There is a revolution about to happen in how we get our electricity — and Toronto Hydro, having seen the future, wants to be part of it.
Starting in a small way, it has launched a pilot project to see how it can hook into its grid homes and businesses that generate their own electricity with photovoltaics, or any other renewable power source approved by Toronto Hydro.
This means that those in the pilot project won’t have to install the cumbersome and expensive batteries that, up until now, they needed in order to store electricity. They will simply feed into the Hydro grid any excess electricity they generate. And if they need electricity when their photovoltaics are not generating, for instance after the sun goes down, they can draw from the grid.
In effect, Hydro will be acting as their battery. They will pay only for the electricity they draw from Hydro minus what they deliver. Net billing is what Hydro calls it.
Ontario’s economy, from the second decade of this century, has been built on cheap electricity originating in massive generating stations and distributed through a vast network of transmission lines. But, just as motor cars changed how people travel, the technology of renewable energy will change how people get their electricity.
Instead of centralized, there will be decentralized power generation. Instead of one producer, everyone will be able to produce. Instead of causing environmental problems — steam generating plants that produce greenhouse gases, nuclear plants that threaten radioactive contamination, hydro dams that flood huge areas displacing wildlife, changing ecosystems, and often releasing toxins such as mercury — renewable power will have nothing to discharge, nothing it needs to elbow aside. It will be environmentally benign.
Instead of controlling supply, hydro utilities will become coordinators, shuffling electricity among those who generate more than they need and those who need more.
The major issue is going to be deciding on the rules of the game — and this is what Toronto Hydro’s pilot project is all about. Hydro wants to find out what kinds of problems it’s going to encounter in servicing, in safety, in administration, and in profitability.
However, Toronto Hydro is merely a delivery outlet for electricity, sort of like a car dealership in the automotive industry. The General Motors of electricity is Ontario Hydro which generates and supplies power to municipal utilities such as Toronto Hydro.
For Ontario Hydro, profitability is a huge issue because it is burdened with the enormous capital and operating costs of its nuclear stations. It needs every consumer it can get in Ontario and is grumpy over the prospect of customers generating their own electricity.
Nevertheless, change is coming. Already there are photovoltaic shingles that you can nail to your roof. Windows of clear glass that are photovoltaic. Sidings for buildings, free standing lamp posts, and portable panels, all of which are photovoltaic. They can’t produce electricity as cheaply as you can buy conventional power, but the cost is coming down.
In its pilot project, Toronto Hydro is limiting the number of participants to ten, plus whatever additional applicants it can accommodate comfortably. The project will run for a year.
In is also limiting generating capacity to 50 kW (kilowatts). And that, says Chris Buckler, director of consumer services for Toronto Hydro, is a lot. For example, he and his family have a four-bedroom house in Toronto that is electrically heated. In the dead of winter, he says, their house requires only 25 to 30 kW to keep everything running, including all appliances.
Buckler says he’d like to see the day when there would be no limits on generating capacity so that apartments and industrial buildings, as well as homes and small businesses can meet their own needs. « We’d like it (renewable energy) to become a major source of electricity.’’
The big question is whether Ontario Hydro is going to be a help or a hindrance. The one sure thing is that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.