local energy beckons
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
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
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
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
"Everything came on 12 seconds later," said
spokesperson Wanda Cutler. "It powered our emergency
lights, elevators, computer system and fire and safety
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
Never have we had more options.