Hybrid heating

Switch between gas and electricity, save money and the planet.

Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter ranked innovation and entrepreneurship the two most important economic activities humans undertake. And with good reason: We’d still be gathering berries in the woods were it not for our unique ability to come up with new and better ways of clothing, feeding and housing ourselves. But for all of our human ingenuity over the centuries, we keep using more energy — and that insatiable demand has led to some big jumps in the price of fuel. Time for some more innovation, it appears.

Enter North Vancouver’s Sempa Power Systems Ltd., one of the clean energy companies helping to put British Columbia on the map as a global green power cluster. Sempa’s business plan stems from a consistent energy market price pattern: natural gas is often less expensive than electricity during the day but more expensive at night (a result of the fact that, basically, you can’t switch nuclear power plants off at night when demand is low, but you can temper the amount of gas).

With this pattern in mind, Sempa hit upon the idea of arbitraging those two prices — much like a hedge fund manager working a securities market — with a so-called hybrid heating system. Similar to what happens in a hybrid car that switches between a gasoline-powered engine and a battery, Sempa’s system switches the energy draw of large commercial power users between natural gas and electricity, depending on the price of each. When electricity prices are high, the system draws on gas, and vice versa.

For a commercial operator with a large heating bill like the MTS Centre, an entertainment complex in Winnipeg, the savings can be dramatic. According to Sempa, their average customer saves more than $84,000 a year and cuts their greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 276 tonnes. Now that’s innovation.