On April 13th, 2021, second-year engineering and policy students in the Sustainable Energy program presented the conclusions of their interdisciplinary capstone projects. These projects addressed a wide range of topics, each of which is listed below.

A Hydrogen Highway for Ontario: Heavy-Duty Trucking on the 401-Creating A Hydrogen Ecosystem in Southern Ontario

For Canada to sufficiently reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to meet its Paris Agreement commitments, every sector of the economy must transition away from fossil fuels. Although electrification is the best option to decarbonize many end-uses such as passenger transport and residential heating, electrification does not meet the needs of some applications. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that could nicely complement electrification by filling in those gaps. However, many components need to be in place to produce, deliver and use hydrogen in applications such as heavy-duty transport. This means that it is best to develop a hydrogen economy by concentrating on specific regions.

This report examines the feasibility of developing a hydrogen corridor along Ontario’s Highway 401 to support the decarbonization of heavy-duty trucking. We aim to assess what level of conversion of diesel trucks to hydrogen fuel cell trucks on Highway 401 would allow for the rollout of this emerging industry without limiting the potential for future growth. This analysis considers two separate scenarios for the first stage of implementing heavy-duty trucking on the 401. First, we consider a scenario that would convert 78 trucks to fuel cell trucks, or about 0.2% of the truck kilometres travelled on the 401.  The second scenario would convert 390 trucks, or about 1% of truck kilometres travelled on the 401. We analyze the feasibility of both levels of conversion through economic, financial, technical, environmental and social lenses and find that the 0.2% conversion rate is a more effective rollout strategy. This would provide the best opportunity for trucking operators to test out fuel cell electric trucks and begin to develop an industry to maintain these technologies while leaving space for future expansion of hydrogen production and dispensing.   Further, we find that a hydrogen highway on the 401 would produce many social, environmental, and health benefits while providing an appropriate starting point to develop the supporting ecosystem necessary to support the expansion of hydrogen for multiple end-uses in Southern Ontario. Finally, we delve into the political economy of the two major methods of producing hydrogen, through electrolysis and by reforming natural gas. We argue that public funding should only support green hydrogen (produced through electrolysis) in order to prevent further path dependency that would encourage the ongoing production of natural gas.

Artificial Intelligence & Wildfire Prevention: A Feasibility Study on the use of Convolutional Neural Networks in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alberta to Optimize Wildfire Management Decisions

Climate modelling suggests that the area burned by wildfires in Alberta is expected to increase by 30% by the end of the century, with the rate of fire occurrence increasing 26%. These projections along with the current state of wildfires in Alberta demonstrate a clear need for preventative wildfire management to ensure continued economic and environmental resilience for the province. This report aims to determine the technical, environmental, economic, and political feasibility of the combined use of convolutional neural networks (CNNs) and forest data collected via remote sensing technologies for wildfire prevention in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, Alberta. The CNN technology is evaluated based on a literature review of similar applications of the machine learning approach to determine its ability to accurately classify deciduous and coniferous forest stands to inform and optimize wildfire prevention decisions in Wood Buffalo. Based on these findings, the study provides estimates of the greenhouse gas mitigation potential of effective wildfire prevention, the financial and economic viability of the CNN, as well as an analysis of the policy and regulatory landscape, key stakeholders, and critical drivers and barriers for adoption. The broader environmental impacts and implications are also considered. The results of the study suggest that the use of CNNs for wildfire prevention in Wood Buffalo is feasible across areas of study, showing significant environmental and economic gains. However, policy and regulatory preferences for wildfire suppression activities over prevention in Alberta present a significant challenge for adoption. It is found that Alberta has entered the “firefighting trap” and the continued allocation of wildfire resources towards suppression activities could result in a detrimental “budgetary death spiral” for the province and increased instances of large fires, particularly as climate change continues to take its toll.

