Photo illustration by Kelvin Li
Humans are wired to want more. More time, more resources, more money. But what if we could do more with what we already have? When we innovate for resilience, we often think big — bypassing solutions in our own homes. Today, we’re looking at the design of objects (like electric cars and heat pumps) and discovering their purpose can go far beyond the original intent. As we move to more sustainable forms of power, energy storage is becoming increasingly important. Here, we explore novel ways we can address energy intermittency in the future and also look back in history for lessons in making those kinds of changes.
Subscribe to Solve for X: Innovations to Save the Planet here. And below find a transcript to the fourth episode “Sparking change: Designing a cleaner energy future.”
François Lefèvre: I knew right away that there was something quite severe happening.
Manjula Selvarajah: That’s François Lefèvre. He’s senior manager at Nissan Canada. Eleven years ago, François was working at the office in Ottawa. He doesn’t remember the exact moment when he first heard the news.
François Lefèvre: You don’t know exactly what’s going on, and you really realize that even your colleagues in Japan are also struggling to get more information.
Manjula Selvarajah: Ten thousand kilometres away on the other side of the globe, something very bad was happening. But the details that started to trickle in from his colleagues in Japan were few and far between.
François Lefèvre: It was truly nerve-wracking because you can sense the panic and the intensity of the situation when you were speaking to people.
Manjula Selvarajah: What happened that day turned out to be the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan’s history. It reached 9.1 on the Richter scale, shaking the earth for six straight minutes.
François Lefèvre: The earthquake itself was not necessarily a surprise. It’s what came after.
Manjula Selvarajah: The tsunami produced waves that were fourteen metres high. That’s higher than a telephone pole. This wall of water slammed into the coast. It washed away cars, homes, buildings, whatever was in its path. And that included the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where the flooding was so severe, it triggered meltdowns at three of its four reactors.
Manjula Selvarajah: This was a full scale disaster. Response efforts began immediately, but there was a lot to take care of. While electricity was back up in most areas within a week of the tsunami, oil refineries remained out of commission — and no gas means no transportation. That’s a real problem for emergency response crews looking to get people safe and bring supplies in.
François Lefèvre: That was only three months after the launch of the Nissan Leaf in Japan.
Manjula Selvarajah: Meanwhile, Nissan had just launched their first EV or electric vehicle a few months earlier. In the days and weeks that followed the tsunami, the cars became a very valuable resource.
François Lefèvre: It was March and it was still cold in that prefecture, in that region in Japan. So they were actually bringing the car in and using the heating system from the car to heat up the room and even the lights from the vehicle too — to provide light in that room in the evacuation centre.
Manjula Selvarajah: Both Nissan and Mitsubishi sent electric vehicles up to the affected area.
François Lefèvre: We sent 66 Leafs to the disaster struck area. It was very quick for us to be able to turn around and help the community over there.
Manjula Selvarajah: The cars helped officials survey damaged areas, transport people and bring in supplies in spite of fuel shortages. It was a small part of a massive response, but the impact of this initiative changed how people saw electric cars. They weren’t just a mode for getting from point A to point B — they’re also a way to transport and store energy, and Nissan took note. It would become a key piece of their business, and EVs themselves would go on to get enshrined as an official part of Japan’s emergency protocols.
So when you think about how big decisions get made or how change happens, sometimes something as grave as disaster can fuel innovation. How we respond to crises can lead to changes in how we live our lives and how we design the future. And given the urgency of the climate crisis, things are going to have to change.
I’m Manjula Selvarajah and this is Solve for X — X Innovations to Save the Planet. A series where we explore the latest ideas in tech and science that could help us tackle climate change. And I know what you’re thinking… not another climate story about disaster, but this episode is not about disasters, per se. It’s about how we plan for a sustainable future.
In this episode, we’re looking into what it’ll take to transition to clean energy and how we can design the everyday objects around us to do more. This isn’t the first time we’ve had to make big changes to how we’ve lived our lives. Energy hasn’t always been something you can switch on and off.
Ruth Sandwell: When electricity first came in people didn’t understand it at all. They thought it would leak out of the little receptacles where you put the plugs in. There were a lot of fears and no wonder — I mean, who understands electricity?
