Building a smarter smart grid: Practical innovations from Ontario, Canada start-ups

Practical smart grid innovations from Ontario, Canada start-ups.

While many smart grid innovations are technically complex, a renewable energy storage solution from Ontario-based HydroStor is brilliantly simple.

Imagine filling a child's balloon with air, trapping the air, then releasing it slowly and steadily when you need more air.

HydroStor's technology does essentially the same thing, only with energy. Instead of a child's balloon, imagine an array of large-scale marine bags tethered 80 meters underwater. On the surface, compressors driven by excess solar or wind energy fill the bags with air. When the energy is needed, the stored air is released, driving a turbine which returns the energy to the grid at a steady rate.

HydroStor will begin building the world's first 1 MW underwater Compressed Air Energy Storage System demonstration facility this summer in Lake Ontario, near Toronto.

"We think HydroStor has tremendous potential for urban areas where adding more generating and transmission infrastructure is tough," says HydroStor's President Cameron Lewis. "Cities can increase their local energy capacity with HydroStor technology that is low cost, easily scalable and has a low environmental impact. We estimate that 30 to 40 per cent of cities around the world have access to water that is deep enough to operate this efficiently."

The HydroStor solution is based on proven technologies, from marine bags to other components that have been adapted from offshore oil and gas rigs. To develop the system, HydroStor worked with researchers at the University of Windsor whose leading expertise in automotive technologies is being leveraged to explore innovations in underground compressed air systems and other green energy opportunities.

Grid-scale solutions are critical to answering the challenges faced by communities, but private citizens are also key players in the smart grid.

Individuals are both energy consumers and potential energy suppliers to the Ontario grid through backyard wind turbines or rooftop solar arrays. SPARQ Systems, a spin-off from the Centre for Energy & Power Electronics Research (ePOWER) at Queen's University in Kingston, is targeting that end-user market with its next-generation solar technology.

SPARQ has developed a software-driven microinverter for solar panels that increases energy output by 30 per cent, lasts three times longer than the microinverters now used in most solar panels, and can communicate with the smart grid. As a bonus, it makes solar panel installation much easier.

"This is disruptive technology," says SPARQ Systems Chief Operating Officer Randall North. "It transforms solar panels into a simple household appliance that can be plugged into a wall and controlled with a smartphone app."

SPARQ is currently working with German solar panel manufacturer Sovello and the Australian company Applied Solar Wind Solutions, and is in discussions with Global Wedge about entering the Indian market.

SPARQ, HydroStor and dozens of other smart grid start-ups are springing from a business environment in Ontario designed to support the growth of innovative companies.

R&D tax incentives in Ontario are among the most generous in the G7. In addition, research projects undertaken in partnership with universities, colleges and many other publicly supported institutions qualify for an additional 20 per cent tax deduction.

Ontario also has a network of organizations dedicated to connecting researchers with innovative companies and the marketplace.

MaRS, located in the heart of downtown Toronto's Discovery District, is among the newest of these organizations. It was specifically designed as a facility where researchers, industry, funding agencies and financial institutions could converge. One of its areas of focus is clean tech, including the smart grid.

The Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) is the largest player in the province's innovation support network. Founded 25 years ago, OCE acts as a catalyst that connects companies with researchers to help them gain a competitive advantage. Since 2005, OCE has invested $37 million in clean energy projects, including smart grid technologies.

OCE works with companies of all sizes, from start-ups to multinationals. Both HydroStor and SPARQ are clients of OCE, as well as industry leaders such as GM and First Solar. OCE now has smart grid projects underway involving researchers at 10 Ontario universities and colleges.

"We see a number of areas emerging where Ontario firms are developing innovative smart grid solutions," says OCE's Director of Business Development John MacRitchie. "One is in improving the integration of renewable energy and electric vehicles into the system. A second area is developing better analytics to optimize the value of smart meter and grid automation data. The third area of opportunity is in energy storage as a system tool."

Ontario has embraced the smart grid. Having just completed one of the world's largest roll-outs of smart meters, the province has laid out the welcome mat for new smart grid ideas and is inviting companies from around the world to come and develop better energy technologies in Ontario's smart grid sandbox.

The result is that the province is emerging as a global testing ground and launching pad for a wave of innovative smart grid solutions. International leaders such as GE Digital Energy, Telvent, IBM Canada, Trilliant and others are deeply involved with developing and piloting new approaches to solve complex grid challenges.

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