There is no magic bullet, no single solution that will address the massive global energy inequities that leave billions of people with little or no access to electricity. Instead, change will come from connecting the ideas, innovations and experience of some of the world’s top minds.
Affordable Energy for Humanity (AE4H) focuses on four broad areas of research with the greatest opportunity to create meaningful, sustainable energy change.
RESEARCH AREA 1
Promise and potential: Next-generation batteries
Next-generation batteries are an emerging market with unlimited potential — and Waterloo chemistry professor Linda Nazar is eager to see her team’s extraordinary labours pay off.
Nazar, who was recently named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her advancements in battery systems and clean-energy storage, is contributing to breakthroughs in the design of rechargeable batteries for grid storage, electric vehicles and other clean-energy technology.
“Our research team and others at the University of Waterloo are working on a lot of different battery technologies where we’re starting to see the hard efforts that we’ve put in over the last decade really paying off in terms of making batteries that have higher energy density, that are safer and also have longer cycle life,” says Nazar, who along with colleagues at the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, Zhongwei Chen and Michel Pope, are planning to launch an Electrochemical Energy Research Centre at the University.
Their work could have huge ramifications for energy-poor developing countries.
“In impoverished countries where there’s an abundance of sunshine, it’s critical to be able to store renewable energy in affordable energy storage systems to allow for load leveling and also for storage at night or even off-season storage,” Nazar says.
“That allows communities that are limited in their electrical resources to have a cheap, abundant source of energy to power activity in the evening and when the sun isn’t shining.”
RESEARCH AREA 2
Reducing the carbon footprint, improving energy efficiency
Energy poverty is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, according to Waterloo computer science professor Srinivasan Keshav.
“More than one billion around the world don’t have access to good forms of energy,” Keshav says. “The only energy they have is their own human labour, so if they want to dig a trench they have to do it by hand. How much firewood they can carry determines what they’re going to cook. That’s really what it comes down to.”
Keshav and his research team are focusing on greener, more efficient sources of energy that will ultimately help address these inequities.
“The work I’m doing in this lab is focused on two things,” Keshav explains. “One is to reduce the carbon footprint. The other is to improve the energy efficiency of systems that generate, transmit and consume energy — everything from power plants to the solar panels on your roof.
“Solar efficiency is going up and the costs are coming down at the same rate as costs have gone down for electronics. The same thing is happening with lighting. The technology is now coming into place which allows us to put a panel on the roof, [add] storage and efficient lighting — and you have the ability to transform lives.
“At some level the changes come not just from technology but from policy, not from research but from imagination. We make it possible for somebody to imagine a different future — and that perhaps is the biggest thing we do.”
A smart grid for smarter energy
Just as smartphone technology has come to dominate the way we communicate, the future of 21st-century electricity may well belong to the smart grid.
The smart grid is an intelligent infrastructure that uses information technology — sensors, communications, automation and computers — to improve the way electricity is delivered. It also allows for renewables such as wind and solar power to be part of the equation.
“A lot of people do not have access to the electrical grid the way we do,” says Catherine Rosenberg, a professor of engineering and Canada Research Chair in the Future Internet at Waterloo. “There are two types of technologies that can have a major impact on the smart grid. The first technology is renewables — solar, wind. The second is energy storage.”
Rosenberg, who is collaborating with computer science professor Srinivasan Keshav, says that having access to renewable energy — solar panels, for example — and some storage would allow communities without grid access or with poor grid access to be self-sufficient.
Just as importantly, access must be affordable, and Rosenberg is optimistic that storage will become cost-efficient in the near future.
“Because there are more and more needs for energy storage— for example for electric vehicles — the price of energy storage is going to decrease,” she says. “We are in the business of designing systems by integrating many technologies and showing how those systems should be operated in a cost-efficient manner.”
RESEARCH AREA 3
Energy and sustainability: Lessons from the North
Energy poverty is not confined to the developing world. There are nearly 300 remote communities across northern Canada — about 170 of them First Nations — and most rely on diesel generators with fuel flown in or trucked in via ice road.
It’s not only environmentally damaging, it’s also incredibly expensive — up to $1 per kilowatt hour — so building capacity to get energy from renewable sources is the preferred option.
“In our First Nations communities, we see both huge need and huge opportunity,” says Paul Parker, a professor in the Faculty of Environment. “We are here to work with communities to achieve what they want. The first question is, ‘What future do you want?’ And then it’s, ‘How do we design, evaluate and implement it?’
“The University of Waterloo is probably most famous for its technical capacity, but we also realize that technical capacity needs to have social context. We need the social scientists to work with our engineers and technicians in the North. Our students are fantastic. We’ve trained economic developers for communities across the North where they look and they see an opportunity and they say, ‘Let’s take those solutions to as many communities as possible,’ ” Parker says.
“We already have the technology to make these things happen, so [it’s about] the implementation. And what we are learning in Canada has [global implications] in other parts of the world that experience energy poverty.”
RESEARCH AREA 4
Microgrids and the power of decentralization
As flaws in centralized power grids become apparent — their vulnerability to disruption and dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels — the time has come for renewable energy microgrids to take centre stage.
“Here at Waterloo we have a lot of expertise to provide in microgrids, not only to Canada but to the world, from simulation and modelling to hardware and social interactions withcommunities,” says Claudio Cañizares, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Waterloo.
Scientists are trying to transform microgrids — which can operate independently or in conjunction with main power grids — into renewable energy-based systems by introducing solar and wind power. Challenges being addressed by research at Waterloo include making the systems economically feasible, and learning to manage the variability inherent to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Cañizares and his fellow researchers are doing both theoretical work — simulation, modeling, optimization — and applied science so they can understand how the controls work in different environments.
“One of the main motivations for our work here is to try to improve or facilitate the introduction of these renewable sources and to move away from diesel in the remote, mostly indigenous, communities in Canada,” Cañizares says.
Ultimately, Cañizares believes the impact of affordable energy access will change lives.
His research partners in northern Chile, for example, are seeing young people who had left their communities return once affordable energy sources are introduced, and business opportunities cropping up that didn’t exist before.
“We have come a long way,” he says. “We believe Waterloo is particularly well-positioned … people are paying attention.”
Video: Matt Regehr and Light Imaging
Research and responsibility — what’s the right balance? And are we doing enough? Share your thoughts with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.