Manjula Selvarajah: That’s Ruth Sandwell. She’s a historian at the University of Toronto who studies the history of energy in Canada.
Ruth Sandwell: There is always the assumption that the future was always going to be about more energy, more convenience, more leisure, more time to do what we wanted, more things. Since climate change, it’s kind of made the past look a little bit different.
Manjula Selvarajah: I asked Ruth to take me back in Canada’s history to other times when we experienced big changes in how we consumed energy.
Ruth Sandwell: I had always assumed that the history of energy was one of everybody welcoming each new technology. And I was very surprised when I started looking at some of the data for the energy transition at the beginning of the 20th century, and found Canadians (generally) were actually really, really slow to take up the new kinds of energy and the new technology. For example, when they first started trying to sell electric stoves, they realized that a lot of people were resisting because they would have no heat in their kitchens. It was quite a powerful reason not to change because what they had was actually working.
Manjula Selvarajah: So, how long did it take for people to make that change?
Ruth Sandwell: So electricity came in, and then kerosene lighting came in, in the sort of mid-1860s. And people are a bit surprised to learn that Ontario was a big oil producer in the 1860s through to the end of the 19th century — so most rural Canadians were still lighting their homes with kerosene lamps into the 1940s and even 1950s. But by the 1920s, a lot of urban Canadians were beginning to use electricity for lighting, not for cooking and heating so much.
Manjula Selvarajah: That is so surprising to me, the idea that kerosene lamps were still used substantially in the ’40s, in the ’50s, I find that quite interesting. And you talk about the transition here being slower — why was that the case? Why was the transition in Canada slower?
Ruth Sandwell: You know, Canada’s the source of the largest boreal forests in the world. And as people have said, trees are nature’s storage batteries so they’re a fantastic source of energy. And for many Canadians — the rural Canadians who were basically the majority of the population until the 1940s — there was lots of wood in most of Canada, with the exception of the prairie provinces and the far north.
Manjula Selvarajah: Now I think about the shift from wood to electricity. And if you think about — you have that piece of wood that you can see — perhaps you’ve had some of the men and some of the women in the family go out and cut that wood and light it, so it’s really tangible. But that energy consumption becomes less tangible with electricity. How do you think that affects how we use and and think about energy?
Ruth Sandwell: I think it’s huge. It really has a huge effect on why people don’t understand what we’re doing to the environment right now, like how on earth can what I do in my home be affecting this massive global change to the climate. In previous times, you could actually experience quite viscerally the relationship between yourself and the environment outside of you. If you cut down too many trees, you wouldn’t have enough wood to run your fireplace in the future. Whereas with electricity, of course, as climate change has reminded us, there is still a very, very direct relationship between what we do and the world we live in.
Manjula Selvarajah: Adapting our systems to clean energy like wind and solar comes with a series of technical challenges. For instance, it’s not always windy or sunny. This intermittency can strain our energy systems. Finding ways to manage supply and demand on the grid is a problem that many present-day energy experts are working to solve.
Imran Noorani: My name is Imran Noorani. I am the Chief Strategy Officer at Peak Power. I think those that ask me what I do for a living, don’t understand it. My parents, to this day, call me a business consultant because they still don’t get it. My friends just call me an energy nerd.
Manjula Selvarajah: Imran is more than just an energy nerd. In his work, he’s exploring how we can plug cars into the energy grid to help alleviate some of the stress on the system. I met up with him in the parking garage of an office tower in downtown Toronto to learn about a pilot project that is underway right now.
Imran Noorani: So this is the car — we park it in this designated spot with a specific charger that we’ve designed with Princeton Power.
Manjula Selvarajah: It looked like any other parking garage, except there was a row of tall white metal boxes, and a fleet of electric cars plugged into them.
Imran Noorani: So all I need to do is just pop up my charger and then I plug in. Here we go.
Manjula Selvarajah: Imran and his team are building on the work started in Japan after the Fukushima disaster. They’re testing how we can use electric cars to power the grid when we most need it, like when everyone gets home from work and starts consuming energy.
Imran Noorani: What you have right now is the charger, is sending electricity into the car, it makes a little bit of a hissing sound, because that’s actually the high frequency of the electricity going through.
