Natural Resources Minister calls Sarnia ‘model for green energy transition’

Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson tours the Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park (Photo courtesy of Kerry's Klips Photography)

Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources says Sarnia-Lambton could act as a model for his long-planned “just transition” bill, aimed at helping workers in the oil and gas sector move into green energy jobs.

Jonathan Wilkinson made the comments Monday during a tour of the Western Research Park.

He was briefed on all of the collaborative work happening in our region, including presentations from various local stakeholders.

“Coming here, it really gives me a better sense of the scope of work that’s going on here and how advanced a lot of the work is,” said Wilkinson. “We are moving to address climate change, of course, that’s a science issue. How you do that in a way that actually enables economic opportunity is really critical. This is a great example of a community that really has put it all together.”

Wilkinson said Sarnia is an ideal location to become the “largest low-carbon Hydrogen Hub (H2ub) in Ontario.”

The Sarnia-Lambton Economic Partnership (SLEP) recently laid out a roadmap to 2050.

“You have an existing network of industries, including the refineries, that use hydrogen right now,” he said. “But, typically the way in which you produce hydrogen from natural gas, right now we don’t address the CO2. There is an opportunity for this community, and for parts of Alberta, to be a first mover in ensuring that we’re actually using low-carbon hydrogen so you’re creating demand for low-carbon hydrogen through displacing what they do presently. That builds demand which enables people to actually make investments in production which then enables us to move on to other applications.”

SLEP Senior Economic Development Officer Matthew Slotwinski said the demand for sustainable energy will only increase.

“The demand forecasting indicates an incredible opportunity for scaling up the hub across a variety of pathways to hydrogen use,” said Slotwinski. “By 2050, local low-carbon hydrogen demand could range from 500,000 to a million tonnes per year. That would comprise about five per cent of Canada’s low-carbon hydrogen demand at that time.”

Lambton College Associate Director of Research Operations, Infrastructure and Services Steve Reaume said they’ve been involved in a number of exciting projects.

That includes assisting California-based Origin Materials with the control and instrumentation of its pilot plant back in 2017.

Reaume said they’re also collaborating with Suncor scientists to produce spike proteins for viruses, using algae instead of mammalian cells.

“With algae, you can grow it in a large vat and it grows really quickly compared to mammalian cells,” he said. “Plus, algae is really safe and you don’t have to worry about biosafety levels. You can grow this spike protein in order to react faster to potential future pandemics.”

Reaume said Lambton College has seen great success in terms of research and development over the years.

Over the past year, they’ve hired 222 students from the area, along with 88 graduates.

“We have been one of the top five colleges, in terms of research revenue, for the past six years,” he said. “In the last year overall we had about $17 million in research revenue through 297 projects and helped 257 different partners.”

Meanwhile, Origin Materials, which produces sustainable materials from carbon, is expected to begin production at its new commercial-scale plant early this year.

President of Canada Research Alex Ward said there’s a strong customer demand for sustainable materials.

“As of our last quarterly earnings, our order book was at $9 billion and growing,” said Ward. “That’s for products from plants that we haven’t built yet. We have to build these plants at a break-neck pace in order to keep up with that. The material is used for packaging, things like water bottles and clam shells, as well as textiles.”

Bioindustrial Innovation Centre of Canada General Manager Sandy Marshall said developing and expanding clusters must be a priority for Canada.

“It’s been critical for the development of our region here, and we’re continuing to work on it now, two decades in,” said Marshall. “Really, cluster-building should be part of implementing the net zero accelerator initiative which is a priority for the federal government.”

Monday also featured a presentation from BASES General Manager Jason Vaillant who spoke about Imperial’s development of drop-in fuels, which are produced from biomass sources.

They mix canola oil with conventional feeds to make lower carbon fuels.

Vaillant said Imperial is also exploring an advanced recycling technology for plastics locally.