Nov. 20, 2023

Class of 2023: Study of cutting-edge biofuel project opens career paths for UCalgary students

Industry and academic mentors in Sustainable Energy Development master’s degree share their guidance and insights as Hanna Thai and Lleyton Zhou find their way
Capstone research
Hanna Thai and Lleyton Zhou present their research findings at the SEDV capstone fair at the Downtown campus in September 2023.

Some members of the UCalgary Class of 2023 looked far and wide for solutions to Canada’s future energy needs. In the Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) program, students explored issues such as the risk to electrical utilities in Western Canada from wildfires, opportunities to reduce the environmental footprint of Alberta’s health-care industry, and strategies for retrofitting multi-use residential buildings in Alberta with heat-pump technology.

For SEDV classmates Hanna Thai and Lleyton Zhou, the future-focused education led directly to their study of plans for an energy project in Saskatchewan that promises to produce a carbon-negative, cost-competitive replacement for fossil fuel.

In parallel but strikingly different lines of research, Thai and Zhou examined plans by Rainforest Energy Corp., a Calgary-based company, to build a biofuel plant near near Punnichy, Sask., about 125 kilometres north of Regina. The plant will convert non-food waste biomass and methane into clean gasoline for a market hungry for affordable net-zero energy solutions. Rainforest’s partner in the project is Touchwood Agency Tribal Council and their four First Nation members: Day Star, George Gordon, Kawacatoose, and Muskowekwan.

Now both students are graduating in the fall Class of 2023. Both experienced learning and mentorship in an innovative UCalgary program geared to equipping students with the multidisciplinary knowledge and skills needed to work in the emerging sustainable energy industry. The focal points of their academic journeys were their “capstone” or culminating research projects — the chance to apply new knowledge and skills to solving real-world challenges.

Research projects ‘a win-win’ for students and industry partners

Working on capstone research gives students experience in their new future careers, explains Dr. Irene Herremans, PhD, who teaches the three levels of the capstone course along with industry liaison Kelvin Tan, who ensures that students and organizations are well matched. The capstone projects pair the SEDV students with business partners who propose timely research topics relevant to the needs of their industry. The students choose topics of interest to them. As a result, the graduate-level research is guided by both academic and industry experts. Herremans calls the arrangement “a win-win.

“The organizations are offered an opportunity to have a student work on projects that are meaningful to them and are the result of thorough research under the guidance of academic supervisors with expertise on the diverse research topics,” she says.

“In turn, the students have an opportunity to add relevant experience to their resume, obtain an overview of the innovation occurring in the industry through the many organizational proposals that are presented in the capstone course, receive guidance from an organizational and academic supervisor, and become well-prepared to offer a contribution to an exciting new field.”

Direct involvement in industry concerns and trends

Jeff Arsenych, Rainforest co-chair and former sessional instructor of oil and gas economics and strategy in the Haskayne School of Business, is one of the business partners who pitched a research proposal to the class.

“The SEDV program distinguishes itself by connecting its students with industry mentors,” he says. “In my view, this practical approach equips the graduates for real-world work assignments.”

Caroline O’Driscoll, Rainforest vice-president and a sessional instructor in the Schulich School of Engineering, graduated from the SEDV program herself several years ago. “It is satisfying to contribute to an opportunity for a SEDV student to gain some real-world experience from Rainforest and expand the SEDV program’s network beyond the classroom,” she says.

The Rainforest executives invited members of the class to study two aspects of their biofuel plant: Rainforest’s unique partnership with First Nations, and the project’s economic feasibility under shifting market and regulatory conditions. Thai and Zhou signed on.

Hanna Thai

Hanna Thai researched the question, “What are the elements that define a meaningful partnership between energy businesses and the communities they are engaging?”

Hanna Thai seeks to take her engagement skills to the next level

Working in communications in the Canadian parks system, Hanna Thai was ready to deepen her skills in public engagement, especially with Indigenous Peoples. Rainforest’s vision to develop a deep, defining partnership with four First Nations caught her attention.

As Rainforest’s O’Driscoll explains, “Instead of being invited to the table after a project has been defined, we are instead working with our Indigenous partners to build the table in the first place. We have defined the project together from the outset.”

For her capstone project, Thai researched the question, “What are the elements that define a meaningful partnership between energy businesses and the communities they are engaging?”

