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The shift to a low-carbon economy

RandallAnthony CommunicationsComment

Excellence in Engineering
The 2015 Ontario Professional Engineers Awards Gala

 Ontario’s engineers are exploring ways to shift to energy sources that don’t rely on carbon-based fuels. Left: Dr. Brant Peppley, of Queen’s University, has led the five-year Energy Storage and Recovery Ontario initiative, which has made significant advances in fuel cell technology. Centre: At a custom-built house in Ottawa, Dr. Ian Beausoleil-Morrison of Carleton University and his team are testing innovations in solar energy and other zero-carbon technologies. Right: Improving our existing low-carbon energy sources, like hydro power, is a focus of the work of Dr. Bryan Karney of the University of Toronto. supplied

Ontario’s engineers are exploring ways to shift to energy sources that don’t rely on carbon-based fuels. Left: Dr. Brant Peppley, of Queen’s University, has led the five-year Energy Storage and Recovery Ontario initiative, which has made significant advances in fuel cell technology. Centre: At a custom-built house in Ottawa, Dr. Ian Beausoleil-Morrison of Carleton University and his team are testing innovations in solar energy and other zero-carbon technologies. Right: Improving our existing low-carbon energy sources, like hydro power, is a focus of the work of Dr. Bryan Karney of the University of Toronto. supplied

By 2050, Ontario aims to reduce carbon emissions by 80% below 1990 levels.
It’s an ambitious target that will require radical technological change.

To get there, Ontario’s engineers are bringing their technical expertise and problem-solving skills to the design of new technologies and processes that will allow us to shift away from high-carbon fossil fuels to low- or no-carbon alternatives.
 
Doing away with the furnace
Over the past three decades, we’ve made housing more energy efficient through stringent building codes and improving the efficiency of windows and furnaces. “These are positive steps,” says Dr. Ian Beausoleil-Morrison, “but they are incremental. We’re increasing efficiency by a few percentage points at a time, but if we are serious about tackling climate change, we can’t tweak the furnace, we need to get rid of the furnace entirely.”

Achieving this in Canada’s northern climate, however, will require a re-thinking of what is possible, says the Canada Research Chair and professor at Carleton’s Faculty of Engineering and Design.

Dr. Beausoleil-Morrison is the project lead for the newly built Urbandale Centre for Home Energy Research, a custom-built 1,600-square-foot two-storey house at Carleton that is providing opportunities to test innovations in solar energy and explore other zero-carbon technologies.

One project is looking into seasonal thermal storage – finding a way to store the energy collected by the house’s solar panels during the summer so that it can be used during an Ottawa winter, when the temperature is in the minus 20s and sunlight is in short supply.

What is basically a large and heavily insulated sandbox might provide a solution. “In the summer, we can heat the wet sand up to 80 degrees and store that energy, so that in winter we can draw the energy back out to supply the home’s hot water and heating needs.”

Dr. Beausoleil-Morrison adds that moving towards renewable energy and away from fossil fuels is far more than just an engineering challenge to be solved. “Engineering is a big part of the solution, but we also need to change public policy and shift our overall mindset.”
 
Finding new ways to store and recover energy
“Renewable energy is great – except when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining,” says Dr. Brant Peppley, a professor in the departments of chemical engineering and mechanical and materials engineering at Queen’s.

Dr. Peppley has spent the past five years as the project lead of Energy Storage and Recovery Ontario (ESARO), a $5-million initiative funded by the provincial government and supported by eight companies, including two focused on fuel cells. ESARO’s researchers are investigating ways to store excess renewable energy and dispatch it when needed – doing so with a minimal or zero-carbon footprint.

Much of Dr. Peppley’s work has focused on developing energy storage solutions that take the excess electricity generated by wind power and converting it into hydrogen. Dr. Peppley is looking at ways to improve the efficiency of these polymer electrolysis systems by developing new alloys and catalysts.

“We’re trying to overcome some of the barriers that are slowing the commercialization of these technologies so that they can last longer and be more stable, easier to manufacture and less expensive.”

Hydrogenics, a Mississauga-based company that has partnered with ESARO, is already deploying this technology on a large scale, and partnerships with other companies, including Ballard and General Motors, are also generating innovative ways to store energy and retrieve it with a minimal carbon footprint.


If you can store water, you can store energy. I’m working on many projects to improve the efficiency of our hydro resources because it will allow us to add more high-quality wind and solar into the system.

— Dr. Bryan Karney is a professor in the department of civil engineering and associate dean of cross-disciplinary programs at the University of Toronto

Improving efficiencies of backup energy sources
Dr. Bryan Karney, a professor in the department of civil engineering and associate dean of cross-disciplinary programs at the University of Toronto, is also seeking solutions that will allow for a greater reliance on renewable energy sources.

“As we put in more supplies of renewable energy, we also need to ensure the quality and reliability of the electrical grid,” he notes. Rather than relying on backup generating capacity that uses fossil fuels, Dr. Karney thinks we can get the backup power we need by using hydro resources more strategically.

“If you can store water, you can store energy,” he says. “I’m working on many projects to improve the efficiency of our hydro resources because it will allow us to add more high-quality wind and solar into the system.”

Some of his recent work has involved pursuing ways to “ease some of the constraints” of the Niagara River system. “This complex already plays a strategic role in stabilizing the province’s electrical grid – we think it may be possible that it can do even better.”

Technology is one piece of the puzzle
The challenges of climate change and the shifts that will be required to transform our economy away from a reliance on fossil fuels are not to be underestimated. But what the work of these Ontario engineers shows is that the drive to innovate – to improve existing technologies or create new ones – can ultimately bring about the solutions we need to create a more sustainable future.

View entire report at globeandmail.com