Jan. 12, 2022

SEDV Director digs into the complexities of the interdisciplinary nature of the energy transition

Sara Hastings-Simon, recently appointed program director, brings her wealth of knowledge and experience to the SEDV program
Sara Hastings-Simon

Sara Hastings-Simon earned her PhD in physics studying the spectroscopic properties of crystals doped with rare earth ions. The work had implications for creating memories for quantum computers, so she was dealing with physical processes at the smallest scales.

Today, as director of the Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) program in the University of Calgary School of Public Policy, her work is done on a much larger canvas. She's interested in macro energy systems, the study of the big forces that shape how we produce and use energy, and what will happen as climate change forces a switch to cleaner sources.

"It's fundamentally a trans-disciplinary space that looks at energy systems. So, 'macro' meaning energy systems in the big picture, across both long spans of time and also geographically large. It really tries to combine, say, engineering analysis with business analysis to look at a problem and understand how an energy system might evolve," she says.

Those are also the issues she and other instructors are teaching students in the interdisciplinary SEDV program to grapple with. The program, which grants an MSc degree, includes classes from four disciplines: business, engineering, environmental design, and law.

"Traditionally, there are a lot of barriers between these areas. My own research is about trying to bridge those gaps. That's also why I'm so excited to be taking on the directorship of SEDV," says Hastings-Simon, who was appointed director of the program last year.

She was always interested in issues around energy, even while she was studying physics as an undergraduate at Pomona College in Claremont, California. But she was also interested in quantum physics, and ended up working in that area during her PhD at the University of Geneva.

After completing her thesis, though, she decided against continuing in experimental physics ("It was very deep. But also very slow, and very narrow," she says) So she took a job with McKinsey & Company consultants, where she worked for seven years.

"For me, working at McKinsey was almost like doing an MBA, or doing a professional program. I got very interested in how energy and climate policy gets made, on the national and international scale. And I worked with traditional and clean energy companies, and I saw how they think about building businesses, and what the real challenges they face are when they try to make changes."

After McKinsey she went to the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank, where she was Director, Clean Economy and a Senior Fellow, before coming to the University of Calgary.

Hastings-Simon's work digs into the complexities of trying to get the right solutions to the energy transition. Even seemingly simple actions can be more complicated than they seem.

For instance, power plants that burn natural gas are much less polluting than power plants that burn coal. So building more gas-burning plants seems like a no-brainer, along with the infrastructure needed to ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) to them.

But it's not that simple. In a paper she wrote with colleagues Shuting Yang and Arvind P. Ravikumar of the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Hastings-Simon found that LNG won't actually help keep global warming below the 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius Paris target has to be met to prevent dangerous climate change.

In the short run, up until 2038, substituting gas for coal would help. The trouble is that after that, even burning natural gas will cause too many greenhouse gas emissions. Those power plants will have to be replaced with zero-emissions sources such as solar, wind or nuclear power. For countries trying to meet their targets, a long-term reliance on gas-burning power plants won't work. And for companies deciding whether to make big investments in LNG technology now, the investment might not be worth the risk.

Elsewhere, Hastings-Simon has argued that the government of Alberta needs to be willing to "pick winners" by setting industrial policy and funding disruptive technologies that will benefit industries in the future.

In one paper she points to the success of the Alberta Oil Sands Technology and Research Authority (AOSTRA), which in the 1970s began investing in a new technology called steam-assisted gravity drainage, eventually spending the equivalent of $1.4 billion in today's dollars. Although many in the oil industry called the project a boondoggle at the time, it actually created the technology that allowed Alberta's oil sands to be developed.

Students at SEDV learn to think about these sorts of issues. Everyone in the program comes with work experience in fields like geology or engineering, or with corporate experience. They graduate with a degree that fits them for an increasing number of jobs.

"There are many companies, including banks and consumer-facing brands and others, that are realizing they need to think about energy production and consumption in whole new ways. There are companies that are starting up entire corporate sustainability teams and are staffing those up in a big way. 

"There is a general consensus that the climate is one of -- if not the most -- pressing challenges that we have to respond to as a society. This is a program whose time has come," Hastings-Simon says.