When you drive up to Lakeland College’s CSI (Centre for Sustainable Innovation) unit in Vermilion, you have to pass a subdivision of what appears to be residential blocks and a big red barn, surrounded by countryside. Walking the short path to the clearing, giant solar panels come into view along with what appears to be a small farm home.
Looks can be very deceiving, and in this case, what looks like a typical farm home is actually a classroom and laboratory all under one magnificent roof. One of the first people to meet you at their open house Oct. 4 was Lorne MacGregor, director of the applied research and commercialization department.
Standing just outside the main entrance, surrounded by various projects in action, MacGregor said, “It is not so much that there is new technology, as we are seeing how existing technology can actually be used in a practical manner. People invent things that aren’t always readily useable by a normal person.”
He added, “How can you best integrate the different technologies is really what this (CSI) is all about. Rather than creating new technology, it is evaluating what exists and seeing how different pieces can work together.”
The centre is the hub of a great number of projects, most of which are tracked by computer, which is tracked by people.
“You’ve got to do that,” says MacGregor. “As well as the energy, like the Jerusalem artichokes there, there aren’t too many computers out in the field.
“We’ve got solar collectors for heating the building and producing hot water, then we’ve got photovoltaics for generating electricity, and then we’ve got this solar concentrator which generates very high heat, which can be used for melting metals.”
That is accomplished by using a parabolic mirror, which was demonstrated by a stick catching fire.
The use of the mirror is a different application of the technology than using it to heat a building, because, “You don’t need 1,500 degrees to do that.”
While not all of the projects at the centre will be in use in everyday life in 20 years, MacGregor said it’s a start. “It’s trying to work towards the future,” with renewable energy sources, like the sun.
When it comes to the use of geothermal, MacGregor said there are two types. First, there is the type where you dig down to where the earth is hot, like tapping into a hot spring. The other method is to use the normal heat that is in the ground.
“It is sort of like a standard air conditioner, but instead of pumping the heat out of the air, you are pumping it out of the ground,” he said.
Using this method of geothermal, the system can be used for either warmth in the winter, or coolness in the summer. So in reality, this one system provides the function of two separate units – the furnace and air conditioner, all built around grabbing the heat/power from the natural environment.
MacGregor was happy with the small, but inquisitive bunch of people who took advantage of the open house to learn what may become standard in years to come in the usage of energy.
Some of the helpers included Keith Vickery, from environmental science, and Ryan Kwasnycia who is a research technician in instrumentation and electronics. Linden Lundback is a volunteer, who also works in the pesticide department. His department does the licensing for pesticide applicators in Alberta.
Lundback also has an interest in the research that is going on and volunteered to help with the tours. “He knows what is going on,” MacGregor said. “He is not directly involved too much in the energy research, but the Jerusalem artichokes are his project.”
The renewable energy learning centre has been operational for about twoand- a-half years. The centre is doing what was expected of the facility.
“Today is an example of what was expected of it. I think it is safe to say that a lot of the people who came through today weren’t just going, what the heck there’s free hot dogs, a lot of the people are asking very specific questions,” said MacGregor.
The visitors wanted to see the different projects in operation, to see all of it integrated. A popular discussion with the guests and staff centred around the visitors planning to build a residence, and wanted to know what is the best way to do it.
Use of solar and other renewable energy sources are becoming more and more popular as time goes on, for various reasons. Going this route, the options these kinds of projects demonstrate include generating heat, electricity and hot water.
The idea for this facility had to come from somewhere, and MacGregor responded that it was the Bio Energy Centre. It was housed on the main campus, but has only recently been moved to the current site beside the CSI facility.
When considering building a new structure in Alberta, there is no provision for getting the power company to pay you for any excess power you send back to them.
“You can only take your electric bill to zero,” said MacGregor.
On the CSI building, MacGregor admitted to generating more electricity than it uses, by a very small margin, which is $67 per year.
“One of the big lessons we learned, isn’t a new lesson at all,” he said. “It is way easier to save power than create it. The first step is to reduce your energy consumption.”
When asked about if there has been interest from big business to cut down their energy bills, he responded that there have been discussions with a number of companies. While not with the project for too long, MacGregor added, “We work closely with some of the manufacturers of some of this equipment. We also have other people coming to see what’s happening. Even in the oil industry, in some of their off-grid locations, they are finding it more efficient to use photovoltaic solar power than it is to put in a generator.”
The local Regional Business Accelerators are one of the college’s (and CSI’s) more informal partners, but they work together fairly closely.
“We are working together to create, in Alberta, the Alberta Innovation Technology Futures,” said MacGregor. “They are setting up a regional innovation network, and we have one in Lethbridge, one in Red Deer and one in Grande Prairie. We are working to create a regional innovation network in this region.
“That brings together whole new groups that are supporting innovators and entrepreneurs. Different organizations may have a slightly different focus, but wherever we overlap, try to do what’s best for the company or the innovator.”
The future is looking very bright in the technology sector. Being in the middle of oil country is not exclusive to be an either or situation. One question asked, “What are we doing burning oil? It’s way too valuable as a chemical feedstock.” The chemist in MacGregor agrees. “Oil really is too valuable a chemical just to burn. There are too darn many things you can do with it, other than burn it.” Besides, he asked, “What are we going to make plastic with in a hundred years if we burn all the oil.”