Energy Central Power Perspectives: Getting to Know Your Expert Interview Series: Stephane Bilodeau, Expert in the Clean Power Community
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- Oct 16, 2019 5:45 pm GMT
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The network of experts across every facet of the utility industry is among the most valuable assets available to all members of the Energy Central community, so giving you all an inside look into the background and the insights of these experts in the ‘Getting to Know Your Expert’ Interview series has been so exciting.
While we’ve tapped some of our experts in communities like Digital Utility and Load Management, today I’m excited to bring you an exclusive interview with one of the experts in our very popular Clean Power Group, Stephane Bilodeau. Stephane, the Chairman and Chief Technology Officer at Novacab Inc., is actually an expert across a number of Energy Central communities thanks to his wide breadth of experience and deep base of knowledge about energy and utilities, as you’ll read.
So, when you see Stephane chiming in with his words of wisdom on posts on Energy Central in the future, you’ll be able to look back at this interview to see how much experience and weight his words carry. And when you see him in the community, take the time to say hello and ask him any questions you may have to continue to learn from him!
Matt Chester: First things first: thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and thank you for continually offering your time to the Energy Central community as an expert for the Clean Power Community (as well as many others!). As an active member on Energy Central and one who is highlighted as an expert in so many different fields, can you provide your background and your role in the utility industry so those who don’t know you can understand all you’ve done to earn that title of expert?
Stephane Bilodeau: As a professional engineer for more than 20 years and Ph.D. in Energy & Advanced Thermodynamics, I have founded and led two Power and Energy related Clean Tech organizations, working extensively in energy storage, power generation, artificial intelligence, innovation, and Sustainable Development matters. Also, since the early 2000s, I have been an active member of different engineer associations, notably including Engineers Canada (where I’m still vice-president of the Public Affairs Committee of this 300,000 members association), OIQ (which is a 65,000 engineers-strong association in Quebec that I served as either Board member, VP, or President between 2006 and 2015) and Board member of the FOIQ (a Foundation awarding scholarships for Youth & Engineering which I helped found and served as Vice President 10 years ago).
I was referred as a frontrunner with main objectives related to energy storage, recovery, and efficiency, as well as the development of the engineering profession in a sustainable way. In 2015 and 2018, I was recognized by both OIQ and Engineers Canada with a Fellowship (FEC) while FOIQ granted me with the President’s Award for a noteworthy service to the engineering profession through his work.
I have previously worked for General Motors and Hydro-Quebec (one of the five biggest utilities in North America and the largest hydro producer on the continent, third in the world). As Lecturer or Associate Professor at the University of Sherbrooke since 1994, I have been in charge of different energy-related courses.
As the President and Founder of Smart Phases Inc. and of Novacab Inc., I have driven many R&D projects related to energy storage and energy management. I’ve been an author of different patents, and some of my developed technologies have won noteworthy awards, including the ASHRAE Technology Award, the IBM Innovation that Matters Contest, and AQME Energia.
On top of my posts on the Energy Central platform, my publications appeared in the ASHRAE Journal, International Journal of Heat and Mass Transfer, IEA Proceedings, SAE Proceedings, International Electric Vehicle Symposium Proceedings, in Towards Data Science, in StartUp, in Medium, and others.
MC: Wow, that’s all quite impressive! Given your experience, I’d love to get some of your insights. The utility industry is moving more quickly than maybe at any other time in its history save for when it was first being creative. From your perspective, what are the most exciting parts of this transformation and what parts of it give you pause and have you concerned for how they’ll be handled in the coming years?
SB: In today’s multifaceted energy world, a growing number of prosumer assets are increasing the complexity of power grids. I see that decentralized systems with solar generation, wind turbines, and electric vehicles provide promise for a decarbonized future, but also bring along challenges for both utilities and prosumers. At the same time, prosumers who have installed such flexible assets want to optimize their energy flow to maximize the value of their investment.
The transformation of energy grids, the emergence of new services, new players, new models such as self-consumption, alters the operating requirements and constraints of the grids themselves and imposes the management of increasingly massive data that might be unworkable without proper and timely recourse to new technologies and notably Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Energy Storage. Combined with other technologies such as Big Data, the Cloud and the Internet of Things (IoT), energy storage with AI can play an important role in power grid management by improving the accessibility of power sources. renewable energies.
Another challenge is how the grid will be able to handle the ever-growing consumption of the IT world. Last year, OpenAI published an analysis that documents an explosion in computing power over the past six years, which is driving advances in artificial intelligence. Computing power used in the largest AI training runs, the piece found, has doubled every 3.5 months since 2012. Their chart shows the total amount of computing that was used to train selected results that are relatively well known, used a lot of computing time (calculated in petaflops); it’s now more than 17 million times bigger than in 2012 (for AI alone). The compute-time parameter serves as a mental convenience, similar to kilowatthours for energy. And by the way, energy consumption tends to increase proportionally to petaflops, and the grids will have to digest this huge increase.
MC: The motivation towards that shift towards clean energy comes from many different areas: government and regulations, a moral desire to not harm the planet with pollution or emissions, economic benefits that come from cleaner energy, customer demand for such a switch, and more. From a utility leader perspective, how do you think the specific motivation for increasing clean power affects which strategy an organization takes towards accomplishing that goal? Does it matter which motivation a utility is coming from? How much do you think customer demand really matters towards these goals?
SB: This is becoming more and more complex for the grid operator, but also for the smaller facilities or communities. It now involves integrating renewable energy production assets into self-consumption (solar thermal and/or photovoltaic, production of heat from biomass or biogas, geothermal energy, etc.) to enable manufacturers or communities to reduce their carbon footprint, to diversify their energy mix, and to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, which should allow better control of energy-related budgets over the long term.
