55 “clean energy” projects get $82 million in federal funding… Great news, despite the calculated timing
The money that was set aside for clean energy initiatives in the federal Conservative government’s 2011 budget is finally beginning to trickle out, and while it’s a welcome boost for 55 project proponents — including 15 pre-commercial demonstration projects — the timing of this $82-million announcement is suspect. After all, Canada has been criticized for its weak environmental performance as it awaits approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. “There needs to be more progress,” said David Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, after President Obama’s State of the Union address in February. Basically, the U.S. position is that if Canada (and Alberta) doesn’t start pulling its weigh on environmental efforts it will make the decision to approve a pipeline project that much more difficult for the Obama administration. Since then, the Harper Conservatives — and oil sands proponents, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — have been on the defensive, making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to “educate” the Americans about how much Canada is doing on the environmental file. This would include weaning ourselves off coal, which of course is not what’s happening in Alberta or anywhere else in Canada except Ontario. But whatever, that has never stopped this federal government from repackaging the efforts of others to look like their own, or throwing money at something in the 11th hour to rework perceptions and ultimately get their way, despite the reality. Rather than confront the problem of climate change head on, my federal government shamefully responds to criticism by bad-mouthing the likes of NASA scientist James Hansen and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, dismissing both as misinformed on the matter. Uh, yeah… right.
All that said, I’m impressed with the diversity of projects being funded with this $82 million. They include:
- A commercial demonstration of a system that manages electric-vehicle charging stations in Quebec;
- Demonstration of a wind-biomass-battery system in the north of Quebec where there’s heavy reliance on diesel;
- Integration of wind energy in diesel-based generation systems to power remote mining operations;
- The study of Very Low Head hydro turbines, a promising technology that opens up hydroelectric generation opportunities across Canada;
- A project to tap low-temperature geothermal energy for power production;
- Advancing efficiency and reducing the cost of in-stream tidal energy;
- Development and testing of prototypes of “plug and play” building-integrated solar PV and thermal systems;
- A project to recover energy from refrigeration waste heat;
- Advancing a process that takes syngas made from the gasification of municipal solid waste and turns it into drop-in jet and diesel fuel;
- Researching and developing a super-efficient air-source heat pump that can provide heating in very cold climates and cooling during summers at low cost;
- An inventory and analysis of recoverable waste heat sources from industrial processes in Alberta;
- Development of a pre-commercial thermoacoustic engine that is super efficient and can be used for co-generation applications.
In addition to the above-mentioned projects, there is a big emphasis on technologies that help reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands, as well as coal-fired power production in provinces that are heavy coal users, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia. Indeed, roughly a quarter of the funds has been earmarked for projects aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel production and use (or perpetuating the production and use of fossil fuels, depending on how you view it). I have mixed feelings about this. One part of me says, “Great, we really need to reduce emissions and water contamination/consumption related to the oil sands and burning coal.” The other part of me says, “Oh great, more window dressing. This will make it look like the federal government is doing something without actually doing something, as these technologies are unlikely to have an impact anytime soon. We’re screwed.”
Two projects in Nova Scotia that are being funded will focus on scoping out ideal sites for geological sequestration of CO2 and coming up with a monitoring and verification standard to make sure CO2 injected underground isn’t leaking out — i.e. will stay underground. Money is also being given to a Quebec company called CO2 Solutions, which I’ve written about many times over the years. This company, demonstrating biomimicry in action, has developed an enzyme that can extract CO2 from industrial effluent emissions. It will use the new funding to support a pilot-scale facility that can capture 90 per cent of C02 from an oil sands in situ production and upgrading operation. “This is expected to result in cost savings of at least 25 per cent compared to conventional carbon capture technology,” according to the government funding announcement.
One project will look at whether impurities in CO2 have an impact on the capture, transport and underground storage of CO2, while another will study geological sites in the Athabasca area (i.e. where the oil sands are located) that are ideal for underground storage of CO2. Funding will also be used to investigate the use of non-aqueous solvents to extract bitumen, thereby reducing the energy needed to create steam (i.e. reducing water needs and the proliferation of toxic tailing ponds). Efforts to improve the efficiency of steam-assisted gravity drainage processes and reduce the environmental impacts of tailing ponds are also being funded. On the water front, one project will explore the ability to use non-potable, briny water to create steam for oil sands production, while another will demonstrate a technology that can clean up and recycle the waste water used during oil sands production. In total, about $21 million will go toward all of these projects, designed to help “dirty” energy become — or look — much cleaner.
In a separate announcement, the federal government also disclosed plans to support construction of a $19-million facility in Alberta that will use algae to recycle industrial CO2 emissions, in this case emissions from an oil sands facility operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. This is great news for Toronto-based Pond Biofuels, a company I have written about extensively and which currently operates a pilot facility at St. Mary’s Cement, where it grows algae from kiln emissions. The end goal of this three-year oil sands project is to use the algae to create commercial biofuels and other bioproducts. All of this innovation is important, and funding of these projects — as well as the recent re-funding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an important supporter of cleantech innovation in my country – is encouraging. Yet, it’s not getting us to where we need to be. Nowhere close.
We’ve been down this capture-and-hide carbon path before. A handful of high-profile projects announced several years ago have still led nowhere, and two have already been cancelled. Yet the federal government, and Alberta, is still putting most of its eggs in the CCS basket. Indeed, they’re still heavily promoting this idea of a new pipeline network that will carry CO2 from the oil sands and other heavy emitters to sequestration sites. Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes recently touted this proposed pipeline as a “Trans-Canada highway for Carbon.” Here’s a question: If the industry and federal government can support the ambitious idea of building a cross-Canada network of CO2-carrying pipelines, why does it poo-poo the idea of a Trans-Canada power transmission corridor that could carry clean hydroelectric, wind and solar power from where it’s abundant to where it’s needed? The positioning is proof that moving toward a low-carbon world is not about can’t-do, it’s about won’t-do; it’s about protecting established industries and infrastructure and preventing a cleaner, 21st-Century alternative from emerging.
Again, the recent round of innovation funding is good news. But let’s look at the reality: Last week we sadly hit 400 parts per millions (ppm) of CO2 in our fragile atmosphere, a level never before experienced in human history. Many scientists say 350 ppm is where we should be, and certainly we shouldn’t go much past 400 ppm. We’re heading in the wrong direction, and notoriously conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank are now even sounding the alarm. If the federal and Alberta governments really want to prove to the Americans — and Canadians — that they’re serious about climate change, they would complement their innovation spending with a recognition that the oil sands extraction machine can’t continue its current fast pace of growth, and that some day — in 10, 20, 30 years — the oil orgy must come to a complete end. This is true of all “carbon bombs” being developed around the world, not just the oil sands. And if we are to adequately prepare for that day, we need to carefully transition to a low-carbon economy. That means taxing carbon, a policy approach now being encouraged by both the IEA and World Bank and accepted by most credible economists. That means creating a realistic vision for the country and working toward it — and by “realistic” I mean recognizing that perpetuating the growth (or current rate) of oil sands production and coal use is not an option.
