Reinventing Power Plays

Does Calgary’s lead in powering Alberta spell the end of coal?

October 01, 2008

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Gary Holden aims to walk his talk of new wave, environmental power – personally, as well as in his job as president of Calgary’s city-owned electric utility, Enmax Corp.

Holden is in line to become Alberta’s first household generator, selling surpluses from a tiny green energy plant in his home into the provincial grid. Such consumer enterprise is supposed to become possible as of Jan. 1, 2009, under a provincial micro-generation regulation enacted last winter.

“Efficiency finally matters,” he says when he explains his own plans as well as a strategy for making Enmax a model next-generation power company that its digital age marketers and image managers dub Utility 2.0.

“It’s economic to choose efficiency. It used to be economic to choose economies of scale.”
In translation, time is running out on the 20th century approach of building mammoth thermal generating stations and towering transmission lines. An even older concept – “decentralized energy,” where consumers make their own power and neighbors swap, sell or share surpluses – is an idea whose time has come at last.

Holden’s home system uses a device patented in 1816 by a Scottish clergyman, Rev. Dr. Robert Stirling. The invention has gone through periodic revivals during peaks on energy price cycles.
The device bears a mechanical resemblance to internal combustion engines with pistons, rods, gears, shafts and flywheels. But the Stirling engine is a silent-running external heat motor. No gasoline, diesel or natural gas burns inside. There are no carbon emissions. There is no exhaust at all. The driving force comes from a gaseous working fluid that expands by absorbing heat from outside. The heat source can be as green as the machine’s owner wants.

In Holden’s case, the Stirling engine sits on a household hot-water heating system. In effect, gas burned in the boiler does double duty by providing electricity for the lights as well as the shower water in the bathroom. As a homeowner, he vows to hold the Alberta government to its promise that he will also be able to use the generator to reduce his electricity costs by establishing a two-way connection with the provincial grid.

As Enmax president, he preaches a revival of self-sufficient district heating and power networks that were common in 19th century urban clusters of commercial and public service buildings such as downtown New York City. The University of Alberta’s century-old Edmonton campus uses the same approach.

A $31.8-million downtown Calgary project announced in September begins a planned large scale revival, Holden told a two-day conference on “decentralized energy” held by the Canadian Energy Research Institute. The plant, called the Calgary District Energy Project, will be capable of heating about one-third of the city’s 30 million square feet of office space.

Enmax’s planned $1-billion-plus Shepard power station would take care of the whole city and then some, he adds. Byproduct heat from the gas-fired, 1,000-megawatt plant would meet the needs of 50 million square feet of building space, Holden estimates.

In the full-sized version of Enmax’s Utility 2.0 concept, the downtown district and Shepard projects are the pioneer groundbreakers of a combined heat and power grid that will eventually spread out across Alberta. In Holden’s vision, the network will mature into a green energy spider’s web akin to the Nova pipeline grid that links all the province’s 102,476 operating natural gas wells to local customers and long-distance delivery routes.

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