When Dr. Hassan Farhangi left a successful career as a utility sector researcher and chief technology officer to join BCIT 10 years ago, it was because he could see the future.
"Having worked for almost 25 years in utilities, I knew we were on the verge of a major paradigm shift – moving from the legacy approach, described as load-following, toward a future in which we will strike a balance between load [demand] and cost-effective generation," he says.
Given the necessarily risk-averse nature of utility companies, Dr. Farhangi recognized that it would be difficult for them to implement the many new and untested technologies, components and approaches that would be required.
The solution, he determined, was a partnership between academia and industry.
Dr. Farhangi and his team approached BC Hydro with their idea to design and construct a scaled-down version of an electrical grid that would enable the development, testing and adoption of new technologies and systems. "They saw the merit immediately," he says. "Our mandate at BCIT is applied research – faculty and staff work with industry to advance economic growth in the province. Over the last 10 years, we have enjoyed very close collaboration, partnership and support from BC Hydro, which has enabled us to construct this unique micro grid on our campus."
The Oasis microgrid uses solar, wind and steam systems to provide power to BCIT's Burnaby campus. One of just a few in North America, it is an ongoing experiment that continues to attract interest and investment from around the world, with dozens of industry and government partners.
For students, one of BCIT's primary mandates is ensuring they graduate "job-ready," says Dr. Farhangi, who is now the director of the institute's NSMG-Net/Microgrid Lab. "This shift requires a new breed of engineers and technologists, trained to implement these new 'intelligent grids.' At the same time, at utilities across the country, including BC Hydro, there's a huge amount of [staff] attrition.
"This next-generation grid provides our students with exposure to the latest, leading-edge technologies, so they've already worked with these systems when they join hydros across Canada."
The capabilities of the platform continue to evolve, positioning BCIT to test and implement the emerging technologies yet to come, he adds. "An example is green transportation: we're looking at integration, with several charging stations on campus already talking to our microgrid."
Oasis also provides the blueprint for cost-effective, renewable energy systems for remote regions, says Dr. Farhangi. "The cost of transporting fuels to many First Nations communities across B.C. and Canada is extremely high, and people are exposed to dangerous emissions from these old, diesel generation facilities."
With federal government support, it is now possible to transfer reliable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly energy systems into these communities, training residents to maintain them.
In addition, the project may play a key role in protecting North America's energy infrastructure. "A lot of new technologies that find their way into the utility grid are vulnerable to intrusion from domestic and international terrorists," he says. "With our scaled-down version of the grid, we are experimenting with all kinds of attack scenarios, figuring out what the impact would be and how to mitigate it."
To leverage these technologies more broadly, energy consumers must first be aware of their full potential, he stresses. "We need to show the impact they could have in terms of creating a healthy environment and helping us preserve the finite resources of our planet."
To help advance that awareness, BCIT and BC Hydro have also partnered in the construction of a "typical North American two-storey home" on the Burnaby campus. "We put our technology into the home, and we would love to have the public come and take a look," says Dr. Farhangi. "These are intelligent appliances and energy management systems that can be easily integrated into homes. Consumers can not only reduce their utility bill, but also know they are helping the environment just by changing some of the ways in which energy is consumed."
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