Last week I had the opportunity to interview Nicole Risse, Interim Executive Director at Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA). OSEA is a non-profit organization that acts as an advocate and facilitator for a sustainable energy economy in Ontario.
I took this chance to pick Nicole’s brain on some of the energy issues presently plaguing Ontario, including our aging nuclear plants, the sustainability of natural gas, renewable energy co-ops, and the potential of wind and solar power in our province. She also talked about Green Energy Doors Open, a project of OSEA that aims to raise awareness of renewable energy projects in Canada, and touched on her vision for Ontario’s green energy future.
Decentralized energy systems: local energy and local benefits
Nicole is a strong believer of the benefits of adopting a decentralized energy system— composed of many smaller renewable energy-powered generation sites, where different points are interconnected and energy gets transmitted back and forth (like an internet network); as opposed to a centralized one, where transmission lines only transfer power out with no backflow possible. Ideally, such energy systems would be built by local communities, which would in turn create jobs and build resilient, energy independent communities.
Allowing communities to spearhead and participate in the development of projects through local co-ops, municipalities, and First Nation bands would not only keep the benefits local, it could also prevent divisions in rural communities stemming from NIMBY-ism surrounding large energy projects.
Natural Gas: A bridge to a fully decentralized energy system
Nicole believes that natural gas is not necessarily all bad– it can act as a “bridge” to help us transition to a fully decentralized energy system, as infrastructure built for natural gas can also be used for biogas. One of the most contentious issues with natural gas is the environmental and health problems caused by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Unfortunately, Nicole believes that unless public outcry against fracking increases, encouraging meaningful action by governments, it will be here to stay.
Nuclear power: An obstacle for Ontario’s 100% renewable energy goals
In Nicole’s opinion, nuclear power is one of the largest obstacles for Ontario’s transition to a 100% renewable energy system. Although it releases comparatively less carbon than other fossil fuels, it creates radioactive waste that is risky and needs to be safely stored for hundreds of years. It also makes Ontario’s energy system very rigid, not allowing room for a decentralized system and preventing the local renewable energy industry from flourishing.
Currently, Ontario is actively pursuing plans to refurbish its aging nuclear plants, potentially keeping us attached for another 30 years. Nicole believes that Ontario should choose to focus instead on conservation and strategic planning, building renewable electricity generation sites where they are needed most.
Financial and economic roadblocks in the co-ops sector
Renewable energy co-ops are a key component of a decentralized energy system. However, many start-up co-ops face several challenges in getting themselves established due to financial and economic hurdles. Many communities are limited to small-scale solar projects as a result of limited financial means, and time and capacity constraints. Large scale projects are not only demanding in terms of capital and resources, they are also subjected to a highly competitive bidding process in Ontario, making it hard for co-ops to get their foot in the door.
Debunking the myths of renewable energy
Renewable energy has often been criticized for being unreliable due to its intermittency– Nicole explained that this is for the most part untrue. In Ontario, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) is responsible for electricity management, and make predictions for electricity consumption in 5-minute intervals. When there is an excess of electricity generated, they would alert generation facilities to turn down their power. Unfortunately, this cannot be done at nuclear plants (considered “baseload power”)– as soon as a nuclear reaction takes place, it cannot be stopped immediately.
Wind energy, on the other hand, is very easy to regulate, and by building multiple wind farms in different locations connected together through the grid, we can virtually remove the intermittency problem. Solar power is also advantageous in that its availability follows our demand. On balance, Nicole agrees that we cannot rely entirely on one technology alone, but use a mixture of solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, coupled with energy efficiency and storage to optimize the strengths of each and built a robust energy system.
Role models for Ontario: Denmark and Germany
At present, Denmark and Germany are known as world leaders in wind power. Denmark made the decision long ago to be as energy independent as possible. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is widely used in the country to ensure waste heat gets utilized in every facility. Germany is a prime example that 100% sustainable energy is possible and achievable– they have created a “virtual power plant” scenario that maps out and interconnects different generation sites to create a 100% renewable electricity supply. On top of that, Germany is also in the process of phasing out nuclear power by 2022.
OSEA’s mission: Increasing policy advocacy and raising awareness
Many Ontarians do not understand how their action affects the larger energy system, or how complex this system actually is. OSEA hopes to build awareness through programs such as Green Energy Doors Open, which gives people the chance to learn about different clean energy technologies and projects that exist in Ontario, and to be part of the solution by building projects on their own homes and communities.
In addition to raising public awareness, OSEA also works to achieve its vision through policy advocacy, encouraging the Ontario government to build a prosperous province with a thriving sustainable energy sector, good jobs, resilient communities and healthy environment powered by portfolios of sustainable energy.
Source of Header Image and Green Energy Doors Open: Green Energy Doors Open website
Source of Image of Nicole Risse and OSEA logo: OSEA website