Heat pumps: The untapped potential

Canada relies heavily on fossil fuels for residential space heating and cooling, accounting for almost 81% of the residential energy consumption. Although Canada has made considerable progress in recent years to increase renewable electricity generation and increase energy efficiency, the country still relies heavily on natural gas and heating oil as the main space heating source. Therefore, for Canada to meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially in the residential space heating and cooling sector, alternative clean technologies need to be widely adopted.

This study proposes heat pumps, namely, Air-source heat pumps (ASHP), as an alternative technology to the current conventional heating systems in four different Canadian provinces, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia. Heat pumps have been used in Canada and worldwide for decades and recently started to gain momentum due to their high efficiency.

The study shows the results of implementing ASHPs in the residential sector compared to the conventional space heating systems used across the country (natural gas, electric baseboards, wood stove, and heating oil). The results indicate that the transition from conventional heating systems to ASHPs could reduce GHG emissions and promote energy and cost savings that go up to 200% depending on the system used for heating. However, the benefits vary by province.

Our findings conclude that Nova Scotia could benefit the most from implementing ASHPs, followed by Ontario, Quebec, then British Columbia. The ASHP efficiency, climate zone, size, electricity mix, and electricity and fuel rates all play a role in the environmental and economic feasibility of the heat pumps.

Governments should prioritize this alternative and market-ready technology as it can help achieve net-zero building targets. To increase ASHP market penetration, stakeholders can improve and update the current data pertaining to ASHPs and create a more stringent national building code that mandates ASHPs usage by the government. Such implementation requires collaborative efforts targeting research and development, and capacity building by the government, private companies, and service providers. Finally, a thorough analysis of the current incentive and rebate program is required if heat pump technologies are to be utilized as an alternative heating source in Canada’s residential sector.

School Building Energy Performance in the North: Challenges and Opportunities

Energy efficiency initiatives in Canada’s North can yield substantial environmental and socioeconomic benefits, including climate change mitigation, improved health and well-being, lower energy bills, job creation, and macroeconomic stimulation. Through five case studies, this research evaluated the viability of implementing energy efficiency retrofits in school buildings across the Northwest Territories (NWT), with a focus on creating more efficient heating and ventilation systems. This evaluation included an analysis of the technical, economic, environmental, and policy aspects of the proposed retrofits.

The findings of this research suggest that the implementation of the proposed retrofits is feasible from all perspectives analyzed. The suggested energy efficiency retrofit installations can lead to significant energy savings even with increased ventilation (average reduction of 39%). These energy savings and increased ventilation translates into improved health and well-being, better learning outcomes, a significant reduction in harmful emissions (including 11.9 million kilograms of carbon dioxide), and cost savings ($30 thousand in fuel savings each year).


“The Capstone was an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills I’ve learned throughout the program to a real-world topic. Energy is fundamentally interdisciplinary, and the classes that we take throughout the program reflect that. The Capstone gives students the chance to bring all of those perspectives together and examine a single topic from the many lenses that any quality sustainable energy policy analyst would use.”

– Lauren Johnson, MA Sustainable Energy

“The capstone project gave us the opportunity to dig into a real-world energy topic and critically assess it through many different lenses. The length and scope of the project meant that we became intimately familiar with all of the complexities and nuances surrounding the issue. This experience has given me invaluable skills that I will take with me into my career”

– Leia Jones, MA Sustainable Energy

“The subjects studied by the students in the applied project course this year were extremely diverse-ranging from the high arctic to the 401 corridor and from advanced AI technology to improvements in critical building systems that often arouse little excitement but on which we all depend for our basic quality of life. Across the board, the students approached their topics with creativity and passion, and produced work that will make a real difference for their partner organizations.”

– Professor Cameron Roberts

Learn more about research being done by students and faculty in the Sustainable Energy program through the links below:

Professor Stephan Schott

Professor James Meadowcroft

Grad research improving public engagement in renewable energy projects

Research in energy system change and governance innovation