Connecting the current

With the evolution of more economical and more reliable alternative energy sources and the push to control carbon emissions, we are at the precipice of a paradigm shift in how we generate and distribute power. But how will tested-and-true operations blend seamlessly with leading-edge, disruptive technologies and greener electricity?

Renewable energy has long been a prime aspiration for those of us with an eye toward the climate horizon. In 2018, 82 per cent of electricity in Canada came from non-GHG emitting sources. A shift toward renewable energy sources could dramatically reduce those emissions while still maintaining all the conveniences of modern commerce, and modern life.

But as renewable energy sources like hydropower, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and have become increasingly prevalent in the past few decades, they’ve also faced mounting skepticism. Concerns around access to steady, reliable power and economic viability have raised important debate, and pushed experts to develop innovative power systems and delivery models to keep the costs down and the lights on.

Efficiency meets reliability

One key innovation has been technological advancements and increased affordability of battery storage. Particularly with renewable energy sources like wind and solar, which can vary greatly based on weather conditions, a stable and reliable energy supply was never guaranteed. Battery energy storage systems have opened new possibilities for storing electrical energy. Technological and efficiency advances enable additional ways for battery storage systems to be deployed from small- to large-scale operations.

For instance, batteries can play a critical role in shifting peak energy usage times and operating a smart grid. Instead of purchasing energy during peak periods, a commercial operation could purchase cheaper energy during off-peak hours and store it for use later, potentially during peak times.

Battery energy storage systems have opened new possibilities for storing electrical energy.

Another important development has been the emergence of distributed generation models.

Traditionally, power needed to be generated at large power stations, often far away from the loads they were built to serve. High voltage transmission lines brought power from generators to loads, traversing vast distances that inherently resulted in more electrical power loss.

This centralized distribution system was effective (and is still used today) because the economy of scale. Generating huge amounts of energy in fewer locations has been comparatively cost-effective. But the energy landscape is changing. New technologies and decentralized distribution models are playing increasingly important roles in reliably generating power near the point of use and effectively delivering it throughout power networks.

Most renewable and fueled power sources are suitable for distributed generation, and can now be cost-effective at smaller scales when they are connected directly to the distribution grid at low voltage levels; you don’t need high-voltage stations and lines, and you don’t need to cover such large distances to get to the grid. The electricity generated at this grid distribution level can be sourced from a small-scale energy producer-and-user who sells their excess electricity back to the grid, or through facilities selling electricity back to the grid in a contracted-to-sell arrangement.

Renewable energy is becoming a more cost-effective and even cost-competitive segment of our energy mix, but the shift toward green power will rely upon intelligent investment, strategic deployment and perhaps most critically of all, smart technologies.

Schematic of a distributed generation grid (left) and traditional generation grid (right)

Optimizing power generation

With the rapid evolution of smart technology, it has become much easier to keep a close eye on how much energy is lost during distribution, and begin to optimize generation for use.

Leaders in the power generation space are shifting toward smarter, connected technologies and power grids that track key data points for optimization — relying on pragmatic metrics like levelized cost of energy (LCOE) and lifecycle analysis of energy projects.

Any technology that’s connected, whether it’s a smartphone or a smart grid, helps us to measure and optimize our behaviours and daily practices, and it’s no different with energy. As power business models of large-scale generation shift instead toward distributed generation, we are seeing more renewable energy sources like solar power, even in remote locations with minimal pre-existing infrastructure (the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one notable example). A remote solar grid allows for more local, distributed generation and minimizes power loss while maximizing efficiency.

This is a relatively new concept. Instead of just pushing energy and accepting that we will lose some of it along the way, we are now beginning to examine just how much energy we are losing, where and how, and becoming more efficient. To manage cases like these, the client will need a grid or microgrid control solution that include automation and can link all of its usable data with a customizable user interface.

Smart generation, smarter grids

Smart solutions for power generation are about a combination of digitization, adopting analytics, and being able to see and manage the grid both from the generation side to the load, and from the load to the generation side. This is particularly crucial when it comes to energy sharing and ramping up renewable power sources.

In Canada, many utilities and local governments are looking closely at opportunities to add batteries and microgrids to their energy mix, and this can be particularly useful in remote locations.

Like most smart solutions, smart grids will vary greatly from one utility or one project to another. For example, a small, remote microgrid running up north primarily on diesel will require different solutions (such as a focus on shifting diesel consumption) than the grid for a large urban centre. There are functionalities that can gauge cost parameters, and only use the diesel when the cost is lower. Smart functionalities like these are key to take full advantage of the asset and provide better return on investment for communities — but also make sure that we’re using resources efficiently.

Another Canadian example is the microgrid project in Lac-Megantic, which is the first microgrid in the province of Quebec. WSP is a project partner with Hydro Quebec, which implement on its distribution network a solar power grid feeding into battery storage and controllers that can pick up the power load from about 30 buildings. This project has very different needs and requirements than a remote diesel grid, such as a control system that will make it possible to isolate the microgrid from Hydro-Québec’s main grid so that it operates independently.

The federal government alone plans to invest up to $100 million in smart grid projects over a four-year period.

A holistic approach

A smart grid is never a one-size-fits-all solution, and utilities must often work with consultants to develop a far-sighted, holistic approach. There must be a thorough understanding of needs, efficiencies, costs and risks over the long term, in order to deliver a project that’s efficient and sustainable. It’s also important to work with industry experts who can understand and navigate the extensive funding opportunities available for green power and smart grid investment. The federal government alone plans to invest up to $100 million in smart grid projects over a four-year period.

Developing a successful smart grid also requires a level of control and granularity to maintain smooth operations and to collect, measure and manage the right data. There’s no need to gather 10,000 data points in a data monitoring system like SCADA if you only end up working with 10 of them. An efficient smart grid project is essentially about data management and data understanding — and that starts right when you’re deciding which data to collect.

Ultimately, the ability to measure, control and optimize the amount of power we generate and use has incredible potential in bridging the shift toward more renewable energy sources, minimizing emissions, and cutting out waste. Innovative solutions in smart energy are a critical piece in creating a more sustainable power network — and a more sustainable world.


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