Consider This: We’re Ready To Ask The Hard Questions About Energy Our Energy

What’s the best way to power your car? The most efficient way to run your computer? What’s the best way to heat your house? When trying to…

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What’s the best way to power your car? The most efficient way to run your computer? What’s the best way to heat your house? When trying to answer these questions, it’s not uncommon for individuals to advocate for a single energy source over another. Maybe it’s, oil, wind, solar, or natural gas. Yet energy sources are only one part of a chain that ends when you turn on the lights. Wherever you get your energy, it comes through a system to reach you, and that system is just as important as the source.

The energy system we have now evolved from the industrial revolution, when energy technology made it necessary to centralize. We burned all our coal at one large power plant and used transmission lines to get the power to the people who needed it. Over the years, new sources of power were added: hydro, natural gas, nuclear. All of those sources plugged into the same single system because they generated a lot of energy centrally. As we’ve seen in the recent years, relying on these singularly focused systems has had major benefits, but has also lead to some equally difficult cultural, economic, and of course environmental challenges.

Today we’re addressing environmental concerns by working on renewable energy technologies that include wind, solar, biofuels (like those generated from waste) and geothermal sources. However, these newer sources aren’t as concentrated or consistent as the ones our existing system was built for. So if we want to implement them at a wide scale, it’s not as easy as just swapping one for another.

For example, if we were to replace every coal plant in an area with a massive solar array, how would we keep the hospitals functioning when the sun isn’t shining? We’d need a way to store the solar energy collected from those solar cells so that we could access it and use it at any time. The reality is that we aren’t capable of that on a large scale quite yet. That’s where other sources of energy, like chemical batteries, biofuels, even flywheels might be the solution to this question, since it could be the combination of these different components that might make future green energy systems possible. Our existing system, the one that was designed to work centrally from a single source, isn’t set up for this combined approach to energy, which is why we need to think about the energy system and not just the energy source.

As we’ve learned through the conversations and debates taking place around energy today, system questions are about much more than just the technologies that generate and deliver our energy. How we interact with and manage our energy also matters. Consider the use of solar power again; if a lot of people are generating energy from the sun, is there a way to allow them to sell it directly to others through a smart grid? They could sell it to an existing central utility company, but would the possibility also exist for them to sell it directly to consumers themselves? Suddenly the system with a large utility being the only energy dealer could fall apart, and new entrepreneurs could enter the picture. How does that change the economy? How does that impact the surrounding environment? How does that affect jobs in a province where so much prosperity has come from the current energy system? These are not easy questions, and no single person has the answers. However, these are the questions we need to ask if we’re going to have serious conversations about energy, and we need to be willing and able to have these conversations together.

We can’t snap our fingers and have one system replace another immediately; changing systems takes time. Billions of dollars have been invested in the way we currently get energy, and thousands of jobs are a part of that system. We need to study the system we have, and we need to explore the ones that we could adopt. If we’re going to be able to use our existing energies to their fullest extent while planning for what could come next, we must understand all of the steps and consequences that could be involved as we transition from one energy system to another. If we don’t do this experimental work, we risk making decisions based on old biases, when we really need to make them based on the facts that are available today.

Our demand for energy is insatiable, and we know that it will not be going away. In fact, as more parts of the world begin to industrialize, our energy needs will only continue to grow. The environmental impact of our past and current energy systems could become overpowering if left as they are. Change is needed but no one strategy will suffice. That’s why energy research today must encompass a full range of approaches. From pipelines to solar cells, land and water reclamation to renewable energy consultations with Aboriginal communities, our researchers are asking the hard questions that will inform decisions about our energy future.

The energy innovations that power our world today have their roots in Alberta, and we believe that the innovations around the future of energy should continue be made in Alberta.

M. Anne Naeth — Director, Energy Systems

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M. Anne Naeth is the Director of the University of Alberta’s Energy Systems signature area, and the federally-funded $75-million Future Energy Systems research initiative. She grew up on a farm in rural Saskatchewan without electricity — until her dad wired the house and installed a diesel generator.