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This trip to MaRS powered by clean tech

In this case, we’re not talking MaRS as in the fourth planet from the sun–although this MaRS is also an interesting slice of science learning, just like the planet. And our MaRS is not in outer space–although it is in a bit of urban space elbowed out of the city of Toronto.

What is this MaRS exactly, then?

Well, answers vary: a research cluster, a private/public partnership or an innovation hub. The bottom line: It’s 1.5 million square feet of tech thinking–including some energy industry epiphanies. To get the inside scoop on this million-feet of tech buzz, we talked with Ron Dizy, managing director of the Advanced Energy Centre, a portion of MaRS dedicated to uncovering next-generation energy technology. "This Centre will help our entrepreneurs become global leaders in energy technology, while creating good jobs here in Ontario," said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne when the Centre was announced as part of MaRS earlier this year. "By partnering with the private sector, we are building our knowledge economy, driving innovation and keeping Ontario competitive."  

Intelligent Utility: What was the impetus for creating MaRS Discovery District and the Advanced Energy Centre?

Dizy: MaRS Discovery District was created a decade ago to drive economic and social prosperity by harnessing the full potential of innovation. Since then, MaRS has grown into one of world’s largest innovation hubs, a 1.5-million-square-foot complex located in the heart of Canada’s largest research cluster in downtown Toronto. MaRS works with an extensive network of private and public sector partners to help entrepreneurs launch and grow the innovative companies that are building our future. As an independent registered charity, MaRS is at the intersection of the corporate, small business, government, academic and research sectors. As such, we are able to convene partners from each of these sectors, and foster the collaboration and convergence of ideas that truly drive innovation. MaRS has a strong clean tech and energy cluster centred around the range of free services we offer to clean tech and energy companies. All MaRS clients have access to expert advice & mentorship, connections to customers, partners & capital networks, and detailed market research about their industry. This offering is complemented by ArcTern Ventures, an in-house, $30 million, privately backed venture capital fund that has invested in some of the leading clean tech companies in the MaRS community. While our model is very successful, as our clients matured we began to encounter barriers to their continued growth. To address these problems, we recognized the need for systems change: collaborative initiatives to help scale and diffuse innovation by opening markets and creating new solutions. This is the work of the Advanced Energy Centre (AEC).  

Intelligent Utility: Give us a little background on the Advanced Energy Centre. How did it start, and what are its major goals?

Dizy: The drive to create the Advanced Energy Centre came from both the public and the private sector partners we work with at MaRS. On the public sector side, our Ontario Ministry of Energy was making significant investments in innovative technologies, but felt that adoption–even in a market-based energy system–could be faster, leading to a more cost-effective, reliable and resilient power system. Our private sector partners–in particular our founding partners Siemens and Capgemini–saw the same need, and were motivated to work closely with outstanding Ontario and Canadian energy companies to deliver new innovations to their customers around the world. The AEC is a really innovative way to both drive domestic adoption and share those successes and experiences in the rest of the world. Since both the public and private sectors have an important role to play in overcoming barriers to energy innovation, the AEC was created as a public-private partnership, and includes both energy regulators and large multinational energy players among its partners. The Centre is a trusted, neutral third party with the knowledge, resources and relationships required to unite the key players in the energy system and drive the outcomes that create economic, efficiency and environmental benefits.  

Intelligent Utility: What's the coolest thing you're working on with the clean tech team?

Dizy: Some of our most exciting achievements have arisen when the Advanced Energy Centre used its unique position in the market to drive results for both the public and private sectors. A good example is our work to unlock the energy data market in Ontario. With 4.7m residential smart meters, Ontario was well placed to adopt the White House-led Green Button standard for open energy data, but the complex nature of our domestic market meant that no one actor could move alone. MaRS and the Advanced Energy Centre led discussions that brought together regulators, utilities, energy data app developers and the privacy commissioner. Privacy and security were thorny issues, but as a neutral third party, we were able to resolve them and those solutions now incorporate privacy and security in the Green Button standard. We now have utilities rolling out the standard to 2.4m customers across the province (which will ultimately result in lower costs for Ontario ratepayers and better data access for our consumers), new companies focused on new solutions have sprung up within the Ontario ecosystem, and we are working on helping other jurisdictions do the same things. This is a great example of how the Advanced Energy Centre can resolve barriers to innovation adoption, create the conditions for new innovation and generate export opportunities in foreign markets.  

