A centre of excellence in energy research
By: Mudeeha Yousaf

            Established in 2008, the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) aims to transform energy systems for long-term sustainable use through research initiatives and the development of solutions and policies. The organization is pivotal for the University of Waterloo for research in energy studies, and is comprised of faculty members and graduate students who are dedicated to enhancing the social, economic and environmental performance of the energy system for both present and future. In conjunction with private sector partners, government agencies and civil society groups, WISE wishes to spread its vision of clean and affordable energy.

        Tracey Forrest, Director of WISE and a registered professional engineer in Ontario, takes on the role of strategic and operational leadership, holding a Bachelor of Applied Science in Environmental Engineering from the University of Waterloo as well as an MBA. Her Alma matter sparked her interest in energy management and her deep knowledge stems from her co-op involvements, ranging from global warming potential studies of Nortel Plant Operations to conducting ground water sampling plans with an environmental consultancy in California, to working in the technology development office at Enbridge Gas Distribution. Upon graduation, Tracey worked with a green building consultancy investigating renewable power options for clients, advising on energy efficiency levels for Canadian standards, and then left the industry and pursued her MBA focused on the energy sector in Italy. She spread her philanthropic wings shortly after by creating an energy and environmental management software system at the York Region, and licenced it to numerous other municipalities on a cost recovery basis, as well as leading a $40 million sustainability program at York University involving renewable energy measures. “I’ve always enjoyed the process of creation, whether it’s energy programs or enabling tools to support the sustainable use of energy.”

            As part of the University’s vision, WISE was established to address the complexities and challenges of energy transitions. “The importance of energy as a strategic priority to the University was recognized with the goal to foster alignment of research capacity and to advance multidisciplinary initiatives at Waterloo,” says Tracey. “The imperative to build a global sustainable energy future requires us to refashion the way we produce and use energy, and at the University of Waterloo we are engaged in this complex task of bringing the promise and potential of our technological prowess into alignment with societal needs that are truly sustainable over the long-term.” WISE has grown to become Canada’s largest concentration of academic researchers devoted to sustainable energy and its members include 100 faculty and hundreds of graduate students – a number that has grown scrupulously since the institute first opened its doors.

             WISE has three primary points of operations. First, the organization works in the area of collaboration where they foster multi-disciplinary initiatives and unite dozens of disciplines together. Next, they build large-scale partnerships outside the halls of academia where the team brings together experts ranging from multi-national and start-up companies to NGO’s. Finally, they focus on influencing and translating important scientific discoveries for a wide audience to inform policy, both domestically and globally. “Energy is a broad term, we can anchor it in a few areas of where we’re particularly active and that would be in the renewable energy [wind, solar, bioenergy and geothermal], power engineering, sustainable mobility, air emissions control, energy management, energy storage and policy analysis,” says Tracey. “We’re quite unique in the broad range of energy research activities.”

Energy research at Waterloo is also supported by a variety of research chairs, including a Cisco Research Chair in Smart Grid, Ontario Research Chair in Renewable Energy Technologies and Health, Ontario Research Chair in Public Policy for Sustainable Energy Management, Hydro One Chair in Power Systems, and Canada Research Chair in Solid State Materials.

Within their larger-scale agenda, WISE partakes in a medley of different initiatives throughout the year, such as an upcoming conference led by the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) supported by their Toronto and Waterloo chapters, which explores Canada’s energy future. As well, a national R&D workshop was hosted in the area of smart energy networks which was an invitation to experts across Canadian academia, industry leaders in the field of smart energy as well as government and civil society representatives. The full-day workshop explored specific research themes including multi-fuel coordination, new natural gas reality, interactive energy distribution networks and social, financial and policy dynamics to support Smart Energy Networks implementation. The idea behind the event was to grow collaborative research opportunities, not only within the institute, but also across the nation.

