Recognizing Alberta’s environmental leaders

As its province’s good-news environmental storyteller, The Alberta Emerald Foundation champions environmental excellence in management, technology and education with its Emerald Awards program. Over 2,500 initiatives and innovations have been honoured by the AEF since its inception in 1992 (they receive over 100 nominations every year), raising public awareness of environmental preservation as a necessary goal alongside economic growth and natural resource development.

Achievement of quantifiable, sustainable change is the criterion for Emerald consideration, and from the classroom to the corporation, a variety of sectors and projects are eligible. Large or small business, government or community group, not-for-profit organization or individual (including youth) — anywhere commitment to the environment is a priority, the Foundation hopes to identify and celebrate it.

Following are two recent Award recipients:

The Alternative Energy Technology Program
Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT)

Alternative energies and technologies are key to Canada’s future, and NAIT’s staff and students are helping reshape the industry through collaboration, education and innovation. Since 2011, the Alternative Energy Technology program has taught the operational principles and economic feasibility of renewable energy sources including solar electric, solar thermal, hydro, wind, geothermal and cogeneration.

Dr. James Sandercock, trained as a microbiologist before getting involved with biodegradable plastics and making fuel-grade ethanol for vehicles, is Chair of NAIT’s Alternative Energy Technology program. He says the “very interdisciplinary” curriculum is highly focused on renewable energy production, primarily renewable electricity. Students explore techniques for energy efficiency in the built environment (looking at better wall structures, improving building envelopes, and reducing energy consumption without compromising services). The program’s biorefinement labs can produce ethanol and biodiesel; wind and solar are focuses for renewable energy generation. And graduates are equipped with knowledge of sustainable business practices including energy modeling/auditing, site and lifecycle assessments to determine carbon footprint and savings opportunities, and construction redesign to improve conventional delivery of heating and cooling.

“We’re teaching people about what’s commercially available today,” says Sandercock. “How to design and deploy it well.” NAIT’s two-year program turns out engineering technologists who are going on to start their own consulting companies and become leaders in their field. The diploma attracts existing oil and gas professionals and tradespeople looking to retool their careers, and accepts 56 applicants per year (spread across two sessions of 28 students each, in September and January). Roughly 30 per cent of grads aim to work in the solar industry. A quarter of alumni explore electrical trades after school. And many move into the energy auditing and management space, which Sandercock anticipates will be dominated in the not-so-distant future by battery and energy-storage solutions (with the sophistication to bill for peak shaving and shifting). Recent NAIT capstone projects have taken students to Africa and Peru for implementation of renewable energy alternatives. One project won 2017’s prestigious Best Capstone in Alberta.


Aspen Heights elementary school

“You know what I like most about Micro? I’m not sitting at my desk.” So says an enterprising young student at Aspen Heights elementary school in Red Deer, Alberta. “He’s right,” says Allan Baile, Grade 4/5 Teacher and MicroSociety Coordinator, “because when you see Micro in action, there’s not a single student sitting anywhere. They’re all on the move. They all have jobs and responsibilities. They’re caring for the animals and plants and they’re very invested, they want to make sure things work out.” Now in its ninth year, Aspen Heights’ MicroSociety helps teach kids, their families and the community at large about conservation and environmental stewardship. The kids take ownership of the results by running their own ‘businesses’ geared to maintaining healthy ecology at the school. They’re rewarded with pay they can spend at market days, consuming many of the same goods they produce. “Then they take that information home. They have more influence over their parents than they think! And the parents are so supportive.”

‘Worm Wranglers’ is the longest-running eco-venture, growing plants (tomatoes, peppers) and selling products (compost worm bins, hydroponics kits, bedding plants) to other students and the general public. “The fish and wildlife department takes care of our fish, our aquaponics kits, aquariums, fire belly toads,” says Baile. “We have an urban chicken project with four licensed chickens onsite providing eggs for our breakfast program.” Kids keep up internal environmental initiatives within the school, such as recycling batteries and ink cartridges, monitoring playground cleanliness with a litter metre, and managing a bottle depot (students and staff recently built a greenhouse out of 1,600 2L pop bottles). And they’ve just finished a geodesic dome greenhouse that will help them grow plants all year long.

In recent years Aspen Heights students were in charge of raising and releasing into the wild 300-400 painted lady butterflies, 300-500 Chinese praying mantises, and 10,000 ladybugs – as approved by Agriculture Canada. The kids run six to eight different insect hotels, hosting mason and leafcutter bees to populate their gardens and be shared with other schools. In their upcoming tenth anniversary year, Baile hopes to further educate the community about the threats to insects from pesticides and herbicides. For now, his class is raising rainbow trout right in the homeroom, 50 of which will be introduced to local Mitchell Pond at the Heritage Ranch. Of course, the students will be testing the water for pH, ammonia and phosphates beforehand.

The Alberta Emerald Foundation is almost exclusively operated through the contributions of dedicated volunteers. The Education Emerald Award Category is proudly sponsored by ConocoPhillips
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