techlife magazine

The Celebrate NAIT's 50th Anniversary Issue

Words: NAIT staff
Images: Jeanette Janzen

This Web Exclusive was featured in Volume 6, Issue 1 of techlife magazine.

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The future of alternative energy

As much as it’s an opportunity to celebrate how far we’ve come, an anniversary is the perfect time to imagine where we’re headed. That's why we asked staff and alumni to tell us what they see in their fields of expertise, five, 10, 50 years ahead.

Dr. Jim Sandercock, chair of the Alternative Energy Program, was one of the experts we included in that article. But Sandercock gave us so much to look forward to that we couldn't include all his prognostications in the print issue. So here they are -- his breakdown of the future of alternative energy, one technology at a time.

Co-generation

In the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see huge uptake in onsite co-generation. It will probably use natural gas, with the goal being heat and electricity. Instead of having a power plant make electricity and struggle to recover the heat that’s produced in the process, with co-generation you immediately use that heat onsite.

We’re starting to see integrated systems like this emerge in the industry. We’ve been looking at individual systems, but a lot of gains can be realized by hybridizing technologies in sensible ways, like co-generation. Probably within a decade, these hybridizations will become quite significant.

Solar photovoltaic

The price of solar PV has been dropping drastically for years now, in terms of the cost of the modules that collect the light. We’re down to about a $1.30 per watt, depending on what model you use and the scale of the system. Large-scale purchases are going to be even cheaper, just like buying in bulk.

In two or three years new PV power will hit parity with electricity produced from building new coal or new natural gas plants.

Wind

Our students are being trained to think about wind for southern Alberta and other windy pockets in Alberta and Western Canada. The payback period is really good, but how much more uptake will be accepted has to do with the NIMBY (not in my back yard) effect.

Geothermal

Geothermal is probably going to maintain its quiet majority in the alternative energy space. There are a lot of installations in the Edmonton area already – over 1,000.

They’re particularly effective when they’re part of commercial buildings, because you can take advantage of temperature differentials across the structure by moving heat or cool air from one part of it to another. We’ll probably see commercial installations continue to gain significant market share.

With residential projects, the challenge is low natural gas prices, which, in the next five years, makes geothermal less popular. But if you take a 30-year view, natural gas prices probably won’t stay this low, especially if we can start exporting it more effectively.

Biofuels

There’s hope that ethanol produced from agricultural and wood waste is going to take off. We always seem to be five years away from that goal, but when it’s realized, it’s going to change everything. The energy input to output ratio is going to be fantastic.

Unlike corn-based ethanol that has a lot of fertilizer and crop-management costs, crops such as natural prairie grass, for example, do not.

There’s also a lot of potential in converting waste into energy products. For example, feedlots produce a lot of waste material that can be converted into methane. This give us two benefits: natural gas, while mitigating against the potential danger of mountains of manure (think E. Coli and Walkerton).

Fuel cells

Fuel cells have been another technology that has been really interesting, but has yet to hit its stride. Prices will have to come down remarkably.

Energy storage

If we have economical energy storage in a decade, we can probably start looking at distributed energy production. We could see production on the scale of individual homes, or districts, for heating and electricity. That’s probably a decade away. The question is if that will only happen with new builds or if people will retrofit.

In five years, we might be at the point where some of these technologies might be inexpensive enough to compete with energy production from the conventional utilities. If so, it will become cheaper for people to make electricity themselves. If that happens, we’re going have to look at renaming our program from alternative energy to standard energy.