Elizabeth Brennan is a University of Calgary Masters student in sustainable energy development who is researching the feasibility of a community energy system

Examining the energy potential

A University of Calgary Masters student is focusing on Canal Flats as an energy systems research topic.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series examining energy systems in the Columbia Valley.

Smart meters will not only offer consumers a better understanding of their energy usage, they set the stage for the efficient design of community energy systems. This is according to University of Calgary Masters student Elizabeth Brennan, who is researching sustainable energy development and using Canal Flats as a model to determine the feasibility of a community energy system there.

“Right now we mostly live in a world of centralized generation,” she said. “You could be receiving electricity from anywhere in the province at a given time.”

In contrast to B.C.’s centralized generation that relies on many large dams, distributed generation is the generation of electricity from many small sources with energy conversion units situated relatively close to where the energy is needed. This type of energy distribution opens the door for renewable energy technologies, Brennan said.

“Although renewable energy technologies as they are today may not be able to replace the large scale power facilities that we rely on, they’re really appropriate on a small local scale,” she said, “so that leads me to my research interest on community sustainability, because small scale measures on a community are actually quite significant, and communities can incorporate renewable energy technologies that are locally appropriate.”

What this means is that where wind is prevalent, wind power is the obvious option, or if a large river is nearby, hydro is the appropriate choice, and so on.

A lot of community energy systems also make use of heat energy by using local renewable resources, Brennan said, such as a mill or some other type of industrial process that produces a lot of waste heat.

“You may nearby have administration buildings or schools that need heat during the day so perhaps there’s a way of coupling a waste with a need,” she said, citing Revelstoke as an example.

In Revelstoke, a biomass burner that uses waste products from the town’s wood industry actually heats about eight commercial buildings with heat exchangers that take heat from a wood chip boiler located right next to the mill.

Although renewable energy technologies produce energy on a smaller scale, they can deliver the energy in a more efficient manner and can make a big difference for a house or a business, and even an entire community. When the energy source is far from the energy use, such is the case with centralized generation, major energy loss is the result, said Brennan.

“Big transmission lines, the big tall power lines, experience losses called line losses; if 1,000 megawatts are produced at one end, you’ll lose about 30 per cent by the time it reaches the customers,” she said. “Every time you change electricity voltage, when you step down or step up, you have some losses which is inevitable but if you develop electricity generation closer to where it’s used, you lose less.”

To investigate the interactions between developing renewable energy and how it fits in with community values, Brennan chose Canal Flats because of its small population (715 people), its remote location, and its potential renewable resources, which include the river and wind on the lake.

“It turns out that a lot of the problems with renewable energy in general is that it’s not a technical problem of whether or not we can install this, it’s people don’t necessarily want it,” she said. “If you were to develop a community energy system, what factors would have to be in place or what values that the community holds would have to be respected for it to go ahead?

“Maybe (people) are in favour of renewable energy in general but they don’t want to see it in their backyard.”

The first stage of Brennan’s project was to create a model using RETscreen software, provided to her for free by Natural Resources Canada.

“This software allowed me to develop a model of what an energy system would actually look like in Canal Flats, roughly how much it could cost, whether it would be financially feasible and how much electricity it could produce,” she said.

Using aggregate data from BC Hydro, she was able to determine how much energy the town uses.

“At the moment it’s really difficult to figure out when the load is highest,” she said. “Right now we just have averages; the smart metering system that’s coming across the province is probably a really good thing in terms of better understanding our energy systems.”

Having come up with two concepts, one being a micro hydro project while the other is part hydro, part wind turbines, Brennan’s next step is to consult with Canal Flats residents to determine which one they prefer and what values they hold around their local environment and landscape.

“I’m not an energy developer… there is no threat to this, it’s very hypothetical,” said Brennan.

She will be conducting her survey on weekends by going door to door, and expects to have the results ready by mid-September.

“I think [renewable energy technologies] can do a lot to really enhance a community, that’s my opinion,” she said.