Ontario’s energy system: More than the sum of its parts

November 5, 2012

Ontario Centres of Excellence hosted a Smart Energy Networks event in Toronto, bringing together 70 Ontario energy leaders to explore the benefits associated with integrating gas and electricity networks.

In a bid to create an energy system that optimizes the use of the existing energy infrastructure, Ontario energy leaders have come together to explore the benefits associated with integrating gas and electricity networks. 

Ontario has long shown itself to be a leader in smart grids for improving the electricity system. There is now growing recognition of the need to think holistically about the entire energy system in promoting flexible, cost-effective and diversified alternative energy supplies.  

Led by Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), the Toronto event Smart Energy Networks attracted about 70 senior officials from the natural gas and electricity sectors including representation from Hydro One Networks, Toronto Hydro Electric System, AECL, Cleanfield Energy, Energy Technology Innovation Canada, Enbridge, Union Gas and Hydrogenics. Also represented were Alberta Innovates Technology Futures and academic researchers from University of Waterloo, Ryerson and McMaster Universities and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Under growing concern in recent decades about the environment and the depletion of environmental fossil fuels, there have been significant breakthroughs in the generation of solar and wind power as well as other forms of renewable energy. The impediment — or what some refer to as “the holy grail” of renewable energy — is the inability to store it for any length of time. Gaining access to energy when it’s needed — not just when the wind blows or when the sun shines — depends on creating an energy system that can both incorporate and store energy from renewable sources and store surplus generation from nuclear sources when demand is low at night.

“We are not in a position to build new infrastructure given the daunting costs involved, but we need a new model that optimizes the systems that we already have,” says Carole Champion, OCE’s Sector Lead for Energy and Environment and host of the collaborative event.  

Attendees discussed challenges facing the electricity system, electrical energy storage options, the role of gas pipelines in smart energy networks and the logistics and advantages associated with integrating natural gas pipelines with electricity grids. A move toward integration is seen to be especially advantageous at a time when the electricity industry is undergoing significant change as more sources of renewable energy are being brought online and Ontario coal plants are being shut down.  

David Teichroeb, from Alternative and Emerging Technology at Enbridge Inc., outlined how natural gas pipelines can contribute to a smart energy regime, providing unmatched flexibility and scale with respect to both transportation and storage, including season to season storage. This involves using surplus electricity generated overnight by wind turbines and at nuclear facilities to power electrolysers that produce hydrogen that can be injected into the pipelines to natural gas plants or converted back to the electricity grid to be distributed when and where needed. Small quantities of hydrogen have little effect on the pipeline system and gas appliances, but could provide days or months of electricity storage.

This could represent a major breakthrough in aligning energy supply and demand. As Champion points out, “we’ve now got a situation where we might have supply from a big wind or solar farm but the variation in generation can be huge. When there is a sudden change in generation something has to compensate for that, and the integration of gas and electricity grids can help with a cost-effective approach. We need to figure out how we make that happen.”

As part of the OCE-led event, Dr. Jatin Nathwani, Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy presented the University of Waterloo’s vision, as outlined in a recently released report, to transform energy delivery in Canada using smart energy networks (SENs) that connect electricity grids, natural gas pipelines, renewable energy resources and district heating networks into a single, integrated system.

“We’ve got to be able to look at the system and model the system as whole,” says Champion. “There is a need for something much different than what we already have.”