Gone are the days when renewable energy and carbon-neutral economy were simply fancy terms used among environmentalists. Renewables have finally found their place in the sun.
Falling prices, improving technology and wider adoption have coalesced to create a tailwind that has put clean energy on an irreversible path of growth and sustainability.
There has been a global push for energy efficiency and renewable energy as a way to curb our reliance on conventional sources and reduce noxious carbon emissions.
The power industry, in Canada and elsewhere, has responded well to the shift as utilities are increasingly aligning their energy strategies with the growing demand for cleaner, sustainable energy.
And there’s a good reason for it. More than 75 per cent of global energy supply currently depends on non-renewable sources such as coal, oil and natural gas (fossil fuel), which contribute significantly to carbon dioxide emissions.
Moreover, there are practical reasons driving this shift, such as a limited amount of fossil fuel that can be mined from the earth.
“Future generations won’t be able to produce energy from these resources,” says Kaliyur Sridharan, director, utility sales and North America strategy atSchneider Electric, an energy management firm. “We can’t do the same kind of energy harvesting we’ve been doing for a 100 years for the next 200 years.”
The new energy economy, he says, is going to be driven by three key trends: decarbonization, decentralization and digitization.
Decarbonization refers to producing energy with a smaller carbon footprint.
“The new energy economy will be highly influenced by how much carbon we’re still going to produce in order to gain the same amount of energy,” says Sridharan.
Decentralization is aimed producing energy close to consumption and therefore, benefiting the ecosystem and the end user. This approach also reduces loss of energy during transportation. Typically, energy is produced centrally and is transported though gas lines or electrical grids to where it’s consumed.
Digitization refers to the sustainability initiatives in several organizationswhere digitization helps ensure the same data and information are available across a wide range of stakeholders to enable uniform decisions.
Government policies are also pushing the shift. For example, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPF) regulation mandates that a portion of electricity be from a renewable source.
“Renewable energy portfolio encourages users to have more renewable integrated into their energy,” says Sridharan. “This can only happen if there are agreements between the generators and the consumers about how integrated energy will be consumed.”
As a result, utilities are innovating. Energy producers both in the U.S. and Canada are modernizing their grids by integrating cutting-edge technologies into their system creating new business models for energy delivery.
Much of the grid modernization has resulted from policy changes that inform utilities how to do business. Government-backed programs such as the Feed-in-Tariff, or FIT, and microFIT initiatives provide financial incentives for individuals and corporations to invest in renewable energy production.
One of the fastest emerging trends in renewables is the concept of prosumer – meaning consumers who are also producers of the commodity.
Under the government programs, consumers can be part of the ecosystem as prosumers generating power at the same time as they’re consuming it. Solar panels or electric cars are the most common vehicles driving this trend.
“Solar panel prices are dropping steadily and it’s much more economical for Canadian households to install solar-powered energy services,” says Sridharan.
Robert Baxter, co-owner, Vancouver Renewable Energy, has been installing solar panels for 14 years and says in the past four years he has seen significant growth.
“There was one year where we installed more solar panels than all of the previous years combined,” he says.
He attributes the growth to the price of electricity going up, as well as an increasing awareness of renewable energy.
The other area of evolution is electric cars whose popularity is soaring thanks to higher gas prices and climate change concerns.
A great deal of renewable energy adoption depends on advances in the storage area. As costs fall and efficiency improves, storage is becoming cost-effective for commercial customers and is playing a greater role in their energy strategies.
Also, for households the prospect of having their own power on tap holds greater appeal than exporting it to the grid.
Travis Simpkins, chief technology officer, muGrid Analytics says this is adding a new twist to renewables because his clients add energy storage, which allows them to store their excess electricity and decide when to sell out.
“If they use more during the day when it is worth less they can charge their battery and then discharge it during evening hours,” says Simpkins.
This is called net metering and policies vary by province. For example, in British Columbia a net metering customer receives a credit to their account if they generate more electricity than they consume.
Overall, there are now various forms of storage that are available such as conventional batteries, flow batteries and hydrogen storage solutions.
However, renewable energy is an ecosystem where everyone has a role to play from the generation to the consumption to make it economically viable. “It’s not one man’s game to win. Together as a community we all win,” says Sridharan.
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