According to a recent report from the National Energy Board, Canada is now the world’s fourth-largest generator of renewable energy. Hydropower represents 55 per cent of our electricity capacity; between 2005 and 2015, wind power capacity increased by 20 times and solar by 125 times. But renewable sources still make up a distressingly small portion of the world’s total energy use, less than four per cent, and around 80 per cent still comes from carbon-intensive sources such as oil, gas and coal. Here in Canada, wind, solar and biomass power makes up just 11 per cent of total capacity.
“There is a perception that we’re becoming greener and greener, but the pace is still very slow,” says Martin Ordonez, the Canada Research Chair in Power Converters for Renewable Energy Systems at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “With climate change, the damage is clear. It’s important for the public to know where we are and what needs to happen – there are many opportunities to speed the pace and improve these numbers,” he stresses.
This potential is being demonstrated daily at UBC’s campus, through an initiative called the Living Lab. With a population of 60,000, UBC is similar to many small cities, with population growth, energy constraints and transportation and waste issues. “We’re well positioned to work on technical challenges: we control planning, services and how energy is used on campus. We bring together students, management, industry, entrepreneurs and professionals that do research, and we have this ecosystem in which to do experimentation and demonstration,” Dr. Ordonez explains.
As a result, UBC met its 2007 commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent below 2007 levels in 2015 and is on track for a reduction of 66 per cent by 2020.
While that is a meaningful accomplishment in its own right, it also demonstrates the potential impact of wider-scale implementation of the technologies that made it possible. For example, one flagship project may change the importance of the grid itself, currently considered a primary barrier to widespread adoption of renewables.
“The electric grid is old, alternating current (AC) technology. Most computer servers, telecomm equipment, electric vehicles, lights and elevators use direct current (DC). Solar, battery and wind power are generally native DC, so – rather than converting power to AC and then back to DC – we’re using it directly,” he says.
The program’s success has reinforced his view that the future of electrification and transportation is direct current, making it possible to simply bypass the restrictions of today’s outdated grid, Dr. Ordonez adds.
While the development and testing of the initial prototypes of these technologies can only happen at a comprehensive research university such as UBC, these living experiments are just the first step. “Universities have long-term planning that makes it possible to move fast. Within UBC and other university campuses, massive adoption of renewables should happen within the next three to five years, and we have the technical expertise to monitor impact. Once we have some operational experience with solar panels and DC distribution, and maturity with the technology, a logical adopter would be the City of Vancouver, with 500 buildings, for example. And the next step is community-distributed generation in neighbourhoods.”
The challenges of climate change and a sustainable economy will not be met at the utility scale, says Dr. Ordonez. “It has to happen at the building level, at the neighbourhood level, with tangible advantages for users.”
UBC is also equipping students with the skills and expertise needed for the transition ahead. “It is very clear that we need a large workforce of highly qualified professionals to act on these opportunities – the next generation of power and energy technology workers and innovators. Part of our mission is delivering programs that provide this training and accelerate change, such as the Master of Engineering Leadership program.”