The Atlantic Momentum Newsletter, Jan. 17, 2024: This week: Virtual care battles and, oh buoy, new water tech
PPF’s Atlantic Canada Momentum Index offers proof that the region is on the upswing, outpacing the rest of the country in several key economic indicators. Each week, this newsletter looks at factors either driving or impeding that momentum.
Here’s everything you need to know:
Health Care’s Virtual Reality
Nova Scotia signed a three-year, $355-million health-care funding agreement with the federal government last week, the fourth province (after B.C., Alberta and P.E.I.) to hammer out details and get money flowing from the 10-year, $196-billion funding pot Ottawa offered the provinces and territories last year. The money will go to improving family health services with more mobile clinics and virtual care, to hire more health care providers and to build up electronic data-sharing capabilities. As well, almost 15 percent of the money will go to mental health and addiction services.
Like all Atlantic provinces, Nova Scotia has been trying different approaches to meet rising demand for health care. It has eased the requirements for foreign-trained doctors to practice, partnered with tech startup Maple to give people access to doctors and nurse practitioners via an app or website, and set up the Nova Scotia Health Innovation Hub last summer to develop new technologies.
No innovation comes without challenges, however. The New Brunswick Medical Society sent a letter to Health Minister Bruce Fitch last week warning that promoting virtual care could mean fewer people are able to get a family doctor. Because N.B. Health Link pays similar fees as clinics, but with fewer paperwork headaches, doctors may opt to do more virtual work and take on fewer new patients, if any. That “will decrease the quality of care as it pushes citizens to fragmented and episodic primary care channels,” the letter said. It calls for higher fees for doctors and more funding for clinics. A spokesperson for the minister said officials would meet with the society in the coming weeks to discuss the proposal.
The mayor of New-Wes-Valley in Newfoundland and Labrador, meanwhile, made the case for virtual care last week. The town of 2,000 has had to close its hospital for long stretches recently, and has only been able to keep its emergency department open because virtual care is available. Recently, a patient in cardiac distress was kept alive with a critical injection administered by a health care worker and guided by a virtual ER doctor. Said Mayor Michael Tiller, himself a paramedic: “It’s not ideal. It’s not what we hope is a permanent solution but it’s saving lives, which is what it’s there for.”
With winter storms battering the region this month, efforts to find shelter for the homeless have a new urgency. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, the provincial housing corporation has leased The Comfort Hotel near the airport for the next three years to provide “transitional” housing. It will offer the homeless temporary shelter, three meals a day and mental health, addictions and harm-reduction services in hopes they can make the move to permanent housing. The province hopes to have the 140-room facility functioning by March.
Nova Scotia, meanwhile, promised the first 19 of 200 planned tiny shelters will be in place in Lower Sackville by the end of January; three other batches of the “pallet” shelters will be installed in February or March in three different locations, officials said. The program has been delayed for more than a month in part because the manufacturer, Washington-based Pallet Shelters, has “dignity standards” it demands be met before they will deliver — including that the sites have hygiene facilities and safety measures in place, as well as providing access to food, transportation and support services. The sites must also meet zoning and permitting standards, comply with building and fire codes and be assessed by an engineer. “That’s a lot of moving pieces all at once,” said Joy Knight, an executive director with the Department of Community Services.
The announcement brought predictable concern from a councillor in Sydney, where 30 tiny shelters are destined for a site owned by the province. Councillor Lorne Green said it would be better to sprinkle them throughout the city where they would be close to other services, instead of clumping them in one spot near the entrance of a community Heritage Trail. Locals have been calling to complain. “The concern is obviously the way of life in that particular part of my district. It’s very quiet, very subdued,” he said, insisting his constituents weren’t making NIMBY complaints.
The wind at our back
In an interview with Saltwire over the weekend, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson talked up the potential of offshore wind power and said Canada is looking to attract $1 trillion worth of investments by 2040. “(We) are aiming to develop a large-scale offshore wind industry that will leverage the fact that we have a world-class wind resource off of both (N.S. and N.L.) to generate electricity for clean electricity for domestic use, but also to enable the production of zero-carbon hydrogen that can be both used domestically, but also can be exported to Europe,” he said. The story cited PPF’s influential report Catching the Wind.
If you missed it, report author Peter Nicholson recently appeared on the podcast WONK to discuss the report. He also explains his surprising connection to Elon Musk, and how he became his mentor.
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Offloading offshore oil?
