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Alberta investing $7M into Cenovus Energy study on small modular reactors

The investment in the Cenovus study was announced by Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz on Tuesday at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The investment in the Cenovus study was announced by Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz on Tuesday at the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The provincial government will invest $7 million into a study conducted by oil and gas producer Cenovus Energy focused on how small modular reactors (SMRs) could be used on oilsands operations in the future.

Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Rebecca Schulz made the announcement on Tuesday in Calgary during a news conference at the World Petroleum Congress, a five-day oil and gas conference.

"This is just another example of how industry dollars are being reinvested back into industry to support innovation in emissions reduction," said Schulz, who added the funding came from the province's Technology Innovation and Emissions Reduction (TIER) fund.

Schulz noted that any future SMR adoption in Alberta would require extensive regulatory engagement, something she said the province was currently working on. She added that the Alberta-Ottawa working group focused on emissions reduction, which met for the first time last week, discussed regulatory challenges.

An artist's rendering of the SMR technology proposed for Ontario's Darlington location. Saskatchewan plans on exploring the same type of reactor.
An artist's rendering of the SMR technology proposed for Ontario's Darlington location. Saskatchewan plans on exploring the same type of reactor.

An artist's rendering of SMR technology proposed for Ontario's Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Alberta is investing $7 million from its TIER fund into a study focused on how small modular reactors could be used in northern Alberta. (Ontario Power Generation)

Premier Danielle Smith previously tasked Energy and Minerals Minister Brian Jean with exploring how to incentivize oilsands operators to explore SMR technology, asking Jean to work with Schulz to develop a regulatory framework around the technology.

SMRs, which are intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, have about a third of the generating capacity of traditional nuclear power reactors, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

At present, there are still many unknowns surrounding the costs and overall efficiencies of small modular reactors, noted Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

"One thing that we know about these small modular reactors is that even on the most aggressive timeline, we won't see any until close to 2030," Mabee said in an interview. "That's here in Ontario, where they're planning a build at Darlington as a relatively large reactor.

"But if we want to see small modular reactors as part of the energy solution going forward, we need more research and more investment in the technology."

Study geared toward oilsands

When asked at the news conference by a reporter how they might be used as a potential decarbonization tool, Rhona DelFrari, chief sustainability officer and executive vice-president of stakeholder engagement at Cenovus Energy, cited the types of oilsands facilities used by Cenovus.

Steam generators are the source of emissions at oilsands sites right now, DelFrari said. In the future, SMRs could potentially be used to create non-emitting heat and power.

"Also we have some cogeneration facilities that create both electricity and steam at the same time. You would replace that, or you could replace that in the future, by using small modular reactors to create both electricity and heat to create the steam."

Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says most oil and gas companies do have some credible plans and are making investments tied to the energy transition. But sometimes it's hard to see those plans because they tend to often be wrapped in rhetoric.
Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says most oil and gas companies do have some credible plans and are making investments tied to the energy transition. But sometimes it's hard to see those plans because they tend to often be wrapped in rhetoric.

Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., says there are still many unknowns surrounding the costs and overall efficiencies of small modular reactors. (Marc Godbout/Radio-Canada)

Mabee, at Queen's University, said SMR technology could potentially be a "game-changer," even if some may have questions around linking it directly to continuing production in the oilsands.

"I suspect that lots of people would say, 'Well, wait a minute, if we're building small modular reactors and creating some of that energy that we need for other applications, maybe it could go straight into those applications, rather than serving as a way to amplify oil production,'" Mabee said.

"Having said that, this is a way to start addressing the very high emissions that can be associated with some oilsands operations. That's a good starting point, I think."

One environmental group, meanwhile, is of the view that the push for SMRs is a "delay tactic" from the oil and gas industry.

"Cenovus is one of the wealthiest companies in the country, and they can certainly pay for their own research," said Keith Stewart, a spokesperson with Greenpeace Canada.

"The notion that taxpayers are footing the bill for them to promise to do something a decade away from now is a real waste of resources that could be going into putting in solutions like renewable energy."

Though it's being referred to as a study, it's actually a four-year series of studies being lumped into one, noted DelFrari with Cenovus. The total price tag for the study is $26.7 million.