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Blasting the earth with radio waves and one possible future for the oilsands

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EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of our ongoing Road Ahead series, we are looking at companies that are experimenting with new energy technologies.


Anyone who has a microwave oven at home knows that those invisible electromagnetic waves are darn good for heating things up.

Turns out, the same is true of radio waves. And that’s why a Calgary company called Acceleware is planning to blast radio frequency deep into Alberta’s oilsands: so they can heat up the bitumen — melt and soften that thick oil — and then slurp it out.

Think of it as microwaving the earth.

“The big advantage off the top is that we can do this with a lot lower cost, both operating and capital costs,” says Mike Tourigny, an executive with Acceleware who’s working on commercializing the technology.

“But we can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t need to use any external freshwater and we don’t need to use any solvent. So we’re very simple and clean.”

Simple and clean are not words we often hear associated with Alberta’s oilsands. But Acceleware claims its technology could address two of the oilsands’ biggest problems: the enormous upfront costs involved and the environmental effects of the extraction.

Here’s the catch: the technology hasn’t been fully proven yet. And, even if the company does demonstrate that everything works, there’s still a long road ahead to commercialize the new technology.

Steam heat

On the face of it, the microwave idea seems simple enough.

Tourigny explains that they shoot the radio frequency energy into the geologic formation, where it starts to heat up all the water molecules. The water then turns to steam, which transfers its heat to the rock and oil.

And then the oil, he says, starts to move into the producer well, where pipes, like giant straws, suck it up.

Simple, yes. And it may also sound familiar.

The idea has been around for a long time. The Union Oil Company first applied for a patent on an apparatus designed to heat up oil and gas way back in 1948.

People have been tinkering with the idea ever since. It’s been poked, prodded, tested and ruminated over for seven decades. Though much of that work never got past the pages of an academic journal, the idea has been gaining interest here in Alberta. In 2015, Suncor began a pilot project using radio frequency heating at its Dover site in the oilsands.

The difference between its technology and Acceleware’s is that Suncor also injected a solvent to help mobilize the bitumen. Acceleware’s technique uses just radio frequency, no solvent. Different paths to the same idea.

If microwaving the earth seems like a strange approach to oil extraction, consider the alternatives.

High stakes experiments

There’s a lot of oil up there in Alberta’s oilsands — 165 billion barrels of it, according to the provincial energy regulator.

But the trouble is, it’s really hard to get it out.

When the oilsands are near the surface, you can dig them up. That’s what causes the infamous strip mines near Fort McMurray. But a mere 20 per cent of the oilsands are actually close enough to the surface to be mined.

Over the years, many ideas have been considered to get at that inaccessible oil, from detonating a nuclear bomb under the ground to setting the bitumen on fire, in hopes of loosening up the resource.

It was the large-scale commercialization of steam assisted drilling (SAGD) in the mid-1990s that very effectively separated oil from sand and greatly increased the amount of accessible oil in the region. And it was SAGD that effectively cracked open the oilsands and quadrupled Canada’s accessible reserves.

Pipes carry oil, steam and natural gas through a forest at the Cenovus Foster Creek SAGD oilsands operations near Cold Lake, Alta. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

It’s that kind of innovation that technology-minded oilpatch execs continue to chase, with the added complication of searching for ways to reduce the oilsands’ greenhouse gas emissions.

SAGD is effective at extraction but uses both a lot of natural gas and a lot of water to produce oil. So anyone who says they can take steam out of the picture is bound to create a buzz. That’s why this microwave idea has people interested.

“The elimination of water and steam,” says Bryan Remillard, oilsands manager with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “would be a … game-changing type of technology for the industry.”

But not everyone’s buying the microwave idea, or the suggestion that it could take out the steam altogether.

“I think the idea of getting something heated to the point where it would flow all the way to the surface using RF technology is not likely to be very successful,” says Michal Moore, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, and now visiting professor at Cornell.

“However,” the energy economist adds, “heating it so that you used half as much of the steam, or that you used it much later in the process, probably does have value if you can do it efficiently.”

So, can they?

Seismic software

If you’re picturing a gang of weather-beaten roughnecks at the helm of Acceleware, think nerdier.

The company is all about high performance computing. It develops software, and helps other developers speed up their own programs.

While working on some seismic imaging software for the oilpatch, they got interested in the problems of high costs and greenhouse gas emissions in the oilsands. Thus began their near-decade-long experimentation with the idea of radio frequency heating.

A diagram showing how Acceleware’s RF XL radio frequency heating technology works. (Acceleware)

They started with a computer simulation.

“Just having that horsepower to predict at a very granular level what happens when you put a whole bunch power of into a small space, at the start” says Tourigny, “has really helped to be able to develop the technology and find more efficient ways to get it into the ground, without melting things it shouldn’t melt.”

