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Evaluating the sustainability of energy systems: Lessons learned from studies of conventional and renewable fuels

Evaluating the sustainability of energy systems: Lessons learned from studies of conventional and renewable fuels

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 PC 155

Energy Systems and Sustainable Engineering


Due to the complexity of energy systems, comprehensive systems analyses are required to determine net benefits and avoid unintended negative consequences. I will introduce the field of sustainable systems analysis; including key tools (e.g., life cycle assessment, techno-economic assessment and uncertainty analysis) and their applications in recent projects within my research group. I will focus on the research process, stakeholders involved, and the evolution of the projects from inception to finish. The projects include;

  • Production and use of biobased aviation fuels as a climate change mitigation option. Biobased jet fuels are projected by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to play a major role in meeting greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. I discuss results of our ongoing research in this area, focusing on a life cycle approach and discussing the need for a systems approach.
  • Carbon dioxide capture and utilization. There is much recent focus on utilizing ‘waste CO2’ to produce materials and products, sequestering CO2 and potentially being a promising option for climate change mitigation. I will present initial insights from a project examining ethylene production from CO2, an early stage technology, including challenges of projecting commercial scale performance and environmental impacts of technologies in their early stages of development.
  • Evaluating greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing transportation fuels from oil sands projects. While major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels will be required to reach any climate change targets, the expectation is that these fuels will continue to be used in decades to come. A detailed understanding of emissions from oil sands projects, including explicit characterization of variability in emissions, is required to inform decision-making. I will present the history of an almost decade long series of projects that has resulted in informing public policies in Canada and the U.S., as well as operations throughout the industry.

I will also highlight briefly some of my other graduate students’ projects. I will conclude the talk with key lessons learned and thoughts for future work.


UofT Profile


Heather L. MacLean is a Professor in the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering at the University of Toronto and holds a joint-appointment in the Department of Chemical Engineering & Applied Chemistry. Heather research focuses on systems level evaluation of current and emerging energy systems, transportation technologies and infrastructure systems, with attention to climate change and other environmental impacts. Within her research projects, she has worked with the automotive, oil, electricity, and biofuels industries as well as governments in Canada and internationally. Results of her work have been incorporated into emerging technology designs, company operations, and regulations. Heather is a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering and Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC). In 2019 she was awarded EIC’s Julian C. Smith Medal for “achievement in the development of Canada”, and in 2017 the Dr. Albert E. Berry Medal from the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering for outstanding contributions to the field of environmental engineering in Canada. She holds a joint Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering and Engineering and Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon University, an MBA from St. Mary’s University and Bachelor of Engineering from Dalhousie University. She loves spending time with her husband and two daughters, doing sports, working on her Spanish language skills, and traveling.

Heather L. MacLean, Ph.D., P.Eng.