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Meet a Solver: Ed Cullinan, ATCO Innovation

How are natural gas companies working to combat climate change? How are natural gas companies reacting to the change in the global energy landscape?

Read Ed Cullinan’s story about his team’s work at ATCO, a company that owns and operates natural gas infrastructure. ATCO Innovation applied to our 2016 Carbon Contributions Challenge with a solution based in producing carbon-neutral renewable natural gas (RNG). We brought ATCO’s Innovation team on as a Solver because we want to work with them to help show that it is possible for a natural gas company to help lead the way on climate change.

Want to become a Solver like Ed? There’s less than one week left to apply to our 2017 Global Challenges:


Tell us your story: How did you first become interested in the work you do?

Luckily for me, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was transferred to an area at ATCO where I was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Drake Landing Solar Community. This community is an internationally acclaimed 52-home solar thermal district energy demonstration project that successfully integrates seasonal thermal storage to deliver an average of 90 per cent of the annual space heating demand via solar energy.

In learning my role, I became increasingly interested in community energy systems, energy efficiency and alternative energy. ATCO has, in over 70 years of existence, built and acquired expertise in alternative energy and renewables, including large scale hydro generation, geothermal heating, solar electric and thermal systems, combined heat and power and large scale cogeneration. Our Research and Innovation team is committed to addressing climate change by integrating new concepts and technology into our business. Our focus is to continually make life easier for our global customers through the delivery of premier energy and water solutions.

Did you have a turning point moment that inspired you to think differently about your work?

In late 2015, the global energy landscape was in turmoil. This had a particularly focused impact on Alberta due to province’s role as a major energy producer. While facing this challenge, ATCO increased its investment in innovation and embarked on a long road of transformation. The Research and Innovation team was put together to help sustain our business and seek out better outcomes in the wake of disruptive pressure to act on climate change and the way energy is delivered, consumed and conserved. Clean fuels like renewable natural gas are one way we are doing just that, and I’m happy to be contributing to this important initiative.

Tell us about your background—professionally, personally, or as a team.

Personally, originally hailing from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, I’m a Chemical Engineering graduate of the University of New Brunswick. I moved to Alberta to pursue my career with ATCO, initially with a focus in gas distribution pipeline engineering and operations. Most recently, I’ve joined the Research and Innovation team as a Senior Engineer, with a focus on community energy systems, energy efficiency, alternative energy, methane emissions reductions and operational technology. Together, our team has professional experience in spanning many engineering disciplines, chemistry, regulatory and accounting.


What is the problem you’re trying to solve?

Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel available. However, changes to environmental policies and public perception are prompting the gas industry to re-evaluate its place in a carbon-free world. Renewable technologies are continually growing in efficiency and popularity while decreasing in cost. We must act to mitigate the ecologically and environmentally damaging effects of increasing carbon contributions to our atmosphere, but the prompt phasing out of fossil fuel infrastructure will waste millions of dollars of facilities.

How are you trying to solve it?

Instead of immediately focusing on installing new facilities, it is our belief that producing carbon-neutral RNG and using existing infrastructure can be an integral part of the economical carbon-free solution today and in the future. Our proposed project uses a reversible solid oxide fuel cell (RSOFC), which can either use gas to produce electricity or heat and an energy input (in this case renewable) to produce hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide. ATCO currently has approximately 40,000km of natural gas pipelines and salt cavern storage facilities that would be ideal for piloting the process. As of 2010, there are more than 400 storage sites for natural gas in the United States alone. Even without storage, injection of carbon-free RNG into existing natural gas systems will reduce the overall carbon footprint of the fuel.

What is unique about your solution?

Our partnership with the University of Calgary’s Birss Group in developing this RSOFC can green the energy grid. Since the fuel cell uses carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water as well as energy from renewable sources, the produced RNG is carbon-neutral. As such, any carbon produced when the RNG is used (either for heating through direct combustion, or energy generation through the fuel cell) is net-zero. As an owner and operator of $20 billion in assets across the world, ATCO is uniquely positioned to leverage this development into a cost-effective and widely available method to transport and store carbon-free renewable energy.

Tell us a story! Who will your solution impact?

Since natural gas is currently being used in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia and parts of Africa, there are almost no limits to the potential geographic application of carbon-free RNG. If refined and injected into the existing natural gas system, this will provide a carbon-reduced or carbon-neutral heating alternative to consumers. During periods where renewable energy sources are not available, the low-carbon electricity produced by the SOFC can be used to reduce dependency on high-carbon electricity generation.


What do you think the Solve community can uniquely bring to solving your challenge?

We are excited to join the Solve community to promote our idea, make connections and forge partnerships with individuals and teams who are interested in solid oxide fuel cell development and carbon capture systems. We believe this solution is one of the ways we can green the energy grid and make use of the considerable investment and expertise in the energy industry. We are excited to meet people who are optimistic about helping us to make it happen and those who will challenge us to position our solution competitively (both economically and environmentally) to other forms of renewable energy.

What’s the challenge that you think Solve should take on next?

Ensuring and enabling global access to fresh water.

Photo courtesy of ATCO showing ATCO’s gas gathering facility in the industrial heartland of Alberta; one example of a facility where the fuel cell technology could be deployed to green the energy grid.


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