Will this B.C. tech innovation help drive the cities of tomorrow?

UBC's faculty of applied science recently broke ground on the Renewable Energy Hub, which aims to turn a city-sized block on the university campus into a smart energy district.

Credit: Courtesy of UBC

A rendering of the Renewable Energy Hub’s hydrogen filling station

By delivering clean fuel for electric and hydrogen vehicles, the UBC Renewable Energy Hub aims to turn entire blocks into smart power districts

A building as a giant rechargeable battery? Besides providing zero-emission vehicles with clean, renewable power, a local innovation could help cities run better.

UBC’s faculty of applied science recently broke ground on the Renewable Energy Hub, which aims to turn a city-sized block on the university campus into a smart energy district. Spearheading this effort is mechanical engineering professor Walter Mérida, whose Mérida Labs secured $23 million in public and private funding.

The Renewable Energy Hub will include a solar array on top of a UBC parking garage, which Mérida and his team have retrofitted with bidirectional electric vehicle charging stations. It will also house B.C.’s first refuelling station for light- and heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—supplied by an electrolyzer that creates 100-percent renewable hydrogen from water and surplus electricity. Connecting everything will be a 5G wireless platform that links the hub to other parts of the campus, too.

The project, which has been in the works for several years, has three motivations, Mérida explains. The first: exploring ways to connect renewable energy. “When the public hears about clean energy and renewable energy, in most cases what they’re really hearing is renewable electricity,” he says. “But the big challenge, I think, is that there are certain things that we cannot do with electricity alone.”

A gigantic battery

To move a large ship, a train or an airliner, for example, you need a chemical fuel, Mérida says. “Making steel, making fertilizer, making many other things require chemicals, and that’s why fossil fuels dominate.”

But as renewable energy technologies advance, there’s an opportunity to connect them to chemical domains and services such as transportation. “Despite increasing the number of electric vehicles, the vast majority of land transportation is still dependent on fossil fuels,” Mérida says.

Second, as infrastructures and technologies become smarter and more interconnected, many new business models will emerge, Mérida reckons.

In Vancouver, electricity is relatively cheap, but parking is expensive. One idea behind the Renewable Energy Hub is to use civil infrastructure and transportation systems differently, Mérida says. “By aggregating as many electrical vehicles as we can into a single parking garage building, and using a portion of the vehicle’s battery capacity as a storage device, you have basically created a gigantic battery without having to buy the gigantic battery.”

The key is making recharging infrastructure for the cars reversible. In one part of the cycle, Mérida says, you charge your vehicle, but then 5 to 10 percent of the battery capacity in all of the electric cars in the solar parkade becomes available to send power back to the grid. “In this way, assets that otherwise would sit there doing nothing for eight or nine hours a day all of a sudden become active participants in energy management systems at the city scale.”

The third motivation? If you’re letting the garage to use your car’s battery capacity, you might want to get a break on the parking rate or receive payment. “The elegance to manage that financial transaction becomes important,” Mérida says. “And so the third objective is to start looking at artificial intelligence and telecommunications technologies to make that transparent and completely seamless for the customer.”

Credit: Courtesy of UBC

The project, scheduled for completion next fall, will occupy a city-sized block

Hydrogen’s moment is here

Promoters of hydrogen power have been accused of hyping the technology, partly because the vast majority of production still involves coal and other fossil fuels. As a result, there are now three categories of hydrogen: grey, made from fossil fuels; blue, produced from non-renewable energy, and green, derived entirely from renewable sources.

“It’s a bit unfortunate that we focus so much on this colour coding of the hydrogen,” Mérida says. “What really matters is the carbon intensity.”

The Renewable Energy Hub uses electrolysis: taking pure water and electricity, it splits the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen. “If your electricity is clean, or renewable, then you have the so-called green hydrogen pathway,” Mérida says.

“Ideally, of course, which is what we are doing at UBC, you want to use solar, wind—any kind of low- or zero-carbon electricity generation technology to make the hydrogen,” he adds. “Because only then can you ensure that the hydrogen is itself zero-emissions.”

Mérida, who’s been working on hydrogen power since the 1990s, thinks it’s ready for prime time at last. He points to the recent announcement of an electrolyzer gigafactory in Spain. The project, which will eventually produce and test more than a gigawatt of proton exchange membrane electrolyzers each year, is a joint effort by U.S. power solutions giant Cummins and Bilbao-based Iberdrola, one of the world’s largest energy companies.”The scale at which this is happening is finally moving beyond the demonstration programs and the prototypes,” he says. “It’s now becoming a mainstream commercial operation.”

Building greener cities

As for the Renewable Energy Hub, its recharging infrastructure will be up and running by the end of summer. The hydrogen refuelling station, which has been designed, is scheduled to open next March, with the rooftop solar array to follow by October 2022. “At the end of next year, you will see this ecosystem in operation,” Mérida says.

Once that happens, what’s next?

“The hope is that once we have demonstrated the safety, reliability, robustness and operations of the technologies, then we can look at the techno-economic models—how these financial and economic models are going to work—we can then replicate these projects in other cities and countries around the world,” Mérida says. “We are in active conversations with municipalities around UBC to explore ways in which we can deploy these projects at the city scale.”

Mérida, who cites ports, airports, shopping centres and warehouses as potential targets, sees a fit with the City of Vancouver’s green action plan. In B.C., 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation—more than half of that from heavy-duty vehicles.

So far, provincial incentives to buy zero-emission vehicles haven’t made much of a dent in the heavy-duty sector, Mérida says. “So I would imagine that this is perfectly aligned with some of the targets that the City has for its own decarbonization, not only in transportation but also in the built environment.”

Running in parallel with the public-facing part of the Renewable Energy Hub project is UBC lab work on breakthrough technologies, Mérida notes. “We expect to see spinoff companies and a lot of innovation coming out of these kinds of platforms,” he says. “I believe that a lot of the innovation in the 21st century will occur at the interface of technologies, of systems.”

At first, cars weren’t meant to be mobile phones on wheels with large batteries, Mérida observes, but they are now. “In the same way, I think the built environment is going to start evolving into something that is more active. It’s not just a passive asset but is something that is going to be actively participating in the optimization of the running of a city.”