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Hydro-Québec is looking for ways to join what it calls a renewable energy "revolution" in North America.

The public energy company is researching how to integrate solar energy and consumer-generated electricity into Quebec's mostly hydroelectric network, spokesperson Serge Abergel told National Observer.

“We know that the energy revolution is happening," Abergel said in an interview. "We know that it’s evolving very quickly and the future trends are evolving more and more quickly.”

Natural Resources Canada spokesperson Jocelyn Argibay told National Observer that federal scientists are working with Hydro-Québec to study how to better integrate more solar energy into the province's grid.

One factor driving that research: generating energy from solar panels is now “nearly cost-competitive with other generation options, even in the province of Quebec,” Argibay said. The cost of producing electricity from solar energy varies, but on average, Hydro-Québec currently spends $0.02 per kilowatt/hour to generate electricity, which mostly comes from hydro-electric dams.

As the cost of generating electricity from solar energy continues to fall, more consumers across North America are starting to use solar panels to generate their own energy and feed excess back into the grid, Abergel said. Researchers at Hydro-Québec's Institut de recherche in Varennes, Que. are studying how to take advantage of that, and how to make sure the grid can handle it.

Hydro-Québec is also starting to look into the possibility of buying or partnering with a company to provide that technology to individual consumers, he said.

A jumpstart from cheap solar

Quebec already allows consumers to connect renewable energy sources to the grid and get credit for power that they don't use. But so far just 124 clients are on the system, the company says. Ninety per cent of them are residential consumers, and almost all (103) use solar energy. Another 17 clients use wind energy, and four use a mix of both.

In Alberta, where most consumers pay more for electricity than Quebecers, the number of consumers generating their own power and sending excess to the grid has increased by 16 times since 2010, with 1,840 separate solar-powered and wind-powered sites now producing almost 15 megawatts.

Average consumers in Quebec pay the cheapest rate for electricity in North America, so the cost of installing and maintaining solar or wind equipment has been less attractive there than in many other jurisdictions.

Scientists at the company's research institute are also exploring how electric vehicles plugged into the grid could be used to balance out supply and demand at peak periods. The technology hasn't been perfected or rolled out anywhere on a large scale, but two recent pilot projects sponsored by Nissan in the U.K. and Denmark have allowed drivers of the company's electric cars to take extra energy stored in the vehicles' batteries and feed it back into the grid.

Production at Quebec's hydro-electric dams throttles up and down continuously to meet demand; more users meeting their own electrical needs could reduce the gap between energy supply and demand when the network is busiest.

“If we’re able to eventually make our energy needs more stable, it’s interesting for us in terms of managing the network,” Abergel said.

Hydro-Québec's René-Lévesque dam and generating station, on the north shore of the St-Lawrence River. Photo by Hydro-Québec.
Hydro-Québec's René-Lévesque dam and generating station, on the north shore of the St-Lawrence River. Photo by Hydro-Québec.

Almost all of Hydro-Québec's power is generated by hydroelectric dams in the province. The company contracts to other producers to provide the rest, including almost 3,300 megawatts of wind power and another 5,400 megawatts of hydroelectric power from the Churchill Falls dam in Newfoundland.

The utility also operates some diesel and gas-fired plants, mostly to supplement hydroelectricity at hours of peak demand.

"The future is cleaner, smarter, more distributed"

“In the past, there was a lot of apprehension and conservatism about the direction energy was going, but the jury has decided now,” said Patrick Bateman, director of policy and market development for the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA). “The future is cleaner, smarter, more distributed. If there was ever any doubt before that it wasn’t going to be, that ship has sailed.”

Quebec “couldn't be any better positioned” to integrate more solar energy into the grid, Bateman said. The province already uses wind farms to supplement hydroelectric power. In his view, adding more solar projects could have the same effect, allowing dams to throttle down production or to divert more excess electricity to export markets.

On a smaller scale, two regulatory changes in Quebec could help push more consumers to become producers, Bateman said.

Currently, residential consumers in Quebec aren't allowed to put more than 50 kilowatts back into the system. In Alberta, the limit is five megawatts – 100 times higher – while Ontario is looking into removing the current 500 kilowatt cap for consumers who generate their own electricity and sell excess back to their power company.

Increasing or removing the limit in Quebec could help users more quickly recover the cost of installing and maintaining equipment, he said.

Currently in Quebec, consumers who want to contribute their own power have to generate it at the same address where it will be used. That's a regulation CanSIA would like to see changed.

Removing that requirement would be a “game-changer,” Bateman said. Neighbourhoods could fund solar projects to meet their own needs and feed the remainder back into the grid. Ontario and Alberta are both already looking into these systems.

“The key drivers for this in Quebec will be consumers who are both environmentally conscious and digitally savvy,” Bateman predicted.

“If we are going to increase renewable and micro-renewable generation, we need to (first) enable people to sell to the grid,” said Amin Asadollahi, the lead on climate change mitigation for North America at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

He said it's time for utility companies to start rethinking their business model and get more involved in transmitting energy from small producers.

“That's going to be critical to ensure that we have high market penetration of small-scale renewables,” Asadollahi said. “Then you can have consumers participate and be part of the solution. That's huge.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. on Mon. Feb. 6, 2017 to add clarification to an explanation of vehicle-to-grid technology.