When it comes to decarbonizing how we power our homes, cars, businesses — and, well, our entire lives — we have a good idea of what needs to happen. That’s the good news. The bad news: This shift to renewable energy sources is coming at the worst possible time.
The whiplash recovery from COVID-19 has caused soaring demand for electricity that utilities are struggling to manage after adjusting to the slowdown. And as we move away from fossil fuels and toward electrifying everything, that tension is only increasing.
In early August, Manitoba Hydro released a report, warning that demand for power in that province would more than double in the next 20 years. And in Ontario, demand for electricity is forecasted to grow by 2 percent every year for the next two decades.
Currently, about 82 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from low- and non-emitting sources — including solar, wind, nuclear and hydroelectricity — but moving the needle all the way to 100 is far harder than it sounds. Some provinces are already running into issues providing enough power to residents. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford announced in May that gas-powered plants would need to be built, or expanded, to meet power needs while the province’s nuclear plants are refurbished. And in Quebec, exports of its clean energy created from hydroelectricity are in such demand that the province may not be able to meet its own growing needs.
In a recent survey by international professional services firm GHD, 94 percent of 450 energy sector leaders around the world said they believe “the current energy crisis is the greatest to have impacted their market in decades.” (Security issues, affordability and the impact of climate change have created what’s been called “the energy trilemma.”) The next few years will be crucial for making the foundational changes to get to net zero.
The tasks include building a massive amount of new infrastructure, figuring out how to properly store alternative forms of energy, and ensuring that this is done in a way accessible to all. Simple, right?
“Energy transition has to occur,” says Robert Dysiewicz, a principal at GHD who specializes in integrated utilities. “But getting there is not going to be easy.”
Thankfully, new technologies that will aid in this goal are being developed at an ever-rapid pace. And even procrastinators, if they have the right tools, can get the job done in time.
One of the main problems with energy from renewable sources is that, unlike oil and gas, it’s not just sitting around ready to be used whenever it’s needed. Even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, we need ways of accessing the power they provide.
This is ultimately the biggest challenge of getting to net zero, says Jon Dogterom, co-founder of Xmplar Technologies and clean technology executive-in-residence at MaRS. “How do we take electrons and condense them and store them in such a way that replicates how we’ve built our society today?” Dogterom asks. The ability to drive long distances and turn on lights and heat our homes without a second thought has relied on fossil fuels, which carry a lot of energy in a small container.
Chemical storage in batteries is possible, but we don’t yet have adequate technology to build them at the scale needed for utilities, Dogterom says. Plus, that would require more mining for the rare minerals needed to make them. Hydrogen is a potential solution, he says, and engineers are most excited about so-called “green” hydrogen — the method that splits water, releasing the oxygen and keeping the hydrogen.
But however we collect and store energy, the other issue is distributing that power — and that involves a massive amount of new infrastructure, as well as the poles and wires for transmission.
It’s possible to make that happen, but time is running out. Francis Bradley, CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association, says that doubling the electricity system between now and 2035 won’t be as challenging as some might think — because when you do the math, that’s only a three percent compounded growth each year. “But the trick is, we have to start building now,” he says.
Once the infrastructure is in place, optimizing energy distribution will be the key to avoiding flickering lights — and that’s where digital tools can help.
Distributed energy resource management systems — or “DERMS” by those in the know — helps to balance supply and demand so that energy is both used and stored in the most optimal way. For instance, Toronto startup Opus One Soluitons developed software that allows utilities to track clean energy consumption for most efficient distribution, even including sending power from homes back to the grid when it’s not being used. (General Electric acquired the company in 2021 with an eye to scaling the technology.)
Tech can also help optimize consumption of energy on a building scale. BrainBox AI and Parity provide platforms that connect to a building’s HVAC system in order to minimize its emissions and power usage. And a Vancouver company called Awesense creates digital twins — virtual simulations — of a grid in order to test out adjustments without any risk.
AI sensing technology can also be used to automate time-consuming manual processes, says GHD’s Dysiewicz. For instance, landfills create methane, he explains, which is collected in wells and transformed into renewable natural gas. But as the moisture level of the wells impacts how much gas is produced on any given day, the wells need to be regularly monitored and adjusted to optimize the amount of methane captured. Currently, this is accomplished manually — with site checks. But with smart sensors, this could be done instantaneously and at every well. And a more automated system would also have the additional benefit of making sure no methane is released into the atmosphere.
AI can also play an important role in monitoring new technologies, which may need to be put into action sooner than usual, Dysiewicz adds. “If technology is going to help us predict failure, that technology is going to help us keep these new innovative projects safer and more resilient.”
If the necessary engineering and technology feats weren’t enough, transitioning to net zero is also an accessibility challenge. As new infrastructure is built, how can we ensure that clean power is adequately distributed to everyone.
The CANSTOREnergy project, a collaboration between 11 universities, is tackling this question, comparing a relatively new technology — capturing carbon from industrial sources in order to convert it back into usable fuel — as it could be applied differently to both Hamilton, Ont. and the Yukon. “We’re looking at how this might fit into the kinds of energy developments that are already underway in those places, and how it will fit into their climate goals,” says the University of Toronto’s Kate Neville, one of the project’s lead researchers.
That’s just one example, but ultimately, she says, they’re trying to show that a one-size-fits all approach won’t work — something that’s important to take into account as we tailor plans on how to get to net zero. “How might we take a range of voices and have them provide input into technology design at an early stage, instead of just thinking about those voices coming in after technologies are already set and ready to go?”
Switching to a hundred percent electrification probably won’t work for every jurisdiction, Neville adds, so there needs to be varied approaches for different geographies and communities. “My sense is that there’s not a single solution, a best model that we then just apply everywhere,” she says.
If energy policies are consistent and stable — even if they are geographically customized — that will instill confidence for the type of large-scale infrastructure investments that are needed, says Dysiewicz. “That will supercharge energy engineering solutions, and that’s where we get really excited,” he says. “We get to solve big puzzles, developing technical solutions. And I think that will come because humans are very innovative and creative when pressured.”
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Illustrations by Monica Guan