Expert Spotlight

Expert Spotlight: Dr. Robert L. Evans, FCAE

Dr. Robert L. Evans is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Evans is a member of the Expert Panel on Canadian Industry’s Competitiveness in Terms of Energy Use. His focus on cleaner, more sustainable energy technologies and resources brings a valuable perspective to the assessment process, which looks at what impact price volatility may have on Canadian businesses and communities.

Below, Dr. Evans looks back on some of his past successes.

Q: Can you tell us what first drew you to the field of energy conversion?

A: As a teenager I was fascinated by engines and everything mechanical. This naturally led to engineering school and the study of applied thermodynamics, the science of energy conversion. Then, after completing my graduate work in the U.K., my first job was in the research labs of the Central Electricity Generating Board, the large electrical utility for England and Wales. One of my first assignments was to examine alternative power generation concepts, which included more efficient methods of using fossil fuels to generate electricity as well as nuclear and renewable energy options. This was really the beginning of a lifelong professional interest in energy conversion issues.

Q: What do you believe have been some of your career highlights?

A: After a short time working in the U.K. I returned to Canada and took up a position as Director of Energy Conservation and Technology for the B.C. government. This was in the mid 1970s, during the first “energy crisis” brought about primarily by an oil embargo. We were then looking at nearly all of the same ways to reduce fossil fuel use as we do now, including demand management, and making greater use of alternative fuels and renewable energy sources. The impetus was different, of course, with little thought then about greenhouse gas emissions, but the technologies were much the same. My group was also involved in a fair amount of public education about energy issues, and I soon realized that most people really had very little understanding about energy issues and about energy technology in particular. This stayed with me when I moved to UBC to teach applied thermodynamics in 1981, and since then I have been speaking about energy issues to general audiences whenever possible. I was also very fortunate at UBC to be able to interact with a wide cross-section of outstanding undergraduate and graduate students while serving first as Associate Dean in the Faculty of Applied Science and then as Head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Q: You were a founding Director of the Clean Energy Research Centre at the University of British Columbia. Can you speak to how that initiative came about, and some of the Centre’s recent successes?

A: After my term as Department Head, the Dean asked me to lead a group of faculty members who were working on the proposal for the recently established Canada Foundation for Innovation, or CFI. We had quite a number of professors in the engineering departments at UBC who were working on energy issues, and we realized that there would be great synergy in bringing these groups together in a new purpose-built research unit. At this time the provincial government also agreed to provide matching funding to successful applicants for CFI funds through the BC Knowledge Development Fund. We were successful in obtaining full funding of around $9 million, with approximately half of that being used for a new building and the remainder for state-of-the-art research equipment. The Centre opened in 2006 with 15 faculty members, and has now grown to accommodate some 50 faculty members and 200 graduate students. The Centre has been at the forefront of establishing many successful new ventures, with perhaps the best known example being Westport Innovations, a leader in natural gas engine technology. This local company was established using the technology developed by Prof. Philip Hill, FCAE, who was the winner in 2011 of the Encana Principal Award provided by the Manning Innovation Awards Foundation. Also, the recently established M.Eng. degree program in Clean Energy has been instrumental in educating a new generation of engineers who will go on to develop and promote new clean energy technologies.

Q: Your book, Fueling Our Future: An Introduction to Sustainable Energy, was short-listed for the 2007 Donner Prize for the best book on public policy published by a Canadian author. Belated congratulations! We’re curious what lessons you may have learned while researching this project, and what feedback you may have had from younger researchers who are following in your footsteps.

A: The book came about because of my continuing belief that the general public needs to be more informed about energy issues in general, and sustainable energy in particular. I tried hard to write in such a way that anyone with an interest in energy issues, but not necessarily any technical qualifications, could understand the major challenges ahead. I think that one diagram in the book, illustrating what I called the “energy conversion chain,” was quite effective in showing how a limited number of primary energy sources are converted into only three energy carriers and these then provide all of our energy needs. I was able to use this concept to show a number of alternative energy pathways that might be used to make our world more sustainable. There has been quite a positive response both from other researchers and from non-specialists who felt that the book was able to make a rather complex subject accessible to them. One anonymous review of an early draft, which I quite liked, suggested that a copy of the book should be sent to every member of the U.K. Parliament and the U.S. Congress!

Q: What type of advice do you have for young Canadians who are interested in pursuing research similar to yours?

A: Well, I always feel that the best advice for young people is to follow their interests and their passion. Fortunately, many incoming engineering students do feel passionate about improving our current energy supply situation, and many are keen to pursue a career in the sustainable energy space. I simply try to encourage them in any way I can, and suggest to them that they shouldn’t forget that it’s just as important to be able to explain your ideas to decision-makers and the general public as it is to a technical audience.