New program to address critical skills need for sustainable energy future

June 10, 2021
SFU professor Majid Bahrami

A new national research and training program will help to jumpstart the development of greener and more resilient energy grids—the networks that deliver our power— while increasing skills critical to advancing our sustainable energy future.

The Hybrid Thermal Electric Microgrid (HyTEM) program, conceived by Simon Fraser University professor Majid Bahrami, is receiving $1.6 million from the Natural Sciences and Energy Research Council of Canada (NSERC) through its CREATE fund, announced today. The program, also supported by $1 million from MITACS, is designed to combine technical skills and professional competencies critically needed by engineering graduates. 

SFU will lead the six-year program, beginning in September 2021, which is expected to draw current and future senior undergraduates, graduates, and post-graduate trainees from SFU and partnering universities. Collaborators engaged in HyTEM research and training include 15 leading national and international research centers, numerous industrial partners, and several NGOs. Trainee internship is a major element of the program.

“In order to facilitate Canada’s transition toward energy sustainability, the HyTEM will provide training needed to advance the research and development of new, flexible hybrid microgrids,” says Bahrami, a professor in SFU’s School of Mechatronic Systems Engineering (MSE) and Canada Research Chair in Alternative Energy Conversion Systems. 

“These microgrids will enable the integration of distributed energy resources (DERs) into electric grids and thermal networks, so the energy networks can work in harmony, based on demand and supply patterns. This will ultimately lead to resource optimization, energy security, job creation, and progress toward meeting emission targets.”

Empowering the next generation of sustainability engineers 

The HyTEM, supported by several partner universities, aims to become a world-class training program to serve the pressing need for high-quality personnel (HQPs) with interdisciplinary skills and knowledge to integrate and use DERs in hybrid microgrids. 

While electric grids have recently been integrating more DERs—which include hydro, solar, wind and bioenergy—the heating of buildings, which accounts for about 20 per cent of the country’s energy use and emissions, is still primarily done by burning fossil fuels. 

“Currently, transition to a fully-electric heating system is not feasible as the existing grid cannot cope with an all-electric heating load, and ever-increasing demands for electrification of the transport sector,” Bahrami notes. 

In addition to developing technologies, the HyTEM will provide training to navigate complex local and international contexts, policies and regulations as well as business development and entrepreneurship. It will advance trainees to communicate their findings to policymakers and the public, skills that he notes are largely missing in engineering programs in Canada. “A solid understanding of these contexts is critical to mobilize technical innovations and penetrate to the market effectively,” says Bahrami.

Research will also lead to the development of stand-alone microgrids to service regions with no connection to an integrated network, as in mining sites and northern, Indigenous and off-grid communities. It will also lead to the creation of systems of microgrids, where on-demand and seamless uninterrupted integration with electric and thermal networks is desired.

Program will help meet remote needs

Bahrami says the majority of off-grid communities on islands and in northern Canada, home to over 200,000 people in 292 communities, continue to rely on costly diesel generators to meet their energy demand. 

In Nunavut, non-subsidized electricity costs nine times the Canadian average, impacting the quality of life, environment, and economic growth. Between 2003-2018, 135 projects with a total value of $758 M were devoted to smart grid research, demonstration and deployment in Canada.

“A number of microgrid projects have been undertaken at off-grid sites across Canada, with the majority being unsuccessful due to technical, economic and social issues, except where hydropower is used as the primary energy source, indicating a pressing need for technology development,” he says. 

Bahrami adds that the challenges of transforming global energy systems provide tremendous economic prospects for developing local/global solutions, ideal for export, that can create jobs for highly trained personnel in various sectors, including municipalities, utilities, manufacturing, and construction.

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