Kill (Your) Bill

Generate electricity at home. Pay less for power. Reduce your carbon footprint. Welcome to the dawn of Alberta's microgeneration era.

By Chris Turner

If you’d like to see a sort of sneak preview of what Alberta’s future could look like, you’ll find it in a warehouse that comprises part of a bland, big-box commercial strip in southeast Calgary. The sign out front reads “EasyMax Homeservices,” and the warehouse is accessed through a generic office space where Enmax customers can come to order new heating and air-conditioning systems.

Enmax (an energy utility wholly owned by the City of Calgary) has long been one of the province’s most vocal proponents of “microgeneration,” the production of electricity by homeowners. Homes with solar panels on their roofs or wind turbines in their backyards can generate their own electricity instead of relying solely on companies operating big centralized plants powered by coal or gas. As part of an ambitious plan which will see the homes of 250 Enmax employees retrofitted with small-scale green-power generators over the next year (this as a test run of a broader rollout to all its customers in 2010 or 2011), Enmax has gathered the leading microgeneration candidates at the back corner of this nondescript warehouse.

A solar thermal panel (which harnesses the sun as a water heater) has been mounted on a large plank and rests propped against the wall like a half-completed home improvement project in some do-it-yourselfer’s garage. Along one stretch of wall, household-scale wind turbines have been stacked neatly in their shipping boxes. Elsewhere a couple of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, await the chance to generate electricity in southern Alberta’s annual 300-plus days of sunshine.

It all looks no more substantial than a specialty aisle at the rear of a Home Depot, and some of this stuff—the solar water heaters and PV panels in particular—has been on the market for years. In other jurisdictions around the world, from sunny California to oft-dreary northern Germany, forward-thinking legislation has turned rooftop solar into a household feature as common as a skylight. By one report, though, there are only about 100 microgeneration installations in all of Alberta right now. At a guess, I’d say the assortment of demo-project materials in Enmax’s warehouse could nearly double that.

Still, none of this—the panels and turbines, the workaday warehouse and Enmax’s bold plan to expand far beyond it—would be of much significance without the necessary bureaucratic infrastructure. This was created only recently: Alberta’s “Micro-generation Regulation,” officially AR 27/2008T, was passed on the first of February 2008 and came into effect on New Year’s Day, 2009. It’s a simple and fairly common piece of policy, a document similar to ones enacted in several other provinces, all but a handful of American states and just about every country in Europe. AR 27/2008T obliges owners of electricity utilities to install a new kind of electricity meter on the houses of any and all customers who would like to generate their own renewable energy and feed it back to the grid in exchange for a credit on their power bills. You’ll generally hear this process referred to as “net metering” or “two-way metering.” AR 27/2008T, in short, enables Albertans to reduce their power bills by generating green power in or on their homes and selling it back to their utility at the same rate for which they might otherwise purchase it.

What fanfare there was to greet AR 27/2008T was mostly muted. A Pembina Institute spokesperson characterized it as “a positive baby step,” while Enmax CEO Gary Holden called it a “critical first step.” Only the Edmonton Journal mustered any real enthusiasm. With AR 27/2008T, the Journal reported, “Alberta entered a new energy age.”

How, you might wonder, could a whole new age be ushered in by a single baby step? Well, consider the difference between a spark and a raging bonfire—and moreover consider the essential continuity between them, which of course can only be seen in retrospect. AR 27/2008T is, for now, just a spark, and it could easily fade to a cinder. With the right kind of fuel, however, it could be the start of a mighty conflagration indeed. Or, actually, the end of the greatest conflagration in human history—our 200-year bonfire of the fossil fuels—and the beginning of the sustainable new age of renewable power.

Holden: “My home effectively has no power bill to speak of—and I sell excess power into the grid.”

Some simple legislation could accelerate that shift—complementary policy initiatives to make AR 27/2008T into something downright epochal. The Alberta government could provide strong incentives for the installation and perhaps even the manufacture of microgeneration systems, whether by tax rebates, direct government investment or some kind of favourable-interest-rate loan scheme. Or it could decide it truly wanted to lead the transition to a 21st century economy, in which case it could pass the much more ambitious legislation known as a “feed-in tariff,” a powerful policy measure that sets prices above market rates for electricity generated by renewable sources. The feed-in tariff has transformed several European countries (most notably Germany) into titans of the renewable-energy industry in less than a decade, and the Ontario government seems intent on importing the policy wholesale later this summer. Alberta could take a lead role in the manufacture and implementation of the technologies that will drive this new economy—if it’s ready to fully embrace the future.

