Avestor locks its doors

Another Canadian energy-storage player bites the dust. Avestor, a Boucherville, Quebec-based maker of lithium-metal-polymer batteries, has let go of 260 employees and closed the doors of its manufacturing plant just outside of Montreal. The company, a joint venture between Hydro-Quebec and Kerr-McGee Corp. (now owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corp.), said it is making a bankruptcy proposal to its creditors and has appointed a trustee to oversee the process.

“Considerable sums were invested in developing a battery that could be marketed profitably to the telecommunications industry; nevertheless, the enterprise was not able to reach the break-even point,” the company said in a statement. “Despite more than a year of active searching, Avestor failed to attract new industrial and financial partners to replace its current investors. Consequently, it is no longer able to continue operations.”

It’s not like Avestor wasn’t selling product. In August the company proudly announced it had sold its 20,000th battery. At the same, CEO John Haddock was quoted as saying: “The future looks promising.”

Or not.

Only two weeks ago, solid-oxide fuel cell developer Fuel Cell Technologies Ltd. of Kingston, Ontario, announced it was shutting down and liquidating its assets. These two closures are a reminder of how difficult it is to profitably crack the storage market, and how having a good technology often isn’t enough to change the behaviour or meet the high expectations/standards of customers.

World’s largest solar PV plant?

A Melbourne, Australia-based company called Solar Systems has received government funding to proceed with construction of a 154-megawatt solar PV power station in north-west Victoria. The Australian government will contribute $75 million and the government of Victoria will contribute $50 million toward this $420-million (Australian dollar) project, the company said.

The technology will be deployed at a number of locations, and will be based on “Heliostat Concentrator Photovoltaics.” In other words, fields of sun-tracking mirrors will be set up that focus the sun’s rays on ultra high-efficiency solar modules. Solar Systems is working with Boeing’s Spectrolab to optimize the system — typically used in space applications — for use on earth. “The resulting photovoltaic cell arrays are three times more efficient than typical solar panels,” the company said.

The Australian has an excellent article about the announcement. I urge you to give it a read.

What I find interesting is that nearly $1 billion (Canadian) is being spent to build an 880-megawatt combined cycle natural gas “peaking” plant in Ontario. That works out to about $1.15 billion in Australian dollars.

On a per megawatt capacity basis, the natural gas plant is costing $1.31 million versus $2.73 for the solar plant. But if you consider that you don’t need any fuel for the solar plant, and that the solar plant is ideal for typical peaking situations, then over time it does appear cost competitive with natural gas.

This, of course, is just a rough calculation. But it gets you thinking about the potential, particularly in an ideal climate like Australia. This meshes with Vinod Khosla’s belief that big solar power plants is where the biggest opportunities for solar lie.

World’s largest solar PV plant?

A Melbourne, Australia-based company called Solar Systems has received government funding to proceed with construction of a 154-megawatt solar PV power station in north-west Victoria. The Australian government will contribute $75 million and the government of Victoria will contribute $50 million toward this $420-million (Australian dollar) project, the company said.

The technology will be deployed at a number of locations, and will be based on “Heliostat Concentrator Photovoltaics.” In other words, fields of sun-tracking mirrors will be set up that focus the sun’s rays on ultra high-efficiency solar modules. Solar Systems is working with Boeing’s Spectrolab to optimize the system — typically used in space applications — for use on earth. “The resulting photovoltaic cell arrays are three times more efficient than typical solar panels,” the company said.

The Australian has an excellent article about the announcement. I urge you to give it a read.

What I find interesting is that nearly $1 billion (Canadian) is being spent to build an 880-megawatt combined cycle natural gas “peaking” plant in Ontario. That works out to about $1.15 billion in Australian dollars.

On a per megawatt capacity basis, the natural gas plant is costing $1.31 million versus $2.73 for the solar plant. But if you consider that you don’t need any fuel for the solar plant, and that the solar plant is ideal for typical peaking situations, then over time it does appear cost competitive with natural gas.

This, of course, is just a rough calculation. But it gets you thinking about the potential, particularly in an ideal climate like Australia. This meshes with Vinod Khosla’s belief that big solar power plants is where the biggest opportunities