The reconfigured grid in a low-carbon energy future

April 1, 2013 With capacity factors as high as 30 to 50 per cent in some parts of the country,wind’s contribution to meeting Canada’s energy needs in 2050 is not constrained by the size of the resource. (Credit: Ole Houen via Foter.com)
With capacity factors as high as 30 to 50 per cent in some parts of the country,wind’s contribution to meeting Canada’s energy needs in 2050 is not constrained by the size of the resource. (Credit: Ole Houen via Foter.com)

By Ralph Torrie

The Trottier Energy Futures Project’s Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canada shows that our supplies of sustainable, low-carbon energy will be more than enough to meet our needs through 2050.

But one of the biggest questions is how to get that energy from there to here.

As the TEFP team worked on the first-ever comprehensive inventory of the country’s sustainable energy resources, we realized we had to rein in the raw numbers. With insolation of 130 watts per square metre through much of southern Canada, the solar resource alone exceeds all our foreseeable energy demand. With capacity factors as high as 30 to 50 per cent in some parts of the country, wind’s contribution to meeting Canada’s energy needs in 2050 is not constrained by the size of the resource.

Even wave power could theoretically exceed the country’s total energy demand.

All of this is good news, possibly even great news. But it doesn’t tell us very much about what a 2050 energy system might look like.

From supply sources to system

One of the most important takeaways from the Inventory is the need for an integrated energy system that combines individual technologies to deliver affordable, reliable, sustainable energy services. With the electrification of space heat, personal transportation and some industrial processes that prevail in many low-carbon energy scenarios, a decarbonized grid will depend much more heavily on a larger number of smaller, distributed sources.

Until recently, energy analysts believed electric power systems could only draw about 20 per cent of their total supply from distributed sources without compromising reliability, not to mention affordability. But the Inventory captured two recent developments that will transform future energy systems:

  • Renewable electricity costs, particularly for wind and solar photovoltaics, have been plummeting, making affordable, low-carbon electricity a realistic prospect.
  • The 2012 Renewable Electricity Futures Study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL) showed that “non-dispatchable” renewables—solar and wind resources that can’t be turned on and off to match fluctuating system demand—can supply up to 50 per cent of U.S. electricity needs by 2050.

Building the smart grid

With raw resources that are practically limitless, Canada’s use of solar and wind will still be constrained by our ability to integrate them into the daily operation of the grid. In an energy-efficient, low-carbon Canada, with total electricity demand of 600 TWh (a terawatt-hour is a billion kilowatt-hours) and non-dispatchable renewables limited to 50 per cent of that total, solar and wind could each supply 150 TWh without approaching their technical potential.

But today’s electricity grid, an antiquated system designed to serve a more limited network of larger, centralized supply sources, is not the high-tech web that will hold a low-carbon energy system together. The “smart” electricity grid of the future will use information technologies to balance a wider range of supply sources, energy storage, interprovincial transfers of electricity, and a wide variety of energy management and efficiency tools.

That grid will combine:

  • Dispatchable and non-dispatchable generation
  • Conventional renewable and non-renewable generation
  • Energy storage
  • Inter-grid transfers
  • Responsive demand
  • A transmission and distribution infrastructure that supports a high degree of connectivity and multi-directional flows of energy and information.

A low-carbon energy transition will call for significant capital investments in storage, transmission infrastructure and the backup capacity required to ensure the continuous, reliable electricity supply that Canadians need and take for granted. But this is actually an ideal moment to invest in the future electricity grid: the existing one is due for an overhaul, so a smart grid strategy could mean redirecting some of those investments with a reconfigured system in mind.

As with so many other elements of low-carbon energy futures, the economic gains and job creation flowing from smart grid investment may show up in unexpected places. Keynote speakers at utility conferences these days are as likely to be from Google or IBM as from Edison or Westinghouse. At one recent public forum, we heard the suggestion that IT infrastructure specialists who lost their jobs after the dot.com bust might find a new home—and fascinating new challenges—in smart grid development. Best of all, with the right commitment of policy and capital, the amount of work to be done between now and 2050 makes it very unlikely that those jobs will go away.

Download a copy of An Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canada.

Ralph Torrie is known for combining visionary thinking with rigorous analysis and has made original and important contributions in the field of sustainable development. He was the assistant coordinator of the Energy Research Group of the United Nations University and the International Development Research Centre, and went on to establish and run his own consulting firm. He pioneered the methods and conventions that are now used throughout the world in local greenhouse gas quantification and analysis. He is the co-inventor of environmental planning software that has been translated into several languages for use in more than 300 municipalities, companies and institutions on five continents. He has a lifelong interest in sustainable energy futures and produced the first low-carbon scenario analysis for Canada. He assembled and led the team that carried out the strategic policy analysis for greenhouse gas emission reduction for numerous public sector clients, including the States of California, Hawaii, Wisconsin, and Illinois, the governments of Canada and Ontario, the Western Climate Initiative, as well as a number of local governments including the County of San Bernardino and the City of Toronto. He is a recipient of the Canadian Environment Silver Award for his work on climate change response strategies.

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