Facing the Energy Challenge Creatively: An Interview with Gaëtan Thomas

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on March 26, 2019
Vicky Harris
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Last month, Joi Scientific announced it is co-developing with New Brunswick Power a hydrogen production system to enable the world’s first hydrogen-powered distributed electricity grid. The major electric utility in Canada’s Eastern Maritime province, NB Power is re-architecting its operations to create a highly efficient and green electricity grid to be ready for the impending utility of the future business model.

Today, we are honored to speak with Gaëtan Thomas, President and CEO of NB Power, who shares his views on the transformative potential of Hydrogen 2.0 in the power generation industry.

Bringing creative clean energy solutions to the utility industry: (left to right) Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology of Joi Scientific; Gaëtan Thomas, President and CEO of NB Power; and Traver Kennedy, Chairman and CEO of Joi Scientific. 

An interview with Gaetan Thomas, CEO of New Brunswick Power

NB Power is a vertically-integrated Crown Corporation wholly owned by the Government of New Brunswick responsible for the generation, transmission, and distribution of electricity. The utility operates 13 generating stations powered by hydro, wind, nuclear, coal, oil, and diesel to bring electricity to over 300,000 homes and businesses across New Brunswick.

They’re unique not just because of the breadth of their portfolio―with at least one of every type of energy generation source in operation―but for the past five years, they have been working to deploy a smart grid to optimize the performance of all these various resources. Impressively, 75% of the total electricity generated by NB Power today is carbon-free, coming from hydropower, nuclear and wind. Since 2005 they have reduced CO2 emissions by 68%, or more than double the Paris Agreement requirements, through policy direction without any substantial rate increases.

Here are the highlights of our interview:

What do you see as the biggest energy challenge facing electric utilities today?

Our industry is undergoing unprecedented change. Over the past three years alone, I have seen more changes and trends indicating major industry transformation than in the first 30 years of my career. A combination of factors that include disruptive new technologies, demand for sustainable energy, a warming planet, and scientific breakthroughs in distributed energy production and storage are changing the game for utilities around the world. To survive and thrive, we need to create new business models.

Specifically, one of our biggest challenges will be the need to harmonize all of the distributed energy resources that will be coming on board―from solar to wind to hydrogen; we will no longer be a hub-based business. As we evolve into the next decade, the adoption of new technologies promises to change the whole composition of the grid. As enablers in the energy sector, our job is to match, balance, and coordinate all of the energy coming onto and leaving the electric grid, no matter where it is produced or consumed. If we are able to adapt our business model to this new reality, we will do very well while continuing to provide a valuable service for society.

In light of this transformative challenge, how would you define an “innovative” utility today?

Utilities that are innovative and creative are those who can come up with efficient, zero-emissions solutions that are harmonized and controlled by a smart grid. They will afford customers the freedom to buy and sell power to and from the grid in an effective way while minimizing friction and maximizing economic value for both the customer and for the utility. The business model of an innovative electric utility company is one that can transition from the centralized system that worked well in the past, when all power was generated centrally, to a decentralized model that enables distributed power to be generated everywhere―and “gamifies” the economics―so that it is fair for everybody and all players receive value. Neither utilities nor their customers should be subsidizing each other on a model that was created for the past.

How can utilities transition toward this new business model?

Collaboration is the magic word here. At NB Power, for instance, we are transitioning to a new way to generate, store, incorporate, and deliver electric power by working with our partners to mitigate risks, to clean the grid, and to build the smart grid as the technology platform on which our new business model will function.

We also need to collaborate with government authorities so that regulation and policy keep pace with the underlying technical transformation. Just as you asked what an innovative utility is, an innovative government authority is one that has the vision to see that the industry is changing and is flexible enough to create regulation that allows all players to work in harmony. At NB Power, we see our relationship with local authorities in the same spirit as we have with our corporate partners―based on collaboration and experimentation.

What role can hydrogen play in the transformation of the utility industry?

Hydrogen is an essential component of the energy mix we need in the near future. I’m sure I am not alone when I say that for NB Power the key question here is, do we have the capacity to meet the Paris Accord levels for carbon emissions and get to 100% renewables in the next decade or two? I would say that it is very limited without hydrogen being a part of our mix.

The good news is that the breakthroughs and progress in hydrogen energy have never been stronger. I believe we are finally entering the Hydrogen Economy that futurists have been predicting for such a long time, even before I came into the industry. The success of solar and wind is dramatically lowering the cost of generating clean energy. Their intermittency is driving interest in large-scale, long-term storage media, such as hydrogen, which provides better balance for the grid than solar or wind. Utilities recognize the value of short-term storage and immediate voltage management using batteries. However, batteries are insufficient and costly for large-scale storage.

When we can have hydrogen infrastructure as part of our energy mix, things like peak renewable generation, or lack of it in the case of intermittent solar or wind, will no longer stress the grid. Excess generational capacity from renewables can be used to create and store hydrogen as a backup by using whatever hydrogen infrastructure you have. If hydrogen can be that storage medium for excess capacity of renewables, you have a clean and economical way to solve a huge issue with solar and wind.

