SEASON 2: EPISODE 1 – Energy Poverty
We begin the new season by learning about the connection between world-leading technology development and an urgent – and often hidden – social crisis: energy poverty. In this episode, you’ll hear from the Mayor of Bridgewater, a small, rural town that is leading the charge on energy poverty, and two Nova Scotia researchers who are at the forefront of a global revolution in energy storage. Listen to learn how their work is intersecting to help meet our climate goals and help some of the more vulnerable members of our community.
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Mission: Climate Change Adaptation & Resilience
Bridgewater Citizen 0:04
I mean, we are on our final payment of last winter's power bills.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 0:12
Well, energy poverty really is a situation where a person or a community doesn't have access to sufficient energy or affordable energy.
Bridgewater Citizen 0:25
You got to choose between food, medication, and a roof over your head before. So you got to juggle what's more important.
Dr. Michael Freund 0:38
Clearly, the level of poverty including energy poverty varies across the planet, and is and will remain one of the biggest challenges facing mankind, in my view.
Rhys Waters 0:58
Welcome to Beyond Research, a podcast brought to you by Research Nova Scotia. Typically, when we hear of developments in clean energy and clean technology, it's about the planet, better managing emissions so that we can address the global climate crisis. This is a really important discussion, how we harness the power of these new approaches to be more responsible global citizens. But there is more to this story. We should also be thinking about energy poverty, and how advancements in technology can be made accessible to support people today. As the threats of climate change persist, governments across the globe are facing increasing pressures to lower emissions and increase the use of renewable energy sources. An area of clean technology that is becoming crucial to society's collective efforts to establish new, cleaner energy sources, is advancements in energy storage. How do we store the energy from the sun, from wind or water? This question of energy storage has implications beyond national emission rates. It could also be key to reducing rates of energy poverty, and improving access to energy overall. In this episode, we will speak with Canada based researchers who specialize in the field of energy storage, each are contributing to advancements in technology that could drastically change how we consume energy at the international, community and household level. Innovation in this area is critical, because if we envision a future where our energy is derived from clean sources, we need those sources to be accessible to everyday people, which means they also need to become more affordable.
Mayor David Mitchell 2:43
Energy poverty is when more than 10% of a household's income has to go just to their energy needs. And energy needs is everything from gas, to electricity, to propane, things like that.
Rhys Waters 2:57
This is David Mitchell, Mayor of Bridgewater, a small town on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. For reference, the average Canadian household spends 3% of their income on energy for their home and means of transportation. A few years ago, the town executed their own research study, and found that over 40% of their population was facing energy poverty. That's approximately two out of every five residents.
Mayor David Mitchell 3:21
We're not unique. So you can just pick that up and deposit that stat on almost every community across this country in just the day to day where people have to make that choice of, can I heat my home this month, or put gas in the car? Or if I put gas in the car can I feed my family because it's not something you can always see. So it's not as easy as driving by a certain house or driving in a certain area and going, oh it's them. We spoke to people, like so a nurse for example. That's a good job. It pays a good, I would say more than a living wage. But that individual is a single mom and struggling. And so she has to make that choice every month. So it's not as obvious as a lot of people think.
Rhys Waters 4:14
Two years ago, the town of Bridgewater won the Smart Cities challenge, a Pan-Canadian competition that empowers communities to improve the lives of their residents. With the funding, they've committed themselves to lift the town out of energy poverty through its initiative Energize Bridgewater, with a starting goal of reducing the energy poverty rate to 20% by 2025. As part of this plan, the town is focused on engaging community members to take advantage of local financing programs that will allow residents to upgrade their homes with more energy efficient products. And though it has been well received, there are some drawbacks.
Mayor David Mitchell 4:51
It's that community, that uptake of the program so that's our biggest challenge. So not everyone can have a heat pump, for example. So we tend to default to, oh, listen, we'll just put heat pumps in every house, well, you can't actually do that in every house. And so I think the biggest barrier for people is just the initial cost. We know that the data that comes from a nest thermostat, for example, is that you'll lower your energy costs, because it starts to learn the cycle of heating and cooling in your house, and so it will save you money. But most people aren't going to spend hundreds of dollars on a thermostat. Most people especially if you're living in energy, poverty, these are barriers you're, you're just never going to get into there. So if you can have advancements in technology that make it more accessible, both in terms of the availability and the price, then you're starting to really make headway into who can participate in that energy saving.
