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Oil sands technology competition to generate low emissions carbon fibre moves into final phase


7 minute read

Bryan Helfenbaum, associate vice-president of clean energy with Alberta Innovates, holds a hockey stick made with carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen. Photo by Dave Chidley for the Canadian Energy Centre

From the Canadian Energy Centre

By Will Gibson and Deborah Jaremko

Study found carbon fibre made from oil sands bitumen has 69 per cent lower emissions than conventional sources

Having spent most of a long and distinguished academic career working with metals, Weixing Chen became fascinated by the potential of repurposing a heavy hydrocarbon from Alberta’s oil sands into a high-value product for a low-carbon economy. 

The product is carbon fibre – thin as human hair but four times stronger than steel – and research has shown producing it from oil sands bitumen generates lower greenhouse gas emissions than today’s sources.  

“This is a great opportunity for me to challenge myself moving forward to develop this technology that will benefit society,” says Chen, a chemical and material engineering professor at the University of Alberta.  

His team at Edmonton-based Thread Innovations is one of five receiving a total $15 million in funding in the final round of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, announced in December. 

Great potential for carbon fibre 

With its light weight and high strength, today carbon fibre is used in products like aircraft and spacecraft parts, racing car bodies, bicycles, hockey sticks and golf clubs. 

It has great potential, but its use is limited by cost. Carbon fibre averages $10 to $12 per pound, compared to less than $1 per pound for steel.   

Part of the Alberta competition is that the carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen must cost 50 per cent less than current carbon fibre products.  

This would unlock new markets for carbon fibre, says Byran Helfenbaum, associate vice-president of clean energy for Alberta Innovates, which is funding the challenge along with Emissions Reduction Alberta.  

“At the end of this phase, the intention is the technology is at a point where a company could make a funding decision for if not a commercial project, then at least a commercial demonstration project,” he says. 

“It’s really to get it out of the lab and start hitting the key specifications, identifying the existing and new markets, and pumping out prototypes that can be tested.  We have already generated our first two prototypes, a truck side mirror and a hockey stick, but we need to go bigger and faster and test a wide range of market opportunities.” 

Long-term need for carbon-based products 

The future is likely to be full of carbon fibre products, Helfenbaum says. 

“This ‘low-carbon future’ is a misnomer. When we say low-carbon future, what we mean is let’s keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon is still going to be around us in solid form, and probably in increasingly higher amounts,” he says.  

“We’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet by mid-century. They need energy, but they also need stuff. They need housing, infrastructure, and consumer goods. And most of that stuff is or can be made of pure carbon.” 

Lower emissions from oil sands carbon fibre 

Most carbon fibre today is generated from a chemical compound called polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which is derived from a component of natural gas. 

recent study by researchers at the University of Alberta found that life cycle emissions from carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen are 69 per cent lower than PAN-based product.  

It’s the high carbon content of oil sands bitumen that provides the benefit, Helfenbaum says.  

“The heaviest fraction of bitumen takes more energy to break down to be turned into fuels. But that same fraction can be used to produce carbon fibre with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the current PAN process,” he says. 

“If we are successful in reducing its cost, then it can be deployed into new markets that will further reduce carbon emissions, such as lightening passenger vehicles and improving the longevity of concrete infrastructure.” 

Adding value while reducing emissions 

The Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge is part of Alberta Innovates’ broader Bitumen Beyond Combustion  research program. The work considers opportunities to use bitumen to create value-added products other than fuels like gasoline and diesel.   

“From an economic perspective, the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program could triple the value of a barrel of bitumen,” Helfenbaum says.  

“Carbon fibre is among the most valuable of those products, but it’s not the only one. This is potentially in the tens of billions of dollars a year of gross revenue opportunity, so this is transformational.” 

It also presents environmental benefits.  

“Eighty per cent of the emissions associated with petroleum happen at combustion of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel so by diverting into these products, that becomes carbon that is sequestered forever and doesn’t get into the atmosphere,” he says.  

