Creating a clean Ontario

Jim Cotton’s vision is to build sustainable energy systems in communities across Ontario. His commitment to this vision began when he started working as a Mechanical Engineering professor at McMaster 11 years ago. Now, with the creation of a novel energy research cooperative, his work could help shape the city of the future.

Currently, most of the energy used in industrial production and other businesses goes to waste. In fact, up to 70% of energy is lost in the use and transmission of electricity, natural gas and oil pathways to our communities.

Cotton wants to solve this problem with his integrated energy systems research. His idea is to combine thermal and electrical energy technologies to harvest waste heat, improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“It is a grand heat transfer problem,” explains Cotton. “We waste more energy than we use in society. Why would we waste it when we can capture it?”

From 2014 to 2017, Cotton has received more than $8M from government and industry partnerships to support his research, which aims to help meet Ontario’s Climate Change Plan to reduce GHG emissions by 37% in 2030. He recognizes this goal is an ambitious one. To make it happen, Cotton believes change needs to happen at the community level.

“Climate change is a global problem but I think it takes a community approach to fix it. The cities will drive it.”

As an active resident of Burlington, Ontario for 17 years, he has built community connections organically over time. He started volunteering for the City of Burlington in 2011 and was part of a committee for a community energy plan. As a member of two energy delegations, he traveled to Sweden, one of the most sustainable countries in the world. Elements of Sweden’s smart energy communities inspired his own research.

Cotton’s technology powers, heats and cools areas in communities with intense energy demands such as, big block stores and condominium complexes. Communities have the power to site, design, optimize and control these more efficient systems, improving the ways in which they manage electrical and thermal energy grids.

With the support of 17 energy industry partners on the project, including HCE Energy Inc., GridSmartCity (a group of 13 community Local Distribution Companies), GeoSource Energy Inc., S2E Technologies Inc. and Siemens Canada Limited, Cotton’s vision is turning into a reality.

His research team is currently working on building a system in the new Gerald Hatch Centre for Experiential Learning, a space for undergraduate engineering students on campus. The system will mimic the 1000 sites he hopes to build by 2030.

“All these players individually can’t do it on their own but if you form a co-operative, the financial and political motivation becomes apparent, and you start to realize that we can make this happen.”

This article is part of a series of profiles celebrating the 60th anniversary of McMaster’s Faculty of Engineering. For more Big Ideas stories, go to the faculty’s website.

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