Manjula Selvarajah: Look, we don’t normally pay attention to the sound electricity makes. Most of the time if you notice it, something isn’t right. That’s not the case here — here, that sound means things are working. It’s not the nicest thing to listen to though. So I asked Imran if we could sit down in his car away from the hum.
So, describe for me what we’re in right now.
Imran Noorani: So we are just in a regular Nissan Leaf right now. But what we’ve done is we’ve shown that you can take a car like a Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle, and you can make it a grid resource by virtue of the charger that it’s connected to.
Manjula Selvarajah: You’re not generating electricity itself, but you’re taking when prices are low (very simply) and giving back when prices are high. Would that be the simplest way to describe that?
Imran Noorani: Yeah. We’re headed into a world in which people will be providing electricity from their car. If I was an Uber driver, I could be at a specific time, thinking about — oh, there’s a peak event — you know, I’ve got a signal. And if I plug my car in right now for an hour, maybe I’ll go have breakfast, but for that hour I’ll generate 50 bucks, 60 bucks. And at the same time you’re taking cars off the road as well. So there’s this double benefit all around.
Manjula Selvarajah: You’ve presented storage, obviously storage is a necessity, but why in cars? I mean, that storage could be in so many things. Why cars?
Imran Noorani: If you think about what happened in Texas in California this year, we had major climate crises causing the breakdown of grids entirely and people losing access to electricity. Well, you start to think, buildings are everywhere; we can have backup grid services from buildings. Cars, cars are everywhere and the nice thing about cars too, is cars are mobile; it is mobile storage. So if you think about losing electricity at your home, you could be taking the stored electricity out of your car. Now, think about a major event like an entire area of the population being in a critical state; you can take cars and move the cars to them and be able to solve that problem as well. So there’s a huge opportunity.
Manjula Selvarajah: And given that extreme storms and the power outages that often follow are becoming more frequent, we’re going to need solutions at all levels to support us.
Wayne Groszko: I’m Wayne Groszko and I work as the applied energy research scientist at the Nova Scotia Community College.
Manjula Selvarajah: We reached out to a research scientist who specializes in sustainable energy to get his perspective on what it’ll take to make the transition.
Wayne Groszko: My sense is that there is an awareness that climate change is bringing more extreme weather conditions. I think people are responding to that with essentially a desire to be more prepared. And my thought is, all of that emergency preparedness also represents an opportunity for things like batteries and energy storage.
Manjula Selvarajah: I wanted to get Wayne’s take on this idea of using your car to store energy.
Wayne Groszko: The battery that’s inside an electric vehicle is quite a significant size. So if you have an electric car parked at your home, you essentially already have a pretty big battery. With the right equipment, a battery that could probably run in your house for a couple of days. It does raise this interesting question: could you use that battery for something else when it’s just parked there?
Manjula Selvarajah: In addition to investigating that question, Wayne tests the designs of all kinds of objects and devices before they come to market.
Wayne Groszko: So you’ve got a new kind of battery chemistry, and it’s got to the point where there’s some prototypes of it that need to be built and tested. We’ll do that kind of thing, along with data analysis and so on.
Manjula Selvarajah: And because of the nature of his work in the lab, Wayne gets a kind of preview into the future.
Wayne Groszko: Most folks I work with in academia and industry are seeing a move to the electrification of almost everything as part of this process. And by that, they mean transportation becoming electric by using electric vehicles, home heating becoming electric by going to heat pumps and so on.
Manjula Selvarajah: “Electrify everything” sounds easy enough, but it’s not so simple. First of all, it’s going to bring on higher loads. But like we learned earlier, renewable energy isn’t always available, and how the grid works right now is that electricity needs to be generated in real time. That’s why energy storage is so important and why experts like Wayne are getting so excited by its potential.
Wayne Groszko: Storage can be everything from the energy in your water heater, to an actual battery, to pumping water up a hill — literally pumping water up a hill into a big reservoir and then later on letting it go back down to make electricity — is pumped hydro storage. It’s actually still the largest contributor to electricity storage on the planet. And that’s because you can build them super big. To build a battery that can store 800 megawatt hours of electric energy, it would be an incredibly expensive battery.
