Ontario is in the grip of an electricity supply crisis and, amid a rush for more electricity, it is diving into the world of energy storage – a relatively unknown solution for the grid which, according to experts, could also modify the energy consumption at home.
Beyond the sprawling nuclear power plants and waterfalls that generate most of the province’s electricity are the batteries, the underground caverns storing compressed air to generate electricity, and the flywheels spinning waiting to store energy in times of low demand and feed it back into the system when needed. .
The province’s energy needs are growing rapidly, with the proliferation of electric vehicles and increased manufacturing demand for electricity on the horizon, just as a large nuclear power plant that provides 14% of Ontario’s electricity is about to be decommissioned and other units are being refurbished.
The government is seeking to extend the life of the Pickering nuclear plant, plan an electricity import deal with Quebec, roll out energy-saving programs and, controversially, rely on more of natural gas to bridge the impending gap between demand and supply.
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Independent Electricity System Operator officials say one of the main advantages of natural gas production is that it can ramp up and down quickly to meet changes in demand. Energy storage can offer the same flexibility, say industry players.
Energy Minister Todd Smith has ordered the IESO to secure 1,500 megawatts of new natural gas capacity between 2025 and 2027, as well as 2,500 megawatts of clean technology like energy storage, which together , would be enough to supply the city of Toronto.
That’s a far cry from the 54 megawatts of energy storage currently used in Ontario’s grid.
Smith said in an interview that it is the largest active supply for energy storage in North America.
“The one thing we want to make sure we do is continue to add as much clean production as possible and affordable, clean production that is reliable,” he said.
Rupp Carriveau, director of the Environmental Energy Institute at the University of Windsor, said the timing was right.
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“The space is there, the technology is there and the will for private industry to respond is there,” he said. “I know a lot of companies that have been rubbing their hands, looking at this potential to build storage capacity.”
Justin Rangooni, executive director of Energy Storage Canada, said that due to relatively tight timelines, the 2,500 megawatts will likely be mostly lithium batteries. But there are many other ways to store energy, other than just a battery.
“As we get to future purchases and the years go by, you’ll start to see eventually pump storage, compressed air, thermal storage, different battery chemistries,” he said.
Pump storage involves using electricity during off-peak times to pump water into a reservoir and slowly releasing it to run a turbine and generate electricity when needed. Compressed air works the same way and old salt caverns in Goderich, Ontario are used to store compressed air.
In thermal storage, electricity is used to heat water when demand is low and when needed, water stored in tanks can be used as heat or hot water.
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Flywheels are large spinning tops that can store kinetic energy, which can be used to power a turbine and generate electricity. A flywheel facility in Minto, Ont., has also installed solar panels on its roof and has become Ontario’s first hybrid solar storage facility, a senior IESO official said.
Katherine Sparkes, IESO Director of Innovation, Research and Development, said it was exciting from a network perspective.
“As we look to the future and think about phasing out gas and electrification, one of the big challenges that all electric systems in North America and around the world face is: how to adapt to increasing amounts of variable and renewable electricity resources and simply make better use of your grid assets,” she said.
“Hybrids, storage generation pairings, give you the ability to deal with the variability of renewables, to store electricity when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and use it when you need it.”
The small amount of storage already in the system allows for more fine-tuning of the electrical system, while 2,500 megawatts will be a more “fundamental” part of the toolkit, Sparkes said.
But what’s currently on the network is far from the only storage in the province. Many commercial and industrial consumers, such as large manufacturing facilities or downtown office buildings, use storage to manage their electricity consumption, relying on battery power when prices are students.
The IESO sees this as an opportunity and has changed the market rules to allow these customers to supply power to the grid.
In addition, the IESO monitors the thousands of mobile batteries in electric vehicles that transport people around the province every day, but sit idle most of the time.
“If we can allow these batteries to work together in aggregation, or work with other types of technologies like solar or smart building systems in one configuration, like a group of technologies, it becomes a virtual power plant,” said Sparkes.
Peak Power, a company that seeks to “make power plants obsolete,” is piloting electric vehicles in three downtown Toronto office buildings where car batteries can provide electricity to reduce overall plant demand during peak periods using two-way chargers.
In this model, a vehicle can bring in $8,000 a year, said co-founder and chief operating officer Matthew Sachs.
“Battery energy storage will change the energy industry in the same way and for the same reasons that refrigeration changed the dairy industry,” he said.
“As you had refrigeration, you could store your merchandise and that changed the distribution channels. So I think energy storage will radically change energy distribution channels.
If every house has a solar panel, an electric vehicle and a residential battery, it becomes a powerhouse, a decentralization that is not only more environmentally friendly, but also relies less on “monopolized public services “Sachs said.
Over the next decade, power demand from electric vehicles is expected to skyrocket, and Sachs said the grid cannot grow enough to meet peak demand from hundreds of thousands of vehicles plugged in to charge at the end of the daily commute. Authorities need to consider more incentives such as time-of-use pricing and price signals to ensure demand is balanced, he said.
“It’s a big risk as well as a big opportunity,” he said. “If we do it wrong, it will cost us billions to fix. If we do it right, it can save us billions.
Jack Gibbons, president of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, said provincial and federal governments need to fund and install two-way chargers in order to take full advantage of electric vehicles.
“It’s a huge missed opportunity,” he said.
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“When EV owners supply power to the grid during these peak times, they should be paid by the grid for their electricity, giving EV owners an additional revenue stream.”
As the industry prepares for wider use of storage in the power grid in just a few years, those involved say there are two main hurdles: regulatory uncertainty and supply chain issues.
“Getting that supply for those lithium batteries will be difficult,” said Rangooni, of Energy Storage Canada.
“It’s not a total barrier, but it will take time because now… (you) not only have supply chain constraints, but you’re also competing with the United States, which is really accelerating the adoption of energy storage.”