What Does a Smart Energy Community Look Like?
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QUEST hears the question all the time: what does a smart energy community actually look like? Thanks to communities across Canada which are increasingly implementing smart energy projects, in many ways it’s getting to be an easier question to answer. I can say, “just look at the city of Vancouver, where they are capturing waste heat from their sewage treatment processes and using it for space and water heating in 16,000 residences and businesses.” Or, “look at Toronto where Enwave is capturing the cooling energy from Lake Ontario and cycling it to provide air conditioning for 40 high rises and facilities in downtown Toronto.”
But in many ways answering the question “what does a smart energy community look like” remains a challenge. That’s because becoming a smart energy community hinges on a much more broad and integrated approach to energy production, delivery, and use at the community level, and not just on flashy applications like those mentioned above.
When it comes to smart energy communities, integration is the operative word.
A smart energy community integrates in three ways. First, it integrates conventional energy networks. That means that the electricity, natural gas, and transportation fuel networks in a community are better coordinated to match energy needs with the most efficient energy source. In most communities, for example, providing space and water heating using electricity is inefficient – it uses a high quality and often high cost energy commodity in an application that doesn’t need it. The net result is a significant amount of wasted high-quality energy. Heating and cooling tends to be most efficiently provided by natural gas or local renewable sources; electricity should be left to power appliances, lighting, and other machinery. Meanwhile, in some communities, the traditional use of gasoline or diesel for transportation is inefficient while electricity or natural gas is a more efficient option. The integration of conventional energy networks makes connecting energy sources with energy services in an efficient manner possible. Meanwhile, technologies such as Combined Heat & Power (CHP), smart meters, electric vehicles, energy storage, energy efficient buildings and machinery, and district energy can all lead to significant energy conservation by making integrating conventional energy networks easier.
Second, a smart energy community integrates land use, recognizing that poor land use decisions can equal a whole lot of energy waste. Urban sprawl and the resulting suburbs which were characteristic of 20th century planning are an example of land use decisions that result in energy waste. In the Greater Toronto and Hampton Area this is clearly visible every weekday morning on Highway 401 and on other central transportation arteries where vehicles are burning energy while stuck in gridlock. All land use and related transportation decisions have energy implications. Integrating land use means managing those implications and planning in a way that will result in energy conservation.
Third, a smart energy community integrates local energy opportunities. That means looking at steam coming out of a sewer in the wintertime and thinking “hmmm, there’s heat down there”. While Vancouver does this on a neighbourhood scale, other communities like Barrie (ON) and Richmond (BC) among many others are applying this on a building or facility scale. It also means remarking on how cold the water is in the summertime and thinking “there’s energy there”. In addition to Toronto, Halifax and Vancouver also apply water source cooling on a smaller scale. And it means noting the not-so-pleasant smell around landfills and thinking “let’s burn that methane for electricity, or, let’s capture it and add it to the natural gas network”. Landfill gas capture is a fast growing source of renewable natural gas and electricity, not to mention a tool for reducing methane emissions – a particularly potent greenhouse gas.
Integrating local energy opportunities means recognizing the assets that you have in your community and putting them to use. Sometimes these are assets that are specific to a particular community and that lend themselves to unique solutions, for example water source cooling (Toronto, Halifax), sewage heat capture (Vancouver, Barrie, Richmond), biomass for heating (Ouje Bougoumou First Nation), biogas for electricity (Edmonton, Milton), and biogas for fuelling vehicle fleets (Surrey) among others. And, sometimes, these are stock community assets that are widely applicable, for example the range of both proven and burgeoning renewable technologies that can contribute in just about any community (solar, wind, geothermal, etc). Putting these local energy assets to work contributes to significant energy conservation.
Integrating conventional energy systems – making good land use decisions – harnessing local energy opportunities: becoming a truly smart energy community means doing all three. Getting there isn’t easy. But the returns are significant: improved energy conservation, secured energy reliability, cuts in energy costs, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention economic advantages and jobs. When it comes to energy, what more can a community ask for?
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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