The grid: Is it time to rethink our power systems?

The grid: Is it time to rethink our power systems?

In the latest episode of Solve for X, we look at what it will take to green our energy grid without leaving anyone in the dark.


Photo illustration by Kelvin Li

Our energy grid is something most of us only think about when it isn’t working. But growing demand for electricity is placing an even greater strain on a system that’s already facing increased pressure from extreme weather events. Can we build a more sustainable and dependable grid? In this episode, we explore how when it comes to climate change, the challenge of greening the grid is as much an issue of complex engineering as it is about policy and equity.

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Featured in this episode:

  • Josh Wong is the CEO of Opus One Solutions, a company that is working to optimize the grid and make it easier for utilities to integrate renewable sources of energy with its data analysis software. Josh is working to address the energy trilemma (reliability, resiliency, decarbonization) by offering greater transparency on the supply and demand of electricity.
  • Destenie Nock is an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in public policy, civil and environmental engineering. She’s an expert on how our changing climate is impacting the grid, and what that means for the future. Focusing on energy equity, Destenie explains what’s important to consider in our transition to clean energy.
  • Dana Tizya-Tramm is the chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon. Dana helped establish the Old Crow Solar Project — shifting the northern remote community off diesel to renewables. Through his efforts, Old Crow is making inroads toward energy sovereignty.

Further reading: 

Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Save the Planet here. And below find a transcript to the fifth episode “The grid: Is it time to rethink our power systems?”

 

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: When my community gave our nation the direction to be carbon neutral by 2030, I experienced elation. But right after that, I was eclipsed by a form of dread because I was thinking: OK, now how do we do this? This is a big task. My name is Dana Tizya-Tramm, and I am the chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

Manjula Selvarajah: Dana lives in a remote part of the Yukon, above the Arctic circle. And just like many communities in the North, they aren’t connected to the electrical grid.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: Our community is not connected by road or by grid, so we can’t just keep expecting diesel to be flown to our communities.

Manjula Selvarajah: But last year after installing a solar farm, Chief Dana remembers the exact moment when everything changed.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: I was in my office working away and I got a call and someone said “get outside right now.” And they said “quick!” And so I ran out of my office and I was like “what?” And they said “listen, the generators are off.” And I stopped, and it was dead quiet. And a raven cawed across the village and I heard it. So that silence — in that August — was the first time in about 70 years that there was actual silence.

Manjula Selvarajah: That silence marked the first time the community captured enough solar energy to turn off the generators. What happened that day was proof that things could be different. The project now supplies enough energy from the sun to keep the generators off from March to late September — getting the nation one step closer to self-sustainability.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: My community is a microcosm of the world right now; and we’re trying to achieve self-sustainability and that balance as the world is really trying to do that as well.

Manjula Selvarajah: Building cleaner energy systems is a massively complex task. But what I take from the chief’s story is: we need to celebrate those quiet wins.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: My grandfather, it was said, could run with the caribou. And now his grandson flies around the world with a super computer in his pocket. I’ve heard the elders say there’s no going back; what we have to do is move forward. And what that really means to me is that this generation, and especially as Indigenous people, but also as non-Indigenous — what we are tasked with is: how do we move forward in creating the balance that we know the world needs?

Manjula Selvarajah: Like Chief Tizya-Tramm said, helping his northern community get to carbon neutral in the next eight years is a big task. And when you consider that Canada’s north is warming at four times the rate of the rest of the planet, it puts into perspective just how urgent the challenge is.

This is Solve for X — Innovations to Save the Planet, a series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science that could help us tackle climate change — I’m Manjula Selvarajah. This episode is all about the future of our energy system, but there is a lot we have to address, right now — like how we can meet the increasing demand for electricity without leaving people or our climate goals behind. Now, when looking at how to tackle a huge issue, often the best place to start is by seeking out the people who are leading the way. I sat down with the chief over video chat, to discuss what it took to make the solar project happen.

Where are we reaching you right now?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: I just happen to be in Vancouver, but I do reside in Old Crow, Yukon, 80 miles north of the Arctic circle and 60 miles east of the Alaska border, as the most northwestern community in Canada.

