Saturday, August 05, 2017

Energy Efficiency Advisory Panel

A few months back, the Energy Efficiency Advisory Panel in Alberta asked people to speak to their concerns, vision and priorities for Alberta energy initiatives going forward.

This was my submission:

The best way for me to address this issue is to highlight for me, what seem to be the areas we seem to be falling short, or falling behind, in the various areas of energy efficiency.

I start with awareness. Although I’ve been following green anything for at least a decade with excitement, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who aren’t aware of the technology advances and strides made in the last few years. Or how many people have bought into the myths about sustainability that have been debunked, but the masses still buy into them. If I had access to the financial resources, I would travel the globe and produce evidence to Albertans (and really, why stop there?) of the myriad ways other jurisdictions have moved far beyond us in becoming more efficient and sustainable.

Next up are the utilities, the energy providers. I remember when they said to Albertans, “We can’t rely on more than 15% of renewable connected to the grid.” This was the most short-sighted and now completely false statement a utility can make, and does nothing to promote the idea of efficiency and sustainability. On 8 May 2016, on a particularly sunny and windy day, 95% of the 57.8 gigawatts of electricity that Germany was using was being produced by renewable energy. Solar power produced 45.2%, wind 36%, biomass 8.9% and hydro 4.8% of the total. Power prices actually went negative for several hours.

There are several islands around the world that have begun phasing out their reliance on fossil fuels by leveraging wind power on the island ridges to not only feed the grid, but the surplus is used to pump sea water to higher altitude reservoirs, which, once the wind stops, become instant hydro-electric plants as the water is allowed to fall back into the ocean.
Europe has found a way to store energy as cold. Cold storage warehouses are allowed to continue dropping in temperature, powered by wind, which blows all night, but has no typical demand use on the grid. This can allow the cooling system to be turned off first thing in the morning, allowing power they would have used to be used by the rest of the grid while the warehouse slowly rises back to the nominal temperature.

Many solar installations have been designed with the ability to store energy as heat, which depending on the solution used and the storage method, can keep the energy trapped for later use from hours to months.

In an example of how we already have the means of storing energy for when it is needed, Vermont’ electrical utilities will make it cheaper to install solar panels and storage batteries on the condition that when the grid can’t quite match momentary demand, the grid can draw some power from the collective capacity of everyone’s home battery.
I am not witnessing any motivation by local utilities to move people toward installing renewable energy and it is my understanding that consumers need permission to do these installations. In worse case scenarios like in some US states, consumers are actually charged a fee if they decide to produce any of their own energy. I recall our own utilities complain that we’re putting too much pressure on our grid, but they seem less than apathetic toward the decentralization of power generation via community generation and storage.

Then we get to the efficiency of the energy users themselves. We consume a lot of energy to heat our homes, yet other jurisdictions have proven on a mass scale that zero energy homes are not only attainable, but not much of a premium over status quo construction methods and materials. When a home can either produce more energy than it uses, or at the very least be able to maintain comfort using one small heater, I’m baffled why new developments aren’t all building these kinds of homes. That’s not to suggest that there are no green developments being built here. But shouldn’t they be the norm, rather than the exception?

Finally, I think it’s going to take some brave new ideas to leverage what we have a lot of to help deal with what we are lacking. For example, we should be converting farms in southern Alberta (and elsewhere). Right now, they're big, there's not enough water to go around (which will likely get worse over time), and crops are always at risk of hail damage. Our growing season is short. But one thing we have in abundance, is sunshine. Even in winter.

Farms in southern Alberta should build giant solar arrays. These arrays could generate electricity, some of which could be sold to the grid. I think an even better option is to build some of the array of the type that generates heat. The heat would be stored underground. I would go for solar arrays covering 50-66% of the original arable land. But first, remove the remaining topsoil and put it aside.

On the remaining property, build greenhouses, with material that can withstand hail. Fill those greenhouses with the topsoil. Then heat and light the greenhouses whenever heat and light are lacking, powered by the electrical array and all that heat energy you stored all summer long. Greenhouses would help conserve water too, because there's less surface area to cover, and the evaporating water used to irrigate the indoor crops doesn't escape much to the outside. It becomes part of the internal ecosystem.

This idea is smart not only because of the growing impracticality of farming in our ever dryer Alberta environment, but it allows us to grow stuff we would normally depend on places like California and BC to provide. This saves on transportation costs and protects us from currency fluctuations. It also leverages the one thing we have in even more abundance than oil and gas. Sunshine.
There is so much more to discuss, but I think this is a good start.

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