This isn’t about educating people so they are “made” to know better about the oil sands’ alleged strong environmental record. This isn’t about clever public relations campaigns and slick and deceptive advertising meant to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers and voters. This isn’t about targeted funding announcements to make a government appear that it cares. This is about facing facts, and preparing for eventualities. Canada isn’t doing that, and soon enough, Mother Nature is going to spank our sorry asses.
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Worth reminding: study established first “definitive” link to well water contamination from shale ‘fracking
David Biello over at Scientific American had a story in 2011 that looked at research establishing a link between methane contamination in well water and nearby hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. The research came out of Duke University and was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Duke researchers analyzed water samples from 60 wells located within a kilometre of active shale-gas drilling operations — specifically, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. They found that “average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well” and were at levels high enough to pose “a potential explosion hazard.”
As Biello pointed out, this “marks the first time that drinking water contamination has been definitely linked to fracking.” His story, which is old but I’ve just come across, is well worth the read. He makes clear that while a small amount of methane isn’t uncommon in most aquifers in the region, the researchers were able to distinguish between “new” methane being produced by the ongoing decay of biological material and “old” methane trapped and released from fossil rock. This was done by measuring the ratio of radioactive carbon present in the methane. Very cool.
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Power Practical, a company that sprang out of research from the University of Utah, has developed a pot that can charge wireless devices through a USB connection while boiling water. They call their device, no surprise, the PowerPot — retailing for $149. So far they have built and shipped 1,000 units after raising $126,000 through crowdfunding site Kickstarter. Success from that campaign soon led to another $750,000 in seed funding. It seems interest in the PowerPot is boiling over.
This is a seriously simple device. Really, it’s just a pot. You fill it with water. You put it on a source of heat, whether it be a camp fire, camping stove or a portable heating element. It produces electricity. How does it do this? There’s a thermoelectric plate at the bottom of the pot that taps into the differential between the heat source and the temperature of the water in the pot. Electrons move from hot to cold, and this movement of electrons produces an electrical current that PowerPot taps into. The bigger the temperature differential the more power that can be produced. A scoop of snow in the pot will produce more electricity than filling the pot with warm water.
How, you might ask, is this good for the environment? Well, it’s not necessarily good if you go build a campfire JUST to charge your iPhone. But if you’ve got a fire going anyway, whether to boil water for pasta or roast hot dogs and marshmallows, or simply to keep warm, then you might as well use the heat that is otherwise being wasted to charge up your digital camera, iPhone, BlackBerry, etc…
This also has potential application in the developing world, where cell phones are often more ubiquitous than electricity. “There are hundreds of millions of people with cell phones in Africa, and most people need to walk more than a mile and spend a big chunk of their income simply to charge their phone,” said Riley Swenson, Power Practical’s marketing director. The challenge here is get the costs down so it’s more affordable, but at $149 at low volume, it seems like there’s big potential for cost reductions here.
The $149 PowerPot is just the basic model. It’s a 5-watt generator that can charge a small device like a cellphone or GPS unit or run low-power devices. Charge time can take a couple hours. There is a more advanced model called the PowerPot X which goes for $249. It’s a 10-watt model ideal for iPads, laptops and slightly larger gadgets.
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UPDATE: An interesting announcement from Lockheed Martin this morning. The military contractor says it has signed a “memorandum agreement” with real-estate developer Reignwood Group, founded and run by Thai-Chinese businessman Yan Bin, the second-richest man in Beijing. What have they agreed to do? Lockheed says it will design a 10-megawatt ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant, which will supply 100 per cent of the power needs of a planned “net-zero” green resort being built by Reignwood. “The agreement could lay the foundation for the development of several additional OTEC power plants ranging in size from 10 to 100 megawatts, for a potential multi-billion dollar value,” according to Lockheed in a press release.
This is exciting for two reasons. One, it’s very cool technology, and being an energy geek I love hearing this kind of news. Two, there’s huge potential here for the ocean to supply emission-free electricity around the world. Lockheed has been working on this technology since the 1970s. An OTEC power plant basically uses heat exchangers to extract heat out of the warmer upper ocean layers and create steam from a working fluid with a low boiling temperature, such as ammonia. As I wrote in my book Mad Like Tesla, “The steam would drive a turbine that generates electricity. Cold water from deeper layers would then be used to condense the ammonia back into fluid, at which point the cycle would be repeated.” In my book, I quoted Ted Johnson, director of alternative energy development at Lockheed, who is clearly optimistic about what the technology could offer. “I dream of thousands of floating OTEC ships roaming the seas of the world, providing an inexhaustible supply of clean energy and fuel and water for all people of the world.”
While Lockheed has been working on this for four decades, one of the first in-depth discussions of the concept came from Nikola Tesla, who at the age of 75 outlined how such a plant might be built in the December 1931 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics journal. Tesla spent considerable time trying devising a way to improve the efficiencies of such a power plant, but he determined that it was too great an engineering challenge at the time. “I have studied this plan of power production from all angles and have devised apparatus for bringing down all losses to what I might call the irreducible minimum and still I find the performance too small to enable successful competition with the present methods,” he wrote, though still expressing hope that new methods would eventually make it possible to economically tap the thermal energy in oceans.
Lockheed is trying to demonstrate that the day has come. “Constructing a sea-based, multi-megawatt pilot OTEC power plant for Reignwood Group is the final step in making it an economic option to meet growing needs for clean, reliable energy,” said Dan Heller, vice-president of new ventures for Lockheed’s mission systems and training group. Lockheed said the technology is “well-suited” to island and coastal communities where — because of transportation logistics — energy prices tend to be high and there is great dependency on oil for power generation. “Unlike other renewable energy technologies, this power is also base load, meaning it can be produced consistently 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Lockheed. “A commercial-scale OTEC plant will have the capability to power a small city. The energy can also be used for the cultivation of other crucial resources such as clean drinking water and hydrogen for applications such as electric vehicles.”
Continues Lockheed: “Once the proposed plant is developed and operational, the two companies plan to use the knowledge gained to improve the design of the additional commercial-scale plants, to be built over the next 10 years. Each 100-megawatt OTEC facility could produce the same amount of energy in a year as 1.3 million barrels of oil, decrease carbon emissions by half a million tons and provide a domestic energy source that is sustainable, reliable and secure. With oil trading near $100 a barrel, the fuel-savings from one plant could top $130 million per year.”
There is one point of confusion, however. Lockheed says this planned OTEC project — at 10 megawatts — will be the largest ever built, but I was under the impression it had designed or was in the process of designing a 10MW plant off the coast of Hawaii. I’ve e-mailed Lockheed asking for clarification on this and will update my post when I get an answer. For more background on this concept check out this story from a few months back by the folks at Greentech Media.
(UPDATE: I received a response from Lockheed spokesman Scott Lusk on the company’s work in Hawaii. Here’s what he had to say: “While Hawaii is one of the main places where Lockheed Martin has conducted research and evaluation around the OTEC technology, to date there have been no contracts awarded for commercial-scale OTEC development in the state. Lockheed Martin has tested the heat exchanger technology, a critical component in the OTEC plant design, at the NELHA research facility in Hawaii. In addition, Hawaii is one of several locations where Lockheed Martin has conducted feasibility studies. Other locations include Guam and Japan.”)