Rhys Waters 5:45
The town recognizes that placing the onus on homeowners and residents to either reduce or revamp their energy consumption at the household level is not enough to address energy poverty long term. That's why their vision goes beyond the home and into the community where they hope to build a local energy economy that allows the town to meet its own energy needs, through increased energy efficiency, and access to renewable sources, from which the town will be able to earn an income. The end goal is to be able to decide the cost, quality and availability of their energy and keep money circulating within the community.
Mayor David Mitchell 6:21
There's a whole bunch of components that are really exciting. So we won the Smart Cities challenge two years ago, and that $5 million prize. But what that's done now, is changed the plan from what was just you know, we're going to work on home energy retrofits in phase one, and we're going to do maybe some community energy in phase two, it will be starting with things like energy generation. So whether it's solar fields, or if we can we have a tidal river in our communities, if we're talking about generating power through renewables, of course, if we use solar, for example, solar's only ever generated during the day. And so battery storage is key to that smoothing of the curve of the windy days for wind power, and the sunny days for sun for solar generation, with the days that are dark and dreary and the night. So battery storage is absolutely an integral part of all this.
Rhys Waters 7:11
Over the next 29 years, the town of Bridgewater will be looking for mechanisms to create a local energy economy so that by 2050, they can meet it's ultimate target of reducing the town's energy costs by more than 80%.
Mayor David Mitchell 7:24
I think this is one of those issues that the onus is on all of us, we all have a role to play. To me it's not any different than when we look across the country at the housing crisis. So we have an affordable housing crisis from coast to coast to coast. And we don't sit there and say, well, it's the problem of the person who doesn't have affordable housing. We can't also just say, well it's the government's problem to make more housing. So energy poverty, and the advancements in technology and energy storage, all of that, it's all our problem. Because it affects residents, it affects taxpayers, it affects government and government policy. And we need people to advance all this research, especially in clean energy, clean tech, and storage to get people out of energy poverty because it does impact a local economy. So they're all tied together.
Rhys Waters 8:24
Over recent decades, there's been a boom in clean technology. Wind farms, hydro, solar panels are all commonly known forms of renewable energy. So why don't towns like Bridgewater simply implement these types of green tech at a local level? As David has suggested, just because the technology exists doesn't mean it's readily accessible. Part of making them more accessible is making them more affordable, and part of making them more affordable is to make them more effective. One way to make them more effective is to prove the capacity for energy storage.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 8:57
Well, the absolutely cheapest way to get electricity these days is to install solar or wind and couple it with battery storage.
Rhys Waters 9:07
This is Dr. Jeff Dahn, a professor of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Canada Research Chair for Tesla. He is a world leading researcher in battery storage, and has a large research group of about 25 to 30 people working on lithium ion battery improvements.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 9:26
I began doing research in lithium battery work back in 1978. There was no such thing as a lithium ion battery at that time. But people had realized that you could make rechargeable batteries based on lithium and I joined a research group at the University of British Columbia as a graduate student working on some of the very first rechargeable lithium batteries, you know ever, ever made in the world.
Rhys Waters 9:56
Dr. Dahn is committed his career to battery research because of the better potential to change how people, communities and industry produce store and consume energy.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 10:04
Lithium ion batteries have a very unique chemistry that allows very high energy density. That means you can store a lot of energy per unit volume or per unit weight. And they have a very long lifetime, measured in years and even decades for that matter. So that means, those attributes mean they're very well suited for electric vehicles. And very well suited for large scale energy storage, to store energy from the sun or the win and deliver it back again, when those sources are not available. Solar and wind now can be installed at a cheaper cost than coal. And so that's really quite enabling, you don't have to set up an electricity grid from a distant location. You can install your solar panels locally, put in the battery storage, and you can power a remote community.
