Smart grid coming, albeit slowly

I wrote a story for today’s Toronto Star about smart grid technologies and the opportunities from an investment perspective. With more than 60 per cent of circuit breakers, transmission lines and transformers on the grid 25 years or older, the North American “grid” is long overdue for an overhaul. It’s estimated that half of all money spent in North America each year on the grid — more than $12 billion — will be put towards the purchase of smart grid technologies that move us towards a modernized, digital electrical system that is self-monitoring, adaptive and self-healing.

My story was based on a report put out this month by the Global Environment Fund in Washington, D.C. and the Center for Smart Energy in Redmond, Wash.

“The same technologies that revolutionized computing, remade telecommunications and created the Internet, computers, electronics, and advanced materials are now reshaping the electric power infrastructure,” according to the report.

The report is well worth checking out. Very detailed, and it provides a terrific overview of the grid of today and of the future.

While we’re on the topic of solar…

Wired.com has this story about the use of solar PV panels in a New York City subway station, which gets two-thirds of its power — or 210 kilowatts — on a sunny day from the clean technology. The article also refers to a train station in California that has solar PV panels doing double duty as a roof for a parking lot. Makes sense — lots of space, shelter for cars. Imagine if more of these massive parking lots were designed with this feature. The article talks a lot about integrating solar PV cells into buildings, rooftops, etc… which ultimately makes the installations more affordable because you’d have to buy those building materials anyway. It will be exciting 10 years from now to see how many structures are being built with solar-PV-integrated materials.

While we’re on the topic of solar…

Wired.com has this story about the use of solar PV panels in a New York City subway station, which gets two-thirds of its power — or 210 kilowatts — on a sunny day from the clean technology. The article also refers to a train station in California that has solar PV panels doing double duty as a roof for a parking lot. Makes sense — lots of space, shelter for cars. Imagine if more of these massive parking lots were designed with this feature. The article talks a lot about integrating solar PV cells into buildings, rooftops, etc… which ultimately makes the installations more affordable because you’d have to buy those building materials anyway. It will be exciting 10 years from now to see how many structures are being built with solar-PV-integrated materials.

Impact of silicon shortage on solar PV industry

A recent research report from PiperJaffrey analyst Jesse Pichel points out that 94 per cent of all solar modules require polysilicon as a raw ingredient, meaning serious shortages of high-grade silicon will have a dramatic impact on PV growth in 2006. “We estimate a severe polysilicon shortage that will likely cap the growth of the solar manufacturing requiring this technology,” writes Pichel. “Due to this shortage, we believe the solar industry overall will only grow 3 per cent in 2006.” This compares to growth of 30 per cent expected by the end of 2005.

He wrote that most module manufacturers have sold out through 2006 and polysilicon supply contracts are sold out through 2006 and 2007.

That said, he expects the market will grow to $12 billion (U.S.) (or 4,800 megawatts of production) in 2010 from $4 billion (or 1,256 megawatts of production) last year, with thin-film and other non/low-polysilicon technologies capturing a much larger share of the growth. “Within solar power, we favor companies with technology that reduces or eliminates the need for polysilicon,” according to the report, which highlights Evergreen Solar Inc. (string ribbon technology) and Energy Conversion Devices Inc. (cadmium-free thin film technology) as top investment picks. Once ATS spins off its solar group, which includes Spheral Solar Power, I think U.S. analysts will add the company to their list.

BTW: Thanks to The Energy Blog for drawing my attention to this report.

On a related note, I’ve heard that a company in China is building a polysilicon manufacturing plant just for the solar PV market that could add as much as 20 per cent more to the world market’s current capacity. Solar PV executives are apparently making trips to China trying to negotiate supply agreements, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese government keeps a lion’s share of the supply at home to give the emerging Chinese solar market a competitive edge over foreign rivals. If this plant can come online in 2006, growth in the industry could be much higher than what PiperJaffrey predicts but focused largely on China.

Zenon: When crises strike, how far can corporate generosity go?

When the tsunami struck at the end of last year and devastated parts of Asia that included India and Sri Lanka, Zenon Environmental of Oakville, Ontario, was generous enough to provide 54 of its Homespring water filtration systems to victims in the region, helping turn dirty water at a number of camps, schools and community areas into something drinkable. When the Gulf Coast was struck by Hurricane Katrina, Zenon and its retail partner, Maytag, each donated 40 of its Homespring systems to New Orleans, Baton Rouge and other parts of Louisiana. Again, they were installed in schools, churches and relief centres.

The Homespring system, which has been certified by the U.S. EPA recently as a “microbiological water purifier,” can be used to treat municipal water or untreated lake/well water and is typically targeted at cottage and country homes. “On municipal water sources, the system can provide chlorine-free, bottled water taste to every faucet in the home with the added peace of mind that it will continue to do so even in the event of a boil water alert or if pathogens are picked up along the distribution lines,” the company stated in a release.

The system uses activated carbon to pre-filter water and remove bad tastes and odours. After this first stage of filtration, it uses patented ZeeWeed membrane technology to filter out extremely small bacteria and viruses. It can produce thousands of gallons of water per day, and using existing inlet pressure requires no electricity to operate. These aren’t large municipal systems; they’re smaller systems that connect to water pipes entering homes and buildings.

Now a crisis at home. I read a statement from Prime Minister Paul Martin today that he will do “whatever is necessary” to bring clean water to Canada’s native communities, a response to a health emergency at the Kashechewan native reserve in the north of Ontario. Hundreds of residents are being evacuated from the reserve because of E. coli in the water, and the overuse of chlorine to combat it. As a result, residents there have gotten sick and have developed painful boils and rashes.

Will Zenon offer to help, much in the same way it helped people in Louisiana, India and Sri Lanka? After all, this is a health emergency in its own province — its own backyward –though not nearly on the same scale as the tsunami or Katrina.

It raises the question of where corporations draw the line with donations of products to worthy causes. Zenon runs a business and is responsible to shareholders, so at some point there is a limit to how much corporate charity it can engage in.

At the very least, the Martin government should be on the phone and working out a deal with a company such as Zenon. There are more than 100 reserves experiencing similar water-quality problems across Canada and these will need to be dealt with in time. But there’s no reason this particular crisis in an Ontario reserve can’t be handled swiftly, in a way that covers Zenon’s costs, builds more goodwill for a local company, and shows leadership from the government.

This may be an overly simplistic analysis of a more complicated problem. But maybe it isn’t.