Lessons from Smart Grid Pilot in Canada Can Be Applied to New England

3/31/11

Recently I attended the Boston Smart Grid Forum, where some of the leading “smart grid” minds met to discuss the challenges and opportunities that currently exist. Ontario has been one of the investment leaders in smart grid technology, much of which is being developed through the University of Waterloo. There are a number of similarities between Ontario and the Boston-area energy ecosystem, as new technology developments come from close relationships between the universities and entrepreneurs to develop great technology in emerging markets. Here are some thoughts about the pilot programs currently running in Ontario and the opportunities that exist for similar programs in New England.

Through pilot programs and tests in communities in the Northeast U.S. and Canada, individual efficiency and renewable energy technologies continue to evolve, becoming more efficient and effective every day. Photovoltaic cells are getting more efficient, improving the value of solar panels. Wind turbines are transferring more energy from the blades to the electrical grid.

While significant investment has been focused in these areas, insufficient attention is being paid to the ways in which they can be operated to maximize the benefits across a broader “energy system.” For example, a lot of effort is being exerted in order to improve the efficiency of photovoltaic cells beyond the current levels. There is a big opportunity to increase the value of this existing technology if it were coupled with an energy storage technology so that energy could be stored now and discharged later, during peak demand times, reducing the strain on the overall system. In response to this need, the Province of Ontario, in conjunction with Energent, Hydro One, Ontario Power Authority, Milton Hydro, and the University of Waterloo, are developing the Energy Hub Management System (EHMS).

Energent has been working with utilities in Canada and the U.S. developing smart grid technology for consumers since 2007. In creating the backbone of EHMS, Energent has defined a “hub” as a single, static location, such as a home, manufacturing facility, farm, etc. The management system consists of three key elements. First, there are two-way controls on all energy-consuming and producing devices within the energy hub. These controls will have the capacity to record energy consumption/production, and to direct the operation of the individual device, such as a motor, compressor, or dishwasher.

The second element will be a central core module that consolidates the information from the devices, the external environment (weather, energy prices, etc.), and user-defined models to effectively manage energy.

Finally, the third element is a Web-based portal, which is the user-friendly interface between the energy hub’s managers and the core module technology. This information will also be available on mobile devices for the three major smartphone platforms. Using a local home network to connect the home to the grid, the EHMS provides an effective, integrated interface for both the energy consuming/producing devices within a single, static location. It will also receive, analyze, and act on system-wide information, not seen in most in-home technologies.

The transformational change that comes from this program is the opportunity for individual consumers, whether commercial, industrial, or residential, to participate and make an impact on the local energy market. No longer will energy management be only about reducing the amount of energy that is consumed. These consumers can become real players in the regional energy system and, as a group, will have a significant impact in the way energy is consumed, and, to a lesser amount, produced. It will also give consumers insight into the impact that their energy hub will have on greenhouse gas emissions and a carbon footprint, and have the opportunity to optimize their hub to match their goals of lowering energy cost, consumption, or reducing carbon footprint.

Smart grid pilot programs of various scope are being designed, or are under way, in nearly every New England state. Fueled in part by federal stimulus funding, these pilots are just beginning to engage customers in Boston, Hartford, and Portland. As a major pilot program is rolling out in Milton, Ontario, there are lessons to be learned that apply to New England. Three examples are highlighted below.

First, to improve the chances that these residential systems will be successful, the communication within the home network must be seamless and reliable, and then communication from the grid to the home must contain relevant information that can positively influence user decisions. Combining these types of information in an easy-to-read format, whether on a portal or other display options, is critical to making real changes. Massachusetts has an advantage, as compared to other regions, with its history of developing state-of-the-art technology in the wireless space. This has allowed the Boston area to move far ahead of other regions in the U.S.

Secondly, the partnership formed in Ontario to support this initiative is truly a private-public partnership. Massachusetts has a similar opportunity as the relationship between higher education, government, and the private sector provide great incentives to invest in new technology. Intellectual property developed by private organizations stays with those organizations to give sustainable value. The university connection provides opportunities for graduate students to conduct work in an emerging field, and transfer these skills to jobs after this program is complete.

Finally, the public utility companies and government organizations have leading-edge technology developed locally and designed to address challenges such as energy conservation, which are important to all residents. With access to higher education facilities in Massachusetts and progressive government incentives, New England has an opportunity to develop and capitalize on the smart grid movement. It is important to make the energy consumers players in the energy system and to provide incentives and rewards to change behavior. The technology must be user-friendly to improve the chance of adoption for all consumers, not just those on the leading edge. The technology must also be secure, and companies that understand the importance of data security will most likely gain public trust. The smart grid needs public and private sector engagement and collaboration to ensure widespread adoption among consumers.

Chris Reid is President and CEO of Energent, Inc. of Waterloo, Ontario. Follow @

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