4 Energy & Environment Reading Essentials

It is the summer of 2020, and the dominant political, economic, and societal dialogue is hijacked by COVID-19. Human lives have been changed, largely for the worse, but I find myself seeking the silver linings. With summer finally around the corner and ample free time available to many, I see an opportunity to use this time to learn something new or to try something different. I am an avid reader, mainly of non-fiction, and I am finding that expanding my reading list to be an adequate way to unwind. Energy and the environment are timely topics and are still the backbone of daily life, despite the pandemic. In light of some of the ongoing conversation and uncertainty around the energy sector, I have created an energy-and-environmental-themed reading list. I aimed to fill it with work that covers relevant and critical topics in energy and the environment. Some I have even read multiple times. Each one of them refined the way I consider energy and environmental topics. They also have influenced my work in school and how I will navigate the rest of my engineering career. 

Here are my 4 essential books for this summer:

#1: Climate Wars: The Fight for Survival as the World Overheats by Gwynne Dyer 

Climate Wars is my favourite on this list. It is the book that got me into the energy and environment genre. It acts as a road map for the climate crisis, and despite being written in 2008, so much of it rings true to today’s circumstances. While many climate books discuss polar bears and coral reefs, Climate Wars makes predictions about population shifts, swings of power and the future of humanity. Through an exciting series of interviews with military and political experts, the book explores various scenarios ranging from the Canadian Arctic in 2019 to India in 2045. These scenarios  give context to the climate disaster by taking real places and showing exactly how they could change, politically, economically and geographically.  I think that this book is the most important to consider on this list.  It is not only incredibly insightful regarding the urgency of climate change, but is a page turner, which I find rare in my experience with non-fiction. I think this should be a mandatory read for leaders and stakeholders, so they consider the impact their decisions carry. At the very least, Climate Wars should be a mandatory read in your book queue. 

#2: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by Micheal Braungart & William McDonough 

I think this is the most unique on my list. The book itself is an example of exactly what Braungart and McDonough’s thesis is. The first chapter, “This Book is Not a Tree” (the book is made from fully reclaimable plastic and ink), delves right into what the authors envision is the future of producing goods. Providing the idea that “reduce, reuse, recycle” is not an adequate response and has as much potential to damage as doing nothing does. Braungart and McDonough attempts to flip the traditional cradle-to-grave manufacturing model on its head by providing, hence the title, an alternative method dubbed cradle-to-cradle. It considers the production of goods and the places of potential environmental destruction. Rather than pointing out the flaws exclusively, Cradle to Cradle provides solutions. Many of the solutions are not theoretical, but have been applied on a large scale for real clients. Likewise with Climate Wars, the book is as relevant now as it was when it was published in 2008. Cradle to Cradle envisions a cleaner earth, and proposes how to achieve this as well.

#3: Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses by Vaclav Smil

Power Density uses more technical language than my other choices. However, it is not boring. Written by Vaclav Smil, a member of the 100 Global Thinkers List, Power Density is a key step to understanding why we get our energy from the sources we do. Although simply defined as the rate of energy flux per unit of area, the concept of “power density” carries a lot of impact, and Smil’s work unpacks this. Traditionally, “power density” is overlooked in energy decision making processes, but he argues that it is one of the most important concepts in energy. Looking at all sources of energy, Smil provides insight on why certain countries or regions use the type of energy that they do. Using the “power density” as the basis, Smil explains how modern energy use has evolved using high energy dense fossil fuels and will need to evolve again to low energy dense renewable sources. Overall, Smil paints an interesting picture of the future of energy focusing on one concept.

#4: The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power by Daniel Yergin

The Prize is an essential book for understanding the deep and rich history of the most impactful resource in the history of humankind. The Prize has been deemed the “best history of oil ever written” by Bloomberg’s Businessweek. It looks at the roots of the industry, the background behind the largest monopolies in history and the importance of oil behind many major historical events. Oil has its hand in some of the most notable events in history and The Prize explores them all. The most interesting points made are those that connect oil with conflict and power. It is this connection, Yergin proposes, that has led to formation of a “Global World Order” and an unequal distribution of wealth. He makes a point to say that the main reason World War II was rooted in contention over oil. Today, oil is still one of the most important resources that drives society, and The Prize is a must read for understanding how it became so fundamental. At roughly 97,103,871 barrels of oil a day, the sector is not going away. Understanding some of the tribulations in the history of oil use is a way of better grasping the potential for change.