Melting things it shouldn’t melt, you ask?

Sounds a tiny bit worrying.

Melting only what should melt

The idea that may have seemed so simple a couple minutes ago (zapping the earth), is actually highly complex.

If you ever leave anything in the microwave too long, the sizzling, rubbery mess will quickly remind you just how powerful those waves can be. The same is true for radio waves when you beam them underground.

They have to be powerful, because the waves have a long way to travel to get to the good stuff. Hundreds of meters. And it needs to be hot. At deeper pressures up it can get up to 250 degrees Celsius.

“A lot of the early tests failed because they would overheat the wellbore, and collapse the wellbore, and melt everything,” Tourigny explains. Which is why the idea made a good candidate for computer simulation. It allowed them to try different systems without having to build them.

Acceleware’s Mike Tourigny explains how the company’s RF XL radio frequency technology works. (Caroline Wagner)

Even so, it took time to find the right recipe in the simulation.

“We kept hitting on some barriers that just were like, ‘Okay, you can’t get enough power down there, you’re losing too much power here, this won’t work and it’ll never make sense economically’,” says Tourigny.

“And when we got to this design, all of it fell together.”

They had the concept. Now they just needed the proof.

From model to real world

Acceleware had done some initial testing at a lab at the University of Calgary, but it was still too early for the company to take their technology up to the oilsands.

So, instead of heading north to the muskeg, they built their own oilsands reserve at a test site in Didsbury. The “ditch-test,” as Acceleware calls it, was a 1/20th scale model of the real deal.

First, they dug a 50-metre-long ditch. Then they filled it with sand and added water. They didn’t add any bitumen, as the main point was to see how hot it would get, and if it would match what their simulations predicted.

Then they added the radio frequency.

It worked.

Their predictions matched. The recipe passed its first, real world test.

But Acceleware still has a long way to go before it can break out the champagne. The next step for the company is a commercial-scale test.

Acceleware just announced this past summer that it’s partnering with Prosper Petroleum to set up radio frequency heating apparatus at the company’s Rigel site northwest of Fort McMurray.

An illustration of the above-ground appearance of a traditional, steam assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) plant (at left) and Acceleware’s radio frequency heating (RF XL) central processing facility (at right). (Acceleware)

It’s been a long and expensive journey. In this case, the price tag comes in between $16 million and $20 million.

Acceleware got a pair of $5-million grants from Sustainable Development Technology Canada, and Emissions Reduction Alberta. And the company also just announced a $2.5-million US deal with Advanced Micro Devices, taking the cash in exchange for software engineering resources and consulting services. Acceleware plans to use the money largely to finance the pilot project.

But getting everyone on board with a new way of doing things could be tricky in an industry that can move at glacial speed.

Upfront costs and risk aversion 

“It’s such a capital intensive, upfront capital cost with risk associated upfront,” says Remillard at CAPP.

In other words, you need to spend money with no guarantee it will pay off. And that, according to a 2015 report by the Council of Canadian Academies, can scare off some oilsands investors.

“Risk aversion may lock in existing technologies and delay deployment of environmentally superior alternatives,” the report reads.

It adds that the lead time for technology development in the industry can be as long as 10 to 20 years.

The industry — which normally sees innovation in baby steps — has seen examples of giant technological leaps. But whether or not radio frequency heating will revolutionize the oilsands is still a question mark.

Suncor says it will release the results from its ongoing pilot project late this year or next. Acceleware and Prosper won’t even break ground until winter.

But if these technologies work, they could do more than make money for Acceleware and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They could also offer a cleaner alternative, and help companies access some of the more difficult oilsands reserves in Alberta.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary’s special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca


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Real Estate

5 ways to reduce your mortgage amortization

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Since the pandemic hit, a lot of Canadians have been affected financially and if you’re on a mortgage, reducing your amortization period can be of great help.

A mortgage amortization period is the amount of time it would take a homeowner to completely pay off their mortgage. The amortization is typically an estimate based on what the interest rate for your current term is. Calculating your amortization is done easily using a loan amortization calculator which shows you the different payment schedules within your amortization period.

 In Canada, if you made a down payment that is less than the recommended 20 per cent of the total cost of your home, then the longest amortization period you’re allowed to have is 25 years. The mortgage amortization period not only affects the length of time it would take to completely repay the loan, but also the amount of interest paid over the lifecycle of the mortgage.

Typically, longer amortization periods involve making smaller monthly payments and having a much higher total interest cost over the duration of the mortgage. While on the other hand, shorter amortization periods entails making larger monthly payments and having lower total interest costs.

