Jim Cotton

Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Co-Director, McMaster Institute for Energy Studies, McMaster University

“Integrated Community Energy and Harvesting Systems”


Sixty percent of the energy produced is lost to thermal energy; this is a resource that needs to be utilized. 

Communities in Canada and around the world are supplied with energy – be it electricity, natural gas, or transportation fuel distribution – via the outdated industrial era model of centralization. Canada’s electrical system relies on a one-way flow of electricity generated at large remote facilities and transported great distances to the end user. This approach results in large transmission losses, vulnerability to power loss due to weather events and, most importantly, the lost potential to utilize by-products of energy conversion such as waste heat.

The always-changing power demand in Ontario, Canada usually reaches a daily high that is as much as twice the base load power production. Meeting these peaks is a significant challenge without the use of fossil fuels. The current centrally-managed Ontario electric grid is able to meet these peaks, but because it is not integrated with other energy systems, it is estimated that up to 60 to 70% of the total fossil fuel energy used to meet changing loads is lost as waste heat. The use of fossil fuels to generate electricity in Ontario over the past 5 years has been on average 24.4 TWhe/year or 16% of total electrical generation. To manage peaking conditions in Ontario almost 37 to 56 TWht of thermal energy is simply lost; this represents enough energy to heat approximately 1.4 to 2.2 million homes or 30 to 45% of Ontario households. By combining technologies that generate electricity and harvest and store wasted heat, much of this loss could be avoided.

The Integrated Energy and Harvesting Systems research focus of my group, the McMaster Thermal Management Research Laboratory, has the overarching goal to develop the knowledge and expertise necessary for a new energy systems approach. The goal being to break traditional energy silos to unlock the transformative potential of distributed energy systems with the target of an increased energy utilization, resiliency and a low-carbon future.  Energy Harvesting and Storage is the cornerstone of my team’s research and development program. The study of processes which capture normally ‘lost’ thermal energy sources, accumulate them, and store them for later use will be presented. The potential of energy harvest and thermal energy storage currently under development by the Integrated Community Energy and Harvesting Systems Research Cooperative will be discussed.


Dr. Jim Cotton is a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at McMaster University and the Co-Director of the McMaster Institute for Energy Studies (MIES). He is a leading researcher in energy harvesting in the emerging fields of thermal energy recovery, storage and electrohydrodynamics. His research focuses on developing, modeling and experimentally validating technologies to advance efficient thermal management solutions and integrated community energy and harvesting systems. 

Dr. Cotton has liaised with a wide variety of communities and commercial partners to establish community energy plans, to identify problems facing industry, and to develop technology road maps to address these challenges. He is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the award-winning Burlington Community Energy Plan and has advised Burlington Hydro along with other Ontario power producers on emerging technologies and utilization strategies. The research with these groups led Cotton to design and develop the $5.5M Research Facility for Integrated Building Energy Harvesting Systems (ReFIBES) and the formation of an Energy Research Cooperative with five industry partners and a group of 14 Local Distribution Companies representing their parent cities, with the aim of meeting their communities’ GHG reduction targets. Our partnership resulted in a preliminary study of the City of Burlington to determine potential pathways to a low carbon city and the formation of the multi-million dollar Integrated Community Energy and Harvesting System (ICE-Harvest) research initiative. 

Dr. Cotton received his Ph.D. in 2001 from McMaster University, where he also received his Bachelor of Engineering and Master of Engineering degrees in 1994 and 1997, respectively. He is the Principal of a consulting company ThERM Solutions and has recently formed a spin-off company, HARvEST Systems Inc., directly related to Energy Harvesting for commercial restaurants.