Thank you for giving this blog post a read and hope that you have enjoyed. If you have found any of the books intriguing, I hope you give them a shot. I hope everyone is staying safe and that you enjoy the rest of the summer.

Smart Grids

What is a Smart Grid?

A Smart Grid is a just a name for an electrical grid which utilizes several different technologies that allow the grid to operate more dynamically. This means that the grid can detect changes in demand or supply and then quickly respond to ensure that the electrical grid remains stable. Fundamentally, a Smart Grid is an idea for a grid that utilizes new technologies in order to deliver electricity in a cheaper, cleaner and more efficient manner.

One might ask what the difference between the grid we have now and the Smart Grid of the future. It is important to understand how the current electricity system works. Essentially, electricity currently moves in one direction, from the large, central generating plant, through transmission infrastructure and into homes and businesses. In Ontario for example, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) generates about 30% of the electricity in Ontario from their nuclear plants [1], which then flows through transmission lines owned and operated mostly by Hydro One. These lines lead to thousands of substations around Ontario which are operated by local utility companies, who are the entities that residents pay their utility bills.

Figure 1: Old grid

In the future, the electricity grid will be much more complex in order to facilitate a cleaner, more interactive and economically efficient way to buy and sell electricity. One may be able to sell power from solar panels on their roof directly to their neighbour via a smartphone app or store excess electricity in a battery, effectively making people ‘prosumers’ – consumers and producers. Businesses will be able to generate electricity for their own needs or sell of excess.  This breaks the one-way movement of electricity which is how our current system works. Electricity will now be consumed and produced in a distributed manner. Information is now generated anywhere by any physical system, available in real time and can be sent wirelessly to where it is needed. Renewable energy will be ubiquitous in the energy supply forcing the grid to respond to changes in supply and demand. Smart Grids introduce the ability to do grid-wide monitoring in real-time so that operators and dynamically shift supply and demand to accommodate more renewables. A Smart Grid will be able have make these and many more ideas become reality, which many would have thought would not be possible before.

It will push the electricity sector forward on a progressive vision for the future of energy and society.

Figure 2: The new ‘smart’ grid [2]

The Smart Grid outlined above relies on a large number of technologies, both software and hardware. These technologies exist to maintain and manage what is becoming a more complex electricity grid. Internally, Smart Grids may use a lot of digital technologies like machine learning to optimize demand and supply. Blockchain could implement a secure electronic payment system for peer-to-peer payment. Physical technologies like wireless communications and smart meters will allow for more efficient monitoring of the grid. All of these technologies will come together to make a smarter grid.

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Figure 3: Old grid vs. a new ‘smart’ grid

Why do we need a Smart Grid?

Before I go into more detail about the details of Smart Grids, I think it is important to mention the motivation for the development of this technology. Smart Grids are often cited as a way to develop a grid with renewable energy and hence fight climate change but there are other benefits which include dealing with cyber security threats and grid reliability and resilience (i.e. reduced brownouts and blackouts).

Climate Change

Due to rising CO2 emissions causing global temperatures to rise, the world must make a transition away from fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar must be a part of the solution, however, these sources are intermittent and thus cause issues around grid stability and electricity availability. These challenges can be solved from the supply side of the electricity grid by using energy storage solutions such as lithium-ion batteries, fly wheels and compressed air (just to name a few). However, solutions to these challenges also come from having a more flexible demand side of the electricity grid. I will give two examples to illustrate this.

First, imagine when there is excessive electricity from some renewable source such as wind or solar. Instead of just storing the energy in batteries, one could have buildings turn on their heating or cooling systems to prepare for later use or have water heaters run to store hot water for use at a later time. Now, imagine there is not enough wind or solar production at a given moment in the day, rather only discharging batteries or turning on natural gas peaker plants, we could have electric vehicles which can discharge the electricity which is stored in their batteries to help meet demand.

