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7 trends and techs—and 3 obstacles—shaping the big picture for an energy transition

February 25, 2021

By Rachel Bannon-Godfrey and John Ord

Which technologies are driving carbon downward as we move toward distributed energy systems?

This article first appeared as “Driving Carbon Down” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 10.

Both the United Kingdom and North America are taking steps toward distributed energy systems and away from the centralized systems they’ve had for decades. Why? The conventional power system, with its large power plants and vulnerable transmission lines, was built to manage the average demand. It was sized for peak loads. Ramping up and down these large generators is thermally inefficient. And a centralized system isn’t particularly resilient, either.

For the sake of resiliency and reaching both local and global carbon emissions reduction targets, we need to transition the load from a conventional centralized system toward a distributed network of energy sources and loads. Over the past several decades, certain utilities in the UK and North America have gradually moved toward a more distributed system with wind, solar, and waste as energy sources at the district level. So, what’s next for this distributed energy network?

What new technology and applications are coming online and what are their advantages? What is holding back progress at the speed and scale we need to be more resilient today to our changing climate? We talked to a range of experts in carbon, power, and design about the trends and challenges influencing energy. This conversation provides snapshot of the emerging relationship between architecture and power as we move toward a massive energy transition in hope of achieving a less carbon-intensive future.

Decarbonizing the gas network helps incorporate local wind, solar, and energy from waste in the heating system.

1. Buildings as energy plants

Designing new buildings—and retrofitting existing buildings—with minimal energy loads, coupled with on-site renewables, is the path toward a future where buildings generate more energy than they consume. As soon as you have on-site generation, the relationship with the utility grid changes from a linear energy flow to a dynamic relationship.

Add in energy storage and the ever-changing equation gets even more exciting, requiring a blend of virtual and physical energy flows. There’s a catch, however. The grid is, by and large, not yet ready for this new era of “grid interactive” buildings.

2. Decarbonizing the gas network

Decarbonizing the gas network, which means replacing gas-fired heating for buildings with electrical and heat pumps, is already underway in the UK. This promotes resiliency and a further decentralized system that can incorporate local wind, solar, and energy from waste in the heating system.

3. Biofuels as industrial power sources

Agriculture, industrial, and municipalities are emerging as markets for biofuels for power generation in the US. We’re likely to see more of these clients turning to biofuels to lessen their carbon footprint as part of their energy transition. And they will look to biomass like sugarcane, which requires less processing than corn, as a source for ethanol generation. These industrial plants can also use the byproducts of ethanol production to power the plant, even selling power back to the grid.

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One of the largest of its kind in Canada, the Surrey Biofuel Processing Facility is a composting facility that transforms household waste into biofuel.

4. Pumped storage

Battery storage technology is often touted alongside renewables for its potential to unlock even more clean energy. However, a cleaner option is pumped storage, in which wind turbines working at night fill pump-storage reservoirs with water. Later, during peak demand hours of the day, the reservoirs open and the downhill flow generates power.

5. Resource recovery

Plastics are refined hydrocarbons derived from oil. If we can recover and recycle more of these polymers, we can reduce our carbon appetite. At recycling plants like the GBP65 million Polymers 2, near Bristol, England, for UK recycling company Viridor will recycle plastics and sell them back to the industry. The UK’s biggest multi-polymer plant will transform 1.6 billion used bottles, pots, tubs, and trays into pellets, flakes, and other industrial forms of plastic every year as a viable and sustainable solution to virgin plastic.

Polymers 2’s waste-to-energy program will divert 320,000 tons of nonrecyclable waste from landfills and generate 32 megawatts of electricity annually—roughly the energy to power 44,000 homes.

6. Waste to energy, waste to fuel

Not everything is recyclable at present. But waste has a role to play in mitigating carbon appetite, too. In Europe and the UK, waste-to-energy technology is advancing rapidly. In the US, growth is hampered by public opposition (based on the lack of emission control for previous incineration facilities) as well as the low cost of landfill.

In the UK, Polymers 2’s waste-to-energy program will divert 320,000 tons of nonrecyclable waste from landfills and generate 32 megawatts of electricity annually—roughly the energy to power 44,000 homes. Elsewhere in the UK, plants are on track to turn unrecyclable wood and fuel derived from various types of commercial waste into renewable Bio-Substitute Natural Gas (BioSNG) that can be, for example, used in production of low-carbon vehicles.

7. Hydrogen fuel cells

While electric vehicles hold great promise for decarbonizing transportation, technology has yet to solve limitations such as battery charging time and range.

Hydrogen fuel cells, however, hold great promise as a technology for electricity production in vehicles, expanding their range and use. In the UK, biomass gasification will be used to produce Syngas from waste, which can be used to make the hydrogen fuels cells.

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The Canada Line Olympic Village Station in Vancouver, British Columbia, serves as a hub for sustainable transportation. 

3 barriers to progress

1: Out of date codes and regulations: When it comes to carbon reduction, the conversation often trends toward emerging technology that increases efficiency in energy systems and reduce our reliance on carbon fuels. But when it comes to direct-current (DC) powered microgrids, we already have most of the technology (battery storage, on-site renewable systems, smart meters) needed to deploy them in our buildings and our neighborhoods.

DC electrical systems can increase the efficiency of our power systems by reducing the inefficiency of multiple alternating current (AC)/DC conversions in a building. DC systems can operate independently of our AC systems, adding a level of resiliency and enabling us to benefit more from innovative energy infrastructure options like microgrids, distributed power, and renewables. DC microgrid systems tend to be more efficient, less costly, and smaller than their AC counterparts because fewer electronic converters are required.

A significant obstacle is the regulatory landscape. Outdated regulations hold back implementation of DC microgrid systems in North American buildings. Architects, engineers, and interior designers need to enter a dialogue with the organizations that write codes and standards to start working with municipalities to build the political will and clear the way for this innovation. Stantec is already engaged in studies of the regulatory impediments to implementing smart cities and smart building technology, for instance.

2: Infrastructure investment, local solutions: Massive, renewed public investment in infrastructure, particularly the grid and systems for energy transmission, is long overdue. Existing systems often date from the 1960s and ’70s and are now largely outdated in terms of efficiency and resiliency. We have an opportunity to improve the systems and bring them to a 21st century standard. We must not subscribe to the top down/build-for-capacity model of the past. We should push for an evolution toward a distributed model that allows for more efficient local solutions and new technology such as heat pumps, smart grids, smart meters, and renewable sources.

3: Economics: The market for waste-to-fuel plants is poised to grow globally, but these facilities are not well understood by the public. Wider local adoption of waste-to-fuel is hampered by economics and local views on incineration. That could change, however, as alternatives such as creating new landfill modules and shipping recyclables abroad become cost prohibitive. With the right business case and investment, existing plants can invest in technology necessary to clean up their emissions and to burn more efficiently.

Overcoming these barriers will be key to driving carbon down in the ongoing energy transition. 

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  • Rachel Bannon-Godfrey

    As part of the Corporate Sustainability team, Rachel leads our global social and environmental sustainability integration. Applying the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal framework, she helps our global experts become leaders in climate solutions.

    Contact Rachel
  • John Ord

    John has over 20 years of experience in client, consulting, and contracting organisations, giving him a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and future direction of his industry.

    Contact John
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