It’s the dream of every homeowner to become mortgage-free. A general rule of thumb would be to try and keep your monthly mortgage costs as low as possible—preferably below 30 per cent of your monthly income. Over time, you may become more financially stable by either getting a tax return, a bonus or an additional source of income and want to channel that towards your principal.

There are several ways to keep your monthly mortgage payments low and reduce your amortization. Here are a few ways to achieve that goal:

1. Make a larger down payment

Once you’ve decided to buy a home, always consider putting asides some significant amount of money that would act as a down payment to reduce your monthly mortgage. While the recommended amount to put aside as a down payment is 20 per cent,  if you aren’t in a hurry to purchase the property or are more financial buoyant, you can even pay more.

Essentially, the larger your down payment, the lower your mortgage would be as it means you’re borrowing less money from your lender. However, if you pay at least 20 per cent upfront, there would be no need for you to cover the additional cost of private mortgage insurance which would save you some money.

2. Make bi-weekly payments

Most homeowners make monthly payments which amount to 12 payments every year. But if your bank or lender offers the option of accelerated bi-weekly payment, you will be making an equivalent of one more payment annually. Doing this will further reduce your amortization period by allowing you to pay off your mortgage much faster.

3. Have a fixed renewal payment

It is normal for lenders to offer discounts on interest rate during your amortization period. However, as you continuously renew your mortgage at a lower rate, always keep a fixed repayment sum.

Rather than just making lower payments, you can keep your payments static, since the more money applied to your principal, the faster you can clear your mortgage.

4. Increase your payment amount

Many mortgages give homeowners the option to increase their payment amount at least once a year. Now, this is very ideal for those who have the financial capacity to do so because the extra money would be added to your principal.

Irrespective of how small the increase might be, in the long run, it would make a huge difference. For example, if your monthly mortgage payment is about $2,752 per month. It would be in your best interest to round it up to $2,800 every month. That way, you are much closer to reducing your mortgage amortization period.

5. Leverage on prepayment privileges

The ability for homeowners to make any form of prepayment solely depends on what mortgage features are provided by their lender.

With an open mortgage, you can easily make additional payments at any given time. However, if you have a closed mortgage—which makes up the larger percentage of existing mortgages—you will need to check if you have the option of prepayments which would allow you to make extra lump sum payments.

Additionally, there may also be the option to make extra lump sum payments at the end of your existing mortgage term before its time for renewal.

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Real Estate

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: What you need to know

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Your home is likely the biggest asset you’ll ever own. So how can you protect it in case something were to happen to you? To start, homeowners have a few options to choose from. You can either:

  • ensure you have mortgage protection with a life insurance policy from an insurance company or
  • get mortgage insurance from a bank or mortgage lender.

Mortgage insurance vs. life insurance: How do they each work?  

The first thing to know is that life insurance can be a great way to make sure you and your family have mortgage protection.

The money from a life insurance policy usually goes right into the hands of your beneficiaries – not the bank or mortgage lender. Your beneficiaries are whoever you choose to receive the benefit or money from your policy after you die.

Life insurance policies, like term life insurance, come with a death benefit. A death benefit is the amount of money given to your beneficiaries after you die. The exact amount they’ll receive depends on the policy you buy.

With term life insurance, you’re covered for a set period, such as 10, 15, 20 or 30 years. The premium – that’s the monthly or annual fee you pay for insurance – is usually low for the first term.

If you die while you’re coved by your life insurance policy, your beneficiaries will receive a tax-free death benefit. They can then use this money to help pay off the mortgage or for any other reason. So not only is your mortgage protected, but your family will also have funds to cover other expenses that they relied on you to pay.

Mortgage insurance works by paying off the outstanding principal balance of your mortgage, up to a certain amount, if you die.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes directly to the bank or lender to pay off the mortgage – and that’s it. There’s no extra money to cover other expenses, and you don’t get to leave any cash behind to your beneficiaries.

What’s the difference between mortgage insurance and life insurance?

The main difference is that mortgage insurance covers only your outstanding mortgage balance. And, that money goes directly to the bank or mortgage lender, not your beneficiary. This means that there’s no cash, payout or benefit given to your beneficiary. 

With life insurance, however, you get mortgage protection and more. Here’s how it works: every life insurance policy provides a tax-free amount of money (the death benefit) to the beneficiary. The payment can cover more than just the mortgage. The beneficiary may then use the money for any purpose. For example, apart from paying off the mortgage, they can also use the funds from the death benefit to cover:

  • any of your remaining debts,
  • the cost of child care,
  • funeral costs,
  • the cost of child care, and
  • any other living expenses. 

But before you decide between life insurance and mortgage insurance, here are some other important differences to keep in mind:

Who gets the money?