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Good to see local T.O. company Regen Energy getting traction in the market for its energy management devices, which use “swarm logic” to coordinate when flexible building loads turn on and off. HVAC giant Carrier has agreed to offer Regen’s product through its global distribution network, giving the technology greater exposure to commercial and industrial customers. Tim Angus, president and CEO of Regen, said the deal is proof that the technology is gaining an industry foothold. Fact is, more commercial and industrial customers are looking for inexpensive ways of achieving dynamic load control, including participation in demand-response programs. Regen’s decentralized approach to load management is truly unique. (For more info on Regen’s tech, check here and here and here).
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I was in New York City doing a photo shoot for Corporate Knights when news broke that a duo of University of Calgary researchers had come up with a new, very inexpensive catalyst — i.e. rust — for generating hydrogen gas from water. Can’t believe I missed it, actually, because it received wide coverage — from MIT Technology Review to Canada’s Globe and Mail and CBC Online. Still, for those like me who missed it, here’s a quick rundown of why this is potentially important and what it means for the so-called hydrogen economy. I have no doubt that this has caught the attention of many big-name players in the hydrogen and broader energy sector since the research was published online in the journal Science.
According to the press release out of FireWater Fuel, the company spun out of this research, what has been discovered is a “breakthrough method of fabricating electrocatalysts made of inexpensive, non-toxic, and abundant resources, that facilitate the production of clean hydrogen from water.” An electrocatalyst, I should say, is simply a material that causes a chemical reaction to take place when an electrical current is introduced. Conventional catalysts used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen come from rare and expensive metals such as platinum, which costs more than $1,700 an ounce and is highly volatile price-wise. Pre-2008, it had reached over $2,000 per ounce. I remember a conversation I had with Ballard Power president John Sheridan back then. When the recession hit and platinum prices plunged to $800, Sheridan said Ballard locked in a large order knowing full well the price would rise again — and it has. Platinum prices matter to fuel cell developers. When they’re high, they can represent up to one-third of the total cost of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell. Water electrolysis units used to produce hydrogen are basically fuel cells that operate in reverse, meaning they also rely greatly on platinum.
(It should be said that platinum also plays a big role with internal combustion engine vehicles, as every catalytic converter in a vehicle (required by law) contains platinum. However, ICE vehicles generally contain less than one-tenth the amount of platinum as a fuel cell-powered vehicle.)
The need to eliminate our dependency on expensive platinum and other rare-earth metals is why the U of C breakthrough is potentially game-changing. If you can eliminate the need for platinum and replace it with a less exotic, more abundant and — most importantly — dramatically cheaper catalyst, then the dream of using hydrogen as an energy storage medium becomes that much more real. Indeed, FireWater Fuel claims it can make a competitive catalyst from “Earth-adundant” materials such as iron oxide — i.e. rust. We certainly have a lot of rust, so that’s promising. Cobalt and nickel are other plentiful compound metals that are used. Essentially, the researchers use light at low temperatures to produce mixed metal-oxide films for the electrodes that are used in the electrolysis process. FireWater says its second-generation prototype “already outperforms the industry benchmark despite costing only a fraction of the price and consisting of environmentally benign materials.” By “fraction” they mean nearly 1,000 times cheaper. So far, the approach is more than 85 per cent efficient and the company is working to have its first commercial electrolyzer on the market by 2014, with a small home-scale unit possible by 2015.
The commercial units could, for example, be used to economically produce hydrogen from surplus, low-cost electricity (such as overnight wind energy production). That hydrogen could then be stored and used later to generate electricity (via fuel cell or combustion turbine) when the power is most needed, thereby smoothing out the variability of wind. It could also be paired with an off-grid wind farm in a remote area that wants to wean itself from diesel back-up generators. At home, a smaller unit could be used to produce hydrogen on demand from rooftop solar panels. If this becomes economical, it may remove a major barrier that has prevented fuel-cell vehicles from entering the market.
Perhaps. May. Could. Potentially. This would all be VERY cool if it came to fruition, but having reported on past announcements like this I will wait for more evidence of progress. This has to be proven at a scaled-up level, and there will certainly be many speed bumps and funding challenges along the way to commercialization. It’s also worth noting that this research isn’t entirely unique. There are many start-ups and research teams out there making breakthroughs in alternative catalysts for hydrogen production. Just type in “cheap + catalyst + hydrogen” in Google and you’ll see what I mean. One particular company, Georgia-based GridShift, claims it has developed a catalyst that uses no rare-earth materials and reduces catalyst costs by 97 per cent — i.e. catalysts at $60 an ounce versus $1,700 for platinum.
Back in 2010, when it emerged out of stealth mode, GridShift said it could produce hydrogen at a cost of $2.51 per kilogram, “effectively making hydrogen a more affordable alternative than gasoline at an equivalent cost of $2.70 per gallon of gasoline.” According to the company, “GridShift’s new method for hydrogen generation produces four times more hydrogen per electrode surface area than what is currently reported for commercial units today. This means that an electrolysis unit using the GridShift method would produce at least four times more fuel in the same-sized machine, or require a unit four times smaller than normal to make the same amount of hydrogen.” Three years later, there’s not much word from GridShift, even though it is backed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Still, founder Robert Dopp keeps putting out studies.
So in a nutshell, I’m very excited about this University of Calgary research and hope FireWater Fuels can get to a finish line that others have so far failed to reach. It would truly put hydrogen back in the running as an energy storage medium for renewables and fuel-cell vehicles, with the added irony that it would originate from Calgary — the financial heartland of Canada’s oil sands industry.
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Divestment fever spreads to Canada as students, doctors launch campaign against fossil-fuel holdings
Students from across the country are taking part Wednesday in what’s being called Fossil Fools Day, described as the first national day of action for the Fossil Free Canada campaign, an initiative being led by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition.
More than a dozen Canadian university campuses are planning marches and rallies in an effort to urge their university administrations to divest their endowments from fossil fuel and pipeline companies. Many already have active campaigns.
“To date four campuses in the United States have divested, and administrations at McGill University and the University of New Brunswick-Fredericton are reviewing divestment,” according to a statement from the youth coalition.
Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben, through his organization 350.org, is leading U.S. efforts. They began last November with McKibben’s 21-city “Do The Math” tour, which spread a simple message: avoiding the worst effects of climate change means leaving most of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.
McKibben argues that society can’t afford to release more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels if we are to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C. The problem is that fossil-fuel companies have what amounts to 2,795 gigatons in reserve, and they’re expecting all of it to be burned.
Those surplus reserves are being called “unburnable carbon.” The International Energy Agency estimates that on our current path the total allowable global carbon budget could be exhausted by 2017, assuming the world sticks with the 2 degree C scenario.
The reality is beginning to irk financial giants such as HSBC, which recently warned investors that oil and gas giants such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Norway’s Statoil are at risk of losing up to 60 per cent of their market value if the carbon on their balance sheets – carbon that they and their shareholders are expecting to see burned – becomes unburnable and therefore unsellable. The Institute of Actuaries, Mercer and KPMG are among others who have raised red flags.