O’Driscoll served as her academic supervisor, while her industry supervisor was Bob Watts, Queen’s University adjunct professor and a leading Canadian expert in Indigenous policy who helped establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Thai interviewed a combination of Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons. She spoke to members of the partner corporations as well as community engagement professionals within industry and academia. “Through many phone calls and chats, my capstone advisers painted a very vivid picture of some of the obstacles that many communities face when it comes to energy development.”

Reciprocity builds impactful partnership

Western institutions tend to bring a paternalistic bias to negotiations, prioritizing their own ideals and policies, while downplaying the “colourful mosaic of community knowledge, experiences, and resources” that could support a local project over the long term, Thai says. Her research found that building relationships with Indigenous communities based on reciprocity and mutual respect, rather than legal obligations, creates the most impactful partnership for all parties. She developed a strategic model to help overcome the obstacles and achieve effective engagement.  

O’Driscoll says Thai’s research establishes “an eye-opening set of key themes that are foundational to building relationships with Indigenous communities,” creating a kind of road map for Rainforest and others to follow. Meanwhile, Thai says the course and capstone research sharpened her interviewing and analytical skills, leading to a job working with Aubin Consulting, a Calgary firm that nurtures meaningful dialogues between Indigenous communities, governments and corporations.

Lleyton Zhou

Lleyton Zhou researched the question, “Is the project economically feasible throughout its economic life, under various assumptions?”

Lleyton Zhou deepens his understanding of climate change strategies

One of Thai’s classmates, Lleyton Zhou, says he’s passionate to understand how energy transition and sustainability can work together to avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change. When Arsenych pitched the opportunity to evaluate his company’s plans, Zhou was hooked. Zhou drew on his professional accounting background to address the research question, “Is the project economically feasible throughout its economic life, under various assumptions?”

Rainforest’s pioneering “dual-feedstock” manufacturing process combines methane with waste biomass from non-food sources such as logging slash, straw, and hemp residue. The resulting clean fuel can replace fossil fuel gasoline. The overall process reduces GHGs (greenhouse gas emissions) while the CO2 produced is captured and sequestered in deep geology onsite.

Rainforest has secured a letter of intent from a major oil company to buy all the low-carbon fuel they can produce. The project is at the stage of front-end engineering and design.

Zhou’s learning curve was steep. The first problem: where to find relevant data. Coached by his two research supervisors, he learned how to obtain and filter project data from various sources, interpret assumptions, and identify limitations — all the while juggling a master’s degree course load.

Mentors share insights from their years of experience

His mentors helped keep his interdisciplinary investigation on track. “My industry supervisor (Arsenych) has more than 35 years of experience in petroleum, renewable energy, business development, finance, and economic evaluations,” Zhou says, “while my academic supervisor (Dr. Poornima Jayasinghe, PhD) is a professor at the University of Calgary specializing in environmental engineering with many years of experience in handling real-world projects.”

Zhou admired their insights, ability to think outside the box, and passion for the renewable energy sector. He upskilled his accounting background and expanded his network both professionally and personally.

His research article demonstrated the project’s cost competitiveness and positive investment return under various scenarios. The research also showed its strategic benefits compared to other renewable energy sources such as solar, wind farms, and wheat- or corn-based ethanol. Zhou says the master’s degree prepared him to transition into fields such as sustainability consulting, environmental accounting, and ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting and compliance.

Zhou says proper planning and rigorous analysis of energy projects is vital, not only for future investors, but also for the government regulators and policy-makers who can create the conditions for businesses to thrive. Arsenych says Zhou’s economic model “is a useful template not only for our evaluation methodology, but also for the renewable energy sector in general.”

Read more inspiring stories about the accomplishments and journeys of the Class of 2023.

Are you a new graduate? As you prepare to transition away from student life, we'd like to also welcome you into the UCalgary alumni community. Learn about the programs, benefits and services available exclusively to UCalgary grads, and be sure to keep in touch. 

Thinking about your next career? Start with UCalgary’s interdisciplinary MSc in Sustainable Energy Development and join the next generation of energy leaders in just 16 months! Learn more about the program or register for an upcoming information session.

The MSc in Sustainable Energy Development has its home in the School of Public Policy. Students benefit from the teaching and expertise of faculty members from the Haskayne School of Business, Schulich School of EngineeringSchool of Architecture, Planning, and LandscapeFaculty of Science, and Faculty of Law.

A special scholarship has been created, starting in 2024, by the Canadian Energy Research Institute: the CERI Indigenous Graduate Scholarship in Sustainable Energy Development. The scholarship supports an Indigenous student (Canadian First Nations, Metis or Inuit) in their MSc in Sustainable Energy Development studies. Learn more

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