In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient. Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission. If you have an idea for a story, email us at: 

In this month’s roundup of energy innovation news: 

1. Making the most of our sunshine: efficiency advances in solar cell tech
2. Batteries made from eggshells could ‘crack open’ more efficient batteries
3. Alberta set to launch first large-scale lithium-ion battery storage project using Tesla technology
4. B.C. First Nations are pushing for Canada to leverage its natural gas industry to fight climate change
5. Virtual power plants: A new way to distribute energy

Making the most of our sunshine: efficiency advances in solar cell tech

With the rapid expansion of solar photovoltaics, scientists around the world are motivated to increase efficiency in turning sunlight into electricity. But with conventional silicon solar cells attaining an efficiency rate of less than 20 per cent, there is ample room for improvement. Here are some notable innovations happening in solar cell efficiency.

• A six-junction solar cell currently holds the world record for solar cell efficiency at 47.1 per cent. Developed by a team of scientists at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, this thinner-than-hair multi-layered cell is made of semiconductor elements with a wide variety of light absorption properties, each designed to capture different wavelengths of the light spectrum. To cut down on material costs and increase efficiency, this technology uses mirrors and lenses to capture more energy from the sun. Read the full story here.

• The build-up of water or ice on solar panels is a common issue that decreases efficiency by allowing less sunlight to reach the cells. Thankfully, a team of Korean researchers have developed a self-cleaning coating to get around this problem. Inspired by moth eyes, the researchers have created a transparent, self-healing, anti-reflective, ultra-slippery lubricant made of paraffin wax that instantly repels water droplets and protects against damage (such as scratches). Since conventional solar cells aren’t terribly efficient to begin with (~20 per cent), fighting for every bit of extra sunlight counts. Read the full story here.

• Just because the sun isn’t shining doesn’t mean that the solar power is gone. At the University of California, Davis, a team of scientists have designed an ‘anti-sun’ thermoradiative solar cell that produces power in the dark. By studying the way that a conventional solar cell works, the team discovered that this process could essentially be reversed. While a typical solar cell gets its power from the absorption of sunlight, this thermoradiative solar cell instead emits energy via infrared radiation after the sun goes down – reversing the direction of the electrical current. The ability to produce solar energy during the day and night could open unprecedented opportunities for solar power generation. Read the full story here.

Still focusing on finding the perfect recipes, these technologies remain in the early stages of development. It will be interesting to see how improvements in efficiency may incentivize the uptake of solar and further decrease the costs of energy production.

Batteries made from eggshells could ‘crack open’ more efficient batteries

The next time you whip up some eggs for breakfast, you may want to think twice about tossing away the eggshells. According to a team of scientists in Germany, they could be a new source of electric power. The project is the brainchild of the Helmholtz Institute Ulm, a research centre focused on developing new battery technologies. The scientists found that calcium carbonate (CaCO3), the chemical compound that makes up 95 per cent of eggshells, both efficiently conducts energy and can store lithium. By grinding the eggshells down to a fine powder and heating them under high temperatures (300°C) for two hours, the chemical composition of the eggshell changes to produce a mineral called calcite. Using the calcite as an electrode submerged in an electrolyte solution, the powder exhibits a high capacitance retention rate of 92 per cent over 1,000 charging and de-charging cycles. Though the technology is still far away from being commercially viable, the team of scientists and researchers will be looking at creating a low-cost lithium-ion battery that incorporates this biowaste electricity-generating material as a next step. Read the full story here.

This is the first time that organic waste has been successfully used as an electrode for energy storage and is notable for a few reasons. First, it is an excellent example of applying a circular economy lens to energy storage. Eggshells are plentiful (Canada’s processed food industry alone produces almost 45,000 tons of eggshells every year) and turning these into a useful product rather than a waste stream creates a benefit for everyone. Second, it showcases the potential of bio-based solutions, where natural substances have unique properties that can assist in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, meeting climate targets and improving energy security.

Alberta set to launch first large-scale lithium-ion battery storage project using Tesla technology

History is about to made in Pincher Creek, Alberta. Calgary-based TransAlta Corp., in partnership with Tesla, is getting ready to launch Alberta’s first large-scale lithium-ion battery storage project. The $16-million-dollar WindCharger project will store and distribute renewable energy from TransAlta’s neighbouring Summerview Wind Farm using Tesla’s lithium-ion battery storage technology, with the capacity to distribute 10 megawatts (MW) of energy for up to two hours and 20 MWh of total storage capacity. According to TransAlta Chief Operating Officer, John Kousinioris, at full capacity the project could meet the entire electricity needs of Pincher Creek. The project has received $7.7 million in funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta and is expected to come into operation later this month. Read the full story here.

