By Mark Douglas Wessel

On the world stage 145 countries have committed to net-zero targets, representing approximately 90 per cent of carbon emissions—half of which are produced by China, the EU, the U.S., and India according to the independent scientific Climate Action Tracker.

Contributing to an estimated 1.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, Canada’s emissions are smaller than the aforementioned top four. That said, our current population of 39 million is a mere 0 .5 per cent of the globe’s 8.1 billion. And yet at 1.5 per cent, our carbon footprint is three times our population, which translates into being the world’s second highest producer of greenhouse gas per capita and the 11th largest emitter, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada.

The above-mentioned numbers, coupled with the growing incidence of 100-year storms and natural disasters—including more than 6,000 wildfires in Canada alone in 2023, all point to the need to decarbonize by meeting net zero goals as quickly as possible.

Achieving improvements in energy efficiency

Canada has committed to getting to net zero by 2050 and to achieve that goal the International Energy Agency advises (whether for Canada or any other country on the net zero path) that it will require “massive improvements in energy efficiency,” and changes that include “comprehensive energy efficiency renovations… and the growing use of renewable energy while increasing grid flexibility.”

Tied to meeting the country’s net zero goals and decarbonizing our grid, last August National Resources Canada (NRCan) produced a vision paper for the future of the Canadian electricity system known as Powering Canada Forward, which spokesperson Michael McDonald says is the first step toward releasing a clean energy strategy by the end of 2024.

And an integral part of those recommendations will be not just producing clean energy but backing up and storing that energy. Observes McDonald, “energy storage can play a role to help manage electricity demand, especially during peak periods. It can improve grid reliability and reliance (and) help balance electricity supply and demand.” He adds that other benefits of deploying more backup energy solutions include “enabling utilities to develop new operational processes and allow higher integration of renewable energy.”

Charging forward

In what may already be a conservative number, a 2022 report commissioned by Energy Storage Canada predicts that by 2035 the country will need 8-12 gigawatts (GW) of storage. Which means this country needs to embrace a hockey stick model and begin ramping up a great number of energy storage projects on a much larger scale.

Initiatives like the Edwards & Sanborn Solar Energy Storage site in Kern County, California, which according to the U.S. Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) contractor Mortenson, is the world’s largest combined solar/storage project to date.

Spanning 4,660 acres of desert, Edwards & Sanborn consists of more than 1.9 million solar panels (capable of producing 864 MW of energy) and 120,720 batteries (with a storage capacity of 3,287 mWh). Impressive numbers indeed and yet according to Brent Berland, Mortensen’s vice-president of project development for energy storage, those numbers weren’t written in stone when the site was first envisioned.

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“The project originally was smaller and started with solar only. And then as the California market evolved quickly in energy storage, it became apparent to Terra-Gen (the independent energy producer that initiated the project and brought Mortensen on board) that they should figure out a way to incorporate energy storage,” recalls Bergland. “In fact, the amount of solar and storage wasn’t fixed for a pretty significant period of time,” with Terra-Gen working in tandem with all of the partners involved—both public and private, before deciding on the final scope and scale.

Bergland says that a key role for the Kern County site and others, which may not be co-located with wind or solar (as in the case with Enfinite’s installations) is load management. Management in terms of “using energy storage as an asset to deal with the duck curve (that occurs) when solar power comes off during the end of the day and the load ramps up when people come home from work.”

Yet another key differentiator between solar power generation and battery storage Bergland is quick to point out is the land required to make each solution possible. “A megawatt of solar needs five to seven acres of land whereas a megawatt of storage can probably fit in your driveway. And because of energy storage’s footprint, it can be built in an urban environment… next to industrial parks… existing power infrastructure or substations quite easily.”

The 250-MW Oneida Energy Storage Project, currently under construction, is being developed by a consortium that includes the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation, Northland Power, NRStor, and Aecon Group. (AECON)

Two distinct Canadian footprints

Slated for a rural rather than residential area and certainly taking up more than a driveway (but a lot less land than a solar installation), majority owner Northland Power is currently in the advanced stage of completing a 250 MW/1,000 MWh (one gigawatt) battery energy storage facility in Jarvis, Ont.

The Oneida Energy Storage Project is Northland Power’s first investment in battery energy storage and is being developed in partnership with NRStor, the Six Nations of the Grand River Development Corporation and Aecon and is tied to a 20-year fixed price contract with Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO).

As is the case with other energy storage projects, Michelle Chislett, Northland Power’s executive vice president of onshore renewables, says the Oneida site is all about contributing to grid resiliency and helping to offset peak demand.