McKibben’s message is beginning to sink in. The student bodies of more than 300 post-secondary campuses in the United States have joined 350.org’s Go Fossil Free campaign, and so far a handful of small colleges have committed to divesting. Many more are studying it, at the strong urgings of their student bodies. McKibben estimates that universities and colleges in the U.S. hold endowments worth well over $400 million, but beyond that even cities and states are taking notice and feeling the pressure of what can be described now as a global movement.
In Canada, where divestment pressure has been slower to emerge, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition launched its own McKibben-style campaign in early February. Cameron Fenton, national director of the coalition, said many universities in Canada are doing great work around sustainability, such as making campuses “greener,” but their investments haven’t followed the same path. “Building a sustainable campus that is bankrolling and profiting from climate change is a Pyrrhic victory at best,” Fenton wrote in a recent commentary in the Toronto Star.
A new study from the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that Canada’s proven reserves of oil, bitumen, gas and coal are equivalent to 91 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or 18 per cent of the global carbon budget, based on an assessment of 114 fossil fuel companies operating in Canada. Add in probable reserves and the number swells to 174 gigatons, while possible reserves sit at 1,192 gigatons, or more than double the world’s carbon budget.
Assuming conservatively that Canada’s share of the global carbon budget is 20 gigatons, this would imply, according to the study, that 78 per cent of proven reserves and 89 per cent of proven and probable reserves must be left in the ground. “Canada is experiencing a carbon bubble that must be strategically deflated in the move to a clean energy economy,” according to the policy alternatives.
“Because public valuation of companies largely ignores big picture climate realities, there is a systemic risk inherent in the fossil fuel extraction and production industry,” it concluded. “Our analysis finds that Canadian financial markets have failed to consider climate risk. The shock associated with coming global efforts to manage carbon could leave key sectors such as pension funds vulnerable.”
Canadian doctors, meanwhile, are reminding citizens that investments aren’t the only risk. The health of Canadians are being dramatically impacted by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, and that alone is reason to divest, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) argued on Wednesday. The association pointed to a study it co-released that day from the Pembina Institute on the health impacts of coal-fired electricity generation in Alberta. Coal power’s contribution to asthma and other respiratory/cardiovascular illnesses in the province costs about $300 million annually because of increased visits to hospitals and emergency rooms, the report found.
CAPE put out a statement Tuesday urging all Canadian healthcare providers and their professional associations, including the Canadian Medical Association, to immediately “freeze” all new investment in oil, gas, coal, and pipeline companies. Within five years, they want these organizations to divest from direct ownership and commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.
“Similar strategies have been used in the past by medical organizations in the fight to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the health effects of its products,” CAPE said in a statement.
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It was a trip to Iceland in June 2003, just months after the birth of my first daughter, that the immense need for and potential of clean energy first landed on my radar. The Toronto Star agreed to send me there so I could write about Iceland’s efforts to transition to a hydrogen economy. I toured several of the country’s geothermal and hydroelectric facilities. I rode on hydrogen fuel cell buses. I swam in the Blue Lagoon. I spoke with some of the leading academics and engineers in the world working on the hydrogen puzzle. I came back inspired, hungry to learn more — not just about fuel cells and hydrogen, but about this whole emerging area of clean technology, or “cleantech.” It helped that Canadian fuel cell pioneers Ballard Power and Hydrogenics had already captured my interest, but once I looked beyond the “hype about hydrogen” I saw a great diversity of clean technologies at various stages of development. Further boosting my enthusiasm was Nick Parker, founder of the Cleantech Group and the man who coined the term “cleantech.” It was about that time that I first met Nick at a venture capital conference in Toronto. I had covered the technology and telecom scene for five years and was getting bored. The market had tanked. No longer was it interesting to write about faster routers and fatter broadband services. I was more drawn to the optical engineers who left telecom behind and decided to use their skills to boost the potential of solar PV technology and LEDs. Nick and the handful of companies he brought to the venture capital conference only had a small piece of the floor, but they were the most fascinating to cover. I was hooked.
Within just a couple of months after my trip to Iceland, I decided to transition my weekly high-tech column at the Toronto Star into a clean technology column. It began as a bi-weekly effort, but by the following year my transition was complete — Clean Break was a weekly column devoted to cleantech, and a first of its kind in North American for a major daily newspaper. This blog soon followed, one of the first cleantech blogs to hit the blogosphere. Parker’s Cleantech Group recognized this in 2005 by selecting me for the Cleantech Pioneer award. What Nick liked about the Clean Break column is that it was in the business section of the newspaper, which conveyed the idea that most of the technologies I was writing about weren’t destined to be money-losing propositions but were either competitive today or had the potential to be competitive; that tackling climate and other environmental issues through efficiency and using carbon-free technologies was a way to boost productivity and global competitiveness. Readers also liked the emphasis on solutions, as opposed to dwelling on environmental problems. I didn’t see myself as an environmental reporter, at least not of the traditional sort — that is, only investigating and exposing bad apples, and only telling readers how much things sucked. That was just too depressing. I liked highlighting innovation that was going to help get us out of the environmental mess we had created, and even better, help boost revenues and lower costs for companies and governments. I wanted to put less emphasis on environmental compliance (a pure cost) and more emphasis on the embrace of “clean” technologies because it was simply good for business. I thank the Toronto Star for letting me go in this direction, or at least not preventing me from doing so.
Much has changed in the 10 years that have followed. That whole hydrogen thing didn’t turn out as planned. Plug-in vehicles, hardly talked about a decade ago, have taken over and remarkably all of the top auto manufacturers now have pure electric or hybrid-electric models on the market. Sales haven’t been a strong as predicted, but the fact there are tens of thousands of plug-in vehicles on the roads and thousands of high-speed charging stations installed is a dramatic accomplishment in my view. Same goes for solar and wind technologies. Less than 600 megawatts of solar capacity were installed in 2003. That figure has surpassed 30,000 megawatts, meaning the market has grown 50-fold over the past decade, and we’ll see another 10-fold expansion by 2020. Currently there are about 96,000 megawatts of total solar capacity installed worldwide, a figure that’s expected to reach 330,000 megawatts in seven years. In other words, since starting my Clean Break column solar has gone mainstream — a combination of plunging prices and progressive government policies. The wind industry, which had an installed capacity of about 39,000 megawatts in 2003, has grown to have a total capacity that now stands at 283,000 megawatts. These are huge numbers. Last year, an astonishing $269 billion was invested in clean energy infrastructure. In 2010, investments in renewable energy exceeded investments in fossil fuelled power plants for the first time, a major global milestone. Venture capital in cleantech, depending on how you define it, jumped from about $1 billion to over $8 billion from 2005 to 2011 (it’s now around $6 billion). The market for cleantech is, generally speaking, a trillion-dollar global opportunity.
