As Canada’s electric grid operators inch toward decarbonization and attempt to meet growing demand for power, ABB Canada’s Jay Misheal points to three areas that must be addressed to ensure a smooth transition into the future.
In an article and interview, Misheal outlined ways to modernize utilities by drawing on the three Ds of power generation: decentralization, decarbonization and digitalization.
“Utilities today are much different than what they were 10, 15 years ago," Misheal, ABB Canada’s business development manager for North American utilities, told Sustainable Biz Canada. "Gone are days where a utility would generate electricity, deliver it through a transmission line to residential, commercial, industrial customers.”
The major challenges of adjusting to legislation pushing grids toward low-carbon electricity and modernizing Canada’s aging infrastructure will require billions in investment between now and 2035, he said.
The estimate Misheal pointed to is contained in a report by the Canadian Electricity Association, that found $350 billion is needed between 2015 and 2050 to modernize Canada’s grid.
Decentralization is an important topic posing a challenge for utilities, Misheal said.
The emergence of distributed energy resources such as solar and wind farms means cleaner power, but those projects are rarely the smoothest operations, according to Misheal.
Running kilometres of utility lines to remote areas is expensive and difficult for companies to accomplish. Thus, microgrids (decentralized, small-scale electrical grids) are an alternative to maintain electricity generation from solar or wind with a battery back-up system, he explained.
He anticipates microgrids will grow in use and become vital for the more remote regions of Canada.
Decarbonization by reducing use of SF6
Transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a well-known solution for decarbonizing electricity, but a little-known greenhouse gas also deserves attention, Mishael said.
Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) is a gas used in electricity transmission and distribution, including clean electricity sources. It is an excellent electrical insulator but also a very powerful greenhouse gas — 23,500-times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Additionally, it lingers for thousands of years in the atmosphere, continuing to warm the climate long after carbon dioxide or methane has decayed.
SF6 erodes the ozone layer, compounding the problem for another significant environmental challenge, Misheal also noted.
While the use of SF6 cannot be entirely eradicated with today’s technology, Misheal said existing means such as air insulation can drastically reduce its usage.
Utility providers have been trying to move away from or ban SF6 while modernizing equipment, he said. ABB, for example, has a solid dielectric switchgear that is particularly effective in medium-voltage power distribution.
He also argues it is more economical to make the change now. Though the cost of solid dielectric switchgear may initially be more versus continuing to use SF6, Misheal said avoiding the costs of maintenance and not having to deal with the consequences of a leak means the equipment pays off in the long-term.
How digitization can help
The increased chances of extreme weather events from climate change will inevitably impact utilities. Misheal gave the example of a tree being blown over by high winds, knocking out a power line.
Digitization, the implementation of digital technology into a business, can help energy providers adapt. A utility can embed sensors to precisely identify where an outage took place to efficiently rectify the problem, for example.
Another option is to use the data from sensors to figure out when peak demand occurs and when some household equipment such as a thermostat or electric vehicle charger needs to be shut off remotely.
ABB offers Ability, a software-as-a-service product that uses sensors to send data to a centralized source to monitor energy use and find efficiencies.
The future of utilities in Canada
With aging infrastructure and urbanization in Canada, Misheal said there must be a balanced approach to upgrading transmission equipment as demand for electricity rises.
Global warming and climate change will alter weather patterns, placing more stress and risk on infrastructure.
Grid operators will have to consider adaptations such as microgrids, distributed energy resources, the use of waterproof equipment and underground electricity infrastructure, Misheal said.