Pathway to commercial production 

Winners of the grand challenge will have a credible pathway to manufacturing 2,000 tonnes or more of carbon fibre per year. The challenge is scheduled to end in summer 2026.  

Thread Innovations is building a new facility to produce samples for potential buyers and demonstrate the ability to scale up production. This phase will also focus on improving characteristics of the carbon fibre produced by their technology to build commercial demand. 

“Our target is to complete the current project and then establish a commercialization plan in 2025,” says Chen.  


Alberta government should create flat 8% personal and business income tax rate in Alberta

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From the Fraser Institute

By Tegan Hill

If the Smith government reversed the 2015 personal income tax rate increases and instituted a flat 8 per cent tax rate, it would help restore Alberta’s position as one of the lowest tax jurisdictions in North America

Over the past decade, Alberta has gone from one of the most competitive tax jurisdictions in North America to one of the least competitive. And while the Smith government has promised to create a new 8 per cent tax bracket on personal income below $60,000, it simply isn’t enough to restore Alberta’s tax competitiveness. Instead, the government should institute a flat 8 per cent personal and business income tax rate.

Back in 2014, Alberta had a single 10 per cent personal and business income tax rate. As a result, it had the lowest top combined (federal and provincial/state) personal income tax rate and business income tax rate in North America. This was a powerful advantage that made Alberta an attractive place to start a business, work and invest.

In 2015, however, the provincial NDP government replaced the single personal income tax rate of 10 percent with a five-bracket system including a top rate of 15 per cent, so today Alberta has the 10th-highest personal income tax rate in North America. The government also increased Alberta’s 10 per cent business income tax rate to 12 per cent (although in 2019 the Kenney government began reducing the rate to today’s 8 per cent).

If the Smith government reversed the 2015 personal income tax rate increases and instituted a flat 8 per cent tax rate, it would help restore Alberta’s position as one of the lowest tax jurisdictions in North America, all while saving Alberta taxpayers $1,573 (on average) annually.

And a truly integrated flat tax system would not only apply a uniform tax 8 per cent rate to all sources of income (including personal and business), it would eliminate tax credits, deductions and exemptions, which reduce the cost of investments in certain areas, increasing the relative cost of investment in others. As a result, resources may go to areas where they are not most productive, leading to a less efficient allocation of resources than if these tax incentives did not exist.

Put differently, tax incentives can artificially change the relative attractiveness of goods and services leading to sub-optimal allocation. A flat tax system would not only improve tax efficiency by reducing these tax-based economic distortions, it would also reduce administration costs (expenses incurred by governments due to tax collection and enforcement regulations) and compliance costs (expenses incurred by individuals and businesses to comply with tax regulations).

Finally, a flat tax system would also help avoid negative incentives that come with a progressive marginal tax system. Currently, Albertans are taxed at higher rates as their income increases, which can discourage additional work, savings and investment. A flat tax system would maintain “progressivity” as the proportion of taxes paid would still increase with income, but minimize the disincentive to work more and earn more (increasing savings and investment) because Albertans would face the same tax rate regardless of how their income increases. In sum, flat tax systems encourage stronger economic growth, higher tax revenues and a more robust economy.

To stimulate strong economic growth and leave more money in the pockets of Albertans, the Smith government should go beyond its current commitment to create a new tax bracket on income under $60,000 and institute a flat 8 per cent personal and business income tax rate.

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Province to stop municipalities overcharging on utility bills

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Making utility bills more affordable

Alberta’s government is taking action to protect Alberta’s ratepayers by introducing legislation to lower and stabilize local access fees.

Affordability is a top priority for Alberta’s government, with the cost of utilities being a large focus. By introducing legislation to help reduce the cost of utility bills, the government is continuing to follow through on its commitment to make life more affordable for Albertans. This is in addition to the new short-term measures to prevent spikes in electricity prices and will help ensure long-term affordability for Albertans’ basic household expenses.

“Albertans need relief from high electricity costs and we can provide that relief by bringing in fairness on local access fees. We will not allow municipalities – including the city of Calgary – to profit off of unpredictable spikes in electricity costs while families struggle to make ends meet. We will protect Alberta families from the extreme swings of electricity costs by standardizing the calculations of local access fees across the province.”