Media coverage of the industry — new and traditional — has also changed. In 2005 my blog was among a handful of blogs consistently covering the cleantech space, and my column was unique in North American, at least for a mainstream daily newspaper. Now, as I wrote in my book Mad Like Tesla, “I am but one small voice in a sea of dedicated news sites, columns, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitterers all covering different angles of this clean energy revolution and advocating for a faster transition away from fossil fuels. We may complain that the transition is going too slowly — it can never move fast enough — but looking back it’s amazing we have come this far so quickly.” As coverage of the sector increased, my own writings became increasingly regional and local. Most of my Clean Break columns for the past few years have focused on my home province of Ontario or home city of Toronto. I’ve most enjoyed writing about Canadian or Ontario-based clean technology startups or innovators trying to raise the bar on efficiency and lower environmental footprints. My columns have covered LEDs, solar power, wind power, demand-response, green chemistry, smart grid innovation, water technologies, geothermal, biofuels (with a big focus on algae), electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, wave and tidal power, biogas, waste reduction, energy storage, advanced materials… you name it. I have learned so much, met so many wonderful and smart people, made new friends and played my own little part in helping Canadian companies get attention locally and globally. It has been tremendously satisfying.
Why am I writing all of this now? Well, because this July would have been the 10-year anniversary for my Clean Break column in the Toronto Star. Also, just before I went to Costa Rica earlier this month for vacation, I got a call telling me that my column had been cancelled. I can’t say it was entirely unexpected. When I left my full-time staff writing gig at the Star in 2010 to write Mad Like Tesla, the paper’s business editor at the time agreed on a handshake to let me keep writing the column. Three editors have come and gone from the business section since then and during each transition the axe was expected to come. It didn’t, and frankly, I’m amazed I made it this far. It’s been a great run. The fact is, the newspaper industry is going through a painful transition and there’s no indication this is temporary. In fact, the pain indicates something that may be terminal. The Star recently announced it was outsourcing its pagination and copy editing functions to save costs and that 55 jobs would be cut. Sections across the paper have been asked to slash budgets, and the axe falls easily on freelance columns. This is an unfortunate sign of the times. That my column was discontinued is also a sign of the times. Clean energy may be the future and climate change is the biggest threat to our existence, but that didn’t stop the New York Times from recently dismantling its own environmental reporting team and cancelling its popular green blog. This is both the knee-jerk reaction of an industry that’s suffering, and the reason why this industry is suffering — in my humble opinion.
To be fair to the Star, it did recently hire a global environmental reporter and global science and technology reporter. This is great news. Change is good, and people will get fresh coverage and viewpoints. Let’s hope they stay committed to these beats and give the stories that come out of them the priority and placement they deserve. Me, I’m having a blast as editor of Corporate Knights magazine, where I have been for nearly two years, and I hope to spend the next few years building this publication. We’re doing great things and insightful research — not just in cleantech, but around a number of issues where business and sustainability intersect. I encourage all my readers to sign up for Corporate Knights’ digital subscription, which you can get through iTunes by downloading our app in the App Store (We’re also available on Kindle through Amazon.com, and soon coming to the Android marketplace). Besides, I needed a break from the column and had been considering new directions for it for some time. Its Canada/Ontario/Toronto focus was appropriate for a paper like the Toronto Star, but I want to broaden the message and the audience. Over the coming months I will be looking at a national or North American media platform through which to revive the column, in partnership likely with Corporate Knights. In the meantime, I’ll continue to use this blog to highlight new technologies, emerging issues, breaking news, and whatever else tickles my fancy. The Clean Break brand is here to stay.
Finally, if you were a regular reader of my Clean Break column in the Star, thank you very much for tuning in. Many hundreds, possibly thousands, have reached out to me over the years to convey their appreciation or dislike of the column — fortunately it’s been more of the former. Sometimes people just wanted to exchange ideas. I can’t tell you how heart-warming it is to get an e-mail from a teacher who’s using my column as material for the classroom, or a call from a student who wants to interview me for a class project, or getting Tim Horton’s gift certificates in the mail from an anonymous person thanking me for doing what I’m doing, or getting a call from the founder of a startup who got venture capital funding because of an article I wrote, or having a politician tell me that my coverage of an issue had an impact on policy or legislation. Without readers — even the ones who call you an idiot, and there have been many — there’s no point in writing.
Unfortunately, the Toronto Star would not allow me to do a final farewell column to notify my readers that this is the end of the line, for now. Some of you might have noticed it was no longer being published. But most won’t notice, and I expect this will hold true for many of my colleagues still word-tapping at the Star. Columns come and go, and mine is no different. It would have been nice, however, to thank my Star readers more directly, rather than through the more limited audience that this blog attracts.
Is the offshore wind opportunity in Ontario permanently dead in the water?
It was in February 2011 – an election year—when the Liberal government abruptly killed the ambitions of any wind developer looking to place wind turbines in the Great Lakes. It booted offshore wind out of the feed-in tariff program and it suspended all applications, citing the need for more scientific research until, in the words of the environment minister, there is assurance “any offshore wind developments are protective of the environment.”
That’s a pretty high standard. Can any energy development really protect the environment?
Never mind that government scientists have been studying the issue since at least 2007, or that when a previous moratorium on offshore wind development was lifted in 2008, then-premier Dalton McGuinty was convinced that such developments could be done in a way that would not compromise ecosystems.
But more studies were needed. Fair enough.
As the Star’s John Spears reported last month, three studies were posted on the Ministry of Natural Resources’ website in February – two dealing with impacts on aquatic species and fish habitat, and one a more comprehensive engineering impact study.
Strangely, all three were completed and submitted to the government in spring-summer 2011. It’s not clear why it took 18 months for them to become publicly known, or what has been done since then.
It’s also not clear how many more studies are coming, what kinds of studies are still needed, when they will all be completed, and if, once completed, the ministry has any intention of reconsidering the moratorium.
“We still need to gather more information.” That’s all ministry spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski was prepared to answer when repeatedly asked the questions. The natural resources ministry, she added, “will work with the Ministry of Environment and other agencies to help determine future research and science priorities and activities.”
In other words, there’s no rush. They’re still determining. Still gathering. I can’t remember any other energy source being put through so much study for so long before a single kilowatt was produced, except perhaps the kind that creates highly radioactive waste.
Here’s some perspective: two years ago Ontario was in a strong position to lead the world on freshwater offshore wind development, attract a major turbine manufacturer, establish a compelling local supply chain, and create many thousands of jobs. Today, the government is being sued for billions of dollars for turning its back on this potential, not to mention the investors it originally wooed.
Meanwhile, Ohio has picked up the slack. The non-profit Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation (LEEDco) received $4 million (U.S.) last month from the U.S. Department of Energy that will go toward engineering, design and permitting work for its “Icebreaker” offshore wind project.
Icebreaker will be a five-turbine (possibly nine) offshore wind farm located about 11 kilometres off the shoreline of Cleveland. It will have the potential to generate more than 20 megawatts of electricity, and will be a first-of-its-kind in North America.
Turbine manufacturer Siemens, wind developer Freshwater Wind, Case Western Reserve University and municipal governments in the area are partners in the project. LEEDCo’s goal is to see 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind developed by 2020 within Ohio’s jurisdiction.
That could have been us. Note that Siemens used to have an interest in partnering up in Ontario until we abandoned all talk of offshore wind.
Is it that the studies Ontario has conducted to date suggest the risks to the environment and health are too high to proceed? No. They do highlight some real risks, but they also draw attention to the many benefits and point out ways to minimize the risks.
“If care is taken to properly site project locations, avoid sensitive habitat areas, employ available options or continue to develop new options for mitigation, and conduct appropriate biological monitoring, the potential impacts of offshore wind power production could in fact be minimal,” concludes one of the studies from the natural resources ministry’s own aquatic research group.
