Ontario throws millions behind 13 smart grid projects, including Enbala Power’s “process storage” initiative
It’s taken longer than expected, but the McGuinty government has finally given a much-needed financial boost to some important smart grid initiatives in the province.
The money is coming from a new Smart Grid Fund announced in the 2009 budget, which allocated $50 million to support the demonstration of new technologies that make the power grid more intelligent, efficient and robust.
The fund wasn’t formally launched until spring 2011, and at the time there was an expectation that money would start flowing by August of that year.
That date came and went. It was only this week that the first 13 projects were announced under the umbrella of the fund, representing half of the originally committed $50 million. Whether the full amount will be awarded remains an open question, but at least the ball is finally rolling.
In all, about 740 jobs are expected to be created from the 13 projects, which touch on a range of technology areas including in-building energy management, grid automation, energy data analytics, and virtual power delivery.
Toronto’s Ecobee, for example, will be installing its intelligent in-office displays in 300 buildings to show how its web-based energy management system can help businesses reduce energy use and costs.
Energate of Ottawa is getting $2.9 million to demonstrate how its own in-home displays can interact with smart meters to help grid operators run the system more efficiently.
Some big industry names, such as Siemens, IBM and GE, are also dipping into the fund. GE is getting $7.9 million that will go toward its new $40-million Grid IQ research collaboration centre in Markham. The company will collect and analyze Ontario’s smart meter data – really, massive amounts of information—to figure out ways to boost energy conservation and shift more electricity use to off-peak times.
That initiative alone is expected to create 370 jobs.
One of the more interesting projects is being led by Toronto-based Enbala Power Networks, which is receiving $1.8 million to demonstrate the potential of what it calls “process storage.”
The idea is that there are “loads” on the system – major pieces of equipment like pumps, compressors, fans, etc. – that don’t necessarily have to operate under a rigid schedule or always at full power.
Enbala’s secret sauce is software that can tap into and control these loads. Simple enough, right?
In many ways, it’s kind of like the demand-response services that kick into effect when the grid is stressed. For example, on two hours of notice companies such as EnerNOC can reduce large blocks of energy consumptions for several hours on those occasional days in the summer when power use is unusually high and straining the system.
The difference with Enbala – and it’s a major distinction – is that it acts faster and is working all the time, not just on hot summer days. It can control power demands on the grid on a minute-by-minute basis, making it unique in its ability to provide what’s called a “regulatory” service.
Regulation is the ability to constantly keep supply and demand on the grid in balance. Demand is constantly changing. Supply, with the addition of wind power, is also increasingly a moving target.
Currently, many of Ontario’s hydroelectric facilities and natural gas plants are used to achieve that sensitive balance. When demand suddenly drops (or the wind picks up in some regions) grid operators can rapidly turn down hydro or gas supply. When demand suddenly increases (or the wind dies down), supply can quickly be ramped up.
Enbala flips this model on its head. Instead of regulating the grid by controlling supply, it focuses on controlling the equipment that creates the demand. By being able to control hundreds – even thousands – of loads across the network, it brings a potentially low-cost to way to keep the system in balance.
That’s what the smart grid is all about, and it becomes more important as the portion of wind energy on the electricity system grows.
“That flexibility of large loads is what we’re essentially capturing,” said Ron Dizy, chief executive of Enbala. “There’s a bunch of flexibility in the minute timescale on our grid right now that’s being wasted.”
Dizy figured there is between 500 and 1,000 megawatts of potential process storage to tap into, which in a way represent a virtual power plant for the province.
The funding for Enbala’s project will go toward connecting 90 different commercial and industrial loads to its network. “We don’t have them all signed up yet, but we just started and already have about 10,” Dizy said. “The 90 goal is what we hope to get by the end of the project, and I think we’ll easily get that.”
Water and wastewater treatment plants, which operate huge pumps, are ideal candidates. So are universities, hospitals, cold-storage facilities and district cooling operations, such as Enwave.
“The supply side, that’s largely a done deal in this province,” added Dizy. “But on the demand side, there’s this huge opportunity. It’s a great story to tell, and we’re beating the world with a lot of this stuff.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.
Tyler Hamilton is a business columnist for the Toronto Star, Canada's largest daily newspaper. In addition to this Clean Break blog, Tyler writes a weekly column of the same name that discusses trends, happenings and innovators in the clean technology and green energy market. This blog is a personal project started in April 2005. It is not an official blog of the newspaper.
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