Now for this flexible demand side to exist, there must smart systems in place that can facilitate the communication with the energy infrastructure at the scale needed to implement what I described above. All of the appliances and devices must be connected to the Internet and have the integration to do what I described. The grid must also have the proper software systems to provide communication between these devices and the grid. Putting these together and we have the essence of what Smart Grid technology is and the functionality that it can provide. It will facilitate the connectivity to give renewable energy the flexibility that is needed to get to high percentage of renewable penetration into the electricity grid.

Security

In a hypothetical future conflict, nations will likely not begin the fighting with armed conflict, but rather attacks on key physical and cyber infrastructure, with the largest and possibly the most damaging target being the electricity grid [3] [4]. Non-state actors like terrorists can also target the electricity grid. The electricity grid is physical made up of a lot of physical systems, but most are connected in some way to a computer network via electronics used to control specific. This type of integration of industrial processes with computer networks will only increase in the future [5]. All of this call for investment in the upgrading of the grid to become more secure and able to take on these types of attacks.

Resilience, Reliability and Consumer Experience

The home is a good example of where connection between the electricity grid and where consumers actually use their energy. Intelligent software will allow you to see exactly what appliances are taking power and allow you to better use energy. Batteries and solar panels in the home will be able to intelligently charge and discharge, saving the customer money. Now that all parts of the grid will have sensors and operators will have data on the state of the grid, maintenance crews can be more efficiently dispatched. With a Smart Grid, damage to infrastructure can be fixed by a ‘self-healing’ grid which will automatically reroute power to where it is needed [6].This will increase the resilience and reliability of the grid.

There are many companies working on Smart Grid technologies. One really cool company based close to many here at Queen’s is the Toronto based Opus One Technologies [7]. They offer what they call is GridOS, which is their software that makes intelligent decisions based on the grid and its needs. Check them out if you found this post interesting!

References

[1]      “Powering Ontario > Our generation | OPG.” [Online]. Available: https://www.opg.com/powering-ontario/our-generation/. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

[2]      “Smart Grid – CLP.” [Online]. Available: https://www.clp.com.hk/en/about-clp/power-transmission-and-distribution/smart-grid. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

[3]      “Crash Override Malware Took Down Ukraine’s Power Grid Last December | WIRED.” [Online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/story/crash-override-malware/. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

[4]      “How Power Grid Hacks Work, and When You Should Panic | WIRED.” [Online]. Available: https://www.wired.com/story/hacking-a-power-grid-in-three-not-so-easy-steps/. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

[5]      “Everything you need to know about IIoT | GE Digital.” [Online]. Available: https://www.ge.com/digital/blog/everything-you-need-know-about-industrial-internet-things. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

[6]      “‘Self-healing’ grids and the future of electrical power.” [Online]. Available: https://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/08/self-healing-grids-and-the-future-of-electrical-power.html. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

[7]      “Home Page – Opus One Solutions.” [Online]. Available: https://www.opusonesolutions.com/. [Accessed: 06-Nov-2019].

Blockchains and the Energy Sector

What is Blockchain Technology?

Blockchains allow digital information to be distributed but not copied. A blockchain is a series of timestamped records of data. The blockchain structure is formed by multiple blocks, with each block containing a group of encoded “transactions” (individual operations). Cryptographic hash functions are used to securely connect each block to the previous block in the chain. Blockchains have no centralized control, as the transactions are recorded across many computers.

The basic ideas behind blockchain technology began to emerge in the 1990s when the practice of time-stamping digital documents to make them difficult to tamper with was first introduced. The system continued to be developed by various computer scientists, but was not widely used until the launch of Bitcoin in 2009.

Benefits of Blockchain Technology

One of the main benefits of blockchain technology is the security of the data. The structure of the block chain contributes to the security of the system. There is no “centralized authority” or control in a blockchain, and the information is not stored in one specific location. All information that is held in a blockchain exists as a shared database. The data is hosted on many millions of computers at the same time. Having no centralized data means that there is no specific target for hackers, contributing to the high security level of data in the block chain. Cryptography is used in all the links in the blockchain.