The study goes on to talk about the limitations of doing lab and computer-model studies. “We cannot fully understand the environmental impact that a wind power project will have until we are able to study the response of the local system to the construction and operation of an actual installation in the field.”
It suggests that the next step be small-scale pilot projects, at minimum. “Ultimately, however, the greatest and most valuable knowledge would be gained through focused research and monitoring at commercial-scale demonstration projects throughout the construction phase and over the long-term during operation. Looking ahead, collaboration between government, industry and academic partners to plan and initiate this type of project would be highly valuable.”
That’s exactly what the Ohio consortium is doing.
Nobody is saying that Ontario should run out and develop 1,000 megawatts of wind tomorrow. But the current surpluses being experienced in the province’s electricity system won’t last forever. Coal generation will be gone within the year. Aging nuclear reactors will soon enough be taken offline for refurbishment or decommissioning.
The power crunch will come. Offshore wind, responsibly developed and set back far enough from the shore, could be an important part of Ontario’s clean energy mix. If we need more research, maybe it’s time we actually dipped our feet in the water and actually built something we can properly study.
Or we can just look over our neighbour’s shoulder.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.
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Nearly two years ago, an LA-based company called Rentech Inc. announced plans to build a biofuels plant four hours north of Sault St. Marie, Ontario. It would use forest waste and “unmerchantable” tree species for making renewable jet fuel and naphtha, a chemical feedstock used to make all sorts of products. That plant was supposed to be operational in 2015. It was supposed to employ up to 1,000 people during peak construction, and keep 83 people directly employed full time in a region of the province that could really use those jobs.
Ain’t gonna happen, it seems.
The company put out a press release last night announcing that it is ceasing operations, reducing staff, and eliminating all R&D related to new technology development. And yes folks, I’m told that would includes its Ontario “Olympiad” project, which was to use a Fischer-Tropsch process to turn biomass into 85 million litres of green fuel annually. It means the deal Rentech signed with the Ontario government that gave it access to up to 1.1 million cubic metres of Crown timber is effectively dead wood. The question is whether those access rights will be transferred to one of the competing projects from local companies that bid against Rentech and lost.
It’s funny (or not so funny) how many grand announcements from government never actually come to fruition. This, in my view, could have been a good project. It’s a shame for the people living in that region. They could have used the economic boost.
Is guilt the path to serious climate action? New labelling campaign wants to test theory that guilt works
You drive up to the gas pump, grab the nozzle and start filling up your car or SUV. Captive for a good two minutes, you look down and see a label on the handle of the nozzle showing a little boy staring out a window, his sad face reflecting in the glass.
“Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change which may cause anxiety and depression in children.”
Ouch. That hurts.
It’s just one of several messages that Toronto resident Robert Shirkey wants featured on gas-pump nozzles across the city, or any municipality tired of waiting for federal action on climate change.
Shirkey, a municipal lawyer, has done his research. Turns out that municipalities have the legal authority to make gas stations put the warning labels – similar to the kind now found on cigarette packages—on pump nozzles.
He’s now pitching the concept to those Toronto councillors most likely to champion the effort within city hall. The big question, of course, is whether warning labels that make us feel guilty for filling up is an effective strategy?
Will pictures of an oil-soaked duck, malnourished children roaming an African desert, or at-risk Arctic caribou convince us to ditch the car? By warning us that filling up “may harm wildlife and damage ecosystems”, “cause drought and famine” or “put up to 30 per cent of species at likely risk of extinction”, are we more likely to take transit, ride a bicycle, or purchase an electric vehicle?
Or, are they just going to make people angry? Desensitized?
Shirkey has been thinking about these questions since 2011, when the idea first popped into his head. He decided then to run for city council so he could effect change from the inside.
That plan got interrupted, however, when he opened up his own legal practice. Life got busy and his political ambitions were put on the backburner. Then one day, while on the phone with his sick grandfather, the conversation turned to self-reflection.
“He sensed that I wasn’t very happy,” recalls Shirkey. “His last words on the phone to me were ‘Do what you love.’ ”
It wasn’t long after that his grandfather passed away and an inheritance cheque arrived in the mail. “As soon as I opened up the envelope, his final words echoed with me,” Shirkey says.
That same day Shirkey went to Osgoode Hall Law School on a research mission: find out if municipalities had the power to mandate warning labels at gas stations, and that it didn’t conflict with provincial or federal legislation.
Turns out it was completely doable, and Shirkey now had the financial resources – thanks to grandpa – to spend six months of his life focused on making it happen. He founded a not-for-profit organization called Our Horizon (www.ourhorizon.org ), hired a graphics designer to create his warning labels, and began putting together an exhibit of mocked-up gas pump nozzles.
The campaign was formally launched last month and Shirkey has already gained near-unanimous support from the City Youth Council of Toronto. His idea now gets consideration at the council committee level on March 4. In the meantime, Shirkey is building awareness one councilor at a time.
“The first step is to honestly face the problem of climate change and acknowledge it. I don’t think we’ve actually done that collectively as a society,” he says. “The value of this idea is that it’s low cost, globally unprecedented, and could potentially have a high impact.”
I asked a number of folks in the Toronto environmental and clean technology community what they thought about the idea. “Can’t see how this would convince people to drive less,” was one comment.
It may anger people, said another, “but to be honest, I’m long past the point of thinking there is much upside in coddling the public on this issue any longer.”
Councillor Mike Layton said he liked the idea. “It speaks to people precisely at the point in time when they need this message,” he said. “How that message is framed is equally as important as when they receive it.”
Cherise Burda, director of transportation policy at the Pembina Institute, said the messages might be more effective if, in addition to making the climate change connection, they offered options. “Like switching to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or electric vehicle, or getting out of the car a couple days a week.”
My own thoughts, which I expressed to Shirkey, is that the comparison to tobacco products is somewhat flawed. The cancer and heart disease that can result from smoking hits very close to home, while climate change is generally perceived as a more distant and gradual threat, likely to be felt most by those other than us.
For Shirkey, the warning labels – and the guilt likely to result from them – are about mentally preparing us for the difficult decisions that we’ll eventually have to make.
“What it will hopefully do is shift our collective consciousness so that when a politician comes in and says I want to put in bike lanes, put in public transit in a big way, or implement a carbon tax, people would be less opposed to these ideas.”
They would be less opposed because such initiatives will ease our collective guilt. “I almost think of this messaging as a first and necessary step,” he adds.
Will it get traction in a city whose mayor is intent on ending the war on the car?
Mayor Ford is just one vote, says Shirkey. “You need 23 out of 45 people to vote for this, and I think there are a lot of people on council really concerned about climate change who might be willing to do something a little more bold.”
And if Toronto doesn’t bite, he’s convinced that some other progressive municipality – in Ontario, Canada, or somewhere else in the world – will take the lead and cause the kind of ripples that made smoking, pesticide and shark fin soup bans more commonplace.
Shirkey is committed to making it happen. He has wound down his law practice. His grandfather’s money has been used up, so he’s now tapping into savings.
“I’m going for broke on this, literally,” he says. “It’s something I believe in.”
