The city at the heart of the Alberta oilpatch can transform itself into a cleantech capital by the end of this decade if it makes the right decisions and brings together the needed investment now, Calgary-based environmental lawyer Jeremy Barretto argues in an opinion piece for CBC.
“Imagine Calgary a decade from now, thriving, with near-zero office vacancy, full employment, and robust public finances,” writes Barretto, a partner at local business law firm Cassels. “Top students are flocking to the city from other provinces and our young people are staying or returning home. Green energy companies are multiplying and thriving. Now ask yourself: How did we get there?”
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The vision is a far cry from a city facing the “triple-whammy” of a prolonged economic downturn, crashing oil prices, and the COVID-19 pandemic, with Premier Jason Kenney vowing his province will produce the “last barrel” of oil at the end of a decades-long transition of fossil fuels. Instead, Barretto imagines his city making a “big bet” on a future that “would honour its past, leverage its strengths, and overcome its challenges.”
He sees the process starting with a competition, equally funded by federal and provincial governments and a joint industry-municipal funding effort, inviting the world’s leading universities to establish a leading cleantech research institute in Calgary. Looking back from 2030, he recalls that “a joint bid from MIT and [the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology] won the competition in 2021. The institute transformed the empty but iconic 37-story former Nexen office tower downtown into a modern research hub, connected to the LRT, bike lanes, and surrounded by a new urban park.”
The institute “had the ethos of Silicon Valley, with open floor plans, labs open 24/7, but with panoramic mountain views,” he writes. “The school immediately created hundreds of jobs for its staff, which were mostly local, and dozens of new faculty, who came from the best schools around the world.” The place became a magnet for entrepreneurial grad students and faculty focused on cleantech, and tapped into the formidable expertise developed within Alberta’s fossil sector.
“The graduates went on to start companies to commercialize technology,” Barretto continues. “Hundreds of new companies were established by 2030, including a couple that went on to become global corporations, headquartered in Calgary. Our local energy companies absorbed some of the talent coming out of the institute and prospered, developing new profit centres and more efficient processes.”
Meanwhile, the city itself “learned from the growing pains of other tech hubs and ensured that the prosperity was shared with the community, with Calgary nearly eliminating homelessness and expanding all of its cultural institutions.”
Barretto cites Cornell University’s new Roosevelt Island technology campus in New York City (which was supposed to begin life with a 26-storey Passivhaus student residence) as a model for what Calgary could achieve. But “general platitudes about diversification or the tech sector will not address our challenges,” he warns.
“Cleantech companies are essential as the world transitions to a low-carbon economy,” and “Calgary is already a leader in clean technology, due to large and successful research investments by the [fossil] energy industry and government,” he writes. So “let’s become a cleantech capital and help ensure our economic security for generations to come.”
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