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Renewable revolution

With help from Concordia researchers and alumni, the future looks decarbonized
October 24, 2022
By Alexander Huls

When world leaders convene in Egypt for the COP27 United Nations Climate Conference in November, the focus will again be on ensuring that targets to reduce the planet’s temperatures can be met. Those efforts will include ambitious strategies to decarbonize the world’s energy.

In its own response to the global call for action, Concordia has committed to a Climate Action Plan to achieve climate neutrality by 2040. The road map leverages the university’s resources and research expertise through transdisciplinary approaches to tackle the climate crisis, particularly from a renewable- energy standpoint.

The university’s contingent of researchers in the space includes Karim Zaghib, professor in the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, Marek Majewski, head of Concordia’s Solar Energy Conversion Group, Andreas Athienitis, director of the Concordia Centre for Zero Energy Building Studies (CZEBS), Luiz A. C. Lopes, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a number of colleagues across faculties focused on the same mission: hastening a future where net-zero greenhouse gas emissions is achievable.

These researchers are joined in the fight by talented Concordia alumni looking at the problem from a number of angles. Sue Molloy, BEng 98, is one of them. More than a decade ago, the founder and president of Glas Ocean Electric, which converts gas-powered boats to electric, agreed to teach a class on sustainability at Dalhousie University.

Her lectures addressed the perils of climate change head-on, but after a while, Molloy, who has a doctorate in ocean engineering, noticed that many of her students seemed pessimistic about the future. It wasn’t the impression she wanted to leave. “If we don’t think that we can solve the climate crisis, then nihilism takes over,” says Molloy.

With that in mind, she adopted a new approach, beginning every lecture with inspiring examples of innovators in renewable energy — a critical sector in the fight against climate change. The strategy had a noticeable effect on her students. “All they needed was a tangible sense that things can improve.”

The road to net-zero

Sass Peress, BComm 82, MBA 84: “In five or 10 years, solar will represent a majority of the energy generated.”

There’s plenty of hope to go around in 2022.

Changes in attitudes, policy goals and technology have led to a rise in renewables that many observers cautiously predict will help mitigate humankind’s carbon footprint. In 2020, the European Union (United Kingdom included) had the capacity to meet almost half of its energy needs from renewables. Almost 20 per cent of electricity in Canada and the United States was sourced from renewables in 2021. And the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that global sales of electric vehicles had surged to 6.6 million units in 2021.

What’s more, the United Nations recently reported that more than 70 countries — including the biggest polluters, China, the U.S. and the E.U. — as well as more than 600 cities have made net-zero emissions pledges.

Then there was the recent Inflation Reduction Act passed by the U.S. Congress. The landmark bill, signed into law by President Biden in August, will allot $369 billion to combat climate change — a major boost to the $755 billion that was invested globally in green technology in 2021. The sense of optimism around the potential of renewables is also being fuelled by Concordia researchers and alumni who, like Molloy, are rethinking how we power our planet.

In the past, renewable-energy choices could seem monolithic. The way to reduce the world’s carbon emissions was often presented as a choice between wind, hydro or solar.

It’s become apparent, however, that in order to have an enduring impact on climate change, we’ll need to deploy every tool at our disposal at the same time.

Says Dave Lapointe, BEng 16, vice-president of Engineering at CH Four Biogas, a company that designs and engineers mixed-waste biogas facilities for owner-operators: “Energy-wise, we’ve been putting all of our eggs in one basket since the Industrial Revolution. Now we’re realizing the consequences of that mindset. We have to diversify our energy portfolio.”

The future of solar is bright

Andreas Athienitis: “We need to develop newer, smarter policies that look at the bigger picture, not just one component.”

Domestic and commercial use of solar panels gained traction in the early 2000s, and has taken off ever since.

“What I’ve seen is just so fast-paced,” says Barbara Bottini-Havrillay, MSc 16, director of GIS & Data Science at Pine Gate Renewables. Headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina, the fast-growing utility-scale solar developer has powered hundreds of thousands of homes — a testament to solar’s increasing accessibility and affordability.

Indeed, the solar industry has successfully driven down costs — try 90 per cent between 2010 and 2020 — and, as a result, incentivized consumers.

Majewski, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, notes that 15 years ago, it was believed that solar needed to drop below $2 per kilowatt hour to be considered a viable energy source. By 2017, it had dropped to six cents for utility scale (a utility-scale solar facility generates solar power and feeds it into the grid, supplying a utility with energy).

The next hurdle is to make the technology more efficient in how it captures and converts the sun’s energy. Advancements are being made. Conventional solar panels typically operate below 20 per cent efficiency, but new types of solar cells, derived from a calcium titanium oxide mineral called perovskite, are exceeding that.

