Energy self-sufficiency for New Brunswick, Part Two: a smart grid based on renewables

Published Tuesday, August 4, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

How can NB become completely self-sufficient in energy?  A culture of efficiency – where efficiency, resourcefulness and waste reduction become second nature to us all – would be a good start.  But what next?  

Smart grid

A modern, stable power grid is core to energy self-sufficiency.  Internationally, ‘smart grid’ technologies are being developed and implemented so more renewable energy – particularly from intermittent sources like solar and wind – can be accommodated and demand peaks and valleys can be better managed.  NB Power is now in the midst of a smart grid demonstration project and that’s a great start; a full, province-wide smart grid needs to be a top priority.  It’s the foundation.

Renewables

Then, as that smart grid comes together, we’d do well to invest in as much new renewable energy as possible, as quickly as possible, so we can permanently turn off our fossil fuel-fired power plants.  More wind and solar are obvious starting points: they are largely proven technologies, and their costs continue to drop.  (US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton last week announced an audacious goal of 500 million solar panels installed within four years, and enough renewables to power every American home within 10 years; why not aim high here too?) 

We also shouldn’t ignore the potential of:

  • Tidal power: we’ve got a huge resource right on our doorstep, and tides flow like clockwork.  Testing is underway in the Minas Channel off Parrsboro and elsewhere; we should be monitor progress and be ready to scale up successful designs quickly. 
  • Wave power: prototypes have existed for years, but research has accelerated recently and several new grid-tied designs are now in the sea testing stage.  Significant potential for a province with wavy water on three sides.  
  • Small or micro hydro: where a portion of the flow of small waterways is directed through a pipe down to a turbine; no dam required.  Every waterway has potential.
  • Geothermal energy: NB isn’t in the ‘ring of fire’ that encircles the Pacific Ocean, but we aren’t without potential.  Ironically, the sedimentary ‘caprock’ that holds oil and gas deposits underground also retains heat – often, enough heat to generate electricity.  Our geothermal resources are not enormous, but they could power a network of small, localized generating stations.  Like other renewables, most costs lie in design and construction; the energy is free.

The key: power storage

Effective storage of electricity is critical to a stable, reliable non-fossil fuel grid, to balance intermittent production with varying demand.  Much work is being done on batteries, compressed air storage, flywheels and other technologies.

However, the simplest ‘battery’ is actually water held in reserve behind a dam, ready to turn turbines whenever needed.  NB’s hydro dams can be the backbone of our future power grid based on renewables, but they don’t have much reserve.  So our future grid of renewables will likely need a few big wires connecting us to neighbouring jurisdictions like Quebec or Newfoundland that do have hydro with reserves, so we can trade energy back and forth as needed.  

Price signals

Our grid is most stable and efficient when power demand is continuously steady.  Toward this goal, many jurisdictions are implementing time-of-day pricing.  That’s where power rates are higher at peak periods and lower in off-peak periods to better reflect the true cost of supplying electricity at those times.  We’d do well to consider such a policy here once we’ve got the proper power meters in place, to give all consumers a financial incentive to lower the daily peaks and fill in the valleys.  Hello, programmable thermostats, water heaters and appliances.  Hello, educated and energy-aware consumers.

So far, efficiency and a smart grid.  What about heating, transportation and how to finance our transformation to energy self sufficiency?  That’s next.