Over the last few years, the provincial government and Manitoba Hydro have tied themselves in knots trying to figure out how to get electricity from massive northern dams to southern markets.
Perhaps they have missed the point. If Manitoba was to move towards smart grids and distributed energy, perhaps new dams and transmission lines may not be required in northern Manitoba.
At the very minimum, to move to smart grids and distributed energy (i.e. energy generated from many instead of few locations) would: improve the security of supply of energy across Manitoba; distribute benefits associated with electrical energy production more equitably throughout Manitoba; encourage the adoption of combined heat-and-power energy systems in agricultural, commercial, industrial and institutional settings; reduce greenhouse gas emissions and negative environmental impacts associated with energy mega-project development; create a platform to implement demand-side energy management systems and time-of-use rates; more fully utilize existing electrical transmission and distribution assets throughout Manitoba.
Today, our electrical generation, transmission and distribution architecture remains virtually unchanged from the 1950’s. As a result, the assets are under-utilized and there is a large amount of idle capacity in the system. The system is somewhat comparable to operating an airline where the airplanes are only used once or twice a week or a farm where the land is only cropped once every three or four years.
Our security of supply is dependent on a handful of long distance transmission lines that connect us with hydroelectric dams and export markets. These links are vulnerable to both natural and man-made disruptions.
There are a wealth of opportunities to harness including biomass, biomass, wind, solar and small hydro electrical energy production. The challenge is to create a smart system that makes it economically viable to connect with the electrical grid.
For example, combined heat-and-power systems present an opportunity to shift Manitoba towards a more renewable model of energy supply and increased energy security. In Europe, combined heat-and-power systems are used to provide both heat and electricity to households, retail and commercial establishments, factories, institutions and even entire communities.
Distributed energy production, smart grid metering (including time-of-use rates), and combined heat-and-power systems can employ renewable forms of energy to replace non-renewable energy supplies such as oil, natural gas, and coal. Moving in this direction could also delay and minimize the need to construct mega-dams on northern rivers and their negative impacts on aquatic life and the social conditions in neighbouring communities.
Moving towards distributed energy and smart grids would create an infrastructure system that could provide real-time price signals to consumers about the current cost of energy. By responding to these market price signals, consumers could shift demand to off-peak periods and increase the efficiency and overall profitability of our energy supply system. Employing home automation systems such as smart thermostats or smart automobile heaters could further decrease costs and increase efficiency. In the longer term, the introduction of plug-in-hybrid vehicles could really take advantage of this ability to time-shift demand.
Moving towards smart grids and distributed energy production could provide significant benefits for residents of both northern and southern Manitoba. Instead of being passive subjects of energy development, northern residents and communities could become owners and operators of their own energy production and distribution systems.
There may even be some value in exploring a “return to the past” in terms of the design and operation of electrical infrastructure systems. Local people and communities instead of a centralized bureaucracy could own energy plants and sources. Also, not every Hydro subscriber and every Manitoba taxpayer need carry the risk and liability of paying for hydro energy mega-projects in northern Manitoba; it might well make sense to let the private sector pay for and carry the risk associated with these investments.
Today’s business, government and policy leaders must steps today to create better conditions for future generations. The provincial government and Manitoba Hydro need to move into the 21st-century in the design and investment of electrical energy.