Manjula Selvarajah: Like Wayne explained, storage doesn’t just mean batteries. It can come in many shapes and forms.
Wayne Groszko: I am very excited about a technology as simple as I.T. connected hot water tank controller, because there are millions of hot water tanks in Canada already. And if you’re looking for an affordable way of storing and moving some energy around, I think existing common equipment represents a really helpful opportunity.
Manjula Selvarajah: Imagine your power just went out. And if it’s winter time, how long until your pipes freeze? Having a few hours of stored energy could make a huge difference. And just in case you don’t keep up with the trends in home heating, heat pumps have been having a bit of a moment recently. Media outlets such as Vox and Bloomberg have reported on how they are the future.
Wayne has been working with a startup to test a heat pump that can store energy for when you most need it, like in an outage or when renewables are unavailable, or if the price of electricity is peaking.
Daniel Larsen: There’s a lot of very interesting engineering that goes into making a heat pump work at -20 or even -30 degrees.
Manjula Selvarajah: Basically, a regular old heat pump works by extracting heat from outdoors and moving it inside. The one Daniel invented has something special added. Daniel set out to design and build a heat pump with thermal storage integrated with the device itself.
Daniel Larsen: We’re really keen to see this technology get deployed in places where it can do the most good. Most jurisdictions offer electricity at a lower price when it’s not in highest demand by allowing people to buy an affordable piece of hardware and then tap into these incentives. That goes a long way in reducing people’s overall cost in terms of providing heat to their home.
Manjula Selvarajah: He came up with the idea back in 2015 when he was working as a summer student on Prince Edward Island.
Daniel Larsen: I was listening to the radio, and the power utility in my home province were on and they were complaining about all the heat pumps that were being installed.
Manjula Selvarajah: Even though heat pumps are very efficient, they still require electricity. So when everyone switched from oil heaters to electric heat pumps, it put a new demand on the grid that the utility company wasn’t used to dealing with.
Daniel Larsen: I heard that they were proposing that they would pay people to keep the oil furnaces installed. And I thought, that’s not a good idea. I think my engineering mind was like… there has to be a better way to fix this problem. Maintaining two heating systems is going to be expensive, it’s not going to be a good solution; there has to be a better way to solve this problem. And that’s kind of where the idea of having the heat pumps store energy came from.
Manjula Selvarajah: Over Zoom, he set up a demonstration to show the team how it works.
Daniel Larsen: So I’ve picked up the thermal camera now. I’ve got the two samples sitting on the desk in front of me here. So I’m going to look at the solid one first, and on the thermal camera, it’s kind of …
Manjula Selvarajah: The thermal camera picked up a change in colour, showing us how the material stores, and then releases heat into the device.
Daniel Larsen: I pan over with the camera to the hot material. I can see that it’s about 40 degrees.
Manjula Selvarajah: 40 degrees might not feel all that hot, but thanks to the magic of physics, the heat pump can keep working to extract enough heat to keep you warm for up to three hours.
Daniel Larsen: It feels warm like a hot water bottle or maybe a hot cup of tea or something like that. The difference being though, this is going to stay hot for a lot longer than something filled with water was. This is storing about 20 times as much heat.
Manjula Selvarajah: To see how their heat pumps perform outside of the lab. Stash Energy conducted a pilot project in four identical homes in Nova Scotia.
Daniel Larsen: You can have a product in the lab all day, but there’s some things you just won’t learn until you put it out into the real world.
Manjula Selvarajah: In two of the homes, they installed their special heat pumps with added storage. The third home used a conventional heat pump and the fourth continued to run on electrical baseboard heaters.
Daniel Larsen: Wayne from Nova Scotia Community College did the measurement and verification and the assessment of that project and was also instrumental in bringing the project together.
Manjula Selvarajah: The results from this experiment were a bit unexpected. On the one hand, it showed that the heat pumps worked. But when it came time for people to adapt to new ways of doing things, that wasn’t so straightforward. Back to Wayne.
Wayne Groszko: We figured out after from relooking at the data, that what had happened is when you put in a heat pump — but you already had electric heaters before — you leave the electric heaters (the baseboard electric heaters) which are less efficient than a heat pump. You leave them there because sometimes when it’s a really cold day, you’re still going to need them.
