Conditions for Success: Inspiring a Culture of Innovative Leadership

An interview with SPARK panelist, Brian Vaasjo

It takes more than a good idea to advance a carbon positive solution or for a company to go commercial.

Accelerating technology to reduce cost and find commercial value is a bit like a “Rubik’s Cube” according to Brian Vaasjo, President & CEO, Capital Power. It requires innovative leadership, government support, significant revenue streams, sustainable business models, collaboration across industry, and more.

We spoke with Vaasjo to learn a bit more about accelerating technology.

What role do companies play in advancing a carbon positive solution?
We need to show leadership by being open, transparent, and authentic. By that I mean, acknowledging where we are at and sharing that we are in a transition that is complex, exciting and takes time, investment, and collaborative visioning to find solutions across all sectors to reduce emissions. We need to seek out, support, and work with partners to develop technologies.

Internally companies need to embed a culture of sustainability into their organizations—into policies, processes, governance and decision making, as well as instilling a culture of innovation. Innovative leadership comes from everyone in an organization and investing the time to step back, get diverse perspectives, and suggest solutions outside the box instead of automatically doing something that has previously or routinely been done that way.  It also requires developing a culture where people are encouraged and feel safe to be brave, speak their ideas, and understand that it’s better to share an idea (even if it turns out not to be the solution) than to not share it at all. You never know where that solution will come from, what it will be, or where it will lead. It’s better to fill that bucket than to only have a drop or two.

How do we successfully reduce carbon emissions?
Certainly, the route to finding success with reducing carbon is through technology. We need technologies that have a path to being self-sustaining. That’s why government support is essential in the early days, to get us to a self-sustaining economic solution for reducing carbon emissions. Technologies that will forever need some sort of a subsidy are not positive solutions. For a technology to be successful in this space, it must have other revenue streams. An example of this is would be using technology to burn municipal solid waste to generate electricity. It’s about enhancing a waste product to transform it into something useful and valuable. The days of thinking we can just bury waste, be it physical waste or emissions, and leave it are gone. That’s not sustainable in the long-term. There has to be some other value associated with that carbon to make any of these technologies work.

Could you give us an example of this government support?
We had one project, that ERA and Alberta Innovates (AI) worked with us on, that focused on finding ways to burn both biomass and municipal solid waste at one of our power generation facilities. The potential of this project was that it not only reduced the carbon footprint, but it solved multiple problems and created significant other revenue opportunities. Landfill and municipal solid waste are a huge problem, and we can solve it with one half of one of our boilers for northern Alberta. It’s those kinds of initiatives and the foresight of ERA and AI and their support that helps moves those things forward.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve witnessed about CCUS?
What’s most exciting is the whole evolution of carbon utilization, to the point we are testing carbon technology on an ongoing basis at the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC).  The ACCTC, funded with support from the governments of Canada and Alberta, is hosted at the Shepard Energy Centre (co-owned by us and ENMAX). From my perspective, when governments have roles, that’s massive. Its tremendous for the development of CCUS technology in general, but certainly in the province of Alberta specifically. When you look across those technologies tested right now and see the brilliance that is going into them, that’s a significant piece of the puzzle in the long term. When you ask about the benefit of government participation, history will say that was one of the most brilliant things done by Alberta to move the carbon agenda. It’s critical to assure the lower carbon future.

What advice do you have for technology innovators?
Choose your partners well. There’s a general perception that all any technology developer needs is capital. I don’t think that’s right. You need strategic partners. People that can work with you through pilot plants, work with you through commercialization, and move you to where the technology is realized. Partners that are flexible, resilient and collaborative are needed because the development of innovative technology is also a fluid and dynamic process. Those are the kind of partners you need to find, not just capital, but somebody that can help you along the journey. There are brilliant people and scientists out there, but they don’t always have the needed expertise and experience in commercialization. The connections that government is trying to make for technology developers and people like ourselves is good from that perspective because it connects the right people at the right time.

Where does Alberta need to focus its efforts?
In order to reduce carbon, there needs to be a number of initiatives, there needs to be a lot of development, there needs to be a lot of cooperation across and within industries. That’s certainly where governments come into play in helping different parties to connect and work together. Everybody’s got an interest in moving these technologies forward. If you are able to find those paths that result in you being more competitive, or having a much lower costs and a better product, that’s where acceleration happens. The answer is to find those technologies, develop them and stimulate them.

Where is Capital Power focused?
We are focused on renewables, natural gas, and CCUS. Part of that approach is not running after different dinosaurs. Our belief is that natural gas is not a transition fuel. It’s critical in the long-term for stability of the grid and providing reliable baseload power. I keep asking myself what’s going to happen in Alberta for those times in the winter when it’s 30 below and there’s no wind and the sun’s not shining. I think we’re in trouble unless we have natural gas-type baseload generation—that’s reliable and ready to run when you need it. We are very much focused on reducing emissions from natural gas.

Vaasjo is participating in the plenary panel, Conditions for Success, on Wednesday, October 30 at SPARK 2019: Carbon Positive. He’ll be joined by experts Alice Reimer, Site Lead, Creative Destruction Lab; Sandra Odendahl, President & CEO, CMC Research Institutes; Marcia Nelson, Executive Fellow, University of Calgary; and moderator James McLean, Partner – Operations with PwC.