CANSTOREnergy: Making Technology and Community Equal Partners in the Clean Energy Transition

New Frontiers in Research Fund | Published:

Drone image of researcher Kate Neville on the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit at the BC-Yukon border. This remote area in the sub-Arctic has an abundance of sunlight in the summer, but experiences a long and dark winter, presenting an energy storage challenge that the CANSTOREnergy team is working to address.
Photo: Kate Neville

Canada’s transition to a clean energy future faces a particularly Canadian challenge: the four seasons. The country’s supply of solar renewable energy is six months out of sync with demand, with excess energy generated in summer and no way to store it for winter. Now a Canadian research team is tackling this problem in an innovative way, addressing the storage challenge and a broader set of community goals at the same time.

“We really think that it’s a new way of advancement, period,” says David Sinton, a University of Toronto mechanical engineering professor and Canada Research Chair in Microfluids and Energy. “I’m really upbeat about the opportunities for having impact.”

Sinton is the nominated principal investigator on the research project CANSTOREnergy, which recently received a New Frontiers in Research Fund (NFRF) Transformation grant worth $24 million over six years. It is one of six interdisciplinary projects to be awarded a grant in the 2022 competition, in recognition of its potential to make real and lasting change addressing a major challenge.

What if communities could share the vision they have for how their energy systems might operate…in a way where that technology can serve those broader goals?

The research team, which includes scientists and engineers, but also political and social scientists as well as economists and policy experts, is working directly with community partners in northern and southern Canada. Zeroing in on the Yukon and southern Ontario, the team aims to develop workable solutions for both settings. The challenges are different—in terms of the seasonality, population density, electrical grid systems, and political organization—which the team embraces.

“We celebrate the differences in these two use cases, lean into them, and have a focused approach for each,” says Sinton.

Until now, Canada’s energy storage problem might have been considered a purely technological challenge for engineers to solve and politicians to implement in communities.

“What we're trying to do is flip that,” says associate professor Kate Neville, who is cross-appointed between the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science and the School of the Environment, and is one of the project’s principal investigators.

University of Toronto researcher Kate Neville

University of Toronto researcher Kate Neville
Photo: Kate Harris

University of Toronto researcher David Sinton

University of Toronto researcher David Sinton
Photo: Lisa Lightbourn-Lay

“What if communities could share the vision they have for how their energy systems might operate—how those systems would fit into other patterns of social life, livelihoods, and well-being—in a way where that technology can serve those broader goals?”

The way Neville sees it, if technology is seen as a means, and not an end, it could support and sustain healthy communities and economies.

The CANSTOREnergy team is divided into three subteams, organized by objectives. One subteam, Direct, will inform research approaches by learning about community needs and perspectives on energy futures. A second subteam, Discover, will advance the science and technology of converting renewable electricity into renewable carbon-based fuels for storage, with their efforts shaped by the Direct team’s input. The third subteam, Develop, will apply the Direct group’s insights and the Discover group’s technological advances to develop targeted renewable energy storage transformations.

This parallel process may ultimately reduce harmful environmental or social consequences, because any solution the research team lands on will have already incorporated community input. Instead of addressing conflicts and spillover effects after implementation, the team aims to address these through ongoing engagement.

“The communities we work with will direct how we think about developing technology,” Neville says.

In the North, CANSTOREnergy is working with utilities and communities that have a stated need for seasonal energy storage. The community of Old Crow, Yukon, is already a leader in solar power generation, and has experience assessing new technologies in a broad context of community goals—for instance, balancing solar farm benefits with traditional land use. The community has already provided valuable guidance to the CANSTOREnergy team about that experience and their ongoing winter energy challenges. Now, finding routes to store Old Crow’s renewable energy is a focus of the research team and community partners.

The communities we work with will direct how we think about developing technology.

The direct back-and-forth that’s possible between scientists and community partners is clear from a recent example in the project’s southern base, Hamilton.

A CANSTOREnergy researcher from McMaster University was facilitating conversations with local partners about the broader industrial landscape in Hamilton, which sparked a conversation back in the lab about the conditions under which certain carbon conversion activities might need to take place. This got the researchers thinking about the broader context of the research—how captured carbon would be mixed with air pollutants from industrial effluent, and what design considerations might be needed.

At the end of the six-year NFRF grant, Sinton thinks CANSTOREnergy’s outcomes and impact in terms of technological advances, storage of renewable energy, and diverse community-led energy development approaches will be broadly applicable across Canada and around the world.

Ultimately, the goal of CANSTOREnergy is to lead a transformation of the energy system, resulting in economic benefits nationally and climate benefits globally, with a made-in-Canada renewable energy storage solution that considers local concerns and displaces fossil fuel use.

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