Back at the Enmax warehouse, on a pallet in front of the shelfload of tiny wind turbines, there stands a sleek metal appliance with a digital display mounted along its top rim. It’s a miraculous little machine, one that might prove to be the most revolutionary in Enmax’s microgeneration arsenal. You could easily mistake it for a dishwasher, but it is in fact a demonstration model of the first fundamental reinvention of the household furnace in a century. And it so excites the company’s CEO, Gary Holden, that he installed seven of them in his basement in spring 2008 to test their mettle against the ferocious Alberta winter.

The device is called a WhisperGen, and it’s a household-scale version of a combined heat and power (CHP) plant. CHP (wherein the waste heat from a natural gas or coal power plant is used to warm nearby buildings) is a common efficiency strategy, particularly in northern Europe. The WhisperGen, though, is one of the first home appliances to employ the technique, and Holden’s Calgary home is likely the first in North America to be outfitted with a self-contained CHP system.

The results, Holden explains, have been nothing but encouraging. “It’s really quite fantastic to come and see how we effectively have no power bill to speak of, because of the ability to sell the excess power into the grid when we don’t need it. And that creates a credit that is used for times when we do.”

The core of the WhisperGen is a device called a Stirling engine, a legendarily hyperefficient mechanical device invented in the early 1800s. The Stirling filled the heads of engineers with visions of near-perpetual motion, but there were no widespread commercial applications of the technology. However, the world has been awakened anew to the Stirling’s potential in the face of the converging energy and climate crises. The seemingly limitless abundance of energy-dense fossil fuels relegated the frugal Stirling to the dusty back corner of the lab for the past hundred-plus years. This is pretty much where the Stirling-powered WhisperGen was when Gary Holden—at the time the chief executive of TransAlta’s New Zealand subsidiary—discovered it on the campus of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch in the mid-1990s.

Inside this nondescript appliance—a WhisperGen—is technology that could revolutionize our future.

Inside this nondescript appliance—a WhisperGen—is technology that could revolutionize our future. (Ashley Bristowe)

Holden: “What I found was a university laboratory with wires and gauges and pipes everywhere, and some sheet-metal contraptions to capture the heat. It was a relatively crude example of the technology. But I understood its potential back then, and when I asked the inventor—he was a 28-year-old grad student at the time—he said, ‘Well, my vision for this is to see one of these in every home in Europe.’”

Skip ahead 15 years, and witness a dream nearly realized. The lab project gave rise to a technology start-up that sold the little devices to yacht owners, and that start-up was eventually bought by New Zealand’s state-owned power company, Meridian Energy. Meridian recently entered into an agreement with Mondragon of Spain to start churning out 30,000 WhisperGens per year, with the intent of bringing them to a great many homes throughout the efficiency-obsessed European market.

All well and good if you happen to be Spanish or Danish, but what relevance does any of this have to an average Alberta homeowner? Well, consider the value proposition for the WhisperGen, the thing that convinced Holden to bring it all the way from New Zealand: the WhisperGen can be installed in any basement in Alberta, about as quickly and easily as any old boiler, where it can be connected to the existing natural gas line and used to heat the entire house much more efficiently than a conventional gas furnace. In addition, the WhisperGen’s chief by-product is a steady stream of electricity, which could be connected to a two-way meter to offset a significant portion of the home’s power bill. It does more heating with less fuel, and it discounts your electricity bill as a side effect.

Get Holden going about it and he’ll paint a rosy Jetsonian future just a few years off where the benefits of that softly whirring Stirling engine begin to multiply all but exponentially. “You have a plug-in hybrid car in your garage, and in the middle of the night when your lights are off and your TV’s off and everything, your demand is low, you take the power from your Stirling engine [to] your car and you drive to work each day,” he says. “It’s actually a benefit that even solar power doesn’t create, because you’re generating electricity in the off-peak hours, and the synergy that has with plug-in hybrid vehicles is amazing. And so then you get into payback periods that are just unbelievable. You’ll be paying the equipment off in months, because you’re offsetting some of your power bill during the day when it’s running, and you’re offsetting a huge fuel bill in your vehicle during the night.”

