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The British Columbia Institute of Technology is working to develop a smart grid for its Burnaby campus, including solar, steam and battery power. Here is a solar installation on the roof of BCIT’s Gateway building.

This is part of an eight-week series on clean energy.

A power outage will never be an excuse to skip class at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) in the future, as the campus gets closer to building a "smart" micro grid system allowing it to generate its own electricity using alternative energy sources.

BCIT has been working since 2007 to build a smart micro grid on its Burnaby site using sources such as solar, wind and steam turbines.

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The project, still under construction, is among the first of its kind in Canada and is part of a global push toward more clean energy sources amid growing concerns about climate change. It's also a way to use the centralized power system more efficiently, helping to reduce the potential for blackouts.

"This might be what he future looks like for reliable and what they call 'perfect power,'" says Clay Howey, research program head for BCIT's Group for Advanced Information Technology, which is driving the program with some advisory and technical support from BC Hydro.

A micro grid by definition operates independently of a main electricity grid, with its own generation supply. They have been used for years in remote communities and mining operations without access to a central grid, using mostly diesel generators as the power supply.

Part of what makes micro grids "smart" is the technology that allows them to function either entirely on their own or in co-ordination with a main grid, by generating, distributing and regulating electricity locally. The smart micro grid can use its own electricity when available, and rely on the main grid when it's not.

Technology, such as metering systems, help the smart micro grid to better balance power generation with demand, as well as to integrate mainstream energy sources, such as hydro or natural gas, with alternative energy sources, such as biomass, solar and wind.

There are only a few large-scale examples of true smart grids around the world similar to what BCIT is building. The main challenges are cost, and offering reliable, or what experts call "firm," power generation.

"The wind doesn't always blow, the sun doesn't always shine, so how do you meet demand … with a generation source that doesn't necessarily match when the demand is?" Mr. Howey says.

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"We want a higher penetration of renewables, but how do we make that power firm?"

Mr. Howey says storage is part of the solution, as well as technology to manage electricity flow.

The initial phase of the BCIT project includes installing an energy management system to help monitor and manage power, telling it when the cheapest or cleanest power is available.

BCIT hasn't set a target of when it could operate off the main grid, which suggests it's several years away. The polytechnic school does have a demonstration home powered by solar, wind, an electric vehicle charger and energy management technologies such as smart metres. BCIT's goal is to use as much renewable energy as possible in the overall smart grid project.

A handful of off-grid remote communities in Canada are also adding renewables to their existing micro grids to help them wean off diesel-generated power. Examples include the wind-hydrogen-diesel energy demonstration project in Ramea, Nfld., and a run-of-river hydroelectric facility in Hartley Bay, B.C., both of which have received the support of government.

The challenge for these micro grids in the future is integrating and storing the renewables and making them reliable when there is no backup grid, says Tim Weis, director, renewable energy and efficiency policy at the Pembina Institute. He argues that Canada is behind other countries when it comes to ramping up on renewables and related technology for its electricity systems.

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"One of the problems is we don't have a consistent motivation to move these projects across the country," says Dr. Weis, who is calling on the federal government to build a better renewable energy strategy.

"We need to be a little more bold, rather than just doing a few pilot projects."

Cost is an issue for implementation, especially given the cheap electricity sources in Canada today and the concentration of hydro electricity, which is already considered clean when compared with fossil fuels.

Reliability of renewables is also a big concern, says Jim Burpee, chief executive of the Canadian Electricity Association.

"I can't foresee a situation yet where we'd want to be on the micro grid all the time because you always want to have access to backup supply from somewhere," says Mr. Burpee, whose organization represents Canada's electricity sector, including the large utilities from coast to coast.

Instead, he says it's better to focus on the gradual introduction of more renewables into the mix and balance them using the latest technology to lower the carbon content.

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Mr. Burpee also notes that many of Canada's large utilities are constantly working on ways to add renewables to their main grids. "I just don't see the economics of self-sufficient micro grids all over the place. You'd always want them linked for reliability reasons," he says.

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