Alberta’s Industrial Heartland vital region to building Alberta’s innovation ecosystem

Out of economic necessity, and due to rising demand for low-carbon manufacturing processes, industrial operators are scouring the globe for affordable development sites that can help them to meet their environmental, social and governance (ESG) objectives.
As they do, Alberta’s Industrial Heartland — a globally-significant 582-square-kilometre energy cluster in the northeast corner of the Edmonton metropolitan region — is one of the world’s most attractive locations for chemical, petrochemical, oil and gas investment, and is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing region.
“We expect significant growth with multi-billions of dollars of investment that’s underpinned by low-cost feedstock and carbon capture capability in the region,” says Mark Plamondon, executive director of the Alberta’s Industrial Heartland Association (AIHA), a non-profit municipal collaboration devoted to a proactive approach to attracting and planning for responsible industrial development.
“This creates a decarbonization opportunity to help companies meet both their economic goals and their ESG goals,” says Plamondon.Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is a network of pre-zoned industrial land within the geographic boundaries of Lamont, Strathcona and Sturgeon counties, as well as the cities of Fort Saskatchewan and Edmonton. Its proximity to abundant natural gas assets, low-carbon hydrogen, road and rail infrastructure, carbon capture facilities and the world’s largest carbon dioxide (CO2) pipeline, are key advantages that position the Heartland region as a crucial element of Alberta’s innovation ecosystem.

“The region is very well positioned,” says Plamondon. “Hydrogen is produced right now in the Industrial Heartland; in fact, it has been produced here for decades. The excitement is that as companies look to utilize that carbon capture capability and lower their overall greenhouse gas footprint, it creates this opportunity to produce low cost, low carbon hydrogen.

“And then that energy source can be used to help other industrial facilities in the region to decarbonize.”Hydrogen is a key part of the Heartland’s innovation strategy, an energy source that can be produced from natural gas and stored in the region’s existing carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) infrastructure, says Plamondon.

While large-scale manufacturers look to reduce their carbon footprints, hydrogen is positioned as a low-carbon alternative for sectors that are difficult to electrify, including public transit, commercial heating and power, and industrial energy.

“It will be on a process-by-process basis,” says Plamondon. “Each company will need to look at their own processes, equipment, energy requirements and make an assessment based on the best approach. But hydrogen would provide one other avenue, over and above electricity and electrification.”

As for carbon capture, the Shell Quest project located near Fort Saskatchewan has captured more than six million tonnes of carbon dioxide since it launched in 2015, storing it two kilometres underground. The company says Quest is on track to capture and store more than one million tonnes every year.Meanwhile, the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line gathers 1.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and delivers it to permanent storage, the company says. The system has an ultimate capacity of 14.6 million tonnes per year.

So, there’s surplus capacity in that system right now,” says Plamondon.

“And then on top of all that, when the Government of Alberta awards carbon hub status, a number of companies have publicly stated they are interested in building additional carbon capture and storage networks in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland. There will be a number of avenues, companies, infrastructure, that will be able to support decarbonization efforts.”

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies put expansion and industrial development plans on hold. But efforts by the AIHA to attract new investment have continued during this time, and the association is hoping for a post-pandemic boom.“We’re currently a $45 billion region; there’s $45 billion of assets,” says Plamondon. “We would like to see $70 billion by 2030, and then continue at that pace through to 2050.”

While the march toward a low-carbon future may be inevitable, Plamondon also sides with those who believe petrochemical products will continue to play a role in making plastics, insulation for energy-efficient buildings and other products that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“Petrochemical products are inputs to a number of processes that help the world improve its energy efficiency,” he says. “And doing so in a way that has the lowest GHG footprint is what consumers are looking for. That’s where the Industrial Heartland is well positioned.”It’s a message the AIHA continues to share with large-scale industrial operators around the world.

“We want to help them assess our region so that they can make a decision as quickly as possible if this is the right region for them,” says Plamondon. “And fortunately, a number of companies look at this region as one of the top regions for their investment.”