Building models and case: IBM and Net Zero Atlantic support First Nations clean energy projects

‘Green IT’ is a ready catch all term for technology solutions that reduce the environmental impact of ICT itself – think advance cooling solutions in the data centre, or energy management systems in IT infrastructure. But what of the potential to capitalize on IT capabilities to generate green outcomes in other areas of economic and social life? IT ability to drive sustainability in other sectors has long been recognized; GeSi research in 2020 calculated ICT’s positive environmental force in other areas was seven times its own impact. But this potential is rarely celebrated, or platforms advanced that can achieve the kind of scale needed to make a meaningful difference in the climate emergency. Until now….

A good example of new-found focus on the climate mitigation potential of ICT solutions was on display at COP27, the global climate conference held In Egypt this past November to assess where we are in efforts to reduce GHG emissions to a level where it’s possible to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. While the conference boasted progressive outcomes (notably the agreement to create a fund for damage and loss created by climate change), UNEP researchers made clear our inability to meet this climate target, based on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) made by different governments to reduce their climate footprints. According to Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, “We had our chance to make incremental changes, but that time is over. Only a root-and-branch transformation of our economies and societies can save us from accelerating climate disaster.” Citing the UNEP report, Andersen called for a “large-scale, rapid and fossil fuel-free shake-up” to achieve net-zero GHG emissions across economic sectors. In other words, we need an energy transition.

Engaging the private sector

As the record on meeting COP-inspired targets attests, this wholesale transformation cannot be achieved though government efforts alone, but will require the input of individuals, and more importantly, significant action on the part of the private sector. At COP27, IBM announced its contribution to a fossil free energy future: new members of its global pro bono social impact program, the IBM Sustainability Accelerator, will leverage the power of technologies such as cloud and AI and expert services resources to accelerate the development of clean energy projects. A multi- year, multi-project initiative, the IBM Sustainability Accelerator focuses on using technology to address key human challenges. The first group of members were chosen for their ability to apply technology to agricultural issues; This year’s members will focus on clean energy, a key to sustainable development, and a critical area in the struggle towards net zero carbon emissions.

Describing the intent of this year’s energy initiative, Justina Nixon-Saintil, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility and ESG at IBM noted “With this new cohort, helping marginalized communities get just and equitable access to sustainable energy resources not only helps the world achieve the goal of UN SDG7, but can help in the larger global energy transition.” Participants in this year’s program will work then, towards two goals: to support the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, which looks to ensure equitable access to clean energy, but also to advance of our transition away from use of fossil fuels.

With a project that can address this dual goal, Halifax-based non profit Net Zero Atlantic was selected by IBM as one of five members worldwide in the clean energy cohort. All new members, including the United Nations Development Programme, Sustainable Energy for All, Miyakojima City Government, and the Environment Without Borders Foundation, were chosen based on their commitment to support communities who are especially vulnerable to environmental threats, their ability to increase access to affordable clean energy services, and their focus and transparency on measurement and reporting. In its founding goals, specific project focus, and operational methodologies, Net Zero Atlantic proved an apt candidate. Through work with IBM, Net Zero Atlantic will refine an interactive digital tool that can help enable Indigenous communities in Atlantic Canada understand how transitioning to carbon-neutral energy system could impact their local economies and environments. Jean-François Barsoum, senior innovation executive, Research, Innovation, Environment and Smart Cities, IBM Canada, added: “We are incredibly proud Net Zero Atlantic has been chosen to be a part of the IBM Sustainability Accelerator program and we’re excited to accelerate the impact this organization is making for Canada’s future.”

Who is Net Zero Atlantic?

Alisdair McLean, executive director, Net Zero Atlantic

As engineer, renewable energy specialist, and executive director Net Zero Atlantic Alisdair McLean explained, the organization was formed to “identify knowledge gaps in Atlantic Canada that need to be resolved so that we can get to net zero [emissions].” An incubator of sorts, Net Zero Atlantic works on demonstration projects, pilots that can fill these gaps, provides training and education to groups looking to improve their sustainability profile, and is heavily invested in an energy system model that McLean believes can inform policy decisions in Atlantic Canada.