Manjula Selvarajah: Can you give me a sense of the community? What is the community like?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: Our people have been in this area for tens of thousands of years and our elders were born at a time when there was no electricity. And now, we have solar-generated electricity and we’re still able to connect with the land.

Manjula Selvarajah: Speaking of the modern world and the future — your community declared a climate emergency. What were you seeing around Old Crow that prompted this decision?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: We are experiencing change two to three times what the rest of the world is. And really, everything that we can experience is changing. And for our elders to say “I’ve never seen this before” is jarring. And every elder I know is saying that again and again and again. We had no snow last year — I mean, maybe an inch and a half — way out on the land. And for the Arctic circle, that’s what you think of, is snow. Well, we had almost none. As our elders said, “The night used to be a symphony of birds, but the birds are no longer singing to the Gwitchin people.” And then there’s more serious ones like upticks in mercury, which is being released from the permafrost. And our animals, such as fish, are not able to get rid of the mercury which is retained in their livers — so we have warnings for our young children and pregnant women not to eat the livers of these fish.

Manjula Selvarajah: I’m sorry to hear all of these things. This is certainly troubling for a community and a chief to have to deal with. Was there a turning point for you? One moment where you thought — enough. Enough. This can’t go on. We need to do something about this.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: I remember one year where we had no snow and I stood out on the frozen bank of our river thinking why? Why me, of all the generations of my people? I’m not responsible for the acidification of the oceans, for climate change, but I bear the responsibility of providing remedies and my people are looking to me for that as well.

Manjula Selvarajah: We want to learn from your example. Give me a sense of how much — I think you said a quarter of your energy comes from solar — is that right?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm:  Correct. And I think to help people conceptualize this on a per capita basis: there are 250 people that live in our village. So this solar farm is removing about 640 tonnes of carbon (metric tonnes) per year. It’s like taking 250 vehicles off the road; it’s pretty substantial.

Manjula Selvarajah: When adding up the savings from the solar project, it’s not just the offset fuel or diverted emissions that count. There’s also money earned. I asked the chief to walk us through the business model.

Talk to me about some of the other numbers, because there’s also money that you’re getting that’s flowing into the community. Talk to me — what that looks like and where that’s going in the community.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: So we can generate about $450,000 a year. Now we’ve diverted this and these monies are coming back into the community, which we never had access to before. So these are being reinvested into other renewable projects, such as our biomass project and our up-and-coming wind farm. And this is really important because we have to look at money as an energy system. Whereas we were purchasing diesel generated electricity at 78 cents per kilowatt hour. We, as the Vuntut Gwitchin Government, are now selling at co-shareholders photons converted into electrons delivered through a microgrid system at 64 cents per kilowatt hour.

Manjula Selvarajah: So what Chief Tizya-Tramm said is pretty important. The nation now acts as an energy supplier. And the revenue generated? That gets reinvested back into the community.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: And how we’re doing this is because we’re saving their shareholders money on operations, on maintenance and on the transportation of diesel — greatly reducing their costs. And we’re able to actually shut this diesel generator off from early March to late September, which just absolutely gives me goosebumps.

Manjula Selvarajah: Has there been any resistance in your community to this project?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: I love this question because there was. At one public meeting, we got some very stern messaging from some of our elders because our proposed area beside our airstrip was a traditional berry patch. And our elders, when you see that look in their eye — it feels like you’re in the principal’s office. And they were telling us: “You don’t build in that berry patch. That’s where I collect my berries, my cranberries, my blueberries and you’re not gonna mess with that.” And so what we ended up doing is we found a balance. So we have a gravel pad and they’re done in strips with the berry patches in between the solar panels. So you have nature and man’s technology, both doing the same thing; providing for our community. And now you come to our community and you can see elders harvesting berries beside solar panels, which is just incredible imagery and shows the juxtaposition of changing times.

Manjula Selvarajah: Now you talked about getting over that resistance and I can imagine — for certainly the elders in my family are people that you don’t debate with.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: Exactly.

Manjula Selvarajah: I can’t even imagine what you had to face there. Were there other areas of resistance that you faced to the project? Because this was a substantial change that you were making.