Danielle Smith, Premier

Local access fees are functioning as a regressive municipal tax that consumers pay on their utility bills. It is unacceptable for municipalities to be raking in hundreds of millions in surplus revenue off the backs of Alberta’s ratepayers and cause their utility bills to be unpredictable costs by tying their fees to a variable rate. Calgarians paid $240 in local access fees on average in 2023, compared to the $75 on average in Edmonton, thanks to Calgary’s formula relying on a variable rate. This led to $186 million more in fees being collected by the City of Calgary than expected.

“Albertans deserve to have fair and predictable utility bills. Our government is listening to Albertans and taking action to address unaffordable fees on power bills. By introducing this legislation, we are taking yet another step towards ensuring our electricity grid is affordable, reliable, and sustainable for generations to come.”

Nathan Neudorf, Minister of Affordability and Utilities

To protect Alberta’s ratepayers, the Government of Alberta is introducing the Utilities Affordability Statutes Amendment Act, 2024. If passed, this legislation would promote long-term affordability and predictability for utility bills by prohibiting the use of variable rates when calculating municipalities’ local access fees.

Variable rates are highly volatile, which results in wildly fluctuating electricity bills. When municipalities use this rate to calculate their local access fees, it results in higher bills for Albertans and less certainty in families’ budgets. These proposed changes would standardize how municipal fees are calculated across the province, and align with most municipalities’ current formulas.

“Over the last couple of years many consumers have been frustrated with volatile Regulated Rate Option (RRO) prices which dramatically impacted their utility bills. In some cases, these impacts were further amplified by local access fees that relied upon calculations that included those same volatile RRO prices. These proposed changes provide more clarity and stability for consumers, protecting them from volatility in electricity markets.”

Chris Hunt, Utilities Consumer Advocate

If passed, the Utilities Affordability Statutes Amendment Act, 2024 would prevent municipalities from attempting to take advantage of Alberta’s ratepayers in the future. It would amend sections of the Electric Utilities Act and Gas Utilities Act to ensure that the Alberta Utilities Commission has stronger regulatory oversight on how these municipal fees are calculated and applied, ensuring Alberta ratepayer’s best interests are protected.

“Addressing high, unpredictable fees on utility bills is an important step in making life more affordable for Albertans. This legislation will protect Alberta’s ratepayers from spikes in electricity prices and ensures fairness in local access fees.”

Chantelle de Jonge, Parliamentary Secretary for Affordability and Utilities

If passed, this legislation would also amend sections of the Alberta Utilities Commission Act, the Electric Utilities ActGovernment Organizations Act and the Regulated Rate Option Stability Act to replace the terms “Regulated Rate Option”, “RRO”, and “Regulated Rate Provider” with “Rate of Last Resort” and “Rate of Last Resort Provider” as applicable.

Quick facts

  • Local access fees are essentially taxes that are charged to electricity distributors by municipalities. These fees are then passed on to all of the distributor’s customers in the municipality, and appear as a line item on their utility bills.
    • The Municipal Government Act grants municipalities the authority to charge, amend, or cap franchise and local access fees.
  • Linear taxes and franchise fees are usually combined together on consumers’ power bills in one line item as the local access fee.
    • The linear tax is charged to the utility for the right to use the municipality’s property for the construction, operation, and extension of the utility.
    • The franchise fee is the charge paid by the utility to the municipality for the exclusive right to provide service in the municipality.
  • Local access fees are usually calculated in one of two ways:
    • (1) A percentage of transmission and distribution (delivery) costs, typically 10-15 per cent.
    • (2) A fixed, cents per kilowatt-hour of consumed power charge (City of Edmonton).
  • Calgary is the only municipality that employs a two-part fee calculation formula:
    • 11.11 per cent of transmission and distribution charges plus 11.11 per cent of the Regulated Rate Option multiplied by the consumed megawatt hours.

Related information

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