Manjula Selvarajah: So ideally, the heat pumps would be the primary source of heat and the old baseboard heaters would be turned on only when needed. But in the experiment, the residents kept both heating systems going. That meant they weren’t saving energy as anticipated.
Wayne Groszko: This was partly an oversight on our part, but also made it an interesting experiment; we had never trained the folks who lived there. To me, it really pointed out that you need to think about how the people who live there are going to use the equipment.
Manjula Selvarajah: There’s a need for education on how to optimize new technologies, but ultimately the results underscore the importance of making sure climate solutions are accessible and inclusive to everyone. Here’s Daniel.
Daniel Larsen: The energy transition is going to run right into the energy poverty issue because oftentimes renewable energy is going to be more expensive. Solar energy and wind are very affordable during the times when it’s available; but filling those gaps when it’s not is going to be very, very expensive. And who do we expect to bear the burden of this? And I do feel for people who are renting or living on a fixed income, because it seems as though they have not been considered in a lot of these plans and they often have the least ability to do anything about the issue. They can’t install solar on their roof, they can’t necessarily purchase more efficient appliances. And so it is a huge issue and it’s something that we’re going to have to confront as a society shortly, that if we want to do this energy transition, it can’t come at the expense of people who otherwise can’t afford it.
Manjula Selvarajah: No matter how effective or efficient the technology is, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. And like we learned earlier in the episode, in order to transition to new ways of doing things — like getting power — people have to see that it has some advantage over the status quo. I asked Ruth if there are any lessons we can take from past energy transitions in Canada.
Ruth Sandwell: I’m going to challenge the whole concept to an idea of transitions here, just for a minute. Because in a way, we’ve experienced over the last 150 years, less of a transition than an addition. Most of the time — the energy — we’re simply adding new forms of energy. First we had wood, and then we had coal, and then oil, and then natural gas. When people have a choice, they often choose everything that they can. (So I have a gas stove, but I use electricity for lighting and other appliances.)
Manjula Selvarajah: So coming from all of this research that you do and understanding what it took to make these transitions in an era of abundance — and we’re now moving into a different era or in a different era — what will it take for Canada to make the shift to clean energy?
Ruth Sandwell: Well, that’s the multi-billion dollar question right there.
Manjula Selvarajah: I’m hoping you can give us all of the answers, Ruth. And then we’re done!
Ruth Sandwell: I wish I could. We could get that sorted. The economic historians who’ve looked at energy transitions in the past have made the point that no energy transition (or addition as I would call it), was ever made unless that change for people was — both at the same time — cheaper and more convenient than what they were already using. And I certainly see lots of evidence for that in my own work. The problem is that the energy transition that we are confronting (to much lower energy consumption) is probably not going to be either cheaper or more convenient. So a lot of people around the world are looking at ways to deal with the question of motivation.
Manjula Selvarajah: What then, would it take to decrease our fossil fuel consumption?
Ruth Sandwell: It’s a huge economic problem for Canada. And after 1949 with the discovery of oil in Alberta, Leduc — that’s been a source of considerable wealth for Canadians. So are we going to be willing to accept a much lower standard of living? I think that’s why there is so much interest and discussion for people arguing for alternative economies and for just transitions. It just about changes everything.
Manjula Selvarajah: Solve for X is brought to you by MaRS. The episode was produced by Ellen Payne Smith. Gab Harpelle is our mix engineer, Lara Torvi and Heather O’Brien are the associate producers. Mack Swain composed our theme song and all the music in this episode. Kathryn Hayward is the executive producer. Thanks to David Paterson who provided story editing. This episode includes clips of reporting on the Fukushima disaster from CBC and ABC. I’m your host, Manjula Selvarajah. Watch your feed for new episodes coming soon.
The Mission from MaRS initiative was created to help scale carbon reducing innovations by working to remove the barriers to adopting new technology. Mission from MaRS thanks its founding partners, HSBC, Trottier Family Foundation, RBC Tech for Nature and Thistledown Foundation. It has also received generous support from Peter Gilgan Foundation, BDC, EDC and Mitsubishi Corporation Americas.
Learn more about the program at missionfrommars.ca.