With life insurance, the money goes to whomever you name as your beneficiary.

With mortgage insurance, the money goes entirely to the bank.

Can you move your policy?

With life insurance, your policy stays with you even if you transfer your mortgage to another company. There’s no need to re-apply or prove your health is good enough to be insured.

With mortgage insurance, however, your policy doesn’t automatically move with you if you change mortgage providers. If you move your mortgage to another bank, you’ll have to prove that your health is still good.

Which offers more flexibility, life insurance or mortgage insurance?

With life insurance, your beneficiaries have the flexibility to cover the mortgage balance and more after you die. As the policy owner, you can choose how much insurance coverage you want and how long you need it. And, the coverage doesn’t decline unless you want it to.

With mortgage insurance through a bank, you don’t have the flexibility to change your coverage. In this case, you’re only protecting the outstanding balance on your mortgage.

Do you need a medical exam to qualify? 

With a term life insurance policy from Sun Life, you may have to answer some medical questions or take a medical exam before you’re approved for coverage. Once you’re approved, Sun Life won’t ask for any additional medical information later on.

With mortgage insurance, a bank or mortgage lender may ask some medical questions when you apply. However, if you make a claim after you’re approved, your bank may ask for additional medical information.* At that point, they may discover some conditions that disqualify you from receiving payment on a claim.

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5 common mistakes Canadians make with their mortgages

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This article was created by MoneyWise. Postmedia and MoneyWise may earn an affiliate commission through links on this page.

Since COVID-19 dragged interest rates to historic lows last year, Canadians have been diving into the real estate market with unprecedented verve.

During a time of extraordinary financial disruption, more than 551,000 properties sold last year — a new annual record, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association. Those sales provided a desperately needed dose of oxygen for the country’s gasping economy.

Given the slew of new mortgages taken out in 2020, there were bound to be slip-ups. So, MoneyWise asked four of the country’s sharpest mortgage minds to share what they feel are the mistakes Canadians most frequently make when securing a home loan.

Mistake 1: Not having your documents ready

One of your mortgage broker’s primary functions is to provide lenders with paperwork confirming your income, assets, source of down payment and overall reliability as a borrower. Without complete and accurate documentation, no reputable lender will be able to process your loan.

But “borrowers often don’t have these documents on hand,” says John Vo of Spicer Vo Mortgages in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “And even when they do provide these documents, they may not be the correct documentation required.”

Some of the most frequent mistakes Vo sees when borrowers send in their paperwork include:

  • Not including a name or other relevant details on key pieces of information.
  • Providing old bank or pay statements instead of those dated within the last 30 days.
  • Sending only a partial document package. If a lender asks for six pages to support your loan, don’t send two. If you’re asked for four months’ worth of bank statements, don’t provide only one.
  • Thinking low-quality or blurry files sent by email or text will be good enough. Lenders need to be able to read what you send them.

If you send your broker an incomplete documents package, the result is inevitable: Your mortgage application will be delayed as long as it takes for you to find the required materials, and your house shopping could be sidetracked for months.

Mistake 2: Blinded by the rate

Ask any mortgage broker and they’ll tell you that the question they’re asked most frequently is: “What’s your lowest rate?”

The interest rate you’ll pay on your mortgage is a massive consideration, so comparing the rates lenders are offering is a good habit once you’ve slipped on your house-hunter hat.

Rates have been on the rise lately given government actions to stimulate the Canadian economy. You may want to lock a low rate now, so you can hold onto it for up to 120 days.

But Chris Kolinski, broker at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based iSask Mortgages, says too many borrowers get obsessed with finding the lowest rate and ignore the other aspects of a mortgage that can greatly impact its overall cost.

“I always ask my clients ‘Do you want to get the best rate, or do you want to save the most money?’ because those two things are not always synonymous,” Kolinski says. “That opens a conversation about needs and wants.”

Many of the rock-bottom interest rates on offer from Canadian lenders can be hard to qualify for, come with limited features, or cost borrowers “a ton” of money if they break their terms, Kolinski points out.

Mistake 3: Not reading the fine print

Dalia Barsoum of Streetwise Mortgages in Woodbridge, Ontario, shares a universal message: “Read the fine print. Understand what you’re signing up for.”

Most borrowers don’t expect they’ll ever break their mortgages, but data collected by TD Bank shows that 7 in 10 homeowners move on from their properties earlier than they expect.

It’s critical to understand your loan’s prepayment privileges and the rules around an early departure. “If you exit the mortgage, how much are you going to pay? It’s really, really important,” Barsoum says.

She has seen too borrowers come to her hoping to refinance a mortgage they received from a private or specialty lender, only to find that what they were attempting was impossible.

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