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: Actually, there wasn’t. When you look at our community held hostage by combustion technology, there was incredible support because there is no other viable option for us. Electricity and — maybe even the economy — and the way we organize this ourselves as societies are just a tool. And we really have to remember who we are, our identity as people, and our communities to better inform those tools. And my community is just one that really hangs on to and is guided by Indigenous principles which are about renewability, reciprocity, and giving back. For everything we get, we have to give back. And if our community can — with one single renewable energy project — satisfy one quarter of our entire community’s energy needs, then what are other cities and regions doing around the world as well?

Manjula Selvarajah: Speaking to Chief Tizya-Tramm shows us how an investment in renewables can help address climate change and energy security all at once. But if you look at the share of greenhouse gas emissions across Canada, the North only contributes a fraction of what the rest of us in Canada are responsible for. As we move toward electrifying more and more of society — from our homes, to cars and trains, and industry — that’s going to mean we’ll need a lot more electricity. But, upgrading the grid to meet that demand is not so straightforward. Especially when you consider that the grid is already facing increased pressure from more frequent storms, and other kinds of extreme weather events brought on by climate change.

News clips:

  • “Incredible storm which tore through the capital region and much of Ontario causing widespread damage and power outages…”
  • “Extreme winds topple trees and cause extensive damage to power lines…”
  • “With millions of Texans struggling to keep warm, several power generators failed, crippling the system…”

Manjula Selvarajah:  Experts in the U.S. and Canada warn that if we don’t plan accordingly, these kinds of blackouts could become more frequent. This is something that professor Destenie Nock is looking into. I reached out to professor Nock to learn about the obstacles we face in greening the grid.

Destenie Nock: As we electrify everything and our basic needs are tied to electricity, the more important it becomes to have a really, really reliable system.

Manjula Selvarajah: Destenie is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, where she studies the vulnerabilities of the energy system.

How does climate change affect the grid?

Destenie Nock: First it can make it difficult to maintain and do maintenance on the grid. It can make the grid more unstable and challenge the reliability of the grid. So when we’re thinking about these extremes, in the Texas disaster, during the winter storm, that was an extreme weather event. When we look at well what happened, it was that the grid in Texas was not designed to handle such extreme cold temperatures.

Manjula: What are the challenges with integrating sustainable energy into the system?

Destenie Nock: Right now, the way that the grid is built and operated is, it’s very focused on the supply. Now we are changing to have a more “when it comes” type of resource. So we have the wind and the sun — and they’re not always there when you want to use them. And that’s why we need to have more demand side flexibility in order to match out the supply. Because if you don’t have supply equalling demand, then this actually can mess up your generators and it can cause the electric machines to oscillate (which is vibrating up and down) at very high speeds and that can cause them to break.

Manjula Selvarajah: So as more renewable energy is added to the mix, there’s more variability in supply and demand. Destenie explained that if there’s not enough supply, your lights may dim or flicker, but if there’s too much energy on the grid it can be even worse — wires can burn and melt. To prevent this from happening, experts are looking into how we can balance that equation.

Destenie Nock: Now there are things that we can do, like battery storage and deploying flexible technologies like hydro. And people have talked about other types of storage like pumped hydro storage, and also compressed air energy storage, in addition to batteries that we can use to help balance out the grid — but those things also come with their challenges.

Manjula Selvarajah: So it’s interesting, you’ve mentioned this term “demand side flexibility.” And the way that I’m thinking of it is, that in the past we used to think about the dial on the supply side. And what you’re saying now is that we have to think about putting dials — or more dials — on the demand side of things, on the customer side. Is that right?

Destenie Nock: Yeah, that’s right. So this could mean that we’re going to need to have more smart thermostats and maybe the utility company will have certain numbers of customers that are able to do demand response. We’re going to need to have more forecasting and better forecasting of when the clouds are going to roll in, when wind speeds are going to change. And we’re also going to need to be able to have a deeper understanding about how much energy people need to satisfy their basic needs; because if we are doing this demand side flexibility, then we need to make sure that we’re not unknowingly putting people at risk of a really high heat house in the summer, for example.

Manjula Selvarajah: Are you seeing more people worried about these issues of increased usage and the grid not being able to sustain that in the short term?

Destenie Nock: I do see that there are people who are concerned with this increased electricity demand. There’s a lot of people out there who are very gung-ho “electrify everything” — and I am too — but that means that we need to deploy technology at a much faster rate than we are if we’re going to reach a 100 percent renewable grid, or even a 100 percent low-carbon grid.

