necessary to build a road to a sustainable future. “Urban design is a critical element of technology innovation and people don’t see it. Our lifestyles are wrong.”
The price of carbon should be integrated into the price of everything, she said. “There’s been so much arguing whether it should be carbon trading or carbon tax, if we should do it, if one country goes ahead of the other they will have a competitive disadvantage. I don’t want to talk about it anymore because it’s an excuse to do nothing”, she said.
“We believe that you need to think about the embedded use of carbon, water, energy. The reason is developed countries want to sell their product. Canada is a very export-oriented place. But we are not going to be able to sell to Asia if we’re not careful. They have a much lower labor cost. How are we going to compete? With faster, better, lighter, more sophisticated products. That’s how we will survive economically. I’m not talking about CEOs about saving trees; I’m asking them: do you want to stay in business? So you better do this, because otherwise you won’t be productive or innovative enough to compete.”
How about the general public? How should people be addressed by those selling sustainability? What moves people is fear, she said. “We’re beginning to see the impact of climate change. When it gets to be bad enough, people then start to become inventive. Unfortunately it has to be bad before it gets to be good. It’s so difficult to get people to understand it. Change the price. You don’t have to have a sophisticated conversation. They know it matters when they see it with practical things.”
Antonio Pasolini writes about alternative energy for Energy Refuge.