First published as part of the advancing Canada’s net-zero goals report featured in the May 2nd, 2024 Globe and Mail, produced by Randall Anthony Communications.

This past winter, a cold snap in Alberta saw temperatures drop to minus 45 degrees Celsius. Electricity demand increased while renewable energy availability plummeted. Due to concerns about potential rolling blackouts, all residents received urgent messages to “conserve power immediately” from the province.

“Can you imagine sitting in your home when it’s freezing cold outside and learning that the grid might crash?” says Mitchell Miller, CEO of Atlas Power Technologies Inc. “Alberta came together to prevent that scenario, but this illustrates why it is so critical to make grids more reliable. Energy storage can help fill the gap, with different types of technologies playing different roles for different durations.”

Mr. Miller has been working with a number of partners to advance an energy storage solution that can help address “grid reliability, one of the biggest challenges for our transition to clean energy.”

Electricity grids have traditionally relied on “governors, which act like a cruise control mechanism for generators,” he explains. “Governors respond to grid fluctuations by injecting more fuel, and this nearly instantaneous output helps to avoid cascading effects. As we transition to renewables like wind and solar, we have to boost our capabilities to dispatch more energy on demand because we are removing these governors from the system.”

Mr. Miller’s journey to explore renewable energy solutions started in 2012. As he was looking to invest in wind and solar energy sites, he learned that energy storage can play a vital role in making these operations not only cost effective and competitive but also reliable.

Atlas Power is working with a range of partners to advance energy storage solutions in the form of supercapacitors.

“Renewables in general are weather dependent. So, when solar or wind farms in a region come on at the same time, you get an abundance of energy that drives down prices,” he explains. “At other times, when these resources are not available, prices go up, and energy storage can help cover a shortfall.”

Investigating different types of solutions, Mr. Miller “came across supercapacitors, which are the size of a large coffee cup and can charge and discharge very quickly. They also last a long time: you can get one to two million cycles out of them compared to a few thousands from lithium-ion batteries.”

Initially, Atlas partnered with Simon Fraser University and Mitacs to work with a mechatronics team to study the techno-economic viability of using supercapacitors as energy storage devices within the electricity grid, Mr. Miller recalls. “What came back was a mixed review, where people said, ‘Yes, this is fantastic technology, but it’s too expensive.’”

From the decision to drive down costs, Atlas worked with the Advanced Materials for Energy Storage Lab at UBC Okanagan to analyze and reinvent the chemistry. The result? “We developed our own activated carbon, which is the best and most energy-dense in the world,” says Mr. Miller, who initially financed the project himself. “Once we made those breakthroughs, we were able to go to the broader investment community for additional capital.”

Subsequent funding rounds allowed Atlas to build a small 2,000-square-foot proof-of-concept activated carbon production facility in Mission, B.C., and later a 20,000-square-foot pilot supercapacitor production facility in Abbotsford.

The step to move the cells towards production and commercialization gained support from the B.C. Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy (CICE), an independent, not-for-profit corporation that helps fund made-in-B.C. cleantech solutions, says Mr. Miller. “We approached CICE with the idea to leverage our cell production and build full systems – a powerful solution for enhancing reliability in electricity grids.”

This goal fit well with the mandate of CICE, notes Sarah Goodman, the organization’s president and CEO. “Globally, 55 per cent of the technologies we need to get to net zero, such as electric vehicles, renewable energy generation and so on, are available and cost competitive today – or will be soon. While that’s encouraging, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Efforts at CICE focus on the “next wave of solutions in hydrogen, batteries and energy storage, carbon management and low-carbon fuels,” she explains. “These focus areas are very intentional as these are the technologies we’ll need for a net-zero future.”

Clean technologies can help decarbonize Canada as well as make a difference on the global stage, suggests Ms. Goodman, who believes that “with 13 cleantech companies on the Global Cleantech 100 list, Canada punches above its weight.

“Canada is a great place to innovate and advance cleantech, but there’s an opportunity to do more, especially in regard to de-risking industry adoption through co-investment and partnerships,” she says. CICE’s approach is to provide non-dilutive investment, raised through public and private member partnerships and grants, to “support companies we think will have an outsized impact on decarbonization, and Atlas is a good example of that.”

One of the outcomes of the collaboration was advancing the innovation to a technology readiness level where it attracted a partnership with TransAlta, one of the largest independent power producers in North America with a significant presence in Alberta.

“We started working with TransAlta on an approach, where supercapacitors can facilitate a fast frequency response, or FFR, similar to what governors do in generators,” says Mr. Miller. “Our plan was to hybridize one of their slower responding generators so it can meet FFR market qualifications. It’s a concept for modernizing a fleet of 100-year-old hydro generators for the new age in an economical way.”

The project – a six-megawatt supercapacitor energy storage system hybridized with a hydroelectric facility (Hybrid-hydro SC-ESS) – “is the first of its kind in North America and the largest of its kind globally, where current examples are mostly in the range of one or two megawatt,” says Mr. Miller. “If it is successful, TransAlta can replicate it to a few hundred megawatts in Alberta alone – and implement this around the world.”

Ms. Goodman agrees the technology is globally significant.

“As we ramp up renewable energy, we need to increase reliability,” she says. “We also know that electrification of the economy represents a competitive advantage. About 82 per cent of our electricity in Canada comes from clean energy sources, and our clean grid is one of the reasons why companies come to and invest in Canada.”

Heightened attention to technology solutions enabling emissions reduction bodes well for cleantech innovators, and Ms. Goodman regards this as cause for optimism.

“There is growing recognition that climate change is not only the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity we face today,” she says. “We see innovators, investors, governments and community members, all dedicated to working together and stepping up efforts in the space. We’re seeing momentum we haven’t seen in the past, both nationally and globally.”

Mr. Miller has a similarly positive outlook. “Beyond helping to enhance grid reliability, our supercapacitors can potentially be deployed for different use cases; for example, in electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles.

“We found the right partners for the different stages in our journey,” he says, “and this has allowed Atlas Power Technologies to come to a point where we now have a Canadian solution to show to the world.”


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