Enmax, renewable energy and electric vehicles – peering into the future with executive John Rilett

Enmax home solar program part of slow shift to renewable energy in Calgary. Photo: Enmax

Enmax expects electric vehicle adoption to be slower in Calgary than other Canadian cities

Three years ago I interviewed John Rilett, Enmax director of enhanced energy services & renewables, about how the City of Calgary-owned utility was preparing for a future that included renewable energy. Much has changed since then, with a new government in Edmonton phasing out coal power generation and replacing it with natural gas and wind (and just a pinch of solar) Now, electric vehicles seem poised to make inroads in a decade or two. What has Enmax done in the intervening years to prepare for the electrified future?

John Rilett, Enmax.

Not as much as you might think, mostly because there has been little impetus to make changes, unlike some regions of the United States, where electricity systems are more and, in some cases, government policy is driving the transition to clean energy.

“I would say that if the end journey was 100%, we’re probably at the 2% or 3% mark right now simply because in Alberta we haven’t seen some of the pressures that other jurisdictions have seen,” he said in our latest interview.

“The pieces are starting to come together and there are examples of it here and there  – we see more micro-generation on our system, we’re seeing more renewables, we’re starting to experiment with things like battery storage in certain places, stuff like that. But all still very much in its infancy.”

In our original interview, Rilett compared the transformation of the modern electricity system to telecommunications over three decades ago. Then, everyone used a landline, cell phones were in their infancy, and the Internet was the stuff of science fiction. Today, landlines are slowly disappearing, the majority of consumers have cell phones that are really mini-computers which also happen to make calls, they work on wifi and cell networks, users enjoy a variety of communication choices (calls, text, chat, data, etc.), and all for an affordable price.

“If you draw that same kind of parallel there’s lots of opportunity around electricity and the energy structure to innovate and come up with similar types of systems that are flexible, that are two-way, that allow consumers choice,” he said. 

“And give them more control over what they do, while at the same time maintaining safe, reliable energy for everybody.”

enmaxHow will electric vehicles fit into the new power system? Enmax isn’t entirely sure yet, says Rilett, but the utility is keeping a close eye on the trends and plans to be ready when the adoption rate of new technologies begins to accelerate.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Markham: Ever since the Tesla Model 3 was launched, there seems to be a lot of hype about the electrification of transportation. How is Enmax preparing for that future?

RilettThe adoption rate of electric vehicles is very difficult to pin down. The Tesla Model 3, there’s a Chevy Bolt out there now – the price point is coming down and the range is starting to get to a point where I think a much larger number of people will look at and say, “Yeah, that makes sense for me.” How quickly we might see deployment then dictates how quickly the demand for charging goes up, the demand for energy goes up. In Canada, EVs still come with typically quite a large government incentive. Every trend indicates though that we are going to see more and more of it going forward. The question is how quickly will it happen in Alberta compared to other jurisdictions.

Markham: What are some of the most important EV trends or issues that have caught Enmax’s attention?

RilettAs society drive downs carbon emissions, electrification and an ever increasing amount of renewables are playing an ever bigger role. Transportation looks like it will be a big part of that. It’s a market that we don’t really have today that we’re interested in. We’ve done work in two parts.

One, we are starting to take electric vehicles into account in our long-term planning for our distribution network. A forecast of what the adoption rate might be and where [which part of Calgary] they’re likely to go. A couple of years ago, we did a joint study with Pollution Probe that looked at what areas of Calgary were most likely to have the highest levels of penetration, so we’ve got a bit of a handle on that.

Two, we’ve also looked  at providing electric vehicle charging, whether it’s charging stations for homes or public infrastructure. That stuff is a little tougher. Do you build it and they will come or do you wait until we get there and then build it after the fact.

enmaxMarkham: Will electric vehicles put a strain on the Enmax distribution system?

Rilett: In the short-term, I can say that we’re not too worried. We haven’t seen any indication that electric vehicle adoption is likely to create havoc with our electricity grid or we’ll have problems accommodating [the extra electricity demand]. 

Actually, it’s not the volume of electricity that would be required, it’s the timing. Here’s a worst case scenario: everybody drives home from work, plugs their car in, and tries to charge it at 5:30 to 6 p.m. – the time of Alberta’s peak electricity consumption because people are going into the house and cooking dinner and turning on the TV, etc. If everybody on a block did that at the same time, there’s where we would start to wonder if if our transformers are large enough and can we supply all that power? So, even though overall it’s not a huge amount of electricity, the timing when people want it could be problematic.

There are lots of ways to work around that problem. Encouraging people to charge their cars overnight when electricity is less expensive and the system is less taxed. Making people aware of smart chargers. If EVs really do take off, we see it increasing demand, which is not necessarily a bad thing for a utility.

Markham: A couple of months ago, the City of Calgary released its transportation study and several sections dealt with electric vehicles. Did Enmax have any input into that study?

Rilett: We talked to the City about it. Ultimately, that is the City’s strategy and it’s sort of their baby to bring along. I think I would still characterize Calgary’s approach to EVs as fairly early days. But it’s something that we’re obviously quite interested in and happy to work with them on.


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