University of Alberta

Just Powers: Making the energy transition better for everyone

Image courtesy of JustPowers.ca

Image courtesy of JustPowers.ca

THIS STORY IS PART OF OUR SERIES ON WOMEN AND THE ENERGY TRANSITION. Women are key to increasing the momentum towards a lower carbon future and making sure no one is left behind. Across Alberta they are leading the charge in a shift to a lower-carbon world, as business and community leaders, educators, communicators and innovators. From industry professionals and leading researchers, to those running community workshops, organizing campaigns and changing their homes, these are their stories.

Just Powers: Making the energy transition better for everyone

Every year, Sheena Wilson gives her university students an assignment: choose a favourite subject or hobby and figure out how it relates to energy and the current transition away from a fossil fuel-based energy system.

The students must analyze how their interests could look different under a different energy system and how those changes might impact their community – and their day-to-day lives.

“At the beginning, most students don’t believe that their interests are linked to the energy industry,” said Wilson, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean and principle investigator of the Just Powers research initiative.

Launched in 2018, Just Powers is an inter-disciplinary and community-based project looking at climate justice issues ­– that is, framing climate change through an ethical and political lens, rather than one that is purely scientific – and examining social and cultural power in the energy transition.

Viewing the energy transition solely as a capitalist problem – where new technologies provide a new market and therefore potential for profit – does nothing to create a more liveable future for everyone, said Wilson.

“We need to think seriously about what we want to keep from the age of oil,” she said. “What’s important to us and what we’re willing to let go of and how an energy transition actually might be better for us all.”

We need to think seriously about what we want to keep from the age of oil: what’s important to us and what we’re willing to let go of and how an energy transition actually might be better for us all.”
— Sheena Wilson

Voices and knowledge

In an attempt to shift the discourse, the Just Powers project is tapping into a range of voices historically underrepresented in the energy transition conversation, like minority groups, indigenous communities, youth and women. The goal is to get people thinking about who owns energy systems, who benefits from them, and how they can be both affordable and accessible to everyone. 

“Bodies that held certain knowledges – feminized voices, voices of colour – they’ve been undervalued, or intentionally silenced and overwritten,” said Wilson, adding that climate issues are not separate from other social issues, like gender discrimination, poverty and racism, for example.

A feminist approach to energy transition is not restricted to women, said Wilson, but is a way of thinking holistically about energy systems, people and relationships.

 “Leaders who do this value reintroducing a broad range of perspectives and knowledges not usually consulted about energy,” said Wilson, “which is often seen as merely a technical issue, when really we all need to take energy seriously as a social issue.”

Designing new energy systems is a big part of designing the shape of our future lives and communities. If that isn’t something relevant to everyone, I don’t know what is.
— Sheena Wilson
Photo by Kenneth Tam

Photo by Kenneth Tam

Different mediums

To reach the most people, Just Powers – which is funded primarily by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the University of Alberta’s Future Energy Systems and Kule Institute for Advanced Study – is taking a non-traditional approach to documenting and sharing knowledge and resources.

“We’ve known since the 50s and 60s that climate change is an issue,” said Wilson. “I don’t think another chart or graph is going to make that much of a difference anymore,”

Through mediums like creative non-fiction, visual storytelling, podcasts, games and art, Just Powers is designing projects that give scholars and experts with different perspectives the opportunity to share their knowledge.

For example, Perfect Storm: Feminist Energy Transition is a role-playing game that demonstrates class and cultural politics in Canada’s energy transition. Bigstone Cree: A Vision for the Future is a documentary project that explores the impact of the energy transition on Indigenous communities. The Speculative Energy Futures project is empowering scientists, activists and artists to collaborate with each other.

In addition, the iDoc project has collected over a hundred interviews with Canadians working on climate change, from engineers to community organizers. The complete interviews, along with easy-to-share video clips, will be hosted on an open access archive within the next few months. Meanwhile the Just Powers podcast, now in Season 3, is giving a literal voice to many who have been historically overlooked in the energy transition.