Currently, Net Zero Atlantic is contributing to several government energy initiatives. In addition to work with the provincial governments of Nova Scotia and PEI, along with other organizations including the federal government, it sits on advisory committees for the Energy Modelling Hub, a national group of academics and other experts interested in developing a national code of practice for energy modelling. The intent of the new model initiative undertaken with IBM, however, is to extend access to the model to other groups that can benefit from energy data and the ability to manipulate it. According to Kathleen Mifflin, project manager for the Atlantic Canada Energy System (ACES) model initiative,

when we built the energy system model, we made it open source and we thought that in doing so we would make it accessible to anybody who wanted to seek answers to the questions that they had about the future of our regions. But once we started to get out there and show people the tool that we built, we soon realized that it was still quite technically complex to use. We realized we had some more work to do to reach that end goal – the idea of democratizing access to information.

Kathleen Mifflin, project manager, Net Zero Atlantic

Net Zero’s application for IBM support was designed to address this challenge – to fine tune the tool to improve accessibility and to speed time to value. Mifflin noted, “we really want to take the model we have built, which can yield super helpful insights and make it easier to use, to produce results that are tangible, that communities can understand.” A related concern is time: “Because it is such a complex tool, it can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a day to solve a problem or answer a question, and this creates a challenge for user experience in terms of accessibility.” Net Zero’s hope is that IBM resources will help overcome this issue of user experience, building out the model’s front and back end so that data resources can be accessed by the average business user, as opposed to development experts. Ideally, Mifflin explained, this will take the form of a graphical user interface that can guide a user through the process of creating an energy scenario and analyzing its results. And as Barsoum explained, IBM has many years of experience with environmental (weather) data, and service expertise in scenario modelling that will also be brought to bear in the design and build phases of the project.

Building out the tool

Mifflin described work with IBM as “an iterative process,” a two-year engagement during which Net Zero will collaborate with IBM and model users to create an interface that is functional and intuitive, that is tested by partners in the design thinking and development phases, and that considers user feedback as a key part of the evaluation that is incorporated into a final product.

Net Zero Atlantic graphic for the Atlantic Canada Energy System (ACES) model
Net Zero Atlantic graphic for the Atlantic Canada Energy System (ACES) model

‘Users’ in this initiative are Indigenous partners that in Canada (and globally) experience economic inequality compared with other regions/communities in the country, are at special risk from the impacts of climate change, and who at the same time, are increasingly determined to regain control of energy development in their own territories. In many cases, this development takes the form of renewable installations. A dramatic example of First Nations people’s shift towards energy sovereignty was outlined in a news report this month: the Heiltsuk Nation in western BC has overcome dependency on fossil fuels (diesel energy generation) with renewable infrastructure that has decarbonized the energy supply, and has revitalized the community after clam fishing was devastated by a diesel spill. But this story is not unique to the Heiltsuk Nation – Natural Resources Canada counts 224 remote communities across Canada that are reliant on diesel generation, the majority of which are Indigenous People.

For communities like these, access to data and analysis on what energy transition would look like, access to information on the experience of other groups, can be instrumental in the building of viable, clean energy futures. As Mifflin noted, while First Nations people are now exercising their rights to use their land as they see fit, with the model, they will better understand “what this looks like in terms of jobs and how the communities can be better prepared to economically benefit from energy system change.” The goal is to help vulnerable communities understand the cumulative impacts of energy development – the options that are available and what impact different paths might have.

Scaling the energy transition initiative

According to Barsoum, IBM’s Accelerator program has been built with “a big emphasis on identifying groups, the people that are vulnerable to climate change, and how a particular project helps them deal with the impacts of climate change. That impact could be economic, environmental, or health related. The other element that is important is to identify projects that have the possibility of being deployed elsewhere. There is a replicability aspect to it. It’s great if we can help a population in one particular part of the world, but it’s even better, if in the process of doing that, we jointly develop assets that we can deploy elsewhere.”

From a broader perspective, the potential for scale to effect meaningful climate action raises some interesting discussion. Currently the energy sector (direct and indirect) accounts for just under 10 percent of Canadian GDP, and approximately 80 percent of GHG emissions (burning transport fuel included). Tackling this sector’s carbon impact is clearly critical to national climate change mitigation efforts. Today, much of the country’s existing productive capacity is devoted to fossil fuel extraction, while investment in renewable resources continues to lag behind what is needed to achieve carbon neutral targets.

According to Mifflin, the ACES model has the flexibility to adapt to different energy scenarios, and potentially to existing operations: “the model takes into account all existing infrastructure. So, if you were looking at Nova Scotia, we see our coal-based electricity fired stations and the model is technology agnostic… It describes the technologies that are available in Nova Scotia,” defines costs and other “techno economic characteristics” and then optimizes cost designed on the constraints that Net Zero feeds into it. In theory, then, the model could be applied in a variety of contexts. In practical terms, however, the model is being adapted to a specific purpose. It is designed to answer questions about GHG emissions – cost is calculated in carbon – and targeted at a specific group.