Intelligent Utility: What will all of these related projects teach you?

Dizy: We’ve learned that most of the hurdles to deploying energy innovation are not technical. We recently undertook an exercise to document why innovation doesn’t happen faster in the energy ecosystem: we identified 23 different reasons for this, and not one of them was a technical barrier.  

Intelligent Utility: What benefits do you foresee from this work?

Dizy: We see a variety of benefits for both the private and the public sectors. Our private sector partners get a window into energy innovation and the opportunity to work with cutting-edge new energy companies, helping them develop whole solutions that they can deliver the world over. Utilities and other clients get access to proven end-to-end solutions that deliver innovation while minimizing risk. And our domestic public sector enjoys the economic benefits that a strong domestic clean tech and energy sector contribute to the economy.  

Intelligent Utility: Have you had any detractors, and how do you handle those people?

Dizy: While we still have a lot of work to do, the initial feedback from our stakeholders is that this project is important, that we are on the right track, and they largely want to work with us to help effect change. To us, this is further evidence that we need to find ways to identify barriers, align incentives, identify and match costs and benefits, and create whole solutions. We’re really excited by the potential. And we continue to engage with the innovation community to make sure we are on the right track.  

Intelligent Utility: If you had to pick three clean tech/energy ideas that will change the future of the utility industry, what would they be (based on your research and experience)?

Dizy: Well, it’s hard to pick just three, but if I had to choose I would go with affordable energy storage, small-scale microgrids and open energy data. Affordable energy storage is absolutely essential for integrating intermittent renewables into our energy system. Canada is home to some world-leading energy storage technologies, such as Temporal Power’s high-performance flywheels and Hydrostor’s unique compressed air underwater energy storage system. We’re backing the emerging cluster of energy storage technologies we see at home, and are excited about driving international interest in these promising technologies. With rising costs for grid-delivered electricity and power interruptions caused by extreme weather becoming more frequent, the business case for microgrids at a community or even a building level grows stronger every day. At the Advanced Energy Centre, we’re working with our large and small partners to integrate some of the most promising renewable energy generation, energy storage and smart grid technologies we work with into an integrated microgrid solution. Finally, the open flow of energy data enables significant new efficiency and optimization opportunities. The cluster of energy data analytics companies that have grown up around our Green Button work is already driving value for commercial, industrial and residential customers and helping them to manage their assets more efficiently.  

Intelligent Utility: What advice would you give utilities on prepping for the future of energy?

Dizy: Utilities have a great opportunity to lead: after all, they are at the centre of the customer, the system operator, the markets and the regulator. Utilities are better placed than any other actor to capitalize on the coming changes, but it will require changes in how they think about their business and their core competencies. The Advanced Energy Centre wants to work with leadership teams at truly forward-looking utilities to develop the innovative services and products that will drive real long-term value for their customers.  

Plan ahead for the future of power at the upcoming Smart Cities conference May 12-13, 2015, in Charlotte, North Carolina. More information available here: http://smartcities.energycentral.com  

Kathleen Wolf Davis Editor-in-Chief, Intelligent Utility magazine

This article is from Energy Central’s Intelligent Utility magazine, which covers the smart grid and smart city from big data to business deals, from current to customer, from hardware to digital highway. Get more articles (and sign up for the free daily newsletter with unique content) at www.intelligentutility.com. Intelligent Utility.com: Daily insights that go way beyond the everyday.  

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