They can additionally be processed into a thin film that can absorb solar energy on different surfaces, such as windows.

“It really diversifies the way that we can disseminate this technology,” says Majewski.

As the technology improves, solar energy’s potential — from planes to boats and even roadways — is being explored around the world.

Take the work of Sass Peress, BComm 82, MBA 84, who, as the founder and CEO of Vermont-based iSun Energy, a position he relinquished in 2021, oversaw the manufacture of solar carports that can charge electric vehicles (EVs) with or without any other connection to an electric grid.

Peress says that iSun’s recent success — 115 per cent growth over 2020 and a $29-million order for 1,780 off-grid solar canopies to be installed at EV charging stations — underscores a broader trend.

“In five or 10 years, solar will represent a majority of the energy generated,” he adds.

The upside of green hydrogen

Vaitea Cowan, BComm 15: “We have everything we need to solve this crisis.”

Electricity generated by water has existed for nearly 150 years, and in places like Canada represents nearly 60 per cent of the country’s energy.

But the pursuit of renewable energies is seeing water’s link to power expanded. Take green hydrogen. With hydropower, water pressure applied to turbines creates energy in a generator. With green hydrogen, however, the process is almost reversed: Electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind is applied to water to break it down into hydrogen and oxygen.

The reason many experts are hopeful that green hydrogen will play a major role in our decarbonized future is that it can be applied to some of the most environmentally harmful sectors, such as transportation, mining, steel and chemical. In other words, fossil-fuel-heavy industries.

Green hydrogen has remained underused so far, in part because of cost, but people like Vaitea Cowan, BComm 15, co-founder of Enapter, are changing that.

The Berlin-based entrepreneur, who made the Forbes 30 Under 30 Energy list in 2020 with her Enapter co-founder, Jan-Justus Schmidt, oversees the production of an affordable device that can create green hydrogen through electrolysis. The technology is already in use in small aircraft, experimental vehicles and some homes.

As with solar, the affordability factor is crucial.

“There needs to be an economic case to convince people to adopt the technology,” says Cowan, who, along with Schmidt, demonstrated Enapter’s innovation to Bill Gates at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow and was awarded Prince William’s Earthshot Prize in 2021. “You need green hydrogen to be cheaper than fossil fuels.”

A new frontier for hydropower and biogas

Karim Zaghib: “It’s exciting that we can promote the emphasis Concordia is putting on the green circular economy, sustainability and research to a global audience.”

By necessity, a greener energy mix will require some novel and unorthodox approaches. One example of this comes from RheEnergise, a company with offices in Montreal and London, U.K., that employs Marc-Antoine Proulx, BEng 21, on its research and development team.

The company’s key innovation is a cost-effective energy storage solution that it calls High-Density Hydro. Typically, hydro storage involves the configuration of two water reservoirs at different elevations. When water is released from above, it goes through turbine generators.

RheEnergise’s twist? “Instead of using water, we’re using our patented fluid which has two-and-a-half times the density of water,” says Proulx. “So you have two-and-a-half times the energy density.”

Conventional hydropower storage also requires a high-altitude reservoir, something RheEnergise’s solution gets around.

“It opens up the door for different locations you could build your projects on, and lowers the cost of installation and manufacturing,” explains Proulx.

Based in Ottawa, CH Four Biogas has also experimented boldly in the renewables space with an eye towards eventual mainstream adoption.

“Everybody’s heard of solar, everybody’s heard of wind, but not very many people have heard of biogas,” says Dave Lapointe.

Biogas is emitted when bacteria consume organic waste or manure in an oxygen-free environment. CH Four Biogas designs plants that provide hospitable conditions for this process, called anaerobic digestion. This not only helps eliminate emissions from landfills, but also offers what Lapointe calls a happy bonus: renewable energy.

Biogas contains up to 60 per cent methane; when the gas is extracted, you get renewable natural gas that can be used to generate electricity or heat. Currently, bioenergy represents a fraction of the world’s renewable energy, but the IEA predicts that it could represent 30 per cent of renewable-energy production by 2023.

When you consider that CH Four Biogas has worked with U.S. dairy farms that house tens of thousands of cows — cows that produce thousands of tonnes of manure — the bullish outlook many observers have for biogas starts to make sense. It’s also the only solution that impacts food waste head-on, offering an opportunity to convert millions of tonnes of organic waste each year into energy.

The key to the future of storage

Jean-Philippe Castonguay, BEng 10: “If you’re looking at decarbonizing the future, it all hinges on long-duration energy storage.”

A world replete with renewables will depend not just on how we source and produce energy, but where we put it.

