Smart Grid research in Ontario, Canada: Accelerating grid evolution

While energy utilities worldwide are poised to make major investments in smart grids, researchers in Ontario are finding ways to help them make the grid greener, more efficient and more reliable.

While energy utilities worldwide are poised to make major investments in smart grids, researchers in Ontario are finding ways to help them make the grid greener, more efficient and more reliable.

It comes as no surprise that Ontario, with iconic Niagara Falls on its doorstep, has a long history of developing large-scale hydro-electric networks. Over the past century, as the power grid serving Ontario's booming economy became more complex and sophisticated, researchers at Ontario universities developed a long list of ground-breaking solutions to energy system challenges.

Today, the research focus is on Smart Grids. Ontario has recently completed the province-wide deployment of 4.6 million smart meters and mandatory time-of-use rates for 3.1 million customers, one of the largest and most successful roll-outs in the world.

Dr Rajiv Varma at the University of Western Ontario is developing a technology that both solves a critical Smart Grid issue and enables solar farms to make money at night.

One of the biggest grid challenges is that renewable energy from wind or solar generators is intermittent, which plays havoc with the need of the power grid to be steadily balanced at all times.

Dr. Varma's solution involves linking solar inverters with nearby wind turbines. At night, when the turbines can potentially generate more power due to high winds, the grid operator currently has little choice but to disallow the turbines, as they are likely to increase system voltages beyond acceptable limits.

But with Dr. Varma's approach, the wind turbines can feed the excess night-time power into the grid with voltage control provided by the temporarily-dormant solar farm. In effect, the turbine uses the solar farm as a type of reactive power compensator called STATCOM.

The end result is clean, consistent power levels and an overall increase in the total amount of renewable energy allowed into the grid. This allows the wind farm to generate more revenue which can be shared with the solar farm operator in a win/win alliance.

This nighttime solar technology will be showcased for the first time in Canada in the networks of London Hydro and Bluewater Power in summer 2012.

Dr. Varma's research involves both academic and industry partners. They include Hydro One, London Hydro, Bluewater Power, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), Ontario Power Authority (OPA) and First Solar, the operator of an 80 MW solar farm near Sarnia which is currently the largest in North America.

"OCE brought Hydro One, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) and a number of leading companies to meet with a group of us academics and said to the companies what's your biggest headache?'" recounts Dr. Varma when asked about the inspiration for his project. "It was an excellent opportunity to share ideas and information. I enjoy working with industry partners because their perspective brings so much value to the process of finding solutions."

The University of Waterloo, an institution widely recognized for its strengths in computer engineering, is also involved in Dr. Varma's project. In September 2011, Mahindra Satyam, a leading global consulting and IT services provider, announced it would establish a new Smart Grid Research and Innovation Centre in collaboration with the University of Waterloo's Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE).

"Ontario is now a leading global jurisdiction in the Smart Grid sector," said the University of Waterloo's Dr. Jatin Nathwani, Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy Management. "The next steps are to convert this advantage to provide Ontario companies a leg up to capture the opportunities in the global market place for solutions that are Ontario innovations."

Graduate students are doing just that at the e-Power Centre, Queen's University, Kingston. Several smart grid-related projects are now underway in partnership with companies such as Honeywell and Freescale Semiconductors.

Industry leaders such as GE are also tapping into Ontario's pool of Smart Grid expertise to ramp up their own research investments.

GE has operated in Ontario for more than 100 years, beginning with a manufacturing facility in Peterborough, Ontario founded by Thomas Edison in 1892.

Today GE's global headquarters for grid automation is in Markham, just north of Toronto. GE is a key partner in Smart Grid initiatives across the province, including Hydro One's leading-edge Advanced Distribution System pilot project near Owen Sound that involves approximately 25,000 customers spread over 5,000 square miles of forests and rural countryside.

GE is opening a new $40 million Grid IQ Innovation Centre in September 2012. The 200,000 square-foot facility will have a global mandate to develop and manufacture smarter grid technologies. It will include an extensive testing and simulation laboratory designed to give inventors the resources they need to accelerate the development of new energy solutions.

"Because of GE's history and our strength in grid automation here, Ontario was an ideal choice for our new Grid IQ Innovation Centre," says Claudio Cargnelli, General Manager, Product Marketing, for GE's digital energy business. "Ontario has highly skilled, educated workforce and multilingual residents who can work comfortably with our customers anywhere in the world."

Smart Grid technologies hold the potential to transform our electrical systems and deliver a greener, more reliable energy future. Backed by a strong history of energy innovation, researchers in Ontario are helping power utilities worldwide fulfill that Smart Grid promise.

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