Capital shows powerful smart-grid potential

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Industry leaders such as Energate and Harris Utilities have Ottawa poised to become a smart-grid powerhouse, industry observers say – but they also argue the region must do a better job of tapping its strengths to fulfil its potential.

Niraj Bhargava is CEO of Energate.

By David Sali

Last month, the Ontario government launched a second round of applications for its $50-million Smart Grid Fund, putting a spotlight on local firms such as Energate, which received almost $3 million in provincial cash in the first round of funding in June 2012.

The Ottawa-based company makes home energy management software such as smart thermostats that reduce electricity consumption during peak periods. Founded in 2004, the firm now employs almost 50 people and sells its technology to about 40 utility companies across North America.

Energate’s revenues have been doubling annually, said CEO Niraj Bhargava, and he expects that trend to continue.

“There’s a limited supply of power for a growing demand of energy,” said Mr. Bhargava. “We have an opportunity to be leaders in Ontario and the Smart Grid Fund will help us do that. There is a very large global market we’re targeting. We’re going to be a growth company for some years to come.”

Another local company, Harris Utilities, is also a major player in the smart grid field, selling its technology to utilities in North America and the Caribbean.

Harris’s software interprets the massive amounts of data gathered by modern smart meters to give utilities and their customers a clearer picture of exactly how much energy is being consumed and when. Utilities can then use this knowledge to provide incentives for customers to conserve power at peak periods, for example.

The goal, said Chris Lewis, the executive vice-president of Harris Utilities’ SmartWorks division, is to smooth out the “waves” of electricity use that force power providers to build plants large enough to meet the massive demand during those peaks.

“You need to size a water pipe for the greatest amount of water that will ever push through that pipe,” Mr. Lewis said. “Electricity is the same way.”

He sees a future where today’s giant coal-fired plants will be phased out in favour of much smaller generators located in community centres, for example. That might sound far-fetched to some, but Mr. Lewis is a believer – and he says smart-grid technology is the way to get there.

With its wealth of high-tech expertise, the National Capital Region has the potential to be the leading smart-grid centre in the country, said Marc McArthur, president of environmental consulting firm Crosstaff Consulting.

“Ottawa is perfectly positioned to excel and contribute its smarts to the smart grid,” said Mr. McArthur.

He praised the provincial government for providing incentives for growth in the sector through programs such as the Smart Grid Fund, but said it’s time for more local companies to look beyond Ontario’s borders, as Energate and Harris have done with great success.

“I think that focusing on the Ontario grid as being the be-all and end-all is a little bit shortsighted,” he said. “I think that we can do much more in this area in Ottawa. We’re definitely hitting below our weight. We’re not paying enough attention to opportunities, but I think that’s going to change.”

Karen Pero, Invest Ottawa’s senior business development manager for clean tech, said Energate is a great example of a local company constantly looking for new markets and opportunities.

“They’ve worked hard at developing strong partnerships into the U.S. early on,” she said. “They’re very, very focused on smart grid and they’re looking at it from both the micro grid right out to the macro.”

The Ontario government originally announced the Smart Grid Fund in its 2009 budget, but it wasn’t officially launched until 2011. In the first round of funding, only nine of 13 announced projects actually went ahead, accounting for about $14.1 million, according to the government.

When the province announced last month it was reigniting its bid to fund businesses and educators interested in developing cutting-edge grid technology, critics cited the lack of projects that received cash in the first round as an example of the Ontario Liberals’ green energy failures.

Ms. Pero disagreed, pointing to companies like Energate and Harris as proof there is a healthy market for more efficient, environmentally friendly electricity technology.

“When you look at the Smart Grid Fund, it’s helped with that growth, but the utilities have known for years they have to move in that direction,” she said. “It’s getting to the point now where all the sectors are starting to grow together. We’re too far down the road now (for it to fail).”

Not surprisingly, Harris’s Mr. Lewis is also bullish on the future of the smart grid.

Utility companies tend to be “slow and methodical” when it comes to embracing new technology, he said, because they are wary of investing in anything unproven. Once they see the efficiencies to be gained from the type of products Harris, Energate and others are developing, it becomes a much easier sell.

“These things are all happening because there are true business cases attached to them,” Mr. Lewis said. “Those efficiencies are real.”

Organizations: Smart Grid Fund, Harris Utilities, Crosstaff Consulting

Geographic location: Ontario, Ottawa, North America Caribbean National Capital Region U.S.

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  • Barry McKay
    September 05, 2013 - 10:42

    If there really is a "healthy market for more efficient, environmentally friendly electricity technology", how does that gibe with the Ontario government's $7 billion windmill boondoggle that is producing maybe 1% of the province's hydro usage? Ontario has one of the highest hydro rates in North America and what I would really like to see are some positive moves to cut the huge wastage and bring our hydro rates back to reality. Until that occurs, Ontario will continue to languish in its have not province status.