It is, in any case, the lever to activate in priority, as they say: “the unspent energy costs nothing and does not pollute”. On the other hand, even if there are some good successes or more specifically attractive sectors, the deployment of renewable energies and recovery technologies is still too little advanced in the industry. There are many hurdles to overcome: significant investment costs, competition current with fossil fuels and cheap electricity, the fear of operational risks associated with these innovative technologies, the lack of technical knowledge or operational capabilities, etc. Many positive experiences can be analyzed and can be considered as examples to follow in the “learning” phase. That would aim to provide the industry with a light on the possibilities offered in the short term through recovery technologies and renewable energy, focusing on major sectors and a set of technologies.
For example, we can think of the optimization of a decentralized power generation (solar PV or wind turbine) with an intelligent energy storage system (IES). In this scenario, if the next day’s weather forecast is communicated to the AI, the storage capacity can be prepared according to the expected state of the network. The AI can decide to unload the storage unit (hybrid energy storage, for example) overnight so that a maximum of current can be stored there the next day. Thanks to this control function, it would also be possible to know the status on the higher voltage grid levels. The distribution side (Lower voltage grid) can then help maintain the voltage on the higher grid levels (and even at transmission-level with a sufficient amount of capacity involved). In surplus to that, the electricity produced is either consumed directly (priority 1) or injected into the grid or stored temporarily according to the state of the grid. In case of local voltage problems, the locally stored electricity (battery) can be fed into the grid. In a wider scenario, the energy provider can actively control the intelligent modules based on certain signals (weather forecast, balance group, etc.). That way, the IES positively influences the maintenance of local network voltage and, more generally, the security of supply (local and decentralized system services). It is also an ideal platform for energy suppliers in terms of customer loyalty and the development of new products (services, assignment of contracts, etc.).
For renewable energies, it’s always a challenge to be considered an add-on to competitiveness. Especially when there are no subsidies available, under current market conditions, with a very low gas price, and apart from a few special cases, they are globally less competitive than traditional reference solutions (electricity and natural gas). It can be noted that these conventional energies are often accessible at even lower cost for large consumers, benefiting from better supply contracts. In this context, public policies, and the support mechanisms associated with them, but also maximization of the outcomes with AI and energy storage play a major role. Under the impetus for subsidies and technology integration, many solutions can bring competitiveness to industrial. But RE coupled with IES should be seen as a team member into the bigger competitive race.
In addition, investing in an energy asset is often a mid-term or a long-term choice, with longer depreciation period. A choice today will have consequences for the next 5, 10, 15 years or more. Choosing to invest in one or more renewable or recovery assets today may be a long-term paying choice because it allows to diversify the energy mix and decrease the dependence on traditional energies, whose prices may be particularly erratic. Moreover, such a strategy allows also, at least in part, to overcome the increase in the price of fuel, electricity or even to a lesser extent the CO2 credit market.
MC: On an international level, what type of leadership do you think is necessary to bring about necessary change towards an energy transition, and how have you been able to advocate for that type of change?
The challenges the energy sector, but also the whole world, is facing are tremendous. We need essentially all the stakeholder to contribute actively. Energy demand is rising in all regions of the globe; CO2 emissions and climate are definitely not under control; AI, IoT, and machine learning will revolutionize our way to interact with each other and put huge stress on the infrastructures. We need to work together more than ever. There is no more time to separate our ways, but rather to collaborate in the best ways possible.
After more than 15 years of public involvement at different levels and more than 20 work in low carbon energy solutions, renewables and energy storage & conversion, I think that there has never been a higher level of commitment in the energy sector for constructive changes.
Last month was intense for me but also for many. Earlier this year, our company had quickly responded to a call-to-action, issued by UN leaders, and made a commitment to contribute to keeping global temperature increase within 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This led me to participate actively in the UN Climate Action Summit 2019 in New York, but also in the SDG Business Forum and the UN Global Compact Leaders Week 2019. It was awesome and encouraging for all participants while making us humbled in front of the challenges of the Climate Emergency asking for every stakeholder to take action. Our organization, Smart Phases (Novacab), committed to set climate targets in line with SBTi from UN Global Compact & partners; its new manufacturing plant will be integrating innovative low-carbon emissions technologies that will reduce CO2 emissions by more than 45% needed to limit the worst impacts of climate change.
In New York City, I had the chance to talk with the former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, as well as with other leaders from the public and private sectors, from the youth movement, academics, banks & industrial corporations, and many others.
MC: You spend a lot of time on the Energy Central community to share your thoughts and read those of others. What keeps you coming back to the Energy Central platform and what do you like best about the community?
SB: This community is a great sharing platform with thousands of savvy persons coming from a diversity of skills and expertise. It starts with understanding and recognizing that everyone but also every sector is unique, with a different set of strengths, capabilities, and experiences. Integrating diversity is first, recognizing it and then creating environments where you can bring out the best aspects so that when they work together, the sum is much greater than the parts. In order to come up with cutting-edge solutions, you really need to have different perspectives and skills.
We all know that, on a team, if you have the same type of people working on something (all-male, all-old, all- from the city, etc.), you’re limited to the types of solutions you can create. By integrating differences, it actually allows you to expand your horizons and push the boundaries. I see Energy Central as a huge team of energy-interested persons that want to make the sector progress and thrive in a fast-changing environment.
I’d like to thank Stephane for sharing his knowledge, educating us about his background and the work he’s currently doing, and for continually providing to the community as an expert. Stephane’s responses exuded a contagious passion and excitement, so I hope you were as inspired by reading his words as I was in conducting this interview.