Stories & Features

Solar-powered EV chargers part of experiment at BCIT

An array of photovoltaic panels gathers power from the sun to supply electric vehicle chargers at BCIT in Burnaby. The charging stations are now open to the public. Show caption
While BCIT's microgrid includes small-scale wind and solar electricity generation, the campus is still powered mainly by hydroelectricity, which funnels through a new receiving station on campus. Show caption
Electric vehicle drivers can plug into one of six Level 2 chargers or into one of two DC fast chargers, which can Show caption

BC Hydro-supported microgrid campus in Burnaby a magnet for PhD students

Don't expect solar-powered charging stations to be the go-to option for fuelling a wave of electric vehicle adoption in B.C. It's just hard to compete with the affordability – and the low carbon emissions – of BC Hydro's 98% clean and renewable electricity generation.

But that doesn't mean there's not plenty of buzz, so to speak, around word that the campus-wide microgrid experiment at the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby has spawned a multi-vehicle solar powered charging station. It's free for public use and showing up on PlugShare, with the proviso that it's an ongoing experiment.

"We debated it quite a bit, but realized that if we even contemplated charging the driver, that research component would be questioned," says Dr. Hassan Farhangi, BCIT's director of smart grid research and an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University. "We want to be in the position to take down the charging stations, take them off PlugShare, and add more software to them, do all kinds of stuff.

"We needed that flexibility of identifying these charging stations as experimental, meant for research and development, and for data gathering."

It's an experiment with wow factor, thanks to the presence of two DC fast chargers – capable of charging most electric vehicles in 20 minutes or less – and six slower Level 2 chargers all housed under a massive roof of 840 photovoltaic panels.

"Yes, we're getting a lot of media attention, which is really encouraging," says Farhangi, overjoyed to see that everyone involved in the project – from BC Hydro, to the federal and provincial governments – sent representation to the official opening of the charging station on September 14.

Smart meter monitoring of buildings, net zero smart home part of microgrid

The microgrid at BCIT is a one-of-a-kind initiative that Farhangi calls "a shared dream with BC Hydro" that began in 2008. There was no way that universities across Canada could justify spending money on their own microgrids, which are self-contained energy systems that rely on renewable power like wind and solar power, to power themselves without the help of the regular power grid. So it made sense to concentrate government and utility funding on one campus.

Generation mainly from solar panels and wind turbines at BCIT currently amounts to about one megawatt of energy, or roughly a sixth of what it takes to power a huge campus that features a mix of commercial, residential, office and classrooms among its 65 buildings. But it includes lots of experimentation, from detailed "smart meter" monitoring of building-by-building electricity use, to a net-zero smart home lab.

And with that experimentation comes interest from across Canada and the world, including visits by an estimated 400 Ph.D and masters students over the years. Last summer, a bunch of students from McGill, the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta spent a six-month deep dive into the microgrid at BCIT.

Farhangi is concerned that the biggest impediment to adoption of microgrids a decade down the road might be a shortage of human resources. That's why he ranks microgrid education at or near the top of his priority list at BCIT.

"You need engineers and operators who have first-hand experience with this kind of technology," he says. "But if you look across the country you don't see any programs that are specifically targeted to smart grid technologies and the utilities of the future."

Think of the microgrid as a sandbox

The BCIT micro-grid provides a fair number of services, including verification and qualification testing. But it's that E word – experimentation – that is Dr. Farhangi's focus.

"We knew right up front was what we wanted was a sandbox that could help us experiment with and try out the development of all kinds of component technologies and solutions that our province, and for that matter Canada, would need to facilitate this transformation of our existing electricity grid to the next generation, the smart grid," says Farhangi.

The BCIT microgrid is "a never-ending project", according to Farhangi, that will produce a whole lot of education and knowledge. But never rule out that it could lead to a microgrid, complete with Energy Oasis charging stations, in a region of Canada or the U.S. where clean energy is less available than in B.C.

"If you look at the need for a microgrid in B.C. in terms of GHG reductions related to power generation, you may not be able to justify the investment," he says. "But a microgrid in Alberta might go a long way, given the kind of power generation challenges they have."

The Energy Oasis electric vehicle project started in 2012 and was made possible through $4.4 million in funding from Natural Resources Canada's Clean Energy Fund and $2 million through BC Hydro. The project also received various monetary and in-kind donations from Panasonic, Siemens, Schneider and Car2Go.