Another benefit of the technology is that the system is very transparent. The data stored in a blockchain is accessible to anyone and is very public. As a result, it is very difficult to have false or faked records. Once a piece of information enters the blockchain, it cannot be tampered with, and the path that information takes through the chain can be tracked.

Another benefit of blockchain technology is that it eliminates the need for middle parties during transactions and exchanges. For example, when sending money using blockchain, the only two parties involved are the sender and the receiver. Usually, in the act of making a purchase, there is a middle party involved, who processes the transaction, and takes a cut of the profits. Blockchain technology eliminates the need for this middle party, which saves the sender and receiver money.  

Blockchain and the Energy Sector

The decentralized nature, security, and transparency of blockchain technology make it potentially very useful to all types of companies within the energy sector. Particularly when it comes to buying and selling, blockchain technology could increase efficiency and lower costs by reducing the number of steps that are currently involved in these transactions.

An example of this that can be considered is the renewable energy sector, specifically wind and solar energy. The rapid expansion of this industry, and the fact that most renewable energy sources are weather dependent, creates an organizational challenge when it comes to distributing, measuring, and monitoring these energy sources. Communication and exchanges between energy producers and energy consumers have become more frequent and complicated as the industry continues to grow. The implementation of decentralized blockchain technology to this industry could ease some of these logistical challenges.

In the oil and gas industry, there are numerous transactions that occur between companies, landowners, and consumers. The implementation of blockchain technology into the oil and gas industry will lower costs that are associated with the logistics of purchasing and selling. This could help companies to save money and deliver products to consumers for more affordable prices.

There is still a lot of development, research, and trial and error that would have to take place before blockchain can be implemented into the energy sector and used by companies and governments. However, it has the potential to positively impact the energy sector and it will be interesting to see how development progresses over the next few years. 

by: Clare Graham

References:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032118307184

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/wind-power/

https://blockgeeks.com/guides/what-is-blockchain-technology/

Where is there Geothermal Energy in Canada?

Renewable energy is all the talk nowadays as governments and experts around the world begin to see it as the future of the energy industry. In Canada specifically 17.3% of our electricity is generated by renewables, with most of the generation coming from hydro stations, biomass factories, and wind farms. Solar is less prominent in Canada due to a lack of sunlight potential, but still makes up for around 0.6% of our renewable generation. However, all this data has had me thinking. As a child I remember learning about the different types of renewable energy, and the method I remember finding the most interesting is the one I also hear the least about as an adult. Geothermal energy. The idea that we could grab heat from the earth’s core and power our houses and schools seemed like a genius idea. So why are we not doing it? To understand this, we first need to understand how geothermal energy actually works.

There are three common ways to harvest heat beneath the earth’s surface, and turn it into electricity. The first is a dry steam plant which collects steam from fractures in the ground, and uses that steam to power a turbine and create electricity. Method two is a flash plant which harvests high pressurized hot water from underground and mixes it with low pressurized cooler water to create steam. Once again, this steam is used to rotate a turbine and create electricity. The last method is something called a binary plant which collects hot water and then passes it by another fluid with a much lower boiling point. This causes the secondary liquid to vaporize, thereby creating steam and turning a turbine. Binary plants are the most environmentally friendly of the three, and release almost zero CO2 emissions. On top of this, these plants can run all day everyday as they do not require wind or sun. They are relatively inexpensive to operate making them very profitable over the long run. They have a small geological footprint and can generate electricity, heat, and cooling directly.

