Zak Cunningham’s career in the energy sector has taken him on many roads in the past 15 years.  
 
After high school, he worked in roles in automotive and tire shops and even did a stint on a potato farm. In his early 20s, he started working in the oil and gas service sector, starting with oilfield communication equipment rentals, but eventually made his way to working as a roughneck on drilling and service rigs.

In 2014, he earned his diploma in Petroleum Engineering Technology at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton.  
 
“I ended up getting an opportunity to go abroad to work on a deep-water project in Malaysia as a field specialist for a managed-pressure drilling service company and did that until the oil crash in 2015,” Zak says. “As jobs were extremely hard to come by then, I decided to return to school and finish a bachelor’s degree with the hope of an oil price recovery by that time.” 

Fast forward to 2020, he completed his bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Engineering in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, and oil prices did manage to recover. But a new obstacle appeared that killed his hopes for finding immediate work—the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge of obtaining consistent job security pushed him into his new field.  

He completed the program in 2022 with a master’s degree in science (MSc) from the University of Calgary. 

During his studies, Zak focused his capstone project on a hydrogen research project in the Northwest Territories and now uses that knowledge in his new position.

“I was growing increasingly tired of always being on the job hunt and waiting for the next downturn, so I found the Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) master’s program online and decided to move back to Canada to study and make a pivot towards the much broader field of sustainable energy.”

Zak Cunningham, Energy Systems Analyst, The Transition Accelerator

Aiming for net-zero 

 Zak is now an energy system analyst for The Transition Accelerator’s net-zero fuels team.  The pan-Canadian organization works with industry, governments, and civil society organizations to help position Canada for success in a net-zero economy.

 “I do a lot of research and deep learning about existing energy systems and, in particular, new energy technologies,” he says, “I use this information to assist in building models and doing analyses that can help inform what a pragmatic energy transition could look like.” 
 
Working for The Transition Accelerator puts Zak at the forefront of massive energy production shifts not only in Canada but also around the world. 

“For me, personally, the challenges that exist in these nascent forms of energy are more interesting for me versus traditional energy forms that we have been doing successfully on a grand scale for decades” he says.  

Fulfilling work

Zak’s current job is far from repetitive and has him constantly learning and reading about developments. Being on the edge of the energy transformation is something that truly excites him about his work. 
 
“Every day there is a new challenge, and there isn’t really a dummies™ guide to the energy transition,” he says. “It’s essential work, and I find it fulfilling being on this side of it. I am working towards more than just a pay cheque, and I feel the work I am doing now is contributing to the greater good.” 
 
Coming from a background of hands-on outdoor work, Zak openly admits to grappling with office tasks, often reminiscing about his time on the oil rigs.  “At times I certainly miss being on the road and traveling to very remote places for work, both in Canada and abroad”.

These days, Zak’s hands keep busy on computer keyboards problem-solving, analyzing and writing. While he’s not working side-by-side with his co-workers on a rig, he is still collaborating with highly skilled colleagues virtually from his home office in Calgary.  
 
When asked to name his most valuable skill, Zak’s answer was his solid unit conversion skills —converting between various forms of energy and other physical forms are essential skills when dealing with large energy system that utilize a variety of energy sources. For example, oil is measured by barrels while natural gas is measured by cubic feet, but they can both be compared in Joules. Solid unit conversion creates a common baseline for analyzing different resources side-by-side.   
 
These skills have been his biggest asset when dealing with large energy systems. 

Preparing a new generation

At 36, Zak is both a seasoned veteran and young pioneer of the energy sector, has worked in traditional energy recovery, and is shaping the future of energy innovation, production and sustainability. 
 
“There’s never been a better time to join the energy sector,” he says. “Right now, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We have a big need for talented people. Not just in engineering, but across the spectrum doing all sorts of things—we always will.” 

Company

The Transition Accelerator

Location

Calgary, Alberta

Education

MSc, Sustainable Energy Development from University of Calgary 

Bachelor of Engineering (Hons), Petroleum Engineering from UCSI University in Malaysia 

Diploma, Petroleum Engineering Technology from Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) 

Salary, education and advancement may vary from company to company.


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