In North America, our power grids are designed to draw power from large reliable sources, such as coal-fired or hydro facilities, that can provide a consistent supply of baseload electricity. Due to intermittency issues, wind and solar energy face a consistent challenge to scale up to the level where they can be the sole power supply. Dating back to the 1980’s, utility-scale batteries to store power for when it is needed have been the obvious solution. However, poor cost-effectiveness, low energy densities and short battery lifespans have historically prevented this from happening on a large scale. Tesla’s patented lithium-ion technology has been able to make utility-scale battery systems more energy-dense, affordable, and less complex to assemble – allowing large-scale battery storage systems to become increasingly economical. In addition to the WindCharger project, other large-scale battery storage projects are taking shape in Alberta, including Teric Power’s 20 MW battery near Grand Prairie (operation expected to start in December) and Enmax’s Hybrid Electric Gas Turbine in Crossfield, which will combine lithium-ion battery storage with an existing natural gas turbine (operation in early 2021). These battery storage facilities, if successful, could potentially transform the renewable energy landscape in Alberta.

B.C. First Nations are pushing for Canada to leverage its natural gas industry to fight climate change

In B.C., a consortium of First Nations groups have embarked on a bold new initiative to stimulate meaningful action on climate change by leveraging Canada’s natural gas resources. In June 2020, the Haisla Nation, Lax Kw’alaams Band, Nisga’a Nation and Melakatla First Nations released a draft for the First Nations Climate Initiative (FNCI), following six months of consultation with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and numerous industry, ENGO and policy experts.

The initiative focuses on using the strategic production and export of B.C. natural gas to reduce global GHG emissions by 2050, in addition to creating a competitive low-carbon economy and supporting Indigenous prosperity. The draft policy framework outlines several key strategies for achieving this vision and developing a net-zero LNG industry in B.C., including:

• Electrifying natural gas infrastructure

• Utilizing carbon capture and storage technologies

• Investing in nature-based projects that rehabilitate ecosystems to act as carbon sinks

• Supporting producers to reduce fugitive methane emissions

• Promoting the use of carbon markets and tax incentives to ensure competitiveness

• Supporting First Nations equity ownership and partnerships to benefit communities

• Pursuing bilateral agreements with Asian customers to displace thermal coal with Canadian LNG and natural gas

The FNCI is also in the process of developing an investment plan to encourage public and private investments in these areas. Looking ahead, the FNCI will continue to engage in ongoing discussions and collaboration with First Nations, governments and various experts and stakeholders to further refine and add to the framework.

Beyond the potential economic and environmental upsides, this effort is notable for two reasons: first, it demonstrates how Indigenous communities are utilizing the evolving energy landscape to pursue diverse and creative routes to prosperity; and second, it is a testament to the non-homogeneity of First Nations groups’ attitudes towards fossil fuel energy production. The hope of the FNCI partners is that the final policy framework will be adapted by governments at the provincial and federal levels in the future. Read the full draft policy framework here.

Virtual power plants: A new way to distribute energy

Like many things, the future of power distribution is going digital. Bring on the virtual power plant (VPP), a cloud-based distributed power plant that could change the way that we receive and distribute renewable electricity in the future. For households and businesses that adopt small-scale renewable energy generation (such as solar, wind, battery storage, or hydro), VPPs take these different energy sources, aggregate them, and dispatch the power according to individual demand. Operating just like a traditional power plant, VPPs manage the ebb and flow of renewable energy from a virtual control room, rather than inside a physical facility. For instance, imagine that you are generating more solar energy than you can consume one day. Instead of that energy going to waste, a VPP would seamlessly redirect your unused energy to somebody else who needs it (and vice-vera). VPPs can help to reduce the demand on central grids during peak times and thereby reduce costly peak electricity rates, provide ancillary services to grid operators to help maintain grid stability and increase flexibility, and make small-scale generation more efficient. Read more here.

With the uptake of small-scale renewable generation on the rise, one of the greatest advantages of VPPs is their ability to smooth out intermittencies in weather-dependent renewable energy sources (i.e. solar and wind power). This makes these energy sources much easier to manage and can reduce the need to rely on fossil fuel plants to kick in whenever the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. VPP’s are already being piloted around the world. In 2016, an Ontario community piloted Canada’s first VPP, with plans to expand from the initial 20 households to 380,000 households. In Australia in 2019, Tesla recently installed rooftop solar systems on 1,000+ low-income homes connected by a VPP. Within the project’s first year, the homeowners saw a decrease of up to 20% on their utility bills. The future for VPP’s is already looking bright!

The Energy Innovation Brief is compiled by Jade McLean and Marla Orenstein, with this month’s edition featuring contributions by research interns Taylor Sterzuk and Taylor Blaisdell. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .

Banner photo by Schottner, Unsplash