“If you’re looking at decarbonizing the future, it all hinges on long-duration energy storage,” says Jean-Philippe Castonguay, BEng 10, partner and director of Off-Grid Power and Storage Systems at BBA Consulting, a company with offices across Canada that develops engineering strategies with a sustainability focus. Imagine a wind turbine with the ability to power an entire grain farm. On very windy days, the turbines may produce far more energy than the farm needs. With no storage solution, the excess is wasted.

If, however, the energy is stored, it can be used on less blustery days. This is why advances in energy storage are “a major technological development,” says Andreas Athienitis, who, as director of CZEBS, helps to reduce the environmental impact of buildings.

While many technologies, such as supercapacitors, have been developed with storage in mind, battery systems are the storage front-runners. In 2020 alone, $5.5 billion USD was invested in them to ensure captured renewable energy can have a longer shelf life.

Improved battery storage will also help decentralize the grid. That’s because the need for one coal plant to service a given region will be less severe once multiple wind turbines, solar panels and other renewables are turned on and connected to the system.

“If you have a smart way to design your energy production and energy storage, you are able to resolve the issue,” notes Karim Zaghib, the 2022 winner of the Kalev Pugi Award from the Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) Canada.

Zaghib was recently named president of the International Meeting on Lithium Batteries, which will be held in Montreal in 2026. “The conference will help broaden the reach of the Quebec and Canadian lithium battery ecosystem,” he says. “It’s exciting that we can promote the emphasis Concordia is putting on the green circular economy, sustainability and research to a global audience.”

That green economy will truly be optimized if we think modular, adds Enapter’s Cowan.

“Building systems that are like Lego blocks will be a key part of transitioning us into renewable energies,” she says.

Concordia professor Luiz A. C. Lopes, whose research seeks to answer how we can incorporate a larger proportion of reliable renewable energy into our conventional power system, adds that electric vehicles could be used for stationary energy storage.

“When a vehicle is parked and charging, its lithium battery could be repurposed to assist a home — or a set of interconnected homes — with its energy requirements.”

Improved batteries will be a critical component to ensuring that stored energy can also be fed back into the grid to efficiently supply power when and where it’s needed — like a suburban neighbourhood’s generated solar energy responding to a sudden surge in a nearby city borough.

“Energy storage is all about stabilizing the grid because of the intermittency of renewable energies like solar and wind,” says Proulx.

‘There is no magic bullet’

Sue Molloy, BEng 98: “If we don’t have hope that we can solve the climate crisis, then nihilism takes over.”

Realizing the potential of renewable innovations — much like the ones Concordians are advancing — will require hard work and a clear-eyed understanding of what’s actually possible.

“We’re somewhat limited in what we can control,” says Peress. “But what we can do is help the planet be more habitable for humankind, animals and plants, and for a longer period of time. “There is no magic bullet, there is no Hail Mary.”

Cowan believes that the search for a one-size-fits-all solution — especially in the form of a unicorn technology — is a distraction. “We have everything we need to solve this crisis,” she says.

Her fellow Concordians who work in the renewables space share that sentiment. To a large extent, they agree that what’s needed is the scaling up of existing technologies in order for them to realize their full zero-emissions potential.

It’s why, for example, it was important for Molloy not to reinvent the wheel when she developed Glas Ocean’s electric boats.

“It wasn’t about designing everything from scratch, from the first bolt to the paint that you put on the system at the end of it,” she says. “It’s looking at ways to use existing technology to figure out where we could contribute improvements.”

The shift to a greener future will also require a shift in public awareness, which activists like Greta Thunberg and Xiye Bastida have helped inspire. Our politics will have to change, too.

“Instead of a subsidy of $13,000 to purchase a Tesla, the government could provide you with $10,000 to install solar panels,” Lopes offers as an example. “Or the government could put laws into place that penalize those who continue to contribute to climate change.”

Policymakers also need to apply more blue-sky thinking, says Athienitis. “We need to develop newer, smarter policies that look at the bigger picture [of the climate crisis], not just one component.”

Adds Lapointe: “We have to get the politicians and, more importantly, industry on board, because corporations have a lot of influence. That’s when you’ll see big changes.” Those changes are under way. The lower cost of renewables has incentivized many large firms across sectors — from textiles to the automotive industry — to join the green revolution.

This feeds a cycle: As the tech gets cheaper, the more it gets used — and the more it gets used, the cheaper it gets. This, in turn, draws more investment, which incentivizes wider adoption and policy support. Green-energy subsidies, carbon taxation, EV mandates and climate-crisis bills have all gained traction as politicians (literally) feel the heat.

All of this is why Concordians leading the green revolution don’t subscribe to doom-and-gloom narratives. Much like Sue Molloy’s students, they’ve become optimistic about the future.

“You have to approach all of your work in the climate space with hope,” says Molloy.

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