The McMaster Energy Conference is the culminating event of Energy Week, an annual exploration into Canada’s energy systems hosted by students from the McMaster Energy Association. The event combines perspectives from industry, academia, government, communities and students to help shape Canada’s sustainable energy future. It aims to focus on discussions about climate change while touching upon the social, economic and technical aspects of energy. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event was cancelled. However, last year’s conference, which took place in March 2019, was a massive success. Activities included discussions and lectures about the role that climate change will play in progressing energy system technology and the move towards carbon neutrality, the financial advantages of renewable energy solutions and nuclear innovation and the road to small modular reactors. The event also included a tour of the McMaster Institute of Energy Studies’ thermal grid and two case competitions organized by Ernst & amp; Young and Nexus. Evidently, a very wide range of topics were explored! A particularly noteworthy subject that was discussed was the application of blockchain technology in energy systems. Blockchain is a decentralized and distributed ledger or ‘cheque book’ that records data and makes it available to all users. As was explored in the workshop hosted by Alectra, the energy sector is a topical area of application for blockchain right now because it adds transparency to transactions. One of the largest issues with the energy sector globally is that it is controlled by a relatively small number of corporations. This leads to raised prices and distrustful consumers. Society’s response has been prosumers, or the combination of consumer and producer, i.e. people who generate and consume their own electricity through renewables and sell any excess. Blockchain allows prosumers to be matched with other consumers looking to buy energy and facilitates transactions ‘publicly’ and therefore accountably. Another interesting application of blockchain is that if it were used by utilities, it could show consumers previous usage reports across any geography or time scale. This way, citizens wouldn’t have to trust a company’s estimates, increasing transparency and trust. During this workshop, Alectra showed students their version of the blockchain-based transactive energy model and how it works. A unique and compelling aspect of this conference is how well its organizers bring together a very broad range of perspectives. The speakers hosting each talk in 2019, and the ones that were poised for 2020, varied significantly in background, providing diverse opinions and expertise. The caliber of presenters is also significant and impressive. Some presenters are university professors or foundation researchers. Others are industry leaders working for consulting firms or energy companies. This conference is an amazing opportunity to hear from experts of numerous fields. And there’s another big plus: the networking event at the end of the conference, where students can mingle with these industry professionals, CEO’s and academics. Whether you are interested in power generation as a future career or want to voice your opinion about energy sustainability, there’s something for every engineering student at the McMaster Energy Conference. Another cool and relevant activity that was planned for this year’s event was the tour of the ideal futuristic sustainable city model developed by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Google, in Toronto. This would have been a great opportunity to learn about how cities will be designed and built with sustainability in mind in the future.
Overall, the purpose of the conference is to educate students and citizens about how energy is generated, saved, stored and distributed to the public. If we as consumers know more about the process that energy undergoes to reach us, we will have more of an incentive to conserve it and to think about the role it plays in sustainability for future generations. Ultimately, even as students, we have the power to voice our opinions and influence industry and government policy. Regarding the conference this upcoming school year, McMaster Energy Week is not slowing down. The organization is preparing for either a virtual or in-person event in spring 2021.
Written by: Elsa Bassi