Rhys Waters 11:03
As Dr. Dahn is pointing out, just because we have technology that allows us to harness energy from the sun or wind, we cannot rely on them alone to satisfy our energy needs. The wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining. So what can we do in these instances. Jeff says we should store it with battery technology. Some communities are already doing this.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 11:22
There's a good example of an energy storage project in Elmsdale. There's a wind turbine out in a place called Hardwood Lands andd it is connected to a community there. And when the wind is not blowing, electricity has to be sent to the community through the transmission lines and coming from coal. So what's happened is Nova Scotia Power has installed a number of so called Tesla powerpack energy storage units so that energy from the wind turbine can be stored right there and delivered back to the community when the wind is not blowing. You know, there's some really good examples of very large scale energy stores facilities going on in Canada. There's one in Northern Ontario that's being implemented by a company called NRStore. It will store one gigawatt hour of electricity. So to give you a feeling for that, the average daily use of electricity in Nova Scotia is about 20 kilo gigawatt hours. So this energy storage facility could store enough energy to power Nova Scotia, well 1/20th of Nova Scotia for a day. So it's quite huge.
Rhys Waters 12:44
Obviously, this technology sounds like a dream, an option for communities to store renewable energy and move away from fossil fuels. So why doesn't every community come equipped with the power pack? This is the exact issue Dr. Dahn is hoping to resolve in his research.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 12:59
Somehow we have to move away from fossil fuels and move into these green sources of energy, I don't think there's any way around it. So first of all, what I'd like to see is the use of fossil fuels more or less eliminated, that would be that would be a fantastic outcome. And that would mean we'd be collecting most of our energy from the sun and the wind. And to do so we'd have to store a lot. The production facilities for lithium ion batteries around the world at this moment are absolutely maxed out, supplying demand for vehicles and power tools and cell phones and energy storage products. The production capacity of lithium ion cells needs to increase about 100 fold to really meet the demands needed for the energy storage application. And it's happening, you know, there's so called Gigafactories are being built all over the world to really ramp up lithium ion battery production. So that's one issue, right? The other issue is is cost, like you continue to reduce the cost of lithium ion batteries so that they become more affordable in electric vehicles, and also for energy storage projects. So cost reduction is a is a big deal. The other thing that goes hand in hand with cost reduction is improvement in the lifetime. Because if you install an energy storage facility, and it needs to be replaced after 10 years, well compare that to an energy storage facility where it doesn't need to be replaced until after 40 years. So improving the lifetime really is equivalent to reducing the cost when you think about the overall lifetime of the project. So we work on both of these topics, cost reduction and lifetime improvement.
Rhys Waters 14:56
Jeff says that the traditional electrode material in lithium ion batteries has been cobalt.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 15:01
And cobalt is quite rare. It's a very expensive. So we spent a number of years working on figuring out how to make equivalent electrode materials that didn't incorporate cobalt. So that's been a big, a big emphasis for us and I think has turned out to be pretty successful.
Rhys Waters 15:22
Though Dr. Dahn acknowledges the cost of lithium ion batteries are quite a lot for the average consumer, at least for now, he's confident that continued research can change that.
Dr. Jeff Dahn 15:31
Our work is contributing to improved energy storage products, and also to improve batteries for electric vehicles. And lifetime of energy storage products is important, because they're very expensive. So you would like them to last many, many, many decades. And I think at this moment, it's becoming clear that the lithium ion battery can certainly work in an energy storage system for well over 20 years. And, you know, I can see 40 or 50 down down the pipeline. There's thousands and thousands of researchers around the world that are involved in advanced battery work. And they're not only doing lithium ion battery work, they're also doing other types of advanced batteries: sodium ion batteries, or zinc, manganese dioxide, rechargeable batteries, or whatever the case may be. But overall, the amount of activity in this areas is unbelievably huge. And there's many, many very strong scientists across our country doing fantastic work.
Rhys Waters 16:39
Looking to the future, as Dr. Dahn and his team, along with other researchers around the world continue to improve the lifetime and cost of battery storage technology, the hope is that consumer costs will continue to decline, enabling the number of installations and households, businesses and community based energy systems to increase rapidly. That way, towns like Bridgewater will be better able to create a local energy economy and support household energy upgrades for all residents. As Dr. Dahn alluded to, the area of energy storage research goes beyond lithium ion batteries. In fact, it goes beyond battery work altogether. Just as Tesla has altered how we think about driving, some researchers are exploring new technologies that could alter our consumption of energy production, and how it relates to the average household consumer.
