Wal-Mart is testing more than just fuel-cell forklifts

A Wal-Mart Supercentre in Texas has become the centre of several energy-saving experiments that will help the giant retailer decide how best to build future “green” locations. Wal-Mart is calling the Texas location its “control” store. It expects to save enough energy each year to power 1,800 homes. Solar Integrated Technologies of Los Angeles has just completed installation of a solar roof at the supercentre.

Interesting thing about Solar Integrated: Jon Slangerup, who became the company’s CEO in February, was most recently the CEO and president of Mississauga-based Stuart Energy before it was acquired by neighbour Hydrogenics Corp.

Turns out Solar Integrated has a partnership with Stuart (now Hydrogenics) for the creation of solar-hydrogen fueling stations. The idea is to build flexible solar PV tent structures around an electrolyzer unit that turns the sun’s energy into hydrogen. The result is a “station” that both generates hydrogen through water electrolysis when the sun is shining and dispenses the gas to fuel-cell vehicles. For early applications, it seems ideal for remote military bases using fuel-cell powered vehicles and equipment.

I had many interviews and visits with Slangerup. I considered him an effective CEO, and indeed, during his three years at Stuart revenues more than tripled. In fact, my only criticism is that Stuart — a global leader in hydrogen production through electrolysis — was sold to Hydrogenics. Stuart had a healthy industrial customer base and was growing well, so the emergence of a mainstream hydrogen economy was merely icing on the cake.

Solar Integrated is fortunate to have Slangerup as its CEO, and the fact that the former Stuart boss decided to join the Los Angeles company gives it a good shot of credibility.

Shanghai solar project: Nice idea, if supply can meet demand

The Chinese city of Shanghai is apparently studying the idea of putting solar PV systems atop 100,000 buildings to relieve power shortages and reduce dependency on dirty coal-fired plants. A feasibility study being conducted by Shanghai Jiao Tong University is nearly complete. The goal would be generation capacity of about 300,000 kilowatts — at least when the sun is shining.

Give them credit for being bold. And remember that China has a way of doing what it says. One of the few benefits of state-controlled societies, I suppose.

Funny, if Shanghai is serious about this project, and if this one plan is representative of others throughout power-starved and polluted China, you’ve got to figure there will be a dramatic impact on an already under-supplied global solar market. Sounds eerily similar to arguments around oil supply.

That said, if solar PV manufacturers can ramp up supply and overcome a shortage that has been primarily caused by demand from Germany, Japan and Spain, perhaps we’ll begin seeing solar prices that average Joe Torontonian can afford. It may take a few years, but clearly the solar boom we’re seeing today has staying power.

It’s part of the reason why we’re seeing so much venture capital dollars flowing toward solar startups who are making head-way with flexible solar, integrated solar and thin-film solar technologies. It’s also why some of the more interesting IPOs we’ll see over the next year or so will be solar-focused. (See Cleantech Investing post)

N.Y. yellow cabs to go green?

Good to hear that the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has approved the use of six different hybrid-electric models as cabs. The commission, while concerned that some of the models wouldn’t have enough legroom for back-seat passengers, decided that getting cleaner cars on the road was a priority. The Toyota Prius and Highlander were considered the roomiest of the bunch, while the Honda Accord and Civic hybrids were more confining, the commission found. The decision is potentially good news for cab drivers, who can take advantage of the lower fuel costs and emissions, as well as more quiet operation of hybrid vehicles.

Current ethanol debate ignores tech advances

I point visitors to a recent blog post on Cleantech Investing, where Rob Day rightly points out the political motivations behind a recent study and the ensuing debate on the issue of ethanol and biodiesel production.

Two weeks ago, if you haven’t already heard, researchers at Cornell and UC-Berkeley concluded that “producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products.”

From the study:

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

That’s all fine and good, but is it enough to completely pull the plug on ethanol/biodiesel as an alternative fuel for the future? Heck no, it completely ignores some quite significant technological advances that directly address the study’s concerns.

Day puts it well: “In recent years investors have backed biodiesel-related startups that use waste food grease, agricultural waste, and even emissions-fed algae as biomass. Biofuels sourced from such wastes may very well be more efficient than fuels from crops grown solely for the purpose. Investors shouldn’t draw too many far-reaching conclusions about the use of biofuels in general from these specific studies.”

I second that. In fact, one need only point to Ottawa-based Iogen Corp., which has developed a way to use plant and crop residue to create cellulose ethanol, and to even use waste from that process to help fuel its own operations (check this and this entry). Using Iogen’s approach, you don’t need to grow crops specifically to create ethanol, you simply use waste from those crops that would otherwise be burned or landfilled.

Claude Robert, a senior analyst at Natural Resources Canada’s office of energy efficiency, said in a recent Ottawa Citizen newspaper article that cellulose ethanol has a better energy balance than ethanol made from corn.

That’s understating the issue. Perhaps David Pimentel, the researcher behind the Cornell study, should get with the times.

Cellex gets a lift from Wal-Mart commitment

I’ve written before about the potential for fuel cells in the forklift market, and how a Vancouver-based company called Cellex Power Products Inc. is among a small group of Canadian fuel cell companies — including Hydrogenics Corp. and General Hydrogen — trying to prove out the business model.

I just got word that Cellex will announce on Monday that it has successfully completed an Alpha trial with Wal-Mart, which used four fuel-cell power units on Crown Equipment forklifts at its food distribution centre in Missouri. Apparently Wal-Mart was impressed with the operational benefits of the new forklifts and have committed to support further Beta trials of the technology and Cellex’s commercialization process.

Hydrogenics has a similar trial underway with General Motors. It will be interesting to watch how these trials unfold, because if big names like GM and Wal-Mart do end up whole-heartedly embracing fuel cell forklifts it bodes well for other industrial applications. And who knows? Maybe more mainstream apps won’t be too far behind.