            As a multi-faceted approach to enhance knowledge and expertise in the areas of renewable energy and sustainable buildings, the University of Waterloo’s Department of Mechanical & Mechatronics Engineering – Canada’s largest Mechanical engineering department — offers a new Green Energy Graduate Diploma, the first of its kind to be offered in the country. The Diploma allows working engineer’s professional advancement through real-time, online learning, and offers them the skills and knowledge to tackle energy issues through dynamic means. Dr. Jan Huissoon, Chair of the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering at Waterloo, is an advocate of the program and encourages students to engage in the pressing issues facing society in a proficient manner.

“The Diploma is aimed at practicing engineers who are graduates from engineering programs, either Canadian or international, and the idea is that rather than pursue a full Masters of Engineering degree, we offer a subset of courses particularly of interest to people practicing in the green energy field, and we offer a diploma rather than taking the 8 courses normally required for the full Masters of Engineering degree,” says Jan. The program is focused on engineering rather than the policy aspect of green energy. “We offer courses in solar, fuel cell,  wind,  carbon and air emission control, green building and technologies and these are offered online, so we have a facility where you can participate in a course that’s offered off-campus remotely via the internet. You can ask questions, you can see instructors, see your class mates and can effectively participate virtually as if you’re in the classroom.” The course is attracting more and more students through its flexible nature in that you can attend both off and on-campus classes and offers advantages over the traditional form of education.

WISE focuses on energy research advancement and to give practitioners interested in the area a technical background. “We have the world’s largest cooperative program which presents a huge opportunity for us to explore the green energy industry with a number of different employers,” adds Tracey. “We host many opportunities for students through our own channels… and we’re seeing those opportunities continue to increase.”

The institute continues to fulfill their global aspirations for high impact research by nurturing a university-wide, multi-disciplinary approach. Research focuses on three themes, first of which is achieving a global low carbon transformation. This theme recognizes the extent to which current forms of energy are proving detrimental to the integrity of national systems and the challenge of meeting growing energy needs consistent with the global goals of sustainable development. Several partnerships have supported this theme including a recent partnership with The Energy Council of Canada that provides $500,000 over 10 years to graduate students engaged in energy policy research. The growth of cities is also a key theme that addresses the global trends of increasing urbanization, abundant data and need for sustainable and resilient infrastructure. These trends underscore the importance of research in high performance buildings, energy efficiency, smart grids, smart energy networks and sustainable mobility. The final theme investigates off-grid energy access, given that basic energy services are not available for a third of humanity. Here research focuses on micro and mini grids, remote access and solutions for remote communities and low cost local renewables and resources. Suitably, in April 2013 the Senate approved the renewal of WISE for their mandate that will take them through the next five years.

Currently underway is a $5 million investment in the development of an energy hub management system which combines expertise across WISE. Partners include The Ontario Centres of Excellence, Hydro One Networks, Energent, Milton Hydro Distribution, and the Ontario Power Authority. As well, WISE members are developing a unique controller for use in micro grid applications incorporating renewable energy production and storage as part of a $4.4M research and development initiative.

World-class smart grid research and labs at Waterloo are helping to address critical questions such as how do we control short circuit levels in distribution systems while supporting increasing penetration of renewable energy and avoiding damage to system components, and how do we combine power, communication and information systems to develop novel smart grid solutions. In addition, researchers in the newly formed Information Systems and Science for Energy laboratory are developing solutions for a highly dynamic next generation grid system with elastic loads, two way power flows and millions of points of control through methods such as stochastic analysis, large scale simulation, data mining, and machine learning.

To enable large-scale penetration of renewable energy storage and service mobile energy markets, researchers at Waterloo are developing novel nanomaterials such as lithium-sulfur, zinc-air and graphene-based composites for use in electrochemical energy storage. There are also a growing number of WISE members investigating methods, generate ‘negawatts’ through fine-grain control of loads and to harvest energy from abundant ambient sources – fluid motion, kinetic energy, microwave frequencies etc. – for micropower applications.

Presently, WISE is tackling head-on growing issues such as the need for clean, accessible and affordable energy in an effort to look for alternatives to petroleum based energy sources, and a renewed focus on demand side solutions given increasing global demand for energy. “We believe strongly that our economic well-being, and earth’s well-being, depends on sustainable management of our energy endowment,” closes Tracey. “The grand energy challenges are the ones that keep us up at night.”