Smart grid needed for green power
The Toronto Star: Tyler Hamilton - February 18, 2008
The province's power authority has agreed to buy electricity from 262 newly built or proposed renewable energy projects that together will add more than 1,000 megawatts of capacity to the Ontario grid.
A lion's share of this energy will come from wind and solar farms taking part in the province's standard offer program, which pays a premium for electricity that comes from renewable projects up to 10 megawatts in size.
Just last month, according to a monthly update from the Ontario Power Authority, six proposed solar farms and three wind farms were added to the program. More than 150 solar projects alone now account for 316 megawatts - an impressive number, given that it's more than three times what the power authority expects will be built over the next decade or so.
This tally excludes the much larger wind farms that are already in operation across the province, and the many proposed projects underway and to come as the province prepares to issue its next round of renewable-requests-for proposal.
Momentum is building for renewable power in Ontario, but there's one thing that could hold us back: the grid.
We need to connect all of these projects into Ontario's electricity system, and while there's been much talk of generating cleaner power, there's hardly been any mention of how we plan to modernize the grid - transmission and distribution - so that we can accommodate as much renewable energy as possible.
"It's an area that, relatively speaking, has been underestimated in any talk of renewables," says Revis James, an expert in new energy technologies at the U. S. Electric Power Research Institute, which considers investment in so-called smart grid infrastructure a top priority.
A vision of how we want the Ontario grid to operate over the coming decades is sorely lacking, adds energy consultant Marion Fraser, president of Fraser & Co. in Toronto and former senior adviser to the minister of energy.
The Ontario grid, traditionally composed of big nuclear, fossil fuel and hydroelectric plants, wasn't built to accommodate hundreds, potentially thousands of smaller power plants - ranging from individual solar rooftops to multi-megawatt wind farms.
Managing the power coming from a dozen or so massive plants is relatively easy compared to a "distributed generation" model that essentially involves thousands of mini power plants contributing electricity to the grid at different times of the day.
"Any kind of distributed energy needs some kind of connectivity and two-way
communications, and this whole thing should have been a piece of the IPSP," she says, referring to the province's integrated power system plan - a 20-year roadmap of how we see the Ontario electricity system evolving.
She said the plan only addresses "bare-bones infrastructure," such as the towers and wires needed to carry more power, from say, nuclear facilities in the northwest or hydroelectric facilities in Quebec. There's no mention of "smart grid," and no specific talk about designing the grid to accommodate and manage the introduction of more renewables.
Now, some of you might ask an obvious question: What about smart meters? Ontario, after all, is the North American leader in the deployment of smart meter technology.
But smart meters are only part of a smart grid. They allow utilities to introduce time-of-use pricing, and offer a clearer picture of how electricity in an individual building or residence is being used, and when. As part of the grid, smart meters bring intelligence to the edges.
"But the truth is, in order to have an intelligent, self-healing grid you need to automate the core infrastructure itself," says Marzio Pozzuoli, president and chief executive of Markham-based RuggedCom Inc., a maker of two- way communications gear for the electricity market.
"We focus on automating substations. It's not as sexy, but it's an integral part," adds Pozzuoli.
"If you look at the grid, it's like a big elephant. There's a trunk, ears, legs. The key thing is, whatever you want to do, whether it's demand-response or smart meters, at some point you have to have a grid that's intelligent and responds. In order to do that you have to have the right communications in the grid."
The good news, if you can call it that, is that the North American grid is composed of equipment installed in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. It's in rough shape. Desperate to maintain system reliability, utilities have no choice but to spend money on upgrading their grid infrastructure. And as they do, they're inadvertently adding smarts to the grid.
It might not be part of a visionary plan, but it's happening incrementally by default, says Pozzuoli. It's why RuggedCom saw its revenue jump 55 per cent and profit more than double in its last quarter.
Still, compared to China and Europe, most of North America, including Ontario, is dithering when it comes to the smart grid. That's because we don't have a vision, and where there's no vision, there's nothing clear to aim for.
Next month in Toronto, industry officials will gather at a conference dedicated to smart grid issues. Perhaps this will be a good time to create a roadmap that will bring our grid into the 21st century.
We need to think of the grid as an enabler of cleaner power generation, not simply as dumb wires and towers that connect a bunch of watt-producing dots.
Tyler Hamilton's Clean Break appears Mondays. You may email him at thamilt @ thestar.ca