Jan 23, 2024

Generating Innovation for Tomorrow’s Electricity Systems

How an AI-powered “sandbox” could help us imagine and plan for the electricity grids our future demands

Electricity systems around the globe are facing big changes, as the world transitions to net zero. In Alberta, we’re adding lots of micro-scale energy sources to the grid, like a dozen solar panels here and there on household roofs. We’re also cranking up demand, plugging in electric vehicles and running air conditioners more to cope with hotter summers.

That leaves the region’s utility managers with big challenges. “Today’s grid is over a hundred years old,” explains Energy Futures Lab ambassador Barend Dronkers. “[It’s] not sufficient for tomorrow’s needs.”

How can utilities integrate scattered sources of electricity into a grid designed for large, centralized generation? How can they manage growing demand — especially during peak hours — to avoid overloading the system? And how can they figure out quickly and cost-effectively which strategies work best?

These are critical questions, not only for Alberta, but for jurisdictions across Canada and beyond. While the answers will be different for different regions, what all jurisdictions need is a safe and collaborative space to explore them.

Since 2020, the Energy Futures Lab has been bringing together stakeholders from across Alberta’s energy sector to brainstorm solutions. One of the ideas that emerged — championed by Dronkers — was an AI-powered Grid Sandbox.

Providing the space and data to test drive innovation

The concept of this digital platform is to give utilities an opportunity to test different scenarios and strategies virtually, using real, detailed energy data from individual households.

For example, the sandbox could show utilities how the addition of electric vehicle chargers within specific neighbourhoods would affect the grid. Or model different energy saving incentive programs for households before investing time and money on real-world pilots.

Meanwhile, customers could run their own virtual scenarios, like assessing the impact of shifting laundry to off-peak hours or adding more insulation to their attic. The platform could also recommend ways to cut their energy use, tailored to their individual needs.

That’s key, since measures that make sense for a young family in a newly built townhouse might not be appropriate for a tenant renting a one-bedroom apartment or an empty nester in a century home.

Bringing together the right partners

Achieving that vision required meaningful collaboration. Software companies and AI specialists to write the code. Utilities to test the platform and provide feedback. Households willing to share detailed data about their energy use. Home energy audit software to generate baseline information.

Leveraging its strength as a trusted convenor across Alberta’s energy sector, the Energy Futures Lab helped forge the partnerships needed to develop and test a working prototype. That included teaming up with ENMAX — one of Alberta’s largest utilities — which piloted a demonstration of the sandbox with a handful of customers in 2021 and 2022. In addition, the RBC Foundation, through RBC Tech for Nature, partnered with the Energy Futures Lab on this emerging initiative.

Now, the project team is rolling out larger-scale pilots. And while those trials are taking place in Alberta, the results have the potential to help both utilities and users transform grids across North America and beyond to meet the energy needs of the future.

For Matt Mayer, Digital Innovation Lead for the Energy Futures Lab, it’s a perfect example of how the organization drives transformation. “Systems change requires creative mindsets,” he says. “It requires a sense of innovation. It requires different perspectives to come together to understand problems in order to identify meaningful solutions.”