We’ve known since the 50s and 60s that climate change is an issue. I don’t think another chart or graph is going to make that much of a difference anymore.
— Sheena Wilson

Getting involved

An Abacus Data poll this summer reported 64 per cent of Canadians are worried about the impacts of climate change and half of Albertans say climate change is currently an emergency, or will become one in the next few years.

However, Wilson said, many people are hesitant to get involved for fear of appearing either too political or too uninformed on the subject.

But Wilson says showing up is what counts most.

“The information is out there,” said Wilson. “The truth is we have to start adapting to a different climate, and we can begin to do that by getting involved.”

To that end, Just Powers is organizing a year-long project with La Cité Francophone to look at retrofitting its popular cultural centre, running literacy programs for people wanting to increase their energy transition understanding, and mobilizing high school students to share their own research. And for those searching for initiatives within their own communities, Wilson recommends visiting their municipality websites, like Edmonton’s Community Energy Transition Strategy.

“We need to start talking about these things, learning from each other and figuring it out together as a community,” said Wilson.

“After all, who is energy for? Energy systems shape our lives. They heat and power our built environment, our homes, paving the way for our transportation and communication systems.

“Designing new energy systems is a big part of designing the shape of our future lives and communities. If that isn’t something relevant to everyone, I don’t know what is.”

Up to Speed: Youth Pushing Boundaries of Vehicle Technologies

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Up to Speed: Youth Pushing Boundaries of Vehicle Technologies

The University of Calgary Solar Car team and the University of Alberta EcoCar team are two great examples of Alberta students taking hands-on action to teach themselves and their communities about renewables and clean technology. These student groups design, build and race solar electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in national, continental and international competitions.

University of Calgary Solar Car team

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The University of Calgary Solar Car Team aims to participate in several competitions, but primarily in a three-day race in America. The team is made up of 65 students in four main undergraduate subteams: Mechanical, Electrical, Software, and Business. Engineering Project Manager, Morgan Grab, says one of the team’s main objectives is to involve students in every step of the design, build and troubleshooting process, giving them hands-on experience through working on an electric car and with solar modules.

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Business Project Manager Sarah Lam appreciates how the team enables her to empower other people and connect to her community. She says through its outreach, primarily classroom presentations and talks, team members feel as though they are able to “generate excitement about the possibilities in energy that we will have in the future,” and to teach younger students about the basics of renewable energy and car design. They also engage with the larger Calgary community by showcasing renewables as a viable and tangible option for Albertans. Grab says that by working on solar, they show “it’s not in the background or overseas, but it’s happening here, in the heart of Calgary.”

University of Alberta EcoCar team

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The University of Alberta EcoCar builds two hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: an urban car that emulates the look of an normal car, and a racing prototype. They compete at the Shell Eco Marathon, a continental efficiency competition in the U.S. Their team is composed of undergraduate and graduate students divided in six sub-teams totalling around 80 members.

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The team engages with the community through showcasing their cars at events, going to schools, engaging with political figures, university alum, and staff. Many students are drawn to the group as it allows them to practically apply their degree. Mechanical team lead, Shivam Jasawl, sees the benefit in participating in design and redesign cycles. Shivam says working on EcoCar gives him a chance to “apply what I am learning about, make my own assumptions and test them, and if everything I assumed was completely wrong, I get to ask why was it wrong and iterate it.”

“If the members of EcoCar continue to work in Alberta, we can take the principles we have learned about sustainability and efficiency and apply it to wherever we work in the future,” he adds.


These groups show things can be done differently, and students are ready to be a part of, and maybe one day lead, this innovation.

“This is oil country. When people hear that students are doing something different with hydrogen in Alberta, it makes an impact,” Shivam says.

As Grab puts it, “it’s always in the forefront of our mind that we can do things a different way. I hope that we can be that spark, that starts that innovation and gets people’s minds going about renewables. We want to show that it is possible and that there is an alternative.”


For more information on how to undertake your own clean technology project, check out the resources page.

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