“In the middle of the summer, when our air conditioners are running, if there’s not enough energy on the system, we can dispatch Oneida and frankly, any other battery on the system to start generating and it’ll have immediate impacts,” says Chislett. “But that’s only half of the equation. The other half is when we have low energy usage in the province and maybe we’ve got too much energy on our grid, which again can cause instability. We can then turn on the batteries and tell Oneida and all the other batteries to store energy.”

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In contrast to power producers focussed solely on wind, solar or storage, Northland Power has project experience in all of these areas and not just in North America, but Asia, Europe and Latin America. And yet to date, Chislett says none of the wind or solar installations are co-located with battery storage.

“But it’s definitely something that needs to be considered for every project going forward,” Chislett opines. That isn’t to say they won’t continue have standalone battery projects either as she says the ultimate decision should come down to “where’s the best place to put the battery for our system.”

Getting pumped for the future

Referencing her company as somewhat “technology agnostic,” Chislett shares that their next proverbial finger in the energy pie is pumped storage. In partnership with Ontario Power Generation, the proposed Marmora Clean Energy Hub Project involves converting a former open-pit iron ore mine into a 400 MW source of clean energy storage.

As explained by the International Hydropower Association, pumped storage uses gravity to generate electricity. Water is pumped from a lower reservoir (in this instance the 200-foot-deep former mine pit) to an upper reservoir at times of low demand. During peak demand times, the water is released, driving to turbine to feed electricity into the grid.

“What we like about Marmora is it’s an abandoned mine. So, turning it into a pumped storage site is not just helping the grid, it’s also helping to reclaim a site that’s otherwise sitting there, unusable [and] it’s a closed loop… that just recirculates the same water… and doesn’t take water from an outside water source (such as a lake).”

A fundamental difference between the Marmora project and the project in Meaford, Ont. that TC Energy Corporation is seeking to bring to fruition, is the latter is designed to move water to and from Georgian Bay.

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Energy and the Ontario Energy Board (OEB) and with prospective partner the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, the Ontario Pumped Storage initiative, if approved, will feed 1,000 MW (one GW) into the province’s grid.

Additional numbers surrounding this initiative cited on TC Energy’s website and a dedicated Ontario Pumped Storage underscores the environmental impact a project of this scale could have, helping to reduce carbon emissions by 490,000 tonnes per year—the equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the road.

In response to concerns from local groups regarding potential environmental impacts, John Mikkelsen, TC Energy’s director for the Ontario Pumped Storage Project, says major changes to the project have already been made. Based on feedback from locals and the Saugeen Ojibway Nation “we went through a fairly significant redesign in 2021 [and] the biggest thing was we put everything underground or underwater.”

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He says the previous designed involved “a conventional shoreline powerhouse, above ground pen stocks and intake to the system [but] we were forced to develop a design that took us out into deeper water. Then we’ve come up with a first for this technology, which is we have 20 screened intakes that remove and return water very gently over a distributed area.”

The last piece of this design reset he says is “we’re tunneling underneath Georgian Bay to get to these inlet outlets that are out about 800 metres from the shore. So other than the reservoir itself, which is going to be above ground on top of the escarpment, virtually everything else is either underground or underwater.”

In addition to environmental concerns regarding the project, some point out that the site would be better served with a battery storage project, which they say on their website has the advantage of a much shorter construction period and is more energy efficient than pumped storage.

However, in contrast to battery storage facilities using lithium-ion cells that may have a 20-year lifespan before they have to be swapped out, Mikkelsen says that with their pumped storage project “we’re assuming an economic lifespan of 80 years, perhaps even longer.” And unlike batteries, where their capacity diminishes over time, “the beauty of pumped storage is in 20 years it’s producing effectively the same level of generation as it is today.”

Despite the differences, he still views pumped storage and backup battery storage as complementary solutions. “From a dispatch perspective, what I would see is as the demand starts to increase, you trigger pump storage facilities to start generating and putting electricity onto the system,” And beyond that if demand continues to rise “that’s when you trigger your lithium-ion batteries.”

NRCan actively supports both storage solutions in light of Canada’s efforts to decarbonize while meeting rising energy demands. McDonald shares “the federal government believes that the choice as to which energy storage technologies are the most appropriate depends on local availability of resources and intended use.” And regardless of choice “the Government of Canada will continue to support (backup energy storage) development and deployment.”

NRCan’s parting advice in dealing with potential roadblocks to energy storage projects moving forward is to embark on “early and meaningful engagement with communities… carried through established, open processes.” Engagement which McDonald adds is “critical to the success of the clean energy transition.”

And one could reasonably argue—critical to the success of Canada achieving its net energy goals.

Mark Douglas Wessel is an urban journalist and communications consultant. He writes a regular column called Green Living for Postmedia.

[This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: The Edwards & Sanborn Solar Energy Storage site in Kern, California is one of the world’s largest combined solar/storage projects. (Mortensen)

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