Manjula Selvarajah: Okay, so as Destenie explained, transitioning to the energy system of the future is a difficult balancing act. We need to electrify more aspects of society, but if we don’t find ways to add renewables into the mix, things could get a lot worse. So how can we modernize the grid to respond to our changing needs? I spoke with a former utility engineer to learn how smart grid technology might be able to help.

Joshua Wong: My name is Josh Wong. I’m the founder and CEO of Opus One Solutions.

Manjula Selvarajah: In his past role at a utility, Josh got an insider’s view of what was working and what wasn’t.

Joshua Wong: When I joined, 55 percent of the hydro company could retire in five years. So being the new kid on the block, I was put in forums where I could really start thinking outside the box around the future of the electricity system.

Manjula Selvarajah: So Josh decided to create a software platform that helps maintain that all important balance between supply and demand.

Joshua Wong: So fundamentally our software is a digital twining software. So we actually model the entirety of the physics of the grid.

Manjula Selvarajah: This helps manage various energy sources. If demand is peaking, it tells utilities when to draw energy from a solar panel, for instance. So, what does this new way of working look like? As Josh explains, it looks similar to a mission control room before a space flight.

Joshua Wong: It’s very much like a NASA control operation center — really big screens that map out the entire electric grid for the service territory. You see all the lines, you see (probably) some weather patterns. You see where the lights go out, we see where trucks are. And we see now more and more where the distributed resources are and what they’re doing on the grid.

Manjula Selvarajah: Basically, this allows the grid to make smarter decisions about how it distributes electricity.

Joshua Wong: Utilities need to start looking at the decarbonization or enabling decarbonization of the electricity system. And at the risk of using buzzwords, it’s what’s called a “distribution system operator”. So what that means is, utilities are going from managing lines and trucks, to managing (almost) real time energy trading.

Manjula Selvarajah: Because with renewables electricity can flow in both directions — that means people need to get paid for the energy they add to the grid. So what we thought of as perhaps strictly an energy system is taking on a new meaning as an economic system.

Joshua Wong: And so if we can operate more efficiently (again going back to the complexity around balancing supply and demand in real time), if we can become a part of that balancing equation in a more efficient manner — that’s how we can make clean energy, not just reliable and abundant and clean, but also affordable. And I think we need to look at the holistic nature of the electricity system.

Manjula Selvarajah: But thinking about the grid, it’s more than just wires and electrons or even data, and now dollar signs. Behind what we call “the grid” are the people who depend on it. I asked energy expert Destenie Nock what else we need to keep in mind as we build out the energy system of the future.

Destenie Nock: If air conditioning units are the main adaptation strategy, then the grid now becomes a health risk.

Manjula Selvarajah: Destenie’s research reveals the way we measure and understand energy poverty hides how a lot of people are already struggling.

Destenie Nock: One thing that we’ve seen is that low-income groups are just consistently using a lot less than high-income groups, even when you hold the household size constant. So the reason it matters is because electrons can stop people from dying.

Manjula Selvarajah: Heat waves this summer have set new records across the globe. And for people who don’t have access to cooling or the funds to afford steep bills, these high temperatures can have serious implications.

Destenie Nock: In Arizona in one county (Maricopa county) between the years of 2006 to 2016, there were 228 people that died due to heat related death — and that was indoors only — so not even counting the people that died outdoors. And all of those people had air conditioning units, but about half were broken and the other quarter just said they felt like they couldn’t afford to use the air conditioning unit. And so when we’re thinking about what it means to have a sustainable and equitable power system, it’s about making sure that people feel like they can consume what they need to in order to have a comfortable, healthy, safe, life. And that’s why the energy equity gap is important because we’re trying to highlight this hidden form of poverty.

Manjula Selvarajah: As it turned out, the day I called Destenie, it was really hot in both Pittsburgh and Toronto. It was a kind of in-your-face reminder of just how closely linked our energy system is to climate change.

Destenie Nock: When we are thinking about the transition to a fully renewable energy system, the biggest challenge is to identify where the last mile is going to be. Who is going to be the last community that we might find that is still using diesel, or having a really hard time shifting to solar. And we need to find those people now, and then try to come up with a lot of solutions. Whether that be a larger mix of renewable technologies — like geothermal technology — but there’s a lot of other renewables out there too that we should be looking into and developing further as a technology.

