Q&A with Mei Huang, Invest Alberta: Calgary is Heating Up Thanks to Low Costs, But There’s Much More to the Story
by Josh Anderson
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Mei Huang is Senior Director for Key Accounts at Invest Alberta, of the Government of Alberta. Mei has 15 years of diverse experience in investment, energy, international business and trade, strategy and policy. Her international background and experience in a variety of private industries and public sector gives her a unique advantage in helping international investors and businesses’ meet their needs. As Senior Director Key Accounts at Invest Alberta – the investment attraction team in the Government of Alberta, Mei currently focuses on Big Data related opportunities, such as data centres, and artificial intelligence. Previously she held leadership roles in Alberta Department of Energy. Below, we caught up with Mei shortly after CapRE’s inaugural Calgary and Greater Alberta Data Center Summit to learn more about what makes Alberta such a special emerging market.
CapRE: Thanks for chatting with us today, Mei. So why is interest in Alberta booming so much?
Huang: There are a few things that interest people in Alberta. We have some advantages. First of all, we’re a low-cost jurisdiction. That includes minimal cooling costs, because it’s so cool here most of the months in the year. Cooling is basically free – only 10% of the days need air conditioning here. Our electricity prices are competitive as well. And it’s a free market. Data center operators can come in and negotiate favorable rates with a number of retailers. In Alberta we have the lowest overall taxation rate in Canada for both businesses and employees. Alberta also has no sales tax or payroll tax to begin with – in fact there’s a long list of taxes that we don’t have. And our commercial property tax rate is quite low. That’s an excellent advantage. And finally, we have the Canadian Dollar, which is cheaper than the U.S. Dollar.
CapRE: Oh wow, and that’s just talking about costs. What about energy?
Huang: We have very reliable energy – a very stable electricity grid. And we have many years of experience with many industrial loads, because the province of Alberta has heavy industry all around it. Large loads aren’t a problem for our grid. Also, there are many options for affordable renewable energy here. In some regions of Alberta, we have lots of solar and wind power.
CapRE: Good to know. What else does Albert have to offer?
Huang: We have pretty reasonable connectivity here. Our fiber optic network is widely available throughout Alberta, and the provincial government has spent a significant amount of money into upgrading the overall network system. And there are private fiber providers all around. Zayo is one of them, as an example. The utility company, in addition to providing electricity, provides fiber as well.
Huang: I must also make the point that Alberta is more than just a good place for data centers. There are a number of emerging opportunities in Alberta’s innovation systems. Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute at the University of Alberta has world-class machine learning and AI talent. They have the top research output in the country, in terms of machine learning and AI. Google’s Deep Mind has come to Alberta actually to partner with them.
CapRE: What about other emerging tech sectors?
Huang: There’s a growing cluster in the community and private industry in the province for blockchain as well. Alberta is a province full of entrepreneurs, so it’s no surprise that many firms here are looking at applications of blockchain technology. There’s a firm for example that uses technology to track oil and gas royalty payments in this way. It’s a very hot topic in the province.
CapRE: We haven’t talked about incentives yet. What kind of tax credits does Alberta offer?
Huang: Well, we don’t have any specific data center tax credits, but we do have some of our own programs worth mentioning. For example, we recently enacted an interactive digital media tax credit – this is more for the labor cost-sharing between government and private industries, mostly for post-production, digital animation and media, but I think that it’s a great beginning. Because the government has been open to discussion for attracting more data centers.
There is also something called a Canada-Alberta job grant, which is something that the government will share the cost of training new and existing employees. It’s a pretty generous program. We also have an Alberta Investor Tax Credit which encourages investment in non-traditional sectors. And the technology sector is definitely non-traditional.
CapRE: So with all of this good stuff, there’s got to be a flip side.
Huang: Well, we haven’t promoted our advantages as heavily in the past. So we’re not very well known. I really believe that we’re a well-kept secret. That’s why part of my role is to put Alberta on the map.
CapRE: And you’re doing a great job. Thanks for your time, Mei.