Blain van Melle
Executive Vice President, Alberta Business
Manager, Energy Innovation
One of our most pressing challenges is finding solutions to climate change and achieving a net-zero emissions energy system. Building on its century-long history of innovation, TransAlta is at the forefront of the transition to clean energy.
The pace of technological change is happening quickly. There are lots of potential solutions, some of which have great promise, so finding the right mix that is reliable, cost-effective, and low emitting energy is an urgent focus. This is the motivation behind TransAlta’s Energy Innovation team.
Using innovation to replace electricity generated from fossil fuels with clean alternatives
“We’ve long been innovators. We were early in Alberta to harness wind power, we converted coal plants into natural gas, we’ve built battery storage, and now we’re looking at the next technology to make energy even cleaner,” says Blain van Melle, TransAlta’s Executive Vice President, Alberta Business. “We want to be a problem solver, not only for Alberta and Canada but globally.”
With its Energy Innovation (EI) team and significant investments in new technologies, TransAlta is all-in when it comes to delivering net-zero energy for our customers. van Melle acknowledges some technologies may take 10 or more years to realize. “The work we do today will differentiate us in the future because there are promising solutions, such as hydrogen, that, with advances in technology, could make it a cost-effective and extremely clean source of energy,” he says.
TransAlta has set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. The company has already reduced its emissions by 29 MT/year or approximately 70 per cent from 2005 levels. TransAlta’s Clean Electricity Growth Plan is focused on building new clean energy generation for customers in the near term and incorporating new technology solutions over the medium and long term. To help meet this challenge, TransAlta created the EI team to identify, invest in, and deploy commercially promising net-zero energy solutions that can meaningfully reduce emissions in the next decade.
Connecting innovators with capital and business know-how
The promise of technology as a key part of solving energy transition challenges inspired TransAlta to make an early-stage $2 million equity investment in Vancouver-based Ekona Power. Ekona’s promising approach to producing clean hydrogen, a proprietary type of pyrolysis, is poised to transform the hydrogen industry by offering cost-effective hydrogen production with 90+ per cent fewer emissions than conventional steam methane reformer technologies for producing the energy transition fuel. If successful, Ekona’s method would be low-cost, scalable, and could be located at industrial sites where energy is needed, saving on expensive infrastructure to transport energy. TransAlta’s investment will help Ekona develop, pilot, and commercialize its pyrolysis technology.
Passion fueling the search for clean technologies
EI manager Chelsea Donelon is passionate about the opportunity to bring TransAlta’s deep experience in developing and operating clean energy technologies together with her team’s concern for the rapidly warming climate, their convictions about the urgency of removing carbon from our energy systems, and their creativity for identifying and developing clean generation solutions.
“This focus on addressing our impact on the climate increasingly shows up in people demanding more from their work than a decent pay cheque. It’s also about making a contribution. When you’re coming to work with a contribution mindset, and you feel supported, not only does that allow us to attract top-tier talent passionate and committed to finding innovative transition solutions, it also allows us to really think creatively and holistically about the energy we produce.”
More investments and innovation led by TransAlta’s Energy Innovation Team
Further strengthening its position as a leader in the clean energy transition, TransAlta made a US$25 million commitment to the Energy Impact Partners Deep Decarbonization Frontier Fund, which is dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs to bring early-stage innovative solutions that will accelerate the transition to net zero. The fund’s collaborative model gives TransAlta the opportunity to identify, pilot, commercialize, and bring to market technologies that will support its own decarbonization goals.
“This investment could be a game-changer for us since it allows us to pool our funds with some of the biggest utilities in the U.S. and Europe,” says Donelon. “We can work together and pursue breakthrough technologies.”
TransAlta also permitted WaterCharger this fall, a 180 MW battery energy storage project proposed near the Bow River west of Cochrane, Alta. The project will be a first-of-its-kind global deployment using hydroelectric power generated from the Ghost Dam to charge lithium-ion batteries next to the dam. The stored power can be used to provide grid services to the system operator, reducing the likelihood of power interruptions and other reliability events.
While TransAlta pushes forward with clean energy solutions, van Melle acknowledges the government’s critical role in fostering innovation through enabling policies, and funding new technologies.
“Think about it. We’re only seven years away from the next federal government emissions target (40–45 per cent below 2005 emissions by 2030) and 12 from the next one for the electricity sector (nationwide net-zero grid by 2035). This means transitioning our supply mix by developing thousands and thousands of new, clean megawatts of electricity. That’s not much time. Public dollars are needed to catalyze the transition by enabling new technologies to become commercially viable, and after that, the private sector can take over and deploy these technologies at scale. That’s what happened with wind and solar power,” says van Melle.
Governments need to create a level playing field for technologies that can contribute to an affordable and reliable net-zero future. Policy should be crafted to incent outcomes and allow markets to decide what technologies will advance Canada’s transition. According to Donelon, “When we think about government funding, we need to think about where are the technologies that truly have the ability to achieve affordable, reliable, net-zero electricity. And then it’s about funneling enough capital and funding to get those technologies through to commercialization to let the market drive cost reductions for consumers through economies of scale. That’s where private capital is available to finance them, where people understand the risk and the deployment of the technology. It’s also at this point where the government can then step aside and say we no longer have a role to play here.”
TransAlta’s experience developing and operating clean generation technologies, combined with the commitment and creativity to solve transition challenges, positions the company as a clean energy leader in Canada’s energy transition.