Dr. Michael Freund 17:32
So I really think the future is in these sorts of decentralized energy sources that include solar and coming up with the the new fuels of the future.
Rhys Waters 17:44
This is Dr. Michael Freund, also located a Dalhousie University. Dr. Freund is a professor of Chemistry, the Harry Sherrif Chair of Chemical Research, and the director of the Clean Technologies Institute. Similar to Dr. Dahn, Dr. Freund's research focus is on improving storage capacity for renewable forms of energy.
Dr. Michael Freund 18:07
Well, I think there's you know, the future is just going to be fascinating because there's this big drive to net zero carbon emission. And so there's a lot of pressure and opportunities for developing new technologies, both for energy producers and users. I think there'll be a lot of opportunities for individuals, you know, business municipalities, as well as at the federal level. I really look at it as kind of analogous to the internet, in the sense that the creation of this decentralized communication structure is really impacted everything from how individuals interact to how transnational organizations function. And so if we can do something similar on the energy front, you can imagine that, you know, people have more control over their own energy production, and use. And it's very different than what we see now, which is a very centralized, you know, grid based system.
Rhys Waters 19:12
Dr. Freund and his team are actively researching ways to give everyday citizens more control over their energy production. A significant part of his work is in the area of solar fuel production, that's right - solar fuels. We asked Dr. Freund to break down what increased solar fuel production could mean for communities.
Dr. Michael Freund 19:33
The name kind of says it all, it's a fuel that's made directly from sunlight. When you think about it, fossil fuels come from the sun, which drove the proliferation of plants and animals, whose fossilized remains over the course of millions of years has become the oil and coal that we extract. It's the same thing with biofuels that involves sun driven plant growth, followed by processing, breaking down the sugars into a fuel like ethanol. In these cases, photosynthesis is converting the sun energy, the light energy, into chemical energy in the form of bonds, like carbon dioxide to ethanol. We can then extract the energy by converting it back by breaking up those bonds. But unfortunately, the process is very inefficient. Since it's just a small percentage of the solar energy, let's say hitting a field of plants ends up in the form of ethanol. There can be added complications with you know, competition with this food supply, if we use plants. So the idea of solar fuel is to do what plants do, but more directly, convert sunlight into something like hydrogen, or an alcohol based fuel from co2.
Rhys Waters 20:57
What Dr. Freund is describing is the act and method of converting sunlight energy into chemical energy.
Dr. Michael Freund 21:04
Well, I mean, the holy grail in the solar fields area is to come up with a material that will absorb light, and then basically generate a fuel. So imagine a membrane that very much like a leaf does, it absorbs light. But instead of generating sugars, and you know, what the plants do, let's say it would generate methanol, that would just weep off of the sheet plastic into a can that you can use as a fuel.
Rhys Waters 21:32
Coming up with that specific Holy Grail material is the goal of Dr. Freund's research. It's not that these technologies don't exist. But just like in Dr. Dahn's battery research, cost is still an issue.
Dr. Michael Freund 21:45
So that's the focus of our research is on low cost, abundant materials to develop the technology, like we already have really good materials and catalysts that can create solar fuels. The issue is the cost and the relative abundance, it's low. So it's would be hard to be deployable everywhere at a reasonable cost. So our focus has been on these kind of Earth abundant materials. We also focused on hydrogen generation, because water is everywhere. And if you have a an efficient way to convert sunlight into a chemical fuel, like hydrogen, then that can be done anywhere, as long as you've got the technology that can be deployed there. And you have the added benefit that when you use hydrogen, to generate energy, it produces, you know, pure clean water, which is a great byproduct, annd has the added benefit of, especially in developing countries to be a source of clean water.
Rhys Waters 22:54
When asked about how this technology compares to energy storage research, like that of Dr. Dahn, Dr. Freund had this to say.
