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UBC research driving the future of clean transportation

People and Places | Strategy 3: Thriving Communities
Theme: Innovation
Dr. Walter Mérida (left) describles the hydrogen infrastructure components to UBC’s President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Santa Ono. By de-risking and accelerating the innovation process on campus, UBC can adapt and deploy climate  solutions to cities and countries around the world.

Vehicles produce nearly a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, making them the country’s second-largest source of such emissions. The University of British Columbia is leading research efforts to make transportation cleaner, safer and more connected, using its unique campus as a living laboratory (Strategy 3: Thriving Communities).

One example is an innovative UBC project that is converting one block on the Vancouver campus into an integrated energy system. The project led by Dr. Walter Mérida, a professor in Mechanical Engineering and Senior Advisor to President Ono, was supported by an initial $11.6M investment from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the B.C. Knowledge Development Fund. The new infrastructure will become a world-leading platform to test how interactions between vehicles, infrastructure and pedestrians can be optimized. Its findings may ultimately enable the transportation sector to boost energy efficiency and cut GHG emissions.

The project will convert the city block at the corner of Thunderbird Boulevard and Wesbrook Mall into a smart-energy district. UBC’s world-leading research is focused on the links between energy, transportation, telecommunications and urban design.

As part of the project, solar technology is being integrated into UBC parking infrastructure, thanks to an investment of $2.7M from Western Economic Diversification Canada. In addition to charging the parked vehicles, the solar energy that is generated could also support the electrical grid or generate hydrogen to refuel fuel cell vehicles—thereby solving many of the storage issues relating to intermittent renewable electricity.

Dr. Omar Herrera, Senior Program Manager for Transportation Futures, notes that the project will be the first of its kind in the world.

“It’s the first deployment of all this infrastructure together; UBC will be able to prove that it’s safe and show how energy can be integrated.”

When it is completed later this year, the project will demonstrate how vehicles and buildings can be active participants in city-scale energy transactions. In partnership with BC Hydro and supported by a $2.3M investment from Natural Resources Canada, UBC researchers aim to transform vehicles from net power consumers into energy storage devices—batteries on wheels. By integrating underutilized infrastructure such as parkades and UBC’s fleet of charged vehicles, the system has the potential to store hundreds of megawatts in vehicles that can be used when needed by the grid.

The project draws on expertise across disciplines, including engineering, business and health, to make the case for transforming transportation systems from a collection of separate, unconnected entities (like vehicles, people and traffic lights) into a highly coordinated network. For instance, UBC is expanding smart intersections throughout the campus. These systems can enhance safety features for pedestrians or improve air quality by, say, giving priority to a high-polluting truck in order to reduce emissions produced during idling.

The UBC project is integrating urban assets (e.g., electric vehicles and buildings) to reduce climate impacts and support clean growth. UBC students will learn about new technologies and economic models that can enable a low-carbon economy.

By utilizing clean energy technologies that are integrated in a city-scale campus test bed, UBC and its partners are developing innovative ways of reducing the GHG emissions from vehicles, converting former pollution sources into clean energy assets for our utilities and building transportation systems for healthy, livable and sustainable cities.

Local municipalities have already shown interest in the technology. To Herrera, the potential to expand it to other jurisdictions is the most exciting part of the project.

“It shows that while transportation is a challenge, it is also full of opportunities.”