A pragmatic approach to renewable energy

Rupp Carriveau, University of Windsor, renewable energy, wind, wind turbines, financial risk analysis, carbon, carbon footprint, water, water footprint, electricity, economicsA family trip to California when at nine years old ignited a passion for renewable energy that has yet to quell.

“I was struck by those Jimmy Carter-era wind turbines,” says Rupp Carriveau, a University of Windsor researcher. “It seemed so cool. I thought it was so neat to get electricity for free. That’s when I got the bug, I think.”

Carriveau will be speaking about wind energy to similarly aged students this Friday (April 21) during a Partners in Research Live Event celebrating Earth Day, geared to Grades 4-9 classrooms.

“I’m really looking forward to it. Kids at that age get it imprinted so easily, like what happened to me. It wasn’t a direct path to my career, I still wanted to be a rock star as a kid, but that experience stuck with me.”

Carriveau fuels his career with pragmatism and economics, and directs much of his energy to reducing both carbon and water footprints. While carbon receives a lot of attention because of its impact on the bottom line, Carriveau places equal importance on the water economy.

“You can still have a low carbon footprint and clean energy, and be dying of thirst,” he says. “Hydroelectricity is completely clean but a dam is ecologically disruptive. A lot of the water we use for hydroelectricity doesn’t come back. Wind and solar energy have both low water and carbon footprints.”

“Can’t keep your head in the sand”

The pragmatist in Carriveau knows one of the best ways to create real change using research is through economics and industry partnerships, uncovering industry concerns and finding solutions.

Early in his career, he was able to make contacts with enthusiastic industry partners, gaining access to specialized data and raising the profile of other researchers tackling real-world problems.

One of these projects was discovering how to store air and harness the electricity created by wind turbines during times of low demand (such as between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m.). Through a partnership with Hydrostor Inc.—a one-person start-up at the time with a provincial grant of $10,000—Carriveau created a system that converts energy into compressed air, storing it at the bottom of Lake Ontario in flexible accumulators.

The air is then piped to the surface to regenerate electricity when demand requires, creating an efficient storage system and decreasing transmission line congestion.

“It’s been thrilling for us to see how that project has developed,” says Carriveau. “Hydrostor now has a staff of 14, it’s great to see how far it’s come. These partnerships increase the likelihood of researchers making an impact, and having an impact on folks.”

Trying to make the most impact in renewable energy also means truly understanding fossil fuels and recognizing that it is still very much a fossil world, according to Carriveau. Incorporating this larger context into his research and teaching is integral to his work.

“The world is changing but we still need to understand fossil fuels and the politics that influences the use of fossils,” says Carriveau. “We have a mosaic of solutions now, and it’s going to be that way for a long time until there’s a massive displacement in solar, which I think will probably take over everything.

“As an academic, you can’t have your head in the sand about where renewables currently rank and how they fit into the big picture.”

At the core of Carriveau’s approach is this recognition. He encourages researchers and academics in the field to use their technical expertise and genius, but to also understand the political will and realize the role of economics.

“Economics ultimately dictates. This should fire people up. If they incorporate this into their research, they’ll really have their feet under the curtain of what’s going on behind the scenes and can use this information to create change.”

“Economics ultimately dictates”

One of Carriveau’s current projects involves minimizing costs for wind farmers using financial risk analysis. The average life cycle of a wind turbine is 20 to 25 years. As these turbines approach the 20-year mark, Carriveau helps farmers decide whether they want to repair their aging turbines, or whether it’s more cost effective to buy new ones.

His team considers a number of factors such as social, environmental, the reliability of the machines, and how long they’ll last for, and provides the farmers with a risk number. From there, farmers can decide if they want to keep their turbines or not. Sometimes it’s worth repairing parts, whereas sometimes it’s worth buying new machines.

“It’s one of our big marquee projects,” says Carriveau. “We just got some funding from the province so we’re very thrilled.”

Another part of his current research examines corporate power purchase agreements where farmers can connect retailers and businesses to their wind farms, with the businesses agreeing to purchase electricity from the farms directly.

“I think it’s really cool because it allows them to be more flexible,” says Carriveau. “IKEA is currently the only retailer in Canada doing this, they have their own wind farm now, selling their own electricity.

“The beauty is even if you have a wind farm in Canada and you’re a retailer, you can break up the power in blocks. You can provide different blocks to different stores under different contracts. The farmer then has a guaranteed stream of income, and the customer gets a fixed rate on their power. You can then dodge carbon fees associated with taking power from a grid that still uses natural gas, because what you’re doing involves renewable energy. We’re trying to help people navigate this.”

Carriveau has also started work on greenhouses, looking into what it takes to direct more renewable power into greenhouses—something that’s particularly relevant to the Essex County region where he lives and works.

“It closes the loop nicely between energy, food, and water,” says Carriveau. “This region has about 3,000 acres of under-glass agriculture. There are wind turbines, solar panels, greenhouses—it’s the most renewable concentration. Everything’s here.”

Registration for Carriveau’s Partners in Research Live Event is free and open to the public.

Tagged: Environment & Sustainability, Jobs & the Economy, Natural Resources

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