PUTTING POWER IN CONSUMERS’ HANDS
From a centralized to a decentralized, integrated and 100 per cent sustainable energy system
Ontario households, like most households in western jurisdictions, are connected to what can be classified as a centralized power system — connected to a grid that transmits power from large, state-funded power-generation units, such as hydro dams, nuclear reactors and, until recently, coal-fired plants.
This system has powered our lives more or less reliably for decades, but with the downside that widespread participation and consumer choice have fallen by the wayside.
However, in recent years, through technological advancements and the improvement of renewable generation’s efficiency and availability, a shift has started to take place. Consumers can now actively participate in the generation of energy and can make choices on how they would like to power and heat their homes and businesses.
Countries like Germany and Denmark are leading the way when it comes to individual home owners and communities taking their energy supply into their own hands by putting solar panels on their roofs, developing wind parks, biogas and biomass facilities to power and heat their communities. This grassroots development is creating a very different, decentralized and more democratic energy system.
Not only does this change the way people think about their energy consumption, and the way it’s being generated, but it also causes a ripple effect in the established energy industries. These industries are finding themselves confronted with a paradigm shift, which is resulting in a loss of demand for their services and the energy that they generate in large centralized power plants.
A useful analogy is that of an electric power bar (centralized power) and the internet (decentralized). While the electric power bar provides power to appliances connected in a oneway communication (send and receive in an on and off fashion); the internet, is made up of various smaller connection points, where information flows in many directions and two-way communication is possible, allowing end-users to be both recipients and providers of information, i.e. electricity.
And while the focus is often just on electrical power generation, the future energy system is much more than that. In Canada, 60 per cent of our energy is needed for heating and cooling. Future energy system planning must therefore take a much more holistic and integrated approach, allowing technologies — such as Combined Heat and Power and district energy systems — to play a much more vital role.
Other technological advances in storage, electric vehicles and smart grid development will further accelerate this transition to a distributed energy system, allowing consumers to have more control of their own consumption and the price they pay.
In Ontario, where we are still far behind our European counterparts, we can now also see proof that this transition is starting to take shape. This is mainly due to the development of renewable energy projects and conservation first initiatives, under the Green Energy and Economy Act and its Feedin Tariff programs. These have allowed municipalities, individuals and communities to take their energy planning into their own hands.
You only need to look to a municipality like Brant County. Together with a local co-op, Sustainability Brant Community Energy Co-op, Brant Renewable Energy, a Division of Brant Municipal Enterprises, commissioned a 250 kW rooftop solar project on their largest sport complex in April of this year.
At the same time, another 250 kW rooftop solar system built by Brant Renewable Energy was commissioned. That project is jointly owned by BGI Retail a local business, the municipality and the Six Nations of the Grant River First Nation.
During the inauguration of these projects, Bruce Noble of Brant Municipal Enterprises said: “We are pleased to see these projects come online, and we look forward to commissioning similar projects in the coming months. Sustainable energy projects have many benefits; in particular, they provide revenue for the local municipality and First Nation community, they provide investment opportunities to the local citizens through the co-op and keep profits in the local community and finally they help us to build a clean and self-sufficient energy system for today’s and future generations.”
As is evident from Noble’s remarks, allowing individuals to participate in the energy system has several key advantages. For one, it reduces social friction, because it allows the community to make decisions around the resources available to the community, and how these resources should be utilized for the benefit of the community. Furthermore, it energizes the local economy by building capacity and creating sustainable jobs for members of the local community while enhancing society’s evolving green culture.
This is a trend that should be applauded, and attempts to hold or slow down this transition will not be fruitful in the long run.
In a society where technology allows the individual to control the way they receive their news and information, allowing them to make individual choices, decisions around where the electricity comes from that powers our appliances or how our homes get heated and cooled won’t be far behind.
Consumers are getting smarter and more educated around issues like climate change. Online tools and mobile device applications are increasingly allowing us to monitor our energy consumption and to make smart decisions when it comes to our energy consumption behaviours.
It is therefore paramount to encourage communities and individual homeowners across Ontario to make use of the opportunities to shape the future energy system in Ontario. If you are interested to learn more about the state of sustainable energy in Ontario, visit Green Energy Doors Open on Saturday, October 3, 2015. More than 150 hosts across the province will be showcasing their initiatives and providing a firsthand look at their achievements, happy to answer questions and to give advice on how you too can be part of this transition.