David Suzuki lashes out at wind-turbine whiners

Great story in today’s Globe and Mail about high-profile environmental scientist David Suzuki, who wrote a controversial opinion piece for New Scientist magazine called “The beauty of wind farms.” Suzuki addresses the argument by some environmentalists that wind turbines are an eyesore and hazard to nature.

Agreeing that proper environmental assessments need to be done before beginning wind-farm projects, he basically says the subjective debate over the esthetics of wind turbines and the relatively easy-to-deal-with issue of where to locate them should not overshadow the fact that global warming is hurting the planet and renewable energy provided through wind turbines should be encouraged.

“A blanket ‘not in my backyard’ approach is hypocritical and counterproductive,” he wrote, saying later, “If one day I look from my cabin’s porch and see a row of windmills spinning in the distance, I won’t curse them. I will praise them. It will mean we are finally getting somewhere.”

Here, here… I couldn’t agree more. I praise the wind turbine at Exhibition Place in Toronto every time I pass it. It makes me smile. It gives me hope and vision.

Unfortunately, many — such as Prince Charles — criticize windmills as a “blot on the landscape.” Suzuki says this “pisses” him off.

I’m completely on Suzuki’s side. I mean, what would these people rather see, beautiful beacons of hope in the distance, guardians of nature and the clean air around them, or oil-sand projects ripping the earth apart and spewing garbage into the air? Would they rather see natural gas or oil pipelines stretching across the country, or coal-burning plants spewing black smoke into the sky and giving asthma attacks to young children?

People really do have to put it all into perspective. Even if someone has a problem with windmills — how they look, the view they block or the handful of birds they kill each year — it’s certainly the far lesser evil compared to the alternative. It’s honourable to fight battles, but at least pick the right one.

That said, you truly can’t put wind turbines everywhere, and it’s a point Suzuki does appreciate. I like the idea being advanced by Georgian Windpower, a group that has partnered with steel giant Stelco Inc. to build a wind farm beside its plant in Nanticoke, along the shore of Lake Erie.

Georgian Windpower, as its name suggests, started out trying to put up turbines in beautiful Georgian Bay, but it faced so much opposition that it gave up and decided it would only target “brownfield” properties. That is, areas where there is heavy industrial pollution and where the scars left behind by industry could use some makeup. Hence, the Stelco plan. What better way to beautify one of the dirtiest, grungiest places in southern Ontario than to plop down dozens of wind turbines and start producing clean energy?

So while Suzuki is right on all accounts, I do think we should spend more time investigating brownfield locations for wind turbines than to go anywhere and everywhere the wind blows us.

Talk about cleansing your pallet

I have to admit that I share Joel Makower’s interest in “decidely low-tech” companies in the cleantech space. A month ago, during his blog roundup of the CleanTech Venture Forum in San Francisco, he wrote about a company called EcoDuro that make recyclable shipping pallets.

Writes Makower:

American businesses send hundreds of millions of wooden pallets into landfills every year, spending a billion or so dollars in the process. About 40% of all hardwood harvested in the U.S. is for pallets, about two-thirds of which are used only once before being tossed out. A fourth of all wood in landfills is from used pallets.

EcoDuro makes a pallet out of corrugated cardboard and recycled paper. It’s 100% recyclable, lighter to ship, doesn’t require fumigation (as wood does, to eliminate wood-boring insects), and can be recycled along with other paper and cardboard.

It definitely is a reminder that cleantech isn’t just about renewable energy technologies, but rather any innovation that encourages businesses to do less damage to the planet because — beyond improving the air we breath, water we drink and ground we stand on — it simply makes business sense. It’s about doing things better, smarter, and more efficiently, so that doing less harm to the environment can actually boost profits, or at the very least keep them from falling.

This space is taking off.

Segway in Toronto update

Just got word tonight that the Toronto Works Committee has voted unanimously to defer the issue of Segway use on city sidewalks to Toronto Legal Services. Robyn Reisler, who runs Segway of Ontario, asked the Works Committee to take this measure. “We felt this would give the legal group ample time to investigate the Segway in depth, and with all the precedents world wide we would be able to live with their recommendations,” Reisler told me in an e-mail. At the very least it will stop uninformed knee-jerk reactions. I completely understand why a pedestrian committee would raise safety issues regarding Segways on sidewalks. But to immediately compared them to bicycles, which are technically illegal on sidewalks, and then to recommend they continue to be banned is a bit premature at this point. As suspected, a co-chair on the pedestrian committee confirmed that nobody on the committee has ever taken a ride on a Segway. Basing decisions on the unknown isn’t the right way to go.

