Smart Microgrids May Be The Answer To Our Electricity Woes

May 1, 2017

Picture your future neighbourhood. Electricity is provided to homes and businesses by a series of local solar installations, and a biogas plant or two which uses organic waste, like food scraps, to produce power. Battery-operated storage facilities or flywheel systems ensure that the electricity is readily available. Electric vehicle charging stations are sprinkled throughout the commercial parking lots and most homes are equipped with one powered by their own solar panels. If the area is surrounded by farmland which sustains the nearby residents, perhaps wind turbines share this land, generating power to supply the farms and factories. As geography permits, run of the river hydroelectric plants and geothermal stations add to this mix of clean energy. This small grid is managed electronically to ensure that power is being supplied when and where it is needed and stored for later use. The system does not rely on long-distance transmission, and is compact, efficient and affordable. The good news is that this technology is here. The not-so-good news is that it will take time for us to break free from centralized energy systems, decommission the large generation plants, and embrace small-scale generation.

These smaller-scale local electricity systems are called microgrids and are particularly beneficial because they are more resilient and effective than centralized generation and long-distance transmission. Smart grids offer more sophisticated controls and dispatch of generating assets, demand, and storage. The two together could be considered the perfect marriage.

Currently, Ontario has a handful of major electricity generating stations scattered throughout the province. These include the Bruce, Darlington, and Nuclear Generating Stations, 30 or so fossil fuel plants, a number of hydro generators, and some renewable facilities producing biogas, solar, and wind electricity. Ontario is large, and this means we spend slot of money moving electricity around from where it is produced to where it is required.

According to the Conference Board of Canada we have to spend $98.1 billion in transmission and distribution infrastructure by 2030 (PDF). There is a way to lower these costs in the long term: generate the electricity where the demand is.

Ontario currently has a Smart Grid Fund, which is being used to explore initiatives like the integration of distributed renewable energy resources, electricity storage, and generally strengthening the reliability of the system. Smart grid technology can manage complex systems, allowing solar to save the day when air conditioners are running full tilt and saving excess power for the night. Smart grids will let the wind manage the load during windy days, and ensure biogas is on call when the wind dies down. It will help people and businesses conserve energy and allow the province to wean itself off of non-renewables. And when this technology is applied to micro-grids, the system becomes that much easier to control.

Some Ontario utilities have launched pilot projects to test and explore smart microgrid technology, and examine how distributed energy resources can provide for a more stable and better-managed grid that can easily integrate and eventually operate solely on renewables. The newly formed Alectra Utilities, which is made up of the former Powerstream, Horizon, Enersource and Hydro One Brampton, commissioned a microgrid that will power 400 Penetanguishene residents while Veridian is pursuing microgrids in Ajax and Pickering. Babcock Ranch in Florida was conceptualized as a microgrid from the start and touts itself as the world’s first solar-powered town.

Most of Canada’s remote communities are already microgrids, however they generally run on diesel fuel that must be transported in. Managing diesel consumption and integrating renewables into the mix has been challenging, but introducing smart technology to these locations can take the guesswork out and result in a cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient system.

Add community-owned power into the mix and the results are even more incredible. Small generators and infrastructure owned by community members means people take power back into their own hands and profits and jobs stay local. The onboarding of smart grids means electricity is used efficiently and saved for a rainy day. Perhaps it is time to go smart, community-owned, and micro.