So why are we not building them? The United States of America is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, and yet Canada produces almost none. Canada has an abundant amount of potential for geothermal energy too, specifically in BC which lies within the Pacific Ring of Fire (a horseshoe shaped area full of active volcanos and earthquake zones). Even in Ontario, if you dug deep enough, you would be able to produce geothermal energy. On top of this, there already exists Canadian companies which operate geothermal plants outside of Canada, but not within Canada. So, to finally get to the point, here are the main reasons geothermal is not a prominent method of generation in Canada:

  1. Canada has plenty of cheap energy resources already. In BC and Yukon where the geothermal potential is greatest, there exists large hydropower stations which are both cheap and efficient. The BC government continues to invest in their hydropower, and easily meets their customer consumption demands. Investing in geothermal just seems like a waste of money and time.
  2. The upfront cost is too high for the risk. Drilling for geothermal deposits is just as complicated as drilling for oil and gas. Large amounts of research and construction must be done before any electricity is generated, making the costs seem not worth it.
  3. There is very minimal government interest. Many locations for rich geothermal energy are also locations for rich amounts of oil and gas. The government would rather produce more oil to increase exports than invest in a new process.

Another issue that is not specific to Canada is that geothermal plants release large amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas into the air. The gas particles break down within a few days, but its initial high concentration levels can be hazardous to aquatic life, birds, and animals. Other waste chemicals can also be produced as a by-product which can contain varying health risks. Finally geothermal sites don’t last forever and their resource deposits can be depleted after a minimum of a few decades.

It may seem like geothermal energy will never exist in Canada, but I wouldn’t be so certain. The recent implementation of a carbon tax across the country may begin to cause oil and gas companies to look to invest their resources into more environmentally friendly areas of energy. The easiest transition for these companies would be to begin investing in geothermal energy which involves similar exploration and drilling processes. Unfortunately it is far too early to determine what will happen with geothermal energy in Canada. I can only hope that in the future, more people will see its true potential as a viable way to generate energy.

By: Tyler Murphy

References:

https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/science-data/data-analysis/energy-data-analysis/energy-facts/renewable-energy-facts/20069

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/geothermal-energy/#close

Meet Ted Hsu

By Zoe Dickson

Physicist and politician Ted Hsu is the keynote speaker for QGEC’s Fall Taster this Thursday. A Queen’s and Princeton alumni, he currently advocates for science and innovation in government and society.    

Born in 1964, Dr. Theodore “Ted” Hsu grew up in Kingston & graduated from Queen’s University in 1984 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Physics. A talented man of Chinese heritage, Hsu is fluent in English, French, and Mandarin and is a gifted pianist and chess player.

Ted completed his Ph.D in Physics at Princeton University in 1989. He has authored and co-authored 25 research papers as well as completing post-doctoral research in British Columbia, Ontario, and France.

Throughout his nine-year career in finance, Ted has worked as a researcher and trader for the Banque Nationale de Paris in France, and as an executive director in Morgan Stanley in Tokyo,

Ted has worked in the US, France, Japan & Canada, and spent three years as a stay-at-home father to his two daughters.

For three years Ted was the co-chair of the Kingston Financial Advisory Forum, a committee in place to advise the council on environmental matters. He is also currently a member of the board of directors for the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences and is an advisor to SYNG Pharmaceuticals, a female health and biotech start-up.

From 2007-2010 Ted was executive director of SWITCH. SWITCH is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to increase energy literacy, provides support to the sustainable energy sector and to shift the Canadian economy away from fossil fuels.

In May 2011, Ted Hsu was elected as MP for Kingston, one of only two new Liberal MP elected in the country in the party’s worst showing in history. This followed four years as treasurer for the Kingston and the Islands Federal Liberal Association. In 2013, now-prime minister Justin Trudeau appointed Ted Hsu as the Liberal Party’s critic for Science and Technology, as well as Post-Secondary Education, Natural Resources & Federal Economic Development in Ontario. In November 2013, Ted won the Maclean’s Parliamentarian of the Year Award, awarded to the MP who “best represents constituents”.

Ted now lives in Kingston with his family and continues to advocate passionately for STEM education, climate change mitigation and electoral reform.

Come along to the QGEC taster on Thursday, November 15th in the ILC Atrium at 7pm to hear Ted Hsu present, get a sneak peek into the conference and enjoy some free pizza!

Canada’s Innovation Supercluster Initiative

Megan McEvoy – September 2018

Canada seeks ways to keep up as the world races to have the most current breakthroughs in innovation and technology. With the United States’ progress in Silicon Valley, Canada seeks to match its advancements in innovation and job creation.

