In the small town of Bella Coola, located in Canada’s British Columbia, an innovative energy storage project is now operational and was officially commissioned in a ceremony on September 9. The inspired operation takes the clean-energy generated from a river’s nearby hydroelectric plant and uses advanced technologies to convert that power into hydrogen so that it can be stored for later use. The system, which is managed with smart grid technologies, is a breakthrough for remote towns in Canada and around the world that — like Bella Coola — are too isolated to be part of the main electrical grid. The problem is that while the local river produces clean electricity, the power previously couldn’t be stored for use during peak demand or during low water flows. Instead, they had to rely on pollution-emitting diesel generators for their excess power needs. The new system, which is a demonstration project for the technologies, is expected to reduce Bella Coola’s annual diesel consumption by 200,000 liters — lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 600 tons annually.

Having a gas: As explained in its story, the Hydrogen Assisted Renewable Power system, known as HARP, “works by converting electricity from a renewable source (run-of-river), in off-peak periods, into hydrogen through an electrolyzer, and subsequently into electricity through a fuel cell for power during periods of peak demand.” Image: GE and Powertech


Racked and stacked: Part of the system produces hydrogen through electrolysis, which is when an electric current is used to separate an element. The hydrogen is then stored as a gas in high pressure tanks, such as those pictured above, and during peak periods, the stored hydrogen is fed into a 100-kilowatt fuel cell to generate electricity, which is produced when the hydrogen reacts with oxygen.
Bella Coola is located about 400 kilometers north of Vancouver. The project is a partnership between the utility BC Hydro, GE, and Powertech, the clean energy subsidiary of BC Hydro. It’s supported by the province of B.C. and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

At the same time, GE’s Microgrid Control System functions as the “brain” of the power chain. It provides the intelligence on when to use certain power sources — the renewable hydroelectric power, the fuel cell or diesel — so that the community can find the most economical way to provide power. The smart grid technology wirelessly monitors the power chain and automatically responds to changes in supply and demand — ensuring energy is managed efficiently.

So-called microgrid systems are also well-suited to other smaller areas like college campuses, industrial campuses, ports, and islands (such as Hawaii) that often rely on their own power sources and need more efficient solutions, but still bear the same energy regulations, costs and security needs of traditional grids.

Microgrids are also usually better at integrating renewable energy sources like wind and solar. And as with Bella Coola, it’s easier to store energy during blackouts — which is especially useful for emergency-centered locations such as hospitals or military bases, such as the Twentynine Palms Base in California that is part of a GE demonstration project.

Living off the grid: Bella Coola, with a population of about 2,000 in the entire valley, is one of 50 B.C. communities not connected to BC Hydro’s electricity grid. For residents of Bella Coola, the Clayton Falls run-of-river facility, seen at the far right, serves as the primary source of electricity. There are more than 100 communities like Bella Coola in Canada that are “off the grid,” and utilities operating in those regions incur tremendous daily costs by importing energy into those areas.
Going with the flow: The demonstration system is designed to store excess electricity generated at Clayton Falls, seen above, by either producing hydrogen or directly charging a flow battery.

GE also recently launched its “ecomagination Challenge: Powering the Grid,” which is a $200 million commitment to find the best ideas from researchers, entrepreneurs and start-ups that will help create smarter, cleaner, and more efficient electric grids — and accelerate the adoption of power grid technologies. The 10-week challenge is one of the largest of its kind and is still attracting ideas on how to make the grid smarter from all over the world.

* Read the announcement
* See a detailed presentation on how the project works given in July 2010
* Read more Smart Grid stories on GE Reports
* Visit the ecomagination Challenge website and enter or vote