Holden was not the first executive I’d found starry-eyed by the revolutionary potential of this “energy Internet” idea. Last October—the same week that the global economy began its plummet, I sat in on a conference call at the end of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s three-day “Smart Garage” charette. The RMI (a Colorado-based energy efficiency think tank) had gathered together senior executives from a cross-section of Fortune 500 companies—Ford and Nissan, Duke Energy and PG&E, Cisco, Google and IBM—to explore the feasibility of building a next generation of infrastructure, an energy Internet it christened the “smart garage.” The assembled industrial heavyweights envisioned the harnessing of green power (produced at household or regional scale) to feed plug-in hybrid cars, which then used Internet technology to automatically coordinate recharging and the sale of excess power back to the grid, based on the energy demands of a given home or workplace and the current price of electricity. The consensus was that the technology already existed; it simply needed a few big players—automakers and utilities in particular—to begin manufacturing the right kinds of cars and installing the right kinds of infrastructure. “It’s hard to see another infrastructure play,” RMI’s Michael Brylawski concluded, “that has so many simultaneous benefits—oil security, climate, jobs.”

In the months since RMI’s “smart garage” confab, Barack Obama’s new administration has announced generous incentives for electric-vehicle buyers, and Hyundai has promised to bring a plug-in hybrid to North American roads by 2012, where it’s expected to join the new plug-in Toyota Prius, the Chevy Volt and the debut plug-in vehicles from Chinese upstarts like Build Your Dream (this as part of the Chinese government’s recently declared goal of manufacturing half a million electric vehicles per year by 2012). And, of course, Calgary’s own Enmax has unveiled a suite of funky new microgeneration technologies particularly well suited to feeding juice to such vehicles.

So there’s a future, already technologically feasible, the bulk of it indeed already sitting in a warehouse overlooking the Deerfoot Trail, in which you plug your car in at night and drive off the next morning using the excess electricity generated by your furnace while you slept. Maybe you’ve decided to go even further and put some solar panels on the roof, in which case you can whistle happily through the day’s work at your office while your house is feeding the provincial grid with peak-load power, busily chewing away at its own utility bill. Your car, meanwhile, figures out the price of electricity that day and if it’s looking profitable, it sells the extra power in its battery pack to the building you work in.

Microgeneration is already technologically feasible—unlike carbon capture and storage.

You are less reliant on the vertiginous fluctuations in oil and natural gas prices, your provincial government has come to realize it will never need to build another coal-fired power plant and will soon shutter those that remain, and these basement-scale Stirling engines proved so popular that they built a big factory down next to the Deerfoot to manufacture the things for the whole North American market, so you even know people that have stable jobs building them. Your economy’s joined the front ranks of the green-collar boom that dug the industrial world out of its recessionary rut, and though you still hear the occasional grumble from afar about the emissions-belching tar sands, you just as often hear about another refugee of the Okanagan drought arriving in Calgary to work in WhisperGen sales. When the Edmonton Journal talked about a new energy age dawning, this is what it was driving at.

Let me reiterate: this is all already technologically feasible. Indeed, it’s much closer at hand than a scenario in which some indeterminate portion of the emissions from the province’s fossil-fuelled power plants is carried away via pipeline for injection into a permanent reservoir deep beneath the boreal forest—by which I mean carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Alberta government, however, has sunk $2-billion into CCS this year alone, and it has made no direct investment whatsoever into microgeneration. The province’s preference, it would appear, is to help big corporate polluters instead of putting clean, money-saving tools in the hands of regular taxpayers.

Gary Holden of Enmax, for his part, is optimistic that the technology fund created by the provincial carbon tax could be a sufficient source of funding to create the proverbial “level playing field” for energy production in the province. (At present, as Holden notes, existing fossil-fuelled power plants have an unfair advantage owing to the vagaries of energy pricing—“historical averaging,” for example, whereby current prices are determined not by what it costs to generate power today, known as the “marginal cost,” but rather by the total cost of electricity production over the life of the plant.