Dr. Michael Freund 23:01
I think the the next generation is the solar fuels because , you know, the one thing that the fuel has relative to let's say a battery is the energy density that can be stored with a battery, it has a certain mass, whether it's charged or not, right. And so in the case of a fuel, it's actually consumed in the process. That's why, you know, people run with diesel generators, because the energy density in the fuel is just so high. And so you can move around a lot of energy in a smaller amount of weight or volume.
Rhys Waters 23:49
Dr. Freund believes solar fields could help communities in Canada and beyond, move away from centralized energy, and possibly give residents more control over their own energy production, and consumption.
Dr. Michael Freund 24:01
Well, in Nova Scotia and Canada, we live in a cold climate, we live in a very large country. This requires more energy for heating and for transportation, which can be a significant fraction of a family's budget. We have an excellent power grid, however, it's you know, it has to be maintained over large areas in extreme climates. So all these factors contribute to costs. In developing countries, of course, without you know, a major power grid, they have the added burden of just simple access to energy sources. So installation of major power grids in developing countries can can be prohibitive and so that's a major challenge.
Rhys Waters 24:47
This is the link between new energy technology, the design of electrical systems or the grid and cost.
Dr. Michael Freund 24:53
It will be possible to create mini grids and remote communities that can drive down the cost of building large infrastructure and maintenance over long distances. So I really think the future is in these sorts of decentralized energy sources that include solar. So the hope is to develop similar technologies around energy that will really be disruptive and allow remote communities, as well as developing countries to get, you know, efficient access to clean, reliable, sustainable energy sources.
Rhys Waters 25:33
Here in Canada, Dr. Freund is optimistic that an energy revolution isn't that far off.
Dr. Michael Freund 25:40
We're really fortunate in Canada to have a range of sustainable energy sources, including wind, solar, tidal and hydro. We're also very fortunate to have a strong economy and a government and government leadership that prioritizes investment and r&d that will address a lot of these challenges. Within Canada, we're just, you know, we're really well situated to be part of the whole revolution in energy. We've got companies like Ballard, which is a very large scale, hydrogen based energy generation company. We have other companies like New Flyer, they're developing hydrogen fuel cell based buses for public transportation. We've got emerging companies like Planetary Hydrogen, which is combining carbon capture with clean hydrogen generation. So there's a lot of things going on in Canada, and we're just really well situated to to help drive this technology as it moves forward, and to integrate it into environments where it's really going to be cost effective, especially remote and rural communities.
Rhys Waters 26:56
So, though we may not have solar fuel dripping from our rooftops, or power packs hooked up to every wind turbine installation just yet, it is clear that as scientists like Dr. Dahn and Dr. Freund continue to push boundaries in the area of clean tech and energy storage, we will get closer to a future where our energy is derived from clean sources, using technology that is both accessible, reliable, and affordable to homeowners, business owners, and both urban and remote communities around the globe. That way, we're lifting up our planet, we're also lifting up our people, not only reducing climate emission rates, but the rate of energy poverty too.
Mayor David Mitchell 27:41
So for sure, I can see a path for Bridgewater to reduce its energy poverty. I see there's such a light at the end of the tunnel, if there's a willingness, then it can be done. Because if we don't, then we're going to stall and if we stall, then I'm going to have to explain to my grandchildren and my great grandchildren, why their life expectancy will begin to reduce, why their quality of life will begin to reduce, so if we don't make progress in clean energy and battery storage, and all those things that get us off of these giant carbon emitting sources of energy, then you know, we know the clock is ticking on the whole planet. And so it's not we should try, it's a, we have to get there.
Rhys Waters 28:28
Thank you for listening to Beyond Research, brought to you by Research Nova Scotia. We just wanted to say a very special thanks to Dr. Jeff Dahn, professor of Physics and Atmospheric Science and the Canada Research Chair for Tesla, Dr. Michael Freund, the director of the Clean Technologies Research Institute, and David Mitchell, the Mayor of Bridgewater. To find out more about their work on this podcast, visit researchns.ca. My name is Rhys Waters, and we'll see you next time. Podstarter
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David Mitchell is the Mayor of Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, a small town with a bold idea: move the entire community toward efficient, clean energy through its Energize Bridgewater initiative.