Posted by Brandon Copeland
If you’ve been following me at all over the past week, you saw the great news from our trip to Toronto. Brett Favaro, Dave Lane, and myself managed to pull out a victory at the CanInfra Challenge. It’s been all over our LinkedIn profiles, and our Twitter accounts, and our Instagram feeds. We were excited, and rightfully so I think. Our proposed project, IceGrid was deemed by a panel of experts to be the most practical and influential infrastructure project pitched at the conference. That felt good, really good.
The journey didn’t begin last week in Toronto, however. Our team has been working on the pitch for the first half of 2018, having begun discussing the potential in January. I first heard about the CanInfra Challenge before Christmas. Organized by the Boston Consulting Group, and with major sponsors spanning a number of industries, the CanInfra Challenge called for proposals for innovative and impactful infrastructure that Canada could and should invest in to help shape our future. Contestants were encouraged to think big, and to pitch projects along the same vein as the Trans-Canada Highway, or the Canadian Pacific Railway. We were never putting together a feasibility study. Our job was to pitch what might be considered, how it might practically be deployed, and who might benefit.
It was a phenomenal experience. Truly, one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my professional career. While the win is still fresh in my mind I felt it would be relevant to share some insights and thoughts that I had while taking part. This article will include notes on our project specifically, as well as some insights on the reason why our team composition worked so well. A little bit of everything – but hey – that’s kind of what these past six months have been like! All over the place!
Why IceGrid was Transformational
First, lets talk a bit about IceGrid. Renewable energy is something that I think most rational folks can get behind. What I didn’t fully grasp before this contest was how truly necessary it is for our country.
A shocking piece of information that lead to this project – there are over 200 communities in Canada that are completely off-grid. These communities have no connection to our national energy infrastructure. Subsequently, the vast majority of these communities are powered by diesel plants. Prior to IceGrid, I hadn’t thought very much about this. However, in a small remote community, imagine what a giant diesel plant would do to the landscape of your town, as well as the air quality. What’s more, diesel plants need diesel to run… a fuel that has a fluctuating prices and needs to be imported. This makes energy costs high and unpredictable. In some cases, remote communities are paying as much as ten-times the national average for their electricity. That’s shocking. Here in Newfoundland, we are incredibly upset about the fact that our 15.3 cents per kilowatt hour cost might jump to 23.3 cents by 2022. Imagine if 94 cents per kilowatt hour was your norm. This costs consumers in these communities lots of money, and the subsidies that are paid to sustain them cost the Canadian tax-payer lots of money. Even if we ignore all of the environmental benefits, there is obviously an economic case to pull these communities off of diesel reliance.
Diving into the economic case a little deeper, I learned just how viable these renewable projects can be. I’ve certainly questioned projects like this in the past, falsely believing that renewables were great in concept but expensive in practice. Well, my opinion has changed. These projects are no longer more expensive. Certainly the installation cost of a system similar to the one we pitched is higher than the installation cost of a diesel plant. However, when looking at a piece of infrastructure, it makes sense to consider operating and maintenance as well. What does the infrastructure costs look like over its lifespan? Take a look at the numbers we ran.
The operation and maintenance of renewables is FAR cheaper than the operation and maintenance of a diesel plant. Largely because there is no longer a need to invest in fuel. The high up-front cost is recovered quickly – far quicker than pay-back periods for many infrastructure projects. In the example we present, an IceGrid-style system could conceivably save Iqaluit (the community we modeled in the most detail) $378M over 20 years. Renewables are simply the better long-term investment.
The last piece of information that has changed my mind about renewables is in regards to batteries. The most common concern about renewable energy projects tends to be that the environment is not something we can control. “What happens if the wind stops blowing” or “what happens if the sun stops shining” are reasonable questions. That answer has always been to back-up the system with dirty generation, and is likely why so many renewable projects that have been undertaken are there to supplement dirty power-generation as opposed to outright replacing it. The key to solving this challenge is batteries. Only recently have batteries reached a point where they are cheap enough, and powerful enough, to successfully backup a system like this. The price has declined steadily and predictably in recent years, as demonstrated in the included image. Keep in mind that the wind is incredibly unlikely to completely stop blowing, nor will the sun completely stop shining. In reality, these batteries need to kick in when speeds and/or brightness changes. Tracking of wind and solar can help to calculate how many batteries would be needed based on annual trends in windspeed/sunlight, but the key is that these battery packs are theoretically infinitely-scalable. You can provide a community with as much back-up as necessary to feel comfortable.
Working with an Interdisciplinary Team
I also thoroughly enjoyed working with an interdisciplinary team. This had less to do with what we were pitching and more to do with how we worked, however it was a key insight that I gained from the experience.
First, understand our team. Dave and I both have a business background, however Dave has a ton of additional knowledge on the social side of things through his work as a city councillor. Alternatively, while Dave is no slouch, I don’t think it would be unfair to state that I have a bit more experience with project planning and financing through my real estate work as well as my project management background. Brett is an incredibly well-versed resource – a PhD and a published author – and was certainly our greatest asset when it came to digging up data and research. He also had a practical understanding of climate change and the related challenges, something that he helped to effortlessly weave into our narrative.
I can’t help but think that our diverse backgrounds were a major asset as we compiled our presentations and performed our live pitches. We each had a focus so-to-speak, and we ensured that the various messages (economic, social, technical) were all well-reflected. If we had been three finance focused people, we may not have fleshed out the technical or social sections as well. Three PhDs? I suspect we would have had an incredibly well researched pitch, but perhaps not have been able to speak as well to the business-case for this project.
We weren’t the largest team that submitted – some university teams had far more people than our little group of three. Nor were we the most experienced or well-funded, as a number of ideas were generated by existing businesses who knew their product inside and out. What I think we did have was diverse backgrounds, perhaps one of the most interdisciplinary teams that pitched. We felt we had a team member capable of handling any type of question or criticism. While we all understood the basics of what we were pitching, we had a specialist capable of handling any specific questions on any topic the judges threw at us. It was a wonderful experience to have a diverse team that I could lean on when my own weaknesses were exposed, and I think the fact that we trusted each other was a real benefit.
So What’s Next?
Ah, yes. The most asked question we receive. The short answer is, we aren’t exactly sure. We’ve worked solely on tightening up the pitch and telling the story over these past five months. We wanted to make it to the conference so that we could talk about an important issue, and propose a sustainable solution. I think its safe to say we accomplished more than what we thought we would.
However, we have also had an incredibly amount of positive feedback since pulling out the win. It isn’t a stretch to say we have heard from folks from across the country who want to try and help us make IceGrid a reality. The positive response has been amazing. Certainly, the feed-back and interest has been some of the best market-validation a concept could receive. The quality of individuals at the conference, and the companies that they represent, is significant. We want to continue to play a role in developing sustainable energy solutions for off-grid communities, and we have some ideas as to how we might do that and what our roles may be. Stay tuned, and one last time, thanks to everyone who provided support during this process!