One of two 60/30 ‘Heat PlusPower’ systems installed at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Campus Centre in Calgary, Alberta. Mariah Energy developed and manufactured the two systems and also owns and maintains them. The gas-fuelled systems run parallel to the grid
Eastern Canada has been faced with a number of challenges that has brought the electricity infrastructure under the spotlight. In January 1998, an ice storm in Eastern Canada destroyed several thousand kilometres of power lines. Over 1000 transmission towers fell, including 130 major structures worth CAN$100,000 (US$75,000) each. More than 30,000 wooden utility poles also came down. At the height of the storm, close to 1.4 million customers in Quebec and over 230,000 in Ontario were left without electricity for several weeks. Since this was a freak occurrence, no blame can be put on the utilities. However, residents became shockingly aware of their reliance on a centralized power infrastructure that moves electricity over great distances. At the same time, buildings with back-up generators and other sources of on-site generation were reaping the benefits of an alternative power supply.
Less than six years later, in August 2003, large portions of the Midwest and Northeast United States and Ontario experienced a power blackout. The outage affected an area with an estimated 50 million people and 61,800 MW of electric load. Power was not restored for two days in some parts of the US, while parts of Ontario suffered rolling blackouts for more than a week before full power was restored.
In its recommendations to the US-Canada Power System Outage Task Force 2003, Canada’s Energy Probe stated that the proximate causes of the blackout were ‘a series of routine failures that demonstrated the vulnerability of the power system – vulnerability due primarily to its design’. Energy Probe’s recommendation was to plan for a paradigm shift to a more decentralized power system with a modular design that is less reliant on large power flows across great distances. An analogy was drawn between a decentralized power grid and the web-like structure of the internet.
The transition towards an electricity/hydrogen future
It may be that we need to achieve a new energy economy based on electricity and hydrogen well before the end of the 21st century. However, in the meantime we need to make better and more efficient use of existing fossil resources – a process which Ake Almgren terms ‘energy endurance’. Here, he discusses the elements of energy endurance, focusing on distributed energy, CHP and renewables.
As consumers, we want safe, reliable, affordable and clean energy. We want energy with all these attributes at the same time, now and tomorrow, but we are reluctant to trade any of the attributes. For example, in spite of occasional reminders in terms of power blackouts and price spikes at the gas pumps, we do not want to trade reliability against affordability. We have come to take the availability of energy, not least electrical power and fuel for vehicles, more or less for granted.
The 20th century started as a coal and steam-based economy and was transformed into an oil- and electricity-based one. Recognizing that oil reserves may be depleted in 50 years and also recognizing increased environmental concerns, not least about global warming, there is a vision to reach an electricity- and hydrogen-based economy well before the end of the 21st century.
Achieving such a vision will be very challenging and will take a substantial period of time. Hydrogen is not freely available but must be produced. Presently, most hydrogen is produced from oil and natural gas by cracking the hydrocarbon molecules. However, this is not a consistent or long-term solution. If oil and natural gas are the scarce resources to be replaced by hydrogen, why lose energy in the conversion to hydrogen? More logical with the intent of the vision is to produce hydrogen by electrolysis, that is, splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. The ‘only’ problem is that electrolysis will require access to inexpensive and clean electricity! Potentially there may be a third way to produce hydrogen using biological processes, but it is too early to tell if and when this may be a viable approach.