The biggest climate rally in U.S. history took place this week. Perhaps the timing is right—somewhere.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.
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Enbridge Inc. is emerging as major corporate venturing partners in the Canadian cleantech scene. It has already acquired more than $3 billion in renewable energy assets — a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and run-of-river hydro. It has invested in concentrated solar PV manufacturer Morgan Solar and hydrogen tech firm Hydrogenics. It has pursued innovative waste-heat capture at its compressor stations in combination with fuel cell technology. Now, it is throwing its financial support behind flywheel storage innovator Temporal Power.
Temporal, based in Mississauga, Ontario, announced this week it has completed a $10 million Series B equity financing, with Enbridge Emerging Technology Inc. one of the lead investors along with Northwater Intellectual Property Fund (which was also lead investor in the company’s Series A financing in July 2011). Northwater Capital, it should be noted, is the money behind NRStor, a company with plans to develop Canada’s first energy storage park. NRStor, using Temporal Power flywheels, has already won a contract with Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which will see the flywheels being used to provide regulation services on the provincial grid. Annette Verschuren, former CEO of Home Depot Canada, is heading up the NRStor initiative.
Temporal Power describes its flywheel technology as a ”quantum leap forward” because of its capability of storing 50 times more energy than most flywheels and enabling a power output that is five times higher per unit than its nearest grid-scale competitor. “Using its proprietary flywheel energy storage technology, Temporal Power’s scalable power storage plants offer utilities and power generation companies the ability to deliver efficient and cost-effective fast response capabilities for balancing energy and improving power quality on the electrical grid,” the company said in a statement.
Globe and Mail today has a nice summary of the various energy storage initiatives going on in Ontario — from conventional pumped storage to Temporal’s flywheels and advanced compressed-air energy storage.
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U.S. President Barack Obama set a new goal for America during his State of the Union address this week. He challenged states and municipalities, homeowners and businesses, to do more with less when it comes to energy consumption.
“Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years,” said Obama, adding that states that stepped forward with the best ideas would get financial support from the federal government to make it happen.
Obama’s words echoed recommendations that came out just a week earlier by the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy, a coalition of U.S. energy utilities, academics, industry and environmental groups.
It urged an effort to double energy productivity by 2020, a move that would create an estimated 1.3 million jobs, slash $1,000 a year from household energy bills, give a boost to GDP, decrease energy imports by $100 billion a year, and save U.S. industry a whopping $169 billion a year.
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called it a “huge and largely untapped opportunity.”
It may seem a daunting task, but whether you’re talking about the United States or Canada, doubling productivity can be done, should be done, and elsewhere around the world, it has been done.
The U.S. and Canada rank 8th and 12th respectively out of G20 countries when measured by energy productivity. You could call that middle-of-the-road, but when compared to leaders like Germany and Japan, we’re closer to the ditch.
America consumed the equivalent of 83,561 kilowatt-hours per capita in 2011. Canada was a bit higher, at 86,101 kilowatt-hours. Both are among the bottom of the global pack.
Germany, at 46,702 kilowatt-hours, and Japan, at 45,477 kilowatt-hours, are among the top. Both seem to be doing just fine but without the kind of waste that Obama is intent on targeting.
Tighter building codes, stricter vehicle emission standards, serious attempts to recycle waste heat at industrial facilities, and better tax breaks for companies that install more energy-efficient equipment are just some of the options that should be on the table.
Screwing in energy-efficient light bulbs, while great, can only take us so far.
Buildings are particularly ripe for the picking, accounting for well more than 40 per cent of all energy consumed in North America.
Yes, “new” construction is getting more efficient, including all the LEED-certified silver, gold and platinum buildings sprouting up across cities like Toronto and Calgary.
But we’re barely scratching the surface, and to a large extent we’re neglecting the big, deep savings that can come from retrofitting or optimizing the operation of our existing building stock.
Part of the problem, explains Dan Seto, founder and president of Toronto-based CircuitMeter, is that there is a lack of information about how buildings function on a day-to-day, even minute-by-minute basis. He calls commercial buildings “black boxes” – difficult to see inside without the use of expensive energy-monitoring technologies.
“Once you get granularity of information, it opens up the door,” says Seto.
CircuitMeter is part of Seto’s attempt to stick a foot in the door, pry it open, and liberate that data – what amounts to the pulse and other vital signs of a “living” building. “We thought there has got to be a better way to do this.”
The company has designed a low-cost and relatively easy-to-install device called WebMeter, which can monitor the electricity flowing through up to 36 individual circuits in a building’s circuit board. Readings from these meters are stored on outside computer servers – “the cloud” – and can be accessed and analysed any time through the Internet.
“It puts a living, breathing building at your fingertips so you can start figuring out how that building is operating per square foot or employee,” says Seto, explaining that the device can detect problems with equipment and lighting and send alerts. “We can tell if a 2-watt LED light bulb has stopped working if we have to.”
Now, to be clear, there is no shortage of energy monitoring devices and gizmos in the marketplace. What CircuitMeter is offering is a way to overcome the cost barrier. Seto says WebMeter costs less than $30 per circuit, versus $200 and up to $700 per circuit for other monitoring technologies. “In general, we’re about one-tenth the cost.”
CircuitMeter also doesn’t make claims that it will reduce a building owner’s energy bills. What WebMeter does it liberate data – lots of it—by getting deep inside the black box. Once that data tsunami is released, a near-infinite numbers of applications can surf on top.
It will also be a useful way to verify savings from big energy retrofit projects, which is increasingly a condition of financing. “We’re only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the applications,” says Seto, who last week snagged early-stage financing from the MaRS Cleantech Fund and Robert Macintosh, co-founder of the Pembina Institute in Calgary.
Seto is encouraged by Obama’s big commitment to increase energy productivity. Canada, at some point, will be forced to get with the program.
“There’s big momentum out there to get focused on conservation,” he says. “I think the timing for us is very good.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.
GDP doesn’t accurately reflect the true impact — positive and negative — that mining has on our collective wellbeing
The challenge is to make it both.
No question, the riches are there. A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada touts how mining in the North is expected to nearly double by 2020, both in terms of the value of minerals and metals we retrieve and the number of jobs created.
Mining in the North is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent, compared to an average of just 2.2 per cent annually for the Canadian economy as a whole.
But Scott Vaughan, federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, is worried about what will be sacrificed in the rush to make withdrawals. Environmental oversight is sorely lacking, he concluded in a report tabled this week to Parliament. There are also big information and infrastructure gaps.
“We know that there’s a boom in natural resources,” he said. “I think what we need now, given the gaps, given the problems we found, is a boom in environmental protection.”
In the North, real mining gross domestic product (2002 dollars) was $4.4 billion in 2011, and is expected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2020, according to the conference board.
It’s an impressive figure, but like all values attached to GDP, it’s also misleading. It accounts only for the one-way flow of minerals out of the ground and into marketplace. It ignores any of the health or environmental costs incurred over the next seven years, or the long-term economic implications of emptying yet another resource-filled bank account.
As Natural Capitalism author Paul Hawken said during a speech this week in Toronto, “Our current economic system steals from the future, sells it in the present, and calls it GDP.”