Canada has invested $950 million over five years into an initiative called the Innovation Supercluster Initiative (ISI).  The initiative has been built to progress Canada’s innovation efforts and pull together businesses of a variety of sizes including large firms, research institutions, and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Over the past year the initiative has been launched for applications, applicants have been shortlisted, and finally five areas focusing on different energy sectors have been chosen for the initiative. The money will be contributed to not-for-profit entities that represent industry-led consortia.

The superclusters have been chosen across Canada. There are five different sectors located in British Columbia, Prairie Provinces, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada. The superclusters are partnered with various companies, not-for-profit organizations, and post-secondary schools across Canada in effort to improve innovation in a variety of sectors.

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https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/093.nsf/eng/00008.html

British Columbia – Digital Technology Supercluster

The major increase in data across the globe has increased in the last two years more than ever in the history of the human race. The need for data analysis is required more than ever and Canada strives to be a global leader in the digital sector. The digital technology supercluster will increase productivity in mining, the health sector, and preserve the native indigenous languages by documenting them and digitally storing them.

https://www.digitalsupercluster.ca

Prairie Provinces – Protein Industries Supercluster

The Prairie Provinces will focus on food growth and farming technology in the Prairie provinces to increase the value of Canadian crops.  The supercluster plans to place Canada a global leader for high-quality plant proteins and plant-based products. The industry will contribute to economic growth by keeping an international trade balance for Canada. The production environment is planned to be carbon neutral, keeping the processes efficient. The official launch of the Protein Industries Supercluster is taking place in Winnipeg, Manitoba from October 3rd to 4th and will bring leaders across the industry together.

https://www.proteinindustriescanada.ca

Ontario – Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster

Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) runs the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster and plans to improve products and generate jobs across Canada. NGen will help companies of all sizes shift to advanced manufacturing processes using technology such as 3D printing and artificial intelligence (AI).  NGen will connect Canadian manufacturers, schools, government, and technology providers to advance the Canadian manufacturing sector. The board of directors for the supercluster NGen is made of leaders from a variety of companies such as Linamar, Woodbridge Group, University of Toronto, Siemens, MaRS Discovery District, Xerox, and more.

http://www.ngmcanada.com

Quebec – AI-Powered Supply Chains Supercluster (SCALE.AI)

As the innovation in robotics and artificial intelligence increases, Quebec will become a hub for companies focusing on this development. Major companies include Canadian Tire, Air Canada, Aecon, SNC, PWC, Cisco, and more who are in partnership with the supercluster. To have a major impact on Canada’s economy SCALE AI claims that by 2028 it will generate more than 16,000 jobs and grow JDP by more than 16.5 billion dollars. The SCALE AI supercluster has tailored objectives per key stakeholder. The stakeholders include: supply chain users, supply chains/AI/digital providers, start-ups, the workforce, and Canada as a whole. The objectives per stakeholder can be found in the strategy section of the SCALE AI website, using the link listed below.

https://aisupplychain.ca

Atlantic Canada – Ocean Supercluster

Canada’s economy benefits from the ocean industry on the Atlantic Coastline including fisheries, aquaculture, marine bio-products, transportation, defence, marine renewables, oil and gas, and overall ocean technology. The Ocean Supercluster will partner with companies such as IBM, Siemens, Microsoft, and ABB, to name a few.

https://oceansupercluster.ca

Superclusters will create programs to better lead the respective supercluster to their goals in innovation.  Programs are initiated by members of each supercluster that determine these projects. The project ideas increase collaboration across organizations within the supercluster. Then Projects are then decided upon by the board of the respective supercluster and projects are supported by matching government funding.

The investment is to be matched dollar for dollar by the private sector and is expected to provide over 50,000 jobs in the next ten years, allowing Canada’s economy to grow. The projects that come out of Canada’s supercluster initiatives will increase productivity, jobs, economic growth, and hopefully make Canada a global leader in the energy sector for innovation. More information on the Supercluster Initiative can be found at: https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/093.nsf/eng/00008.html .