October 24-25, 2023, Calgary, Alberta, BMO Center

Hybrid projects have huge potential: A conversation with Tom Levy

In the global transition to affordable, reliable, flexible and sustainable energy systems, Canada is playing an important role — and stakeholders across the country are embracing the change.

A recent report from the Generation Energy Council — a national group of experts, industry professionals and government leaders — articulates a vision that includes more investment in clean electricity, slashing energy waste and using more renewable fuels.

To learn more about how Canada is leading the charge, we caught up with Tom Levy, a senior wind engineer and head of wind energy research and development for Natural Resources Canada at the CanmetENERGY lab in Ottawa.

Tom Levy, Natural Resources Canada

Electricity Transformation Canada: What are your thoughts about the progress we’ve made in transforming Canada’s electricity system? Are you encouraged?

Tom Levy: In the early days, we were trying to understand the tools that we would need at the system level to get to five or 10 per cent penetration [of renewable energy] within the energy mix. Now we're talking about, "What does 100 per cent look like?” Now that systems have proven reliable at five and 10 per cent penetration, we can think bigger. The tools that were identified to support system reliability at these low levels are in use, and generally speaking, they work – this is now allowing us to think big – and 100 per cent is thinking big.

Canada has made progress. System operators and the industry have collectively advanced our understanding of how to operate power systems with reasonably high levels of renewables.

And there are a few examples in Canada that we can point to that have been able to successfully do so.

The question we are asking at CanmetENERGY-Ottawa is what’s next? How do we develop the tools that are needed to move us to 100 per cent? How do the grid codes need to evolve? How can we more effectively utilize inverter-based resources to support system reliability? What new tools will be needed?

ETC: What are your thoughts about the viability of hybrid projects that leverage wind, solar and energy storage?

TL: Based on our research, it is our understanding that multi-technology solutions will be necessary. It is unlikely that any single technology will achieve our carbon reduction goals.

So certainly, the interplay between wind, solar, storage and hydro — and interconnection and flexible and aggregated demand — are all expected to be part of that picture of what the future power system looks like. 

ETC: Twenty years from now, what do you think Canada's electricity system will look like, and what role will renewables play in that system?

TL: The system will likely evolve in a couple of different ways. The first is that our power systems will continue to become more deeply interconnected across geographic and provincial boundaries, and perhaps with this, there will be more opportunities for coordination between adjoining balancing areas. Electricity markets themselves may also transform in this new operating environment.

I see a few key regions in Canada worth keeping our eye on — for example, the Atlantic region — as being a region that could be much more deeply interconnected than what it is today.

Diesel fuel in the North may also still be there, to some degree. Our research suggests that the contribution of diesel-generated electricity towards the energy of the system may decrease, but that its contribution towards reliability of the system may be augmented.

In the south, research suggests the contribution that renewables make towards system reliability may change as well, and there is evidence of this evolving role in some jurisdictions today, such as in Ireland and Spain, for example. 

ETC: What needs to change, in practical terms, to get us to that point?

TL: Practically speaking it isn’t a change, rather an evolution of the existing system. This includes the technologies and how they are used, market structures and regulatory systems, grid codes and interconnection agreements. I see these elements of the power system as unlikely to look the same at very high renewable penetration levels as they do in the power system today.

Consider, for example, fast frequency response from wind plants. This capability exists in most modern wind turbines. In some jurisdictions, such a capability (and others) is increasingly being used for provision of ancillary or system services. However, broadly speaking, how a particular province or utility will go about procuring (or incentivizing) participation of owners of inverter-based technologies within their ancillary markets and, ultimately within their control room, is still being considered, and is likely to vary based on balancing area circumstances.  

From a technology perspective, continued research into micro-grids, long-term seasonal storage and grid forming inverters are examples of areas we foresee as requiring continued research and development. Our sister lab in Varennes is actively researching some of these issues today.

ETC: What have been some of the success stories that we've seen in the last few years?

TL: There's a number you can point to. I'd say the pricing of competitive bids that we've seen out of Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan is very encouraging — to see prices where they are.

When you look at power system operations, I like to point to Nova Scotia.

I think Nova Scotia has done a lot with very little at its fingertips, within the backdrop of a province that does not have very significant interconnection capacity with its neighbours relative to other jurisdictions in Canada. Despite these challenges, Nova Scotia has grown its wind penetration from single digit numbers to well over 10 per cent.

ETC: What are your thoughts about the future of renewable energy in Canada? How optimistic are you that the transition will continue?

TL: I am extremely optimistic. There are many facets of society, be it government, academic institutions, private industry or everyday citizens that view climate change as a key issue that requires our immediate and focused attention. Many of these stakeholders view renewables as part of the solution. Many great minds are focused on this issue – so that gives me hope. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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