Trottier institutes turn spotlight on sustainability

In donating a total of $20 million to fund the recently created Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design at McGill and the l’Institut de l'énergie Trottier at Polytechnique Montréal, McGill alumnus and high-tech entrepreneur Lorne Trottier had a vision.
Géza Joós, Director of the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design, speaking at the mini symposium on Tuesday. / Photo: Polytechnique Montréal

Mini-symposium kicks off collaboration between McGill, Polytechnique engineers 

By Chris Chipello

In donating a total of $20 million to fund the recently created Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design at McGill and the Institut de l’énergie Trottier at Polytechnique Montréal, McGill alumnus and high-tech entrepreneur Lorne Trottier had a vision.

The Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design would serve as an independent think tank, informing decision-makers and the public about sustainability issues, as well as educating students. And it would collaborate with its counterpart institute across Mount Royal, at Polytechnique, to hold an annual public symposium that explores the impact of sustainable engineering on society. The first full-fledged symposium will be hosted by McGill on March 17 and 18, 2014.

“Energy issues have huge technical, economic, environmental and social significance and Montréal is in a unique position to tackle them,” Trottier remarked as his $10 million donation for the Institut de l’énergie Trottier at Polytechnique was announced this week. “Nowhere else in the world do we see internationally renowned French- and English-language institutions established side-by-side… A partnership like this, in a field as crucial as energy, can only exist in Montréal, and it will be the envy of other major university cities worldwide.”

Some 400 members of the public got an early look at what that partnership can offer on May 14, as the two institutes teamed up to put on a “mini-symposium” at Polytechnique on the theme: “Toward a 100%-Clean-Energy Québec.”

The two-hour, bilingual event featured a panel of guest speakers – including McGill’s incoming Dean of Engineering, Jim Nicell – who provided a wide-ranging overview of the challenges facing societies across the world. A rapidly expanding global population and rising living standards in emerging economies are driving up demand for energy, even as rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere heighten concern about climate change.

Hans Björn Püttgen, Chair in Energy Systems Management at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, highlighted the “bifurcation” of the world’s energy situation between industrialized and emerging countries – and the starkly different challenges each faces.

In industrialized countries, rational use of energy and broad deployment of renewable energy technologies will be key to alleviating the environmental impact of the devices that underpin our lifestyle, from cars to computers. We already know how to make cars and buildings much more energy efficient, and how to better manage wastes. What’s lacking is the political will to take advantage of that know-how, he said.

In emerging countries, meanwhile, the challenge will be to meet massive increases in energy demand while avoiding a catastrophic impact on the environment. Even today, a startling 1.3 billion people in the world don’t have access to electricity.

Between 2000 and 2010, nearly half of the world’s increase in primary energy production came from coal. India and China have no choice but to use that fuel to satisfy demand for energy. Since 2007, China has been the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world.

Industrialized countries built their prosperity over many decades while dumping pollutants into the atmosphere, Puttgen noted. So they can’t very well ask impoverished people in developing countries do without the energy needed to raise their lifestyles. But developed countries do have a big opportunity to provide new, green technologies that will help emerging countries meet their aspirations with less environmental impact.

Claude Villeneuve, holder of the Eco-Advisory Chair at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, focused on Quebec’s energy situation. The province has the lowest carbon emissions from electricity in North America, thanks to its heavy reliance on hydro power. But it is a relatively heavy emitter from transportation sources, so that’s where most of the potential gains lie, if Quebec hopes to move toward a long-range goal of becoming “carbon-neutral.”

Louise Millette, head of the Sustainable Development Office and Director of the Department of Civil, Geological and Mining Engineering at Polytechnique, spoke to the role of engineers in addressing these challenges. Energy is intrinsic to much of what engineers do, across a range of fields. And while engineers can’t solve all the problems, they can inform the public about the complex decisions needed to address them, she said.

Prof. Nicell recently completed a six-year term as McGill’s Associate Vice-Principal (University Services), during which he helped spearhead the creation of the Office of Sustainability at McGill, driver of the “Vision 2020” initiative. At the mini-symposium, he presented a schematic overview of the industrial system of production – marked by increasingly intensive tapping of natural resources as industrial inputs at one end and, at the other end, waste streams that have increasingly strained the biosphere’s ability to cope.

As recently as the 1960s, engineering students were routinely taught that “the solution to pollution is dilution,” he noted. The world was a very big place, in other words, so resources could be drawn from it virtually without limit, and if wastes were spread around enough, they would have very little impact on the environment and our own long-term health.

In more recent decades, as awareness of environmental constraints has grown, engineers have looked to four “r’s” in the quest for solutions: reduce consumption, re-use products, recycle materials and recover energy from within the system and put it to use.

What does sustainability really mean? “If I were to put it in a very simple way,” Nicell said, “it’s just having the foresight … to start thinking about whether we have the capacity to endure as a society on our Earth within the limits of our biosystem.”

His concluding message: While engineers, government and industry have important roles to play in moving society toward sustainable production systems, “the only way we’re going to do it is if every single person in this room, and every person that you go home to … is directly involved” in tackling the challenge.

Summing up the evening’s presentations and panel discussion, Geza Joos, Director of the Trottier Institute for Sustainability in Engineering and Design, noted that the well-attended kickoff event underscored one of the key roles that the institutes aim to fulfill through their collaboration: “engaging the public, raising public awareness and maybe, at the end, influencing some of the policy-making.”