Microgrid could help bring Fort Frances into the future

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

The Town of Fort Frances and the Fort Frances Power Corporation (FFPC) are currently working on a microgrid feasibility study that could significantly change the way residents think about powering their homes.

But what, exactly, is a microgrid?

“Basically, the concept is, you can think of it as an energy island,” said Jorg Ruppenstein, FFPC president and CEO.

“There are a couple of buzzwords. There’s a nanogrid, which is like your cottage for example, where your house is totally energy sufficient with the power system you have like solar panels and batteries. The house is self-sufficient. Then if you take it up one level where it’s a neighbourhood, in our case, we’re looking at a community-wide microgrid. What that means is that we would have the ability to power all of Fort Frances, our power customer base, even if there was ever a grid failure provincial-wide. We would essentially have the ability to be an energy island and not face power interruptions if there was ever a grid failure or loss of supply from the grid.”

While the idea of having Fort Frances set aside on its own power grid, not beholden to the outages of the rest of the province, or technical difficulties resulting from interruptions in that grid, is appealing, Ruppenstein noted that it wouldn’t be the first time it happened. That historical framework is even serving as a bit of a goalpost for the current feasibility study.

“Back in 1905 we actually had a microgrid here in Fort Frances,” he explained.

“That was when we were an energy island and we were powered from the hydroelectric generating station. Back in 1905 that powerhouse was powering our community. Then in the late 1960s we actually became, as a community, grid connected to Ontario’s grid. So what we’re trying to do is to bring that capability back in a modern day environment.”

The reasons to do this, Ruppenstein said, is to help create more jobs in town following the closure of the mill, as well as to ensure the town has a resilient energy system that can weather larger storms or other emergencies, and to maybe even save those power users on the grid some money come time to check their electricity bill.

“The idea is to leverage the electrical infrastructure that we have here in Fort Frances to really set it apart from other communities,” Ruppenstein said.

“Right now, to the best of my knowledge, there’s no other community in Canada that has a microgrid that is capable of disconnecting from the provincial grid, if you will, and then be able to reconnect once the grid is restored. With all of these storms and climate change disasters that are happening worldwide, microgrids are getting a lot of interest. In the United States, for example, there’s a lot of university campuses that are probably the same size as our entire community and they have microgrids, so during some of the hurricanes, natural disasters, those campuses are fully operational.”

Ruppenstein said there are opportunities to explore in bringing down the cost of electricity as well, which will not only benefit residents, but potentially allow the town to offer much more competitive power rates to larger industries, which could make the town an appealing place for them to bring their businesses, over other towns or city centres.

The missing piece of this whole concept, and the purpose of the feasibility study currently underway, is finding out how to power the entire town when it is off the larger provincial grid. Ruppenstein said the company responsible for carrying out the study is going to look at the town and its energy needs, as well as the available options and land space, and try to figure out what the best path forward will be.

“What this study is going to do is going to take a look at the existing infrastructure that we have here in Fort Frances to see if we can either rearrange it, build on it, as well as taking a look at greenfield installations such as solar,” he said.

“We’re actually looking at hydrogen, we’ll be looking at some of the cutting edge technologies, as well as proven technologies that are available for generation. We will be simulating the town’s consumption profile and what type of installations we would have that would be able to support that, as well as growth. The study is actually taking a look at the missing piece, which is generation.”

The town could also be in prime position to take advantage on non-carbon-emitting generation as well, something Ruppenstein said currently has a lot of emphasis around and could be appealing for investors looking to spend money in a net-zero community.

The FedNor funded study is currently set to run until late this year or early 2024, and part of the deliverables on the project is a roadmap that will help the town, FFPC and other stakeholders best chart out the course of bringing Fort Frances onto its own microgrid. Ruppenstein said there are still some regulatory permissions that would need to be figured out, including ones that would allow for the FFPC to do more work than they are currently licensed to do. However, Ruppenstein said the move to a consumer-demand model of electricity is a very likely future.

“Right now we have a centralized grid, where you have large scale generation like our nuclear plants in southern Ontario and miles and miles and miles of transmission lines that connect communities with the consumers at the end,” he said.

“The model of the future is really a decentralized grid, which is going to have a lot more generation available at the local level, the distribution level. For example, in the future anyone with an electric car can plug into their house and the technology is there that that car can actually power their house if they wanted it. So this whole idea of a lot more small-scale local generation coming online, that’s the vision of the future we believe we’re headed.”