Manjula Selvarajah: In addition to looking into other sources of power, as we look to the future, Destenie raises another important consideration.

Destenie Nock: We want to do this transition — can we tie energy poverty alleviation with housing poverty alleviation? There’s not a need to do them separately, we should do them together. I think another way is to think about the price that we’re going to put on carbon and think about how that flows back to communities that have been impacted by climate change. So we know that historically Black and brown communities have been cited closer to coal power plants and higher polluting power plants. And that also leads to inequities in terms of health. We also see that a lot of minority communities are at the fringes of the power grid, so they have less reliability. And so I think understanding the different needs and challenges that different households are facing in terms of the poverty type that they’re experiencing, is very important for alleviating poverty and to not have such a narrow view.

Manjula Selvarajah: And as Destenie suggests, tackling poverty, housing and energy together could get us closer to building an energy system that is truly sustainable. The cost of the energy transition is being discussed in the U.S. right now with the introduction of the Inflation Reduction Act. The hope is that efforts to slow global warming might also help consumers with rising prices. And if we look at the Canadian context, nowhere does housing and energy align more critically than in Canada’s North. Energy bills in Northern communities are six to 10 times higher than in the rest of Canada. So thinking back to my conversation with Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm, I wondered what else we might learn from his leadership.

Let’s talk about that challenge: getting to carbon neutral by 2030. What’s next for you?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: Really, one-third of all of your energy efficiency is going to be in legislation for housing regulation — which is what we’re looking at now. So every house that’s built has to come to a certain “R value” and your “R value” is basically your heat efficiency. But all of this, the fulcrum in which this teeters (these efficiencies), is battery technology. And this is really the key to unlock renewable technology as we move forward (which is a whole other conversation). And what I really want to work toward  is a day where we have electrical heating in our housing that’s purely renewable run.

Manjula Selvarajah: As we work toward a better climate and a better future, what can others learn from your experience negotiating out this deal with the utility?

Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm: This is very key, and I’m very honest with my story and my history. I grew up, ran away from home at 13 and had a rough upbringing. What I would like to share with your listeners is: there was a time when I was about 13 years old, standing on a street corner in Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, and the city felt like a prison to me. My future felt locked in and I felt helpless. In Northern Canada, and Indigenous peoples largely, have eight times the national suicide rate and there’s a reason for that. And I’m now the chief of my people, and there was a couple of years ago I was standing on that same street corner, on the phone I had a federal minister, and we were discussing some really big changes. And I realized — I’m on this same street corner from when I was that kid entering a kind of a depression. And I looked around and I said, “this city’s not a prison, it’s made out of sand and I can shape it with my hands.”

So, more important than being powerful is feeling powerful. And really what I want your listeners, to not just hear but to feel, where their power is too. That we have this. We have it. We can do this. We need courage. This is a call to arms, and I believe it is challenging us as a species. And I believe that we will meet it with the best parts of ourselves and not only prove to the world, but to ourselves, that we are worth living here and we can do so in a good way. I truly believe that.

Manjula Selvarajah: When telling climate stories, it can seem as though there are nowhere near as many wins as there are losses. That’s why what the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation achieved is so encouraging, but their story isn’t over. At this moment, the nation is looking into other ways to power their community. Chief Tizya-Tramm spoke about a wind farm, and there’s even the idea of using a biomass boiler to provide heat. All of this should go some way to fill the gap when the sun isn’t shining and get them closer to achieving their goal of self sustainability. I’m curious to see what happens next.

Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. This episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer, Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. David Paterson provided editing support and Mack Swain composed our theme song and all the music in this episode. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer. This episode featured clips from CBC and NBC News. I’m your host Manjula Selvarajah. Watch your feed for new episodes coming soon.

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The Mission from MaRS initiative was created to help scale carbon reducing innovations by working to remove the barriers to adopting new technology. Mission from MaRS thanks its founding partners, HSBC, Trottier Family Foundation, RBC Tech for Nature and Thistledown Foundation. It has also received generous support from Peter Gilligan Foundation, BDC, EDC and Mitsubishi Corporation Americas. Learn more about the program at missionfrommars.ca.