Could SunPower IPO spark similar move by Spheral Solar?

Up in Canada, the big news here in the solar industry is a company called Spheral Solar, which is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of manufacturing automation specialist ATS Automation Tooling Systems.

I wrote a fairly lengthy piece about this company back in November. It makes flexible solar modules of about 10 per cent efficiency using a new production method. Basically, they pop pin-size holes in an aluminum sheet and fill the holes with tiny poppy-seed sized balls of silicon. They then bond each side and voila, flexible solar modules ideal for integration into building supplies and other applications that require flexible materials.

Spheral Solar has been busy ramping up production and is likely to start expanding capacity because of the huge demand for solar modules in a market — thanks to Germany and other European countries — short on supply.

ATS, by the way, also has a France-based solar PV subsidiary called Photowatt, and there’s been some talk lately in investor circles of the benefits of spinning out Photowatt, Spheral Solar or both through an initial public offering — a strategy that would likely unlock some major value hidden under the publicly traded ATS umbrella. Considering the major growth in the solar sector the timing couldn’t be better.

Cypress Semiconductor’s surprise announcement last week that it will pursue an IPO for its own SunPower solar subsidiary certainly draws more attention to ATS’s plans for Spheral Solar. MacMurray Whale, an alternative energy research analyst with Sprott Securities in Toronto, pointed out that Cypress’s stock jumped 15 per cent on the SunPower IPO announcement, even though it coincided with weaker-than-expected earnings.

“The steep rise in the face of the disappointing results seems to be a result of an announcement on the conference call that Cypress will IPO its photovoltaic cell unit, SunPower, sometime in 2005,” wrote Whale in a research brief.

“ATS could see a similar appreciation in share price if it moves to IPO Photowatt, SSP, or a combination of the two.”

Whale is upbeat about ATS’s solar business. Photowatt is ramping up supply to meet huge demand in its own backyard. In the face of an industry silicon shortage that’s driving up the prices of solar PV cells, he says Spheral Solar is in a good position because its production method requires only 40 per cent of the material used by a conventional PV cell, and the silicon that is used is lower grade than, say, the stuff the semiconductor companies and traditional PV manufacturers require. Spheral Solar’s manufacturing process also allows the company to recycle its silicon to eliminate needless waste of the material.

So overall, the timing seems right for a Spheral Solar/Photowatt IPO. No doubt ATS is considering its options. Perhaps it will wait for the SunPower offering before making its move. Either way, it’s great to see so much momentum in this industry.

Suncor to push forward on ethanol plant

Suncor Energy Products said today it has received final approvals from both the Ontario and federal governments regarding its construction of a $120-million ethanol production facility in Sarnia-Lambton. The facility should be finished by mid-2006, the company said.

This is great news for the local community there. Dozens of jobs will be created and, once the facility is up and running, it will require 20 million bushels of corn annually from regional farmers. That corn will be turned into 200 million litres of ethanol each year.

Ontario last November mandated a 5 per cent ethanol blend in gasoline by 2007, but since 1996 Suncor has voluntarily sold ethanol-blended gas in the province. Not only is ethanol made from renewable resources, it’s also a much cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline or diesel. Gas with a 10-per-cent blend of ethanol has been known to cut particulate matter in half and reduce smog-producing emissions by as much as 25 per cent.

One potential problem sparked by the government mandate is the lack of ethanol production in the province, resulting in the need to import the substance. Hopefully Suncor and others can quickly ramp up to meet the growing demand.

Makes me wonder what ever happened to Iogen Corp. of Ottawa. It had plans to build a “cellulose” ethanol plant using its proprietary technology, which converts wood waste and crop residue (husks, leaves, straw, stalks, sugarcane bagasse) that would otherwise be burned or composted into ethanol. By using waste material, it can lower its ethanol production costs. It has also figured out how to burn byproduct “lignen” resulting from its production process to generate electricity for its facility.

Iogen had plans to build a 200 million litre plant out west, and possibly another in Ontario, but I haven’t heard much from them. Too bad, the technology looked promising and appeared to present the cleanest and greenest way to produce ethanol.