One of a growing number of local solar arrays.

One of a growing number of local solar arrays. (Tim Schulhauser. Courtesy of Skyfire Energy)

I’d argue, though, that a far more ambitious plan is warranted. Perhaps something like Germany’s feed-in tariff model, which involves setting prices higher than market rates for green sources, thus going far beyond encouraging the odd “alternative” installation, instead putting renewable power at the very centre of the energy market. In the German case, the feed-in tariff in less than a decade created an industry that employs 250,000 and turns over $40-billion in annual revenues. And it did so by increasing the average German’s power bill by about $50 per year. Of course, hundreds of thousands of Germans opted instead to stick solar panels on their roofs, sell green power back to the grid and offset the price hike—and then some.

Here’s the crux of it, the real promise of AR 27/2008T: I firmly believe, after four years and counting spent circling the globe on the sustainability beat, that this new age has already begun. Microgeneration is as disruptive to our relationship with energy as digital technology has been to human communication. And its full potential is much greater, because electricity enables so many more of life’s necessities than telephones and mail services ever did.

The first places to understand this potential, to leap for it and grab on tight, will become the industrial leaders of the 21st century and beyond. Significant swaths of Europe are already a generation ahead of us, California is coming on strong, and Ontario appears intent on passing the continent’s most ambitious renewable energy legislation this summer. Distributed, scaled-down power generation has already turned a Danish former farm-machinery manufacturer (Vestas) into the world’s largest wind turbine maker and transformed the collapsed industrial heartland of the former East Germany into the epicentre of the world’s solar industry. The first mass-market electric car will likely be made in China, and the furnace of Canada’s brightest future will almost certainly be built for the first time on an industrial scale in Spain, using a design developed in New Zealand.

The map of this new industrial order is already being sketched in. AR 27/2008T isn’t enough to mark Alberta’s place on it—but it is a start. And so the question for the province, ultimately, is whether it intends to lead or merely follow reluctantly along.

We can only wonder, for now, what a courageous commitment to a sustainable future might mean for Alberta. It could start, though, with Enmax’s nifty new turbines and panels—and, most enticingly, its WhisperGens. “I think it’s such a good technology,” Holden told me, “that it’s easy for me to picture, 20 years from now, every single-house dwelling or apartment block would be inherently built around Stirling engines.”

Holden likens this to the state of electric refrigeration in the 1920s: an unknown, bewildering technology, a bizarre contraption that squatted right there in your kitchen, stuffed full of exotic gases with sci-fi names, doing a job the good ol’ icebox already accomplished just fine, thanks. When it came to keeping things cold, who’d even think of competing with ice? Holden: “It was the electric utilities that sold those units first; your local utility would come and service it. It was that extra level of comfort provided by the utility that led to the widespread use of refrigerators. I see this technology being exactly the same. Utilities need to give the comfort, utilities need to show how the economics can be positive.”

Well, I was fully sold. Alas, Holden explained that it’d still be a couple years at least before I’d be able to install a WhisperGen in my own home. I can only hope my 25-year-old gas furnace holds out until then. I have no intention, in any case, of installing another “conventional” appliance of any sort in my basement. There’s no future in that.

Chris Turner is author of The Geography of Hope. His “The Big Decision” (AV, Oct 2008) won a National Magazine Award.


The Coal Phase-Out

“Jason digs coal.” That’s Jason as in Kenney, the long-serving Conservative MP for Calgary Midnapore, former federal minister and current leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives. Also, depending on whose prognostications you believe, the unstoppable uniter of Alberta’s right and inevitable next premier of Alberta. Last fall Jason’s campaign team took to Facebook ...

Kill (Your) Bill

If you’d like to see a sort of sneak preview of what Alberta’s future could look like, you’ll find it in a warehouse that comprises part of a bland, big-box commercial strip in southeast Calgary. The sign out front reads “EasyMax Homeservices,” and the warehouse is accessed through a generic ...

Spin, Baby, Spin

Power outages are not rare here at the foot of the Livingstone Range north of the Crowsnest Pass, thanks to summer electrical storms, ice buildup in winter and west winds that can gust (where I live) beyond 170 km an hour. A major outage here means looking after ourselves beyond ...