Many of Canada’s major mining companies are, to be fair, making an effort to reduce their environmental footprints. They’ve seen the writing on the wall for more than a decade. With social media acting as a kind of global watchdog, ducking responsibility is becoming riskier business.
Organizations and programs have sprouted up to support efforts, including the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining initiative, which established principles for environmental performance, and the Green Mining Initiative, which has a similar mandate but is led by Natural Resources Canada.
Then there’s the relatively new Clean Mining Alliance, which was founded to promote and share information about new clean technologies that can help mining companies operate more efficiently, make less of a mess, and more effectively clean up the messes they do make.
“Notoriously conservative mining companies and their shareholders are starting to realize that the capital expenses of new clean technologies can be offset by reduced operating costs and the potential for new revenues,” according to Dallas Kachan, managing partner of Kachan & Co. and executive director of the alliance.
In his start-of-year outlook for 2013, Kachan predicted there would be a much higher adoption of clean technologies in the mining sector, particularly in areas such as water purification, remediation of tailings, advanced mineral separation and products that reduce the use of water and power.
Of course, simply using renewable energy such as geothermal or storage-backed wind can help lower pollution and carbon emissions at mining sites, which are often so remote that renewables become a more cost-effective option than, say, running dirty diesel generators. It helps, and we need much more of it, but it’s not nearly enough.
What’s also needed, Hawken said during his talk, is a “whole different pallet” of technologies that don’t just reduce the impacts of industrial operations, but fundamentally change how industries operate.
He pointed to the amazing advancements taking place in a new discipline known as biological mining. The idea here is that there are molecules and bacteria found in nature – including the human body – that are designed to selectively grab specific minerals, heavy metals and other toxins.
Hawken described a time when we’ll use these molecules and bacteria to “mine” and concentrate the residual but highly demanded minerals from, for example, the tailing ponds of old mining sites. Instead of digging up new stuff, we can find it in the pollution we’ve already left behind.
The approach offers remediation and revenue-generation at the same time. Toronto-based BacTech Environmental is an example of a company playing in this emerging space.
“We can now run the industrial age backwards by doing what nature does,” said Hawken, adding later, “The breakthroughs are ubiquitous and they’re coming at us fast.”
Can they reach us fast enough, and at a cost low enough to motivate? Will the federal government and mining sector – which prefers to stay clear of risk – wake up and realize that leadership on this front is becoming an issue of long-term survival?
We may be on the path to doubling mining GDP in the North. But we’re also emptying the bank account, and incurring charges we don’t yet recognize but, sooner or later, will have to pay.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.
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An eye-glazing technical press release was put out this week by Texas-based EEStor, a company that has spent more than a decade trying to bring low-cost, high-capacity and super safe energy storage to market.
The next morning, Toronto-based ZENN Motor – a minority strategic shareholder in EEStor—saw its stock price shoot up 150 per cent. It was as if a defibrillator had brought a corpse back to life.
So what’s going on here? As someone who has followed this company closely for eight years, it’s still difficult to say. What’s clear is that EEStor is the story that refuses to die, and given the company’s ambitious goals, that’s could be viewed as a good thing.
My first Clean Break column about EEStor – and the first to appear in a major newspaper—appeared in 2006. Back then, the company was promising an energy storage device (a type of super-duper capacitor) that pound for pound could pack 10 times more energy than a lead-acid battery. More impressive is that it would cost half as much, charge in minutes, and was made of abundant, non-toxic materials.
Think about that: With such a technology, the price of electric cars would plummet and fears over “range anxiety” would disappear. Your iPhone or BlackBerry could last a week or two on a single charge, and when it did run out, it would recharge faster than boiling water for a cup of tea. Energy from wind turbines and solar panels could be stored and dispatched on demand, and affordably.
EEStor founder and chief executive Dick Weir, a former fighter jet pilot, was in my experience an abrupt, somewhat cantankerous individual who didn’t make many public announcements, but when he did he ratcheted up expectations of what and when the company would deliver.
So, too, did management at ZENN, which through its investment and technology rights agreement with EEStor was betting the farm that Weir would deliver. As a publicly traded company, ZENN was a proxy for EEStor – a way for retail investors to back what was an extremely speculative opportunity.
It didn’t hurt that venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, known for its successful bets on Google and Amazon.com, were early investors, or that former Dell Computer vice-chairman Mort Topfer sat on EEStor’s board, or that the tiny company had a strategic development agreement with military contractor Lockheed Martin.
Unfortunately, the past seven years has been marked by a series of missed milestones and disappointments. There is still a loyal group of EEStor followers – called “EEStorians” – who track the company’s every move, but for the most part those who were optimistic in the early days, even if skeptical, have tuned out.
Part of the reason is that ZENN, which is hibernating pretty much as a shell company to save cash, and EEStor, which continues to work away in the background, have both stopped talking. They learned their lesson that talking didn’t help; it only created problems and undermined their credibility.
They also learned that their own expectations were unrealistic and didn’t reflect the many barriers that stand in the way of product development, regardless of the breakthrough nature of their technology. They needed to walk where they wanted to run.
This week’s announcement was another small step along the grueling path, but judging by the market reaction, it’s a positive one. Just how positive is open to interpretation.
The company disclosed that energy storage “layers” built on its pilot product line, and which are the building blocks of its final device, were independently lab tested and reviewed by expert Rick Ulrich, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas.
Ulrich called the samples a “significant advance” and an “important breakthrough.” The measurements taken still don’t come close to what EEStor is aiming for, but one observer who accompanied Ulrich during his visit said it’s enough to prove that the approach works, the production line is doing its job, and improvements can be made with some final tuning.
“There are only 80 people in the world that Weir needs the attention of at this point, and to get those 80 people to care you have to put out this information,” he said. “This is a tease, for sure, but enough is there to get those peoples’ full attention.”
EEStor’s next step is to independently certify its pre-production layers. At that point, the big automakers and industrial giants will be invited to obtain test samples. If they like what they see, the story gets really interesting – the building of the layers into a full device that can be lab tested in power tools, mobile gadgets, and even vehicles.
One could argue that EEStor, through its delays, has lost its window of opportunity and that the rest of the technology world has caught up. The batteries used in the higher-end version of the Tesla Model S, for example, boasts 240 watt-hours per kilogram, not far from the original EEStor goal of 286 watt-hours per kilogram.
Newark, Calif.-based Envia Systems, which counts General Motors as a strategic investor, claims it has reached 400 watt-hours per kilogram with its lithium-ion technology and could hit the market with a commercial product by 2015.
But EEStor has since upped its game by claiming it can double, even triple its original target, even achieving energy densities of more than 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram at a cost that few could – at this point – compete with. Plus, unlike batteries, its device can charge instantly and would have unmatched environmental attributes.
Of course, this is all still highly speculative and incredible claims require incredible evidence. Fool me once…
But the fact that this little company, tucked away in a small suburb of Austin, Texas, has managed to stick around for 12 years is evidence that this is no fly-by-night operation.
It may ultimately fail, though we should all hope it doesn’t. But as my high-school gym teacher used to tell the scrawny kid that was me, “Hey, at least you get an A for effort.”
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. (Mad Like Tesla includes a chapter on the EEStor saga for those looking for more background on this company and its story)