Newfoundland and Labrador is shopping around its offshore oil assets to determine if it should sell them off and use the proceeds for other priorities. The province hired French merchant bank Rothschild & Co. to do a broad review of all government-owned assets, and is now entering a third stage of that review focused on offshore oil. Industry, Energy and Technology Minister Andrew Parsons stressed no final decisions have been made.
“If we have assets, we have to consider: ‘Does this sale now help us deal with situations we have now, or are we better off, you know, holding on to that?’” he said. “We think it’s a good time now, but the other thing to keep in mind is that we’re not bound by anything.” The province owns a 4.9 percent equity stake in Hebron, 8.7 percent of the Hibernia South extension, and a five percent stake in the White Rose extension project.
Meanwhile, the Sea Rose FPSO, the ship used to produce, store and offload oil from the White Rose oilfield, is headed to the storied Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast, which built the Titanic — for a $104-million refit. It’s expected back later this summer. The work is part of a multi-billion extension project for the oil field that includes construction of a fixed offshore drilling platform that will be able to tap another 200 million barrels of oil.
Water water everywhere
It’s the age-old lament of castaway sailors and Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner:
Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.
Quebec-based Oneka Technologies has a solution. It’s developed wave-powered desalination buoys that can convert saltwater into drinking water. The company has just opened an office at the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE) in Dartmouth, where it hopes to hire a few dozen employees.
The buoys use energy from waves to pressurize water, force it through a membrane to remove the salt and then pump it through a pipe back to shore. The units developed so far can produce about 10,000 litres of drinking water a day; the company is working on a model that can produce six times that amount. Oneka is looking to sell to coastal communities, industries and resorts and has already run a pilot project in Chile. It’s now looking for customers in California and the Caribbean. Invest Nova Scotia, the province’s economic development agency, has pumped money into the company, as has Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, one of the federal government’s innovation clusters.
Air to spare
Researchers have found yet another benefit to green hydrogen, beyond its promise to provide clean, renewable energy on a huge scale. Oxygen, a by-product of the process, could breathe new life, as it were, into a dead zone in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Dead zones are areas with little or no ocean life due to hypoxia — low- to zero-oxygen levels at deep water. Climate change is making them more common, and bigger.
The 9,000-square-km dead zone in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is the result of warmer water flowing down the river, forming algae blooms that sink to the bottom and consume the oxygen. Climate change has also nearly stopped cold, oxygen-rich water from the Labrador current from flowing into the Gulf through the Cabot Strait. Pumping oxygen into the Gulf could be a solution. The massive green hydrogen facilities being planned in Newfoundland would produce more than enough oxygen to mitigate hypoxia throughout the Gulf, says Douglas Wallace, a chemical oceanographer from Dalhousie University and lead author of the research paper.
Another beneficial offshoot of wind power (which will be used to run those green hydrogen plants) became clear this week in Sydney, N.S., where a heavy lift vessel unloaded massive monopiles destined for an offshore wind farm being built off Cape Cod. Arcane U.S. shipping regulations require any cargo moving between two American ports to travel on U.S.-built and owned ships with a majority of American crews. A lack of U.S. ships designed to carry wind turbine components, and busy U.S. ports, means wind farm developers often have to store components elsewhere and shift them from one ship to another. Sydney is the second port in Atlantic Canada to develop a marshalling yard for wind power projects, following the Port of Argentia in Newfoundland. Ironically, the company handling the shipment that landed in Sydney is Provincial Energy Ventures, which began operations in 2003 as a coal exporter.
Taking the lead in tech
Atlantic Canada’s tech sector was happy to see the end of 2023. Not only was it a record year for start-up failures, but two of the six publicly-traded start-ups that were operating last January shut down in the course of the year and two others had negative returns to shareholders. The lone bright spots were Kraken Robotics, the St. John’s-based maker of subsea robots and sensor technology, and Halifax’s Sona Nanotech, which develops technologies to fight cancer. Sona was up more than 200 percent on the Canadian Securities Exchange, the country’s junior stock exchange.
One positive just now becoming clear, though it predates 2023, is that the number of women leading tech start-ups is on the rise. Technology news site Entrevestor crunched the numbers and found that in 2022, the most recent year for which it has data, 22.3 percent of Atlantic Canada startups had female founders, up from 19 percent the year prior. Not a massive change, certainly, but progress all the same. It also identified four notable companies in the region that had replaced male founders or co-founders with female leaders, saying that showed promising change in the technology ecosystem.
On the horizon
Tuesday, Jan. 16, Housing starts (December)
Wednesday, Jan. 31, GDP (November)
Halifax Chamber Business Awards, Jan. 25
Sea Farmers Conference, Jan. 25
Atlantic First Nations Health Conference, Feb. 13-15