The Interview

Former coal-mining executive Annette Verschuren has the government’s ear on cleantech

Annette Verschuren at the 2014 Ontario Economic Summit. Darren Goldstein/DSG Photo

Annette Verschuren has come full circle. After growing up on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island, Verschuren started her career as a development officer for a coal-mining operation in the late 1970s, just as the industry’s heyday on the island was coming to an end. At the time, she was responsible for promoting the resource. But as evidence emerged of its negative impacts on human and environmental health, Verschuren began plotting her next career move. “I didn’t see a future for coal,” she told The Logic. “I got that it was polluting, [but] when I questioned that, people there just shut me up.”

Nearly 30 years later, governments, cleantech entrepreneurs and energy executives are soliciting Verschuren’s advice on how to transition away from fossil fuels. 

Now the founder and CEO of energy-storage company NRStor, in June Verschuren was named the new chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), replacing Jim Balsillie, former co-CEO of Research in Motion (now BlackBerry), who had held the position at the government-funded organization since 2013.

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Talking Point

In an interview with The Logic, Annette Verschuren, the new chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, discusses how the country has fumbled the energy transition, how overhauling the procurement system can help solve the problem and her solution to stymie Western Canadian unrest.

Appointed by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, Verschuren is tasked with leading the organization in identifying, fostering and funding cleantech startups that can scale in Canada and globally. The appointment builds on Verschuren’s advisory work with Ottawa, where she sits at Bains’s Clean Technology Economic Strategy Table and was part of the Generation Energy Council, a group that advised then-natural resources minister Jim Carr on Canada’s transition to a “reliable, affordable, low-carbon economy.”

In an interview with The Logic last week following her first board meeting, Verschuren discussed how Canada has fumbled the energy transition by thinking too small, why it’s a good thing Canadians are becoming less happy and her solution to stymie Western Canadian unrest.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think Canada has managed the energy transition? 

Terrible. Our governments are not collaborating. I think there’s too much character assassination that’s not helpful. I think this election basically says we have to address climate change. And you can fool around with different techniques, but we have to live up to the Paris Agreement. So, very serious stuff. 

How do we go about doing that, as a country? 

We have to grow the emerging technology. You can’t just turn off the taps—10 per cent of our GDP in Canada is related to the fossil-fuel industry—but you have to think beyond pipelines. I think the binary discussion is crazy, and it’s not helpful. We have to look toward the future and figure out what we can do in every aspect of our traditional industries to become the cleanest, most low-cost producer there is out there. That transition is going to happen; there’s no question that’s underway. But the economy needs to continue.

What can the federal government do differently to make more progress on that front, now that they have a second chance? 

I think you need a sustainability filter. When companies and governments procure, they should not be procuring just at low costs, they should be procuring for the sustainability of that building, the energy efficiency of that building—all of that stuff. We’re just short-termers. We want the lowest cost. These condos are being built all over the place, all out of glass. Not very efficient. Cleantech needs to happen everywhere. 

We also need to export more of the good things we’re doing. I think cleantech, fintech, healthtech all have enormous export potential, and our lazy reliance on the United States to export our products has got to change. We’ve been burned by that country going toward energy self-sufficiency. The real problem here is the Americans don’t need our product, and we need to distribute it outside the U.S.

What are your priorities or ambitions for SDTC? 

I think SDTC can help match big companies with little companies and leverage that relationship. We are not doing that well. How do we entice the oil producers, the mining companies and forestry companies to accelerate innovation? We can say we’ll agree to this investment if you bring along a private-sector group that will match this money. Jim Balsillie did a terrific job as previous chair. But I do think we can step it up. We can do more. Everyone is talking in silos right now. I think I can bring focus.

We’re seeing more pressure now to deal with climate change than we ever have. But SDTC has been around for almost 20 years—why do you think cleantech initiatives like this have had such little impact on getting us away from fossil fuels? 

I think Canada needs a crisis. Our economy has been going along OK and we’ve been too relaxed—too happy with where we’re going. That concerns me. What I liked about this federal election is that nobody won. That tells you something. Canadians are telling politicians that they’re unrestful; they’re not happy. 

A lot of that unrest is around protecting the climate and the economy and, as you alluded to, those are often framed as mutually exclusive binaries. Does it concern you that this government has no representation from Alberta and Saskatchewan, and that some people in the West are talking about seceding? 

There’s a small group of people who think that way, but as a country, we’re not there. I don’t believe most people in Alberta and Saskatchewan want to leave this country, but I think they want better governance. The fact that not one [Liberal] got their seat back in those provinces tells you we have to take that seriously. 

As we transition to cleaner energy sources, more people in the traditional oil and gas sector will lose their jobs. Wexit might be a fringe group now, but how do we make sure the unrest doesn’t boil over in this transition that could be really difficult for some Canadians?

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I think the role and responsibility of government is, as transitions happen, you’ve gotta be in there to help out those people who are impacted. When the mines closed in Cape Breton, the pensions helped people make that transition. A 55-year-old that has worked all his or her life in the oil sands—we have to help them. That’s where I think guaranteed income could be useful. Total guaranteed income doesn’t make any sense to me, but using it strategically does. They didn’t call it that during the Cape Breton Devco days, but that’s sort of what it was. It was in the form of supplemental pensions and bursaries to the kids. Was it done perfectly? No. Was there a lot of turmoil and complaints? Yes. But at least our country didn’t abandon that community—we retrain, we reinvest in other businesses to help them make a transition. 

Are there incumbent companies who you see are more open to innovation and leading in cleantech? 

I do see some big companies taking a leadership role. In the energy sector, TransAlta [is working toward] 2,600 megawatts of renewable energy, a company that started in coal generation. My great friend Michael McCain [CEO of Maple Leaf Foods] is doing a great job at recognizing that that he needs to run his business differently and admit that he is a big producer of greenhouse gases. The problem a lot of people have is they’re still denying that. Get over that part. Once you accept it, people in your organization will help you fix it.