Why distributed hydrogen for baseload generation? What are the advantages?

The short answer is because intermittent renewables need help. Outside of hydro and nuclear, there are not a lot of distributed, high-capacity power generation solutions available today. It is much easier to get high-capacity power using hydrogen with a small combustion engine than is possible with intermittent renewables like wind or solar, which are hard to locate in urban environments. For instance, a windmill requires significant infrastructure, and in urban areas, it isn’t easy to accommodate windmills on top of buildings where wind patterns are constrained.

Joi Scientific’s Hydrogen 2.0 technology can create hydrogen fuel anywhere in the world. The potential to scale down hydrogen production and to distribute baseload power generation closer to where customers are located is truly transformational. It may result in less loss, less cost, and a much more efficient grid. Having Hydrogen 2.0 stations distributed throughout New Brunswick with the ability to produce high-capacity power on-demand will be a real game-changer for our grid.

Is your partnership with Joi Scientific the first step toward this clean hydrogen initiative?

What we saw with Joi Scientific’s Hydrogen 2.0 technology is a completely new way to produce energy out of seawater, making it an ideal fit for New Brunswick as a Maritime Coast province. Canada has the longest coastline of any country in the world, and New Brunswick is blessed with an abundant coastline that spans 2,269 kilometers. Hydrogen 2.0 is an effective solution to resolve our challenges of depending on fossil fuels and having to deal with the intermittency issues presented by sustainable sources like wind and solar energy.

I have been following the progress made by the Joi Scientific team for three years and am excited to be taking our collaboration to the next level. Within the next year or so, we want to develop a solid prototype that we can then scale to larger utility applications. We are also entering this co-development phase with a clear objective to learn how a decentralized energy production system like Hydrogen 2.0 can fit in the mix of all other sources of power we enable, and how it can be incorporated into the business model of the future. We are beginning to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the Joi Scientific team at their labs at the Kennedy Space Center to ensure close collaboration as we co-develop the scale-up of a Hydrogen 2.0 Production Unit that meets our needs.

What do you see as some of the specific advantages of Hydrogen 2.0 for NB Power?

For starters, to the extent that Hydrogen 2.0 technology is cost-effectively scalable, it will give us greater energy independence, allowing NB Power to take abundant seawater from our backyard and convert it into clean and affordable electricity. Secondly, the potential to distribute baseload generation so that it’s located closer to where customers live promises to be quite transformational, resulting in less loss, less cost, and a much more efficient grid.

Thirdly, as the adoption of distributed energy continues to increase, having technology that makes it possible to generate clean energy on-demand will make the whole grid easier to balance while ensuring we provide continuous, reliable energy to customers who use other local renewables, such as solar panels or wind turbines. The on-demand nature of Hydrogen 2.0 means that it could be powered on/off as needed, in real-time, to better balance peak demand and intermittent loads from other renewables. Finally, a real challenge today with renewables is that often the system has too much renewable energy without adequate customer demand to use it all. This oversupply then needs to be curtailed because the system can’t handle it. Hydrogen 2.0 may be able to fill the gap by acting as a large-scale, long-term storage medium.  

What role will the smart grid play in your vision for the utility of the future?

The smart grid will play an essential role in our vision to be a utility of the future.  As the adoption of distributed energy continues to increase and that energy comes onto the grid, we need to be able to balance it in real time. This will be an exceedingly complex challenge and just can’t happen without a much smarter, more digital grid.  Additionally, as you put more distributed energy onto the grid, you need the capability for accessing “things” (as in the Internet of Things) behind the meter, such as water heaters or thermostats, and to develop two-way communications with customers to better balance and manage peak loads through automated actions on both sides.

We are fortunate in that Siemens has partnered with NB Power to develop a global center for smart grid technology in Fredericton, New Brunswick. We have been collaborating with them for the past five years and the combined capabilities that Hydrogen 2.0 and smart grid technologies will bring us is unbelievable. They will help us get to a 95-99% non-carbon emitting fuel mix with hydrogen on our grid.

In fact, we believe the way to reach our goal of 100% non-carbon emitting power by 2040 is for New Brunswick’s power generation to be architected out as a combination of nuclear and storage with all the available renewable energy sources including wind, solar, hydro and Hydrogen 2.0―all managed via our smart grid.

About Gaëtan Thomas

Serving as CEO of NB Power since February 2010, Gaëtan Thomas is a committed industry leader and agent of change, driven by his deep connection to customer and employee grassroots. His vision for NB Power includes a made-in-New Brunswick smart grid supported by customer-centric technology and a workforce aimed at creating a greener, more sustainable province. This plan, now in its fourth year, is helping to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, lowering costs and keeping customer rates low and stable.

Gaëtan grew up in a tiny Francophone village in northern New Brunswick before earning a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of New Brunswick. A loyal and lifelong employee of the utility, he has worked in all aspects of the business including as Vice President of both Nuclear and Distribution and Customer Service divisions.


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