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The city of Sault Ste. Marie is a believer in distributed power and has some 60 megawatts worth of solar panels connected to the grid. (James Smedley)
The city of Sault Ste. Marie is a believer in distributed power and has some 60 megawatts worth of solar panels connected to the grid. (James Smedley)

The D-I-Y power revolution that’s re-energizing the globe Add to ...

Distributed power provides electricity close to the end-user, minimizing energy waste and serving remote areas

When you think of Alberta’s oil sands – pro or con aside – you think primarily of the huge operations that extract the bitumen for use as commercial oil. But an energy story that’s often overlooked is where the industry gets the power to be able to do its job.

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The answer increasingly lies with natural gas and its role in the growing deployment of what is known as distributed power. Oil and gas producers in communities such as Fort McMurray are looking more and more to generators that provide them with the juice to do the job.

Distributed power fits well with Canada’s oilfield and natural gas operations, which are often remotely located without access to power infrastructure, yet typically have access to field gas that’s generated on-site. Technologies such as fuel-flexible gas engines can often be used to convert this unprocessed field gas into power for drill rigs, artificial lifts, pump-jacks, and worker camps. These technologies have the potential to reduce emissions from oilfield power generation by 95 per cent.

Several energy companies in the oil sands, for example, have installations of 85-megawatt GE 7E generators that provide combined heat and power (CHP) – right where the power is needed.

To understand the promise of distributed power, think of the difference between old-style mainframe computers and your laptop or phone, says Anouk Kendall, President of Decentralized Energy Canada. “At one time, to do computing you had to be in a 3,000-square-foot room with a special cooling system. Now we’ve got hand-held computers that do everything for us,” she says.

Ms. Kendall’s organization is a not-for-profit “technology accelerator” − it brings together capital, producers and potential distributed-power users. “We work with residential and industrial and community end-users and look at what kinds of technologies can be deployed,” she says.

While her analogy to computers is apt, and many experts see distributed energy as the wave of the future, it is still a long way from being adopted as extensively as the public took to smartphones and tablets. But it’s only a matter of time, Ms. Kendall says.

“A grand transformation is underway,” says Brandon Owens, GE’s Ecomagination Director, in a paper published in February this year. By 2020, the global distributed-energy industry will have $206-billion in annual investment, making up 42 per cent of the world’s power capacity. He puts distributed energy in the same context as widespread decentralization in higher education and healthcare. Everything from telecommunications to shopping to watching movies has been decentralized, so now it’s electric power’s turn. 

From Edison onward

The concept of distributed power has been around since Thomas Edison built the first power plant in 1882. It simply means putting the power source closer to the point of use. Instead of having to travel hundreds or thousands of kilometres, a distributed network is decentralized.

It can be a system in which the gas-powered, solar, wind or other generators are distributed along a network to meet local demand and augment the grid, and in some cases send excess energy into the larger grid. Or it can be a stand-alone micro-grid.

One of the big advantages of decentralization is flexibility.

Another advantage is that a distributed energy system doesn’t lose power because of long transmission distances. Having the power supply closer to where it’s used can also minimize electricity losses and theft − a huge problem in developing countries. The World Bank’s Development Indicators say that in 2011, average global electricity losses were 12.5 per cent, and higher in countries like India, where they were 21 per cent.

Ms. Kendall notes that build times for distributed energy plants are much quicker, too. “You can put up a 1 MW co-gen [co-generation] gas plant in less than two years,” she says, and string a series of them together at an industrial site or remote community. Compare this with the decade or more it takes to build a nuclear plant.

There is no standard size for a distributed power facility. Typically, they are less than 100 megawatts (MW) — and often less than 50 MW. They can be as small as a single megawatt.

Some people think of distributed energy projects as quirky one-offs or demonstration projects. While there are many of these, this is changing. Remote communities are interested in being less dependent on faraway power plants, or in the North, on diesel generators.

Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is into distributed energy in a big way. Ms. Kendall says the city has 60 MW worth of solar panels connected to the grid, 189 MW of wind power, an energy-from-waste demonstration facility, 75 MW of co-generation using excess gas from steel making, a methane facility and a tire recycling facility that can produce power.

The Northwest Territories is using wood pellets for distributed power, receiving 418,000 tonnes from northern British Columbia and Alberta and some additional pellets from willow trees along the Mackenzie River basin, where willows are considered an invasive species.

In Canada, the distributed-energy industry is responsible for $5.6-billion in annual economic output, providing the equivalent of 47,000 full-time jobs. It’s important globally too. U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced his Power Africa initiative, seeking to drive growth on that continent by increasing access to more reliable, affordable and sustainable power.

In June 2014, GE Power & Water unveiled its new Distributed Power business for Africa, launching it in Lagos, Nigeria. “In areas of Africa where traditional grid service is poor or does not exist, we are seeing more customers seeking to install distributed power technologies that can help ensure that homes and businesses have more reliable supplies of electricity,” said Lorraine Bolsinger, President and CEO of GE’s Distributed Power.


For more innovation insights, visit www.gereports.ca


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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