The Three Ingredients of a Smart Energy Community

False Creek Heat ExchangeWith a growing number of cities and towns across Canada now using and conserving energy more efficiently, the question of “what is a smart energy community?” is getting easier to answer.

We can refer to innovations such as Vancouver’s neighbuorhood energy utility, which captures waste heat from sewage and uses it for space and water heating in 16,000 residences and businesses. Or we can point to to Toronto, where Enwave is harvesting Lake Ontario’s cooling energy to deliver air conditioning to the downtown core.

These examples are useful, but do not completely capture what makes a smart energy community, well, smart. That’s because claiming such status hinges not so much on flashy technologies, but on how effectively a community integrates energy production, delivery, and use.

The key word here is integration. At QUEST, we believe that a smart energy community integrates in three respects:

1. Matchmaker, Matchmaker: Integrating Conventional Energy Networks

A smart energy community effectively integrates its conventional energy networks. That means that it serves as an effective matchmaker between electricity, natural gas, district energy, and transportation fuel networks, coordinating energy sources to more efficiently meet energy needs.

For example, communities often turn to electricity—a high quality, and often expensive energy commodity—to heat hot water and provide space heating for homes and businesses. As a result, much of that high-quality energy ends up wasted. Meanwhile, when many of us consider mobility, we automatically think gasoline or diesel fuel. In many settings, however, electricity or natural gas offers a far more efficient option.

Communities can turn to a variety of technologies and strategies to help them integrate their conventional energy networks, such as combined heat and power, smart meters, electric vehicles, energy storage, and energy efficient buildings and machinery.

2. Cut the Commute: Integrating Land Use Planning

A smart energy community understands that land-use decisions can have a significant impact on energy use, and that bad land use decisions result in energy waste.

For an example, we can look to the archetypal suburb, which is removed from the city centre and demands significant infrastructure, including conventional energy networks, water and wastewater systems, and roads. Movement of this energy, water and wastewater, people and freight carries a much higher energy toll than a more compact urban design.

Indeed, many of us see energy being wasted every weekday morning in the cities where we live, as tens of thousands of vehicles burn fuel and produce smog while stuck in gridlock. A smart energy community integrates land use planning to improve energy efficiency.

3. Work With What You’ve Got: Thoughtful Consideration of On-Site Resources

 A smart energy community also integrates local energy opportunities. That means noting steam coming out of an access cover in the wintertime and thinking “hmmm, there’s heat down there.” It also means taking a whiff of a landfill, and thinking “let’s burn that methane to make electricity,” or “let’s capture it and add it into our natural gas networks.”

Sometimes integrating local energy opportunities means employing stock technologies—like solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, which work just about anywhere. Other times it means identifying assets that are unique and tailor-fitted to a community, for instance water source cooling (Toronto, Halifax), sewage heat capture (Vancouver, Barrie, and Richmond), biomass for heating (Ouje Bougoumou First Nation), biogas for electricity (Edmonton, Milton), and biogas for fuelling vehicle fleets (Surrey) among others.

Integrating conventional energy systems, making smarter land-use decisions, and harnessing available energy opportunities—a smart energy community does all three. Getting there isn’t easy. But the returns are significant: improved energy efficiency, secured energy reliability, cuts in energy costs, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention new investment and jobs.

Are you a Smart Energy Community stakeholder? Join the conversation at the QUEST 2013 Conference and Tradeshow in Markham, Ontario from November 12–14, 2013.

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