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Earth, Wind and Fire: The future of energy in Canada

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Earth, Wind and Fire, may be the name of a band from the 70s, but it also may be the future of energy in Canada. High costs for energy, and concern for our environment are driving researchers to investigate alternative energy sources: energy from our Earth's ocean waves and tides, energy from wind, and energy from natural gas found in permafrost ice deposits.

Oceans of energy

Each day around the world, tides roll in and out creating strong water currents in specific locations, and in the process, creating potential for renewable energy. Waves on the ocean surface generated by winds at sea are another vast source of renewable energy. As a country with vast coastlines and access to ocean on 3 sides, Canada would benefit greatly from harnessing and using these previously untapped energy resources.

That is why the NRC Canadian Hydraulic Centre is hard at work studying this potential. They have found that on Canada's Pacific coast, the total wave energy potential at depths of 1 kilometre off shore averages about 37,000 megawatts (MW), or over 55 percent of Canada's electricity consumption. And on the east coast, the total wave energy potential of the Atlantic Ocean is an astounding 150,000 MW — more than double our current electricity demand!

So why isn't this exciting discovery bringing energy to your home yet? NRC's Dr. Andrew Cornett explains that "currently, only a fraction of the available wave energy resource can be extracted and converted into useful power. Even so, the Canadian resources are considered sufficient to justify further research into their development as an important source of renewable green energy for the future."

And NRC is doing just that, starting with detailed resource assessments on all 3 of our coastlines, to determine ideal locations to continue this exciting research.

Blowing in the wind

Decades ago, NRC developed one of the world's first vertical axis wind turbines, and is now an expert in this technology, helping other manufactures optimize their turbine designs. Using the world-class 9m x 9m Wind Tunnel, researchers have been testing newer, quieter designs of turbines, and helping wind farm developers find ideal locations to install their energy-producing equipment.

NRC researchers test a vertical-axis wind turbine. (source highlights April 2008)
NRC researchers test a vertical-axis wind turbine. (source Highlights April 2008)

But, there are challenges. Aerospace researcher Guy Larose explains that "in Canada, the best places to put wind turbines are often hilly or mountainous terrain, making transportation and installation of equipment difficult and expensive. Wind farm owners must be very sure they are picking a spot with reliable winds before they install turbines."

Often, developers need to measure wind speed and direction for at least two or three years to determine how much wind energy is available in a location annually. But now, by using scale model testing technology, the time it takes to study local wind energy resources could be cut from a few years to a few months.

Using topographical terrain maps, Larose and his team are creating scale models of potential wind farm locations, and can evaluate the local wind characteristics inside the wind tunnel without having to wait for cycles of wind and weather to establish actual outdoor data over time.

Next up for this team of researchers? Testing of a scale model of a large wind farm that is currently being built on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. When the wind farm begins operation in 2011, the research team hopes to show reliable data from their scale model testing that will mirror the data from the actual wind farm site.

Icy Hot

Did you know that an abundance of energy is lying in permafrost regions of Canada's North as well as under the ocean floor? With the demand for fossil fuels skyrocketing, and the supply ever decreasing, teams of scientists are investigating ways to harvest this previously untapped resource of natural gas hydrate or "methane ice".

Gas hydrates are crystalline solids consisting of water "cages" in which gaseous compounds, such as methane, are trapped one molecule at a time. At sufficiently high pressures, methane hydrates can remain "frozen" at temperatures above the melting point of ice, and can also store up to about 160 times their own volume of gas.

A gas hydrate &quote;burning snowball.&quote; (source Higlights April 2008)
A gas hydrate "burning snowball" (source Highlights April 2008)

NRC is now taking on a leadership role in this exciting new industry. "We look at natural gas hydrate samples from all over the world, which get sent here for structural and compositional analysis." says Dr. Chris Ratcliffe, of the NRC Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences.

Currently, the research team is analyzing samples from an experimental gas hydrate well in the Mackenzie Delta, in Canada's Northwest Territories. Another part of their research is focusing on using gas hydrates to store hydrogen, a "clean" fuel, for use in fuel cells, adding even more possibilities to this already exciting new energy source.

"Natural gas hydrates are a huge potential hydrocarbon resource if the methane can be extracted cheaply enough," says Dr. Ratcliffe. "Some people have estimated that global supplies of natural gas hydrates could store more energy than all the known resources we have from oil, natural gas and coal."... a truly exciting prospect for energy production in Canada and around the world!