In McLean’s view, targeting Indigenous groups means the model has clear value in that it addresses the needs of First Nation peoples who have experienced historic inequities and whose situation will be exacerbated by climate change. Armed with better user experience, the model can be extended beyond Nova Scotian demonstration projects. According to McLean, the type of model that Net Zero Atlantic has developed has been in use for years, but academics and utilities typically paid consultants to run them, resulting in a disparity of access to the kinds of information these types of tools provide. “With an opensource tool and with IBM helping us improve the user experience, we will help to give these sophisticated tools to people wouldn’t normally have them. I think this is essential work.”

Beyond the social goal of helping Indigenous People to build responsible infrastructure that can lift local communities, he also believes that political reality in Canada means that the model will also help to advance the energy transition, and as such, is an important pathway Canada’s net zero future. Despite the failure to take into account the fully informed consent of Indigenous People that marks the history of energy development in Canada, McLean believes that going forward, energy projects cannot proceed with their full engagement: “I cannot conceive of a renewable energy project proceeding without there being full, informed consent of the Indigenous People. From that perspective, our view is with the technology we developed, and with IBM’s help to improve that, we provide Indigenous Peoples have another tool to inform their advocacy for [just] energy development.”

If the future of net zero energy development is renewables, then McLean argued, “Indigenous participation in the energy transition is essential” – in other words, Indigenous energy development is key to Canada’s energy transition. This perspective is supported by recent research published by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices,[1] which highlights “the fact that Indigenous Peoples, communities, and organizations have played a leadership role in the greening of electricity thus far in Canada, making major contributions to lowering Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.” While they account for approximately five percent of the Canadian population, the report concluded that “Today, First Nations, Métis, and Inuit entities are partners or beneficiaries of almost 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity-generating infrastructure, and almost all of that infrastructure is producing renewable energy.”

Success metrics and impact

Jean-François Barsoum, Senior Innovation Executive, Research, Innovation, Environment and Smart Cities, IBM Canada

For Net Zero Atlantic, user adoption of the model is a key success metric. If the tool is applied in Nova Scotia and beyond then the organization will have made meaningful contribution to helping Indigenous communities take control of their energy development. As Barsoum explained, while historic development of coal reserves in Cape Breton did not take into account the priorities of local Indigenous communities, there has been a structural change that enables peoples like the Mi’kmaq who are quite entrepreneurial to be full participants in the clean energy economy. This notion of empowering vulnerable populations can be new in this particular case.” And if this adoption translates to the acceleration of renewable energy infrastructure in Nova Scotia and other regions, then the model also serves as a useful climate mitigation tool. According to Barsoum,

Because this is a decentralized way of generating power, and it’s now relatively cheap – it’s cost competitive with hydro – you can imagine that the supply of clean energy will increase, and we will not have to rely on the other sources. As we know with any market, when there is a new technology that is cheaper and cleaner – and we know there are going to be costs associated with GHG emissions in Canada – it will be easier. It’s much easier to effect the energy transition if there is an alternative. So, we are making sure there is an exit that we can go through from the situation that we are in now. The change is not going to happen overnight, but it’s important to make sure there is an alternative.

User adoption is also critical to private sector participation in the struggle against climate change. Like many large technology companies, IBM has developed an extensive and sophisticated portfolio of AI and analytics software, cloud infrastructure, and services that are marketed through the creation of new use cases that can demonstrate technology capability, and ultimately, generate demand. Designed to showcase technology’s ability to address some of the critical challenges facing humanity, the IBM Sustainability Accelerator program is a good example of this kind of activity, as it helps to create or support use cases that also inspire. All told, IBM is donating $30M worth of services by 2023 through the IBM Sustainability Accelerator program globally (to support this year’s cohort, as well as last year’s agriculture members). Is this investment pure CSR, or strategic philanthropy aimed at driving meaningful, tech led change? To provide some perspective on this contribution, for the twelve months ending September 30, 2022, IBM revenue was $60.533B, a 42.16% increase year-over-year. While IBM engages in a number of ESG initiatives that are accounted for elsewhere, this quick comparison suggests more can be done by large tech leaders to build the platforms needed to scale energy transition and promote real climate mitigation.




[1] Indigenous Clean Energy. Waves of Change. Indigenous clean energy leadership for Canada’s clean, electric future. Canadian Institute for Climate Choices; February 2022.


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