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Innovating in the fight against climate change

CleanTech-crop Now Atlantic - Belle DeMont
- Belle DeMont

With calls for action on climate change ramping up both globally and locally, people are eager to find solutions for the challenges that accompany the warming planet.

According to the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, released on September 25, an excess of atmospheric carbon is rapidly warming the oceans putting marine species, entire ecosystems, and the coastal communities that depend on them at risk.

For Atlantic Canadians, the impacts could be sweeping and severe. Ocean warming, de-oxygenation, acidification, and sea-level rise threaten our biodiversity, food webs, industry, and every-day life.

"It's what some people call a wicked problem," says Sean Kelly, Director of Energy Programs with Clean Foundation. It's a problem with many angles, requiring many solutions. So we have to acknowledge this is a challenge, but we have to start somewhere, and we have to start taking action."

At Clean, which rebranded from Clean Nova Scotia after their work expanded beyond provincial borders, they view the climate crisis as an all hands on deck challenge requiring lots of action by many players. It's about acting on the knowledge we have now — making homes more energy-efficient, ensuring new builds are net-zero, and making the transition to electric vehicles — and supporting research and development of new ideas and technologies to help lessen the impact of the crisis.

“Innovation is absolutely key," says Kelly. "Innovation in technology, but also in processes and policies and the way we've been doing things."

In a comically dark and ironic twist, technology (the rapid advancement of which contributed to the crisis we're now facing), if used smartly, is likely to play a leading role in efforts to soften the blow and weather the storm of climate instability. And Atlantic Canadian cleantech companies are leading the way.

Measure twice

Arolytics is one such company.

Headquartered in Halifax with an office in Calgary, Arolytics provides emissions consulting and software (AROviz) to the oil and gas industry — helping the sector measure, track, and analyze emissions data.

With new regulations mandating producers both measure and mitigate methane emissions in their operations taking effect in January 2020, the economic case for the business is strong.

"We're actually getting quite a bit of pull from within the oil and gas sector," says Dave Risk, one of Arolytics co-founders and professor of Earth Sciences at St. Francis Xavier University.

In fact, the company grew out of Flux Lab, a gas detection and measurement research group based out of St. FX involved in measurement programs across Canada, and documenting current levels of methane. When it comes to measurement expertise, they've got it.

"You have to remember, oil and gas producers are experts at producing oil and gas," says Risk. "They are not experts at things like measuring atmospheric levels of gas. So there's a desperate need for expertise, and software solutions."

The environmental case for their work is substantial too. Although focused solely on onshore facilities (but not oil sands - oil sands and offshore facilities handle emissions differently), there are still close to 300,000 sites, many of which will require measurement. And if we can hit reduction targets, it would be equivalent to taking 5.7 million cars off the road.

"It's great that the government has enforced some level of measurement," says Risk. "It's hard to manage gasses without measuring them first. And it's a huge greenhouse footprint. He adds, "Our expertise is being tapped for the right reasons."

Water world

In North America, a full three to five percent of our energy usage annually is tapped for moving and treating water for human consumption, which is a substantial chunk of our total energy release.

At PEI-based Island Water Technologies, they've developed ways to lessen the energy costs of wastewater treatment, making it more efficient and more affordable.

"There are different ways you can do that," says Patrick Kiely, IWT's CEO and Founder. "You can reduce the energy cost of that wastewater treatment. We've done that by developing improved ways to grow good, healthy bacteria in wastewater treatment plants. We also integrate renewable energy generation, solar specifically, with our wastewater treatment."

IWT develops wastewater treatment products for a variety of needs. REGEN, their self-powered wastewater treatment system, comes equipped with solar panels to clean water for up to 1000 people (essentially a large condo block). SENTRY, a bio-electrode sensor, measures real-time microbial function in wastewater systems. And ClearPod, their domestic septic treatment system, eliminates 85 per cent of the organics in wastewater before it reaches the leach field, which gives the field a break, allowing it to bioremediate — essentially turning septic tanks into mini wastewater treatment systems.

"That was the first product we ever developed," says Kiely of ClearPod. "It's the simplest version of our broader goal, to provide decentralized, robust, low-cost wastewater treatment."

As they started looking for solutions, they realized 25 percent of Canadian homeowners rely on septic systems, none of which are very efficient. So they took a stab at improving the existing infrastructure and came up with ClearPod.

One of the biggest challenges, though, is adoption, says Kiely.

"It's cheap and easy to just pollute. We know they [the government] are proposing a price on carbon, which clearly would be the single most efficient way of ensuring that people don't pollute. I think that what drives everyone, really, is dollars and cents."

He suggests regulations mandating environmental responsibility are essential. Along with taking personal responsibility.

"If someone knows it's going to cost them extra every year to drive their gas-guzzling SUV or pickup truck, they might make a smarter decision."

But individuals also need to take personal responsibility.

"When you pay your municipal fees or income tax, you should be happy that you're contributing."

Shrinking the bucket

For a lot of people talking about climate change and its solutions can be overwhelming. It's easy to wonder how your actions can make a difference at all when they're only tiny drops in an ocean of turmoil. At Clean, they try to combat this mindset by shrinking the bucket — showing people how their actions help locally, and how those impacts can scale.

If you consider your efforts in relation to your immediate community, says Kelly, it can be easier to see results. And combined with the results of other communities, and suddenly Nova Scotia is meeting its goals. And if each province can get there, Canada will too. But getting there is going to require progressive thinking as much as it does innovative technology.

"We try to start where our audiences are, says Kelly. "Sometimes we're more evolutionary than revolutionary in that we're just trying to move the needle and keep it moving. We are finding once people get involved in one environmental action, we can use that to lead them to the next and the next. So in a way, it becomes very revolutionary."

Robyn McNeil is all about her kid, her cat, her people, good stories, strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer

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