The Data Effect

McMaster Research Co-op leads charge to harvest community energy

Canada loses 60 per cent of its energy because of heat needlessly exhausted out of our homes, office towers, data centres or grocery stores. 


McMaster University professor Jim Cotton has a plan to change that. 


“We’re taking heat that we just dump out of our arenas, our data centres, our grocery stores, and reusing it within the community where it is required” the mechanical engineering professor said at CityAge’s meeting of Great Lakes leaders. 


His solution? ICE — Integrated Community Energy Systems that harvest energy.


An ICE-Harvest System operates in a specific area within a community by integrating several devices called Distributed Energy Resources (DERs). DERs generate and store electrical and thermal energy in a localized area.


The result is “small scale thermal distribution networks'' that allow for the sharing and storing of energy between nearby buildings. If one building doesn’t require all of its energy, the ICE Harvest System can capture it and store it or direct it for use somewhere else.


Best of all, it’s small. The system fits in a space similar to the size of five to six parking spots. It’s not just a design dream either — they’ve built one on McMaster’s campus underneath the centre for experiential learning. The storage unit goes down seven stories and is thirty meters in diameter. 


Now they’re focusing on developing what Cotton calls a “digital twin” for the system, which will act as its control panel. A digital twin is a virtual model that allows it to be tested virtually in other applications to prove its efficacy.


The system’s focus on harvesting and controlling community energy will ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions and hopefully help meet the UN's sustainable development goals.  


In their recent case study in Burlington, the ICE Harvest System reduced carbon emissions by 38% just by sharing energy between an arena and a data centre. Adding CHPs (combined heat and power) and seasonal thermal storage could reduce carbon emissions by up to 70%, their group projects.


The project has been funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Ontario Centres of Excellence. Cotton and his research team at McMaster have also partnered with 20 organizations to launch the ICE-Harvest System, and he says the research cooperative is always growing. He encourages other potential partners to reach out.


Innovative energy consumption work is happening in other areas of Ontario, too. Engineering and procurement company Black & Veatch expanded a solar park  in Sault Ste. Marie to  allow for roughly 1,600 more megawatt-hours of clean energy each year, an expansion that will generate energy for 167 more homes than before. The park is owned by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.


Cotton says while this work isn’t completely new — there have been previous efforts to distribute energy resources especially through CHPs —  one of the novel elements of the ICE-Harvest System is its balancing capabilities. It operates in energy-dense areas on a modular level, meaning it can control energy levels and respond directly to demand and excess either through harvesting or generation. Its emphasis on energy harvesting is new, too.


The main objective for Cotton and his team is climate action, but they’re exploring the system’s potential economic payoff too, especially at the local level. Cotton and his team want to commercialize the ICE-Harvest System so that it becomes an asset to communities across Canada. 


The system promises to significantly reduce Ontario’s electricity consumption, saving the province a significant amount of money. Cotton can’t say how much exactly at this point, but he projects that it will cut utility costs significantly.


Cotton hopes to have three to five systems running in Ontario communities in the next four years, and hundreds in ten years once ICE-Harvest has been standardized.


Cotton says the ICE-Harvest System is also suitable for operation in the U.S. “I really want to highlight the versatility,” he added, noting the system can operate in any community and harvest energy. “There’s real opportunity here, and I think this lost energy has been a lost opportunity.”  


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