How to keep electricity sustainable and affordable

On the southern edge of Parry Sound, Ontario, 10 neat rows of solar panels stand where a landfill used to be. The solar farm is part of the city’s effort to become a net-zero community. These efforts also include building a 2.5-megawatt battery, installing Tesla Powerwall storage systems in 10 buildings, adding EV chargers, and equipping 50 homes and businesses with smart thermostats on their water heaters.

The project, known as Speedier, shows how new technologies can work together to balance supply and demand in a grid that uses renewable energy. But it has an added benefit: it results in fewer outages for some residents. Rural communities are vulnerable to power outages from incidents like falling branches, according to Vince Kulchycki, chief operating officer of utility company Lakeland Power, which led the project. Speedier has created a microgrid that can operate in isolation from the larger power grid when needed. “We’ve had a few outages where the power went out completely and that grid stays on. It’s seamless, there’s no off and then on again,” says Kulchycki.

Speedier is an example of the clean and flexible power system Canada needs to meet its climate goals. But orchestrating the shift to a greener grid will be difficult and expensive. With power demand expected to increase by 50 percent over the next decade, RBC warned this week that Ontario could face power shortages as early as 2026. The bank predicts that up to $7 billion will need to be spent on energy storage systems alone to fill gaps in supply when conditions are not suitable for wind or solar power.

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As governments around the world focus on cutting emissions quickly, some industry observers argue that more support will be needed for low-income individuals and communities who are least adapting to higher costs or investing in home-style technologies Failures can protect energy storage.

“The energy transition will feed directly into the problem of energy poverty, as renewable energy will often be more expensive than the way we currently produce electricity,” says Daniel Larsen, co-founder of energy storage heat pump manufacturer Stash Energy.

“I feel for people who rent or live on a fixed income. They cannot install a solar system on their roof. They cannot necessarily buy more efficient devices. It’s a huge problem and it’s something we need to confront as a society. This energy transition must not come at the expense of those who cannot afford it.”

Parry Sound’s project was funded by the federal government rather than billpayers, and Kulchycki stresses that utility companies are aware of the need to keep energy affordable, especially for low-income groups. But it seems inevitable that governments will need to do more to help communities make the clean energy transition and create new programs to help people buy energy-saving appliances.

Destenie Nock, assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, says there is already an “energy equity gap” in the US as lower-income people reduce their energy use. Research has shown that in hot weather, lower-income groups wait until the temperature rises between four and seven degrees Fahrenheit before turning on their air conditioning, compared to wealthier people.

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As dangerous heat waves become more common in the US, numerous heat-related deaths have been linked to people who have rationed their air conditioning use in hard-hit states like Arizona.

Nock says governments should focus on the communities that are most difficult to transition to clean energy and develop workable plans for them. That might include looking beyond wind and sun to things like tidal or geothermal energy, if those make more sense in some places.

“There are a lot of municipalities out there that can take over wind and sun and benefit from it,” says Nock. “But there are many other renewable energies that we should continue to develop.”

According to Nock, the goal must be to create a sustainable and fair energy system. “It’s about making sure people feel they can consume what they need to live comfortable, healthy and safe lives.”

Hear more from Destenie Nock on how to rethink our energy systems in the latest episode of the new MaRS podcast Solve for X.

David Paterson writes about technology for Mars. Torstar, the parent company of Toronto Star has partnered with MaRS to highlight innovation in Canadian companies.

Disclaimer This content was created as part of a partnership and as such may not meet the standards of impartial or independent journalism.

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