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Green, local energy beckons
Tyler Hamilton
The Toronto Star

It's when the meat in your fridge begins to rot and the milk curdles that you begin to think that, yeah, maybe a less centralized system of delivering power to our homes and businesses would be a good idea.

Tens of millions of Ontarians and Americans learned first hand last week how it feels to be dependent on a massive central power grid that "shock and surprise" is vulnerable to a cataclysmic shutdown.

And how does it feel? It feels bloody hot, actually, considering the absence of working air conditioning on some of the steamiest days this summer.

Isn't it time we become more self-sufficient with our power needs? In the process, we can stop polluting the air.

Environmentalists out there who have been early adopters of wind and solar technologies were more than willing to rub our noses in the dark as they bragged - and so they should - about how "untouched" they were by the whole episode.

"The hotter it gets outside the more power I have," said one boastful caller to CBC radio Friday, proud of her solar-powered independence.

Another solar convert only had one complaint with how the blackout disrupted his life. "The only part of this blackout that's bothering me is that my soap opera has been interrupted for news coverage," he said.

It's times like this when Ian MacLellan, president and chief executive officer of Kitchener-based Arise Technologies Corp., must jump for joy. With every event that painfully shows the vulnerability within the "grid" power system, renewable energy technologies gain credibility and attract more attention from homeowners and businesses.

As a provider of solar panels and generators, Arise has a huge interest in driving non-polluting solar technology into the mainstream. The company's biggest project to date is the planned construction of 10 homes in an east-end subdivision of Waterloo. Each will be equipped with rooftop solar (photovoltaic) panels that provide anywhere from 25 to 75 per cent of a home's power needs.

So far, it looks as if these homes will use electricity from solar panels during the day and, in the evenings, revert back to the monolithic grid.

By using rechargeable back-up batteries, a home could easily sever itself from the grid during times of crisis. The system might not be able to power the dishwasher or central air conditioner, but lights, the fridge, a computer, microwave, TV and a couple fans could plug in.

For example, one division of Arise sells what's called a SolarSense System - "all the components the average person needs to power most of the daily usage items in your home or cottage," says the company's Web site. This costs less than $2,500 - a small price for independence.

It beats sitting in the dark with a flashlight, or being forced to boil water for your coffee on your gas BBQ. How many did that last Thursday and Friday?

More popular than solar is wind power, which is beautifully demonstrated on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. The windmill there will be joined by a sister windmill at Ashbridge's Bay in the Toronto Beaches area, part of a joint venture with Toronto Hydro.

Steve Gilchrist, Ontario's commissioner of alternative energy, expects more windmills to begin showing up along the Great Lakes. The Huron Wind farm in Bruce County, half-owned by Ontario Power Generation, can provide enough electricity for more than 3,000 homes.

"By next spring, you'll see dozens," he told Canadian Press earlier this summer. "Three years from now, we'll start talking in the hundreds."

Hydro-Quebec wants to build a 1,000-megawatt wind farm sometime in the next three to nine years, enough to power hundreds of thousands of homes. Manitoba Hydro and Shell Canada are exploring projects in that province, while the McBride Lake wind farm in Alberta has 114 turbines.

Wind farms are proving very economical, but they don't actually sever a community of homes from a grid. Rather they sell energy into the grid, that is mixed with other sources and redistributed through the grid to homes and businesses.

If you really want to pull yourself off the grid, you can take the more expensive route by setting up an individual windmill, say, in a field behind your farmhouse. A small windmill would periodically charge a battery pack that provides power to a building. It's a much smaller market, mind you, considering land limitations in populated urban cores.

Still, Doug Duimering, a director with the Canadian Wind Energy Association, says large wind farms do act to decentralize the grid system by increasing the number of generators.

"When you build something with many blocks versus big blocks, if you lose one of the blocks it doesn't do as much to the overall structure," he said.

It might not prevent the blackout problem we experienced last week, but easing the burden by introducing new sources of power generation couldn't hurt.

And like solar, you've got to consider the environmental benefits. "It is a premium-priced product today, but it's not a huge premium, and they're certainly worth that premium," said Duimering.

Finally, both wind and solar can be viewed as excellent sources of energy for creating hydrogen gas for fuel cells and internal combustion engines that run on hydrogen.

As the biggest single power outage in North American history turns from blackout to fallout, talk of a hydrogen economy picked up momentum last week.

Not so coincidently, anything hydrogen-related in the stock market seemed to benefit greatly: Hydrogenics Corp. and Stuart Energy Systems Corp., both based in Mississauga, saw their shares rise 8 per cent Friday. Canada's poster child of the fuel cell industry, Ballard Power Systems Inc., rose 5 per cent.

In the U.S., the increases were even more dramatic. For example, shares in FuelCell Energy Inc. and Plug Power Inc. rose 21 per cent and 23 per cent, respectively.

Companies such as Hydrogenics have co-developed prototype fuel-cell vehicles that double as non-polluting transportation and mobile generators. Parked in a person's driveway, they could easily connect to, and power, a home.

As I mentioned in a story last month, Stuart Energy has high hopes for its Personal Energy Station, a hydrogen generator expected to be the size of a large home air conditioner and available two or three years.

CEO Jon Slangerup says the unit, which uses electrolysis to convert water to hydrogen and oxygen, would be able to produce enough hydrogen fuel to power two fuel-cell cars each day and provide back-up -or even primary-electricity to a home.

The Personal Energy Station needs electricity to create the hydrogen fuel, and this electricity could very well come from the grid. Which might make you ask: How does this solve any problems or prevent future blackouts?

Well, for one, the energy station could produce hydrogen during off-peak grid hours. That hydrogen could then be used to power a portable fuel-cell generator that runs home lighting and appliances during peak grid hours.

By storing hydrogen and using it as a source of energy during peak grid times, it reduces pressure on the grid and lowers the risk of a blackout scenario. If you go a step further and equip your property with solar panels or a small wind turbine, you can use that to create and store hydrogen, reducing your need for grid power.

Yes, I know, all of this costs a lot of money and won't touch any of our lives for years. But the day will come. And ask yourself: Do you want that day to come?

To ease the financial burden, Stuart Energy is in talks with major homebuilders who might see value in building hydrogen energy stations directly into new homes equipped with solar-panel rooftops. The cost $20,000 or more is big, but not so much when spread out over the life of a mortgage. Throw in a few government incentives and it's not so scary.

Stuart Energy uses hydrogen power for a back-up system at its Mississauga facility. Two big internal combustion engines from Ford that run on hydrogen gas are designed to kick in when grid power blows. How'd it work last Thursday afternoon?

"Everything came on 12 seconds later," said spokesperson Wanda Cutler. "It powered our emergency lights, elevators, computer system and fire and safety systems."

It may take days, maybe weeks or months, before we truly know what happened to cause the lights of 50 million people to go dark. Perhaps while scrambling to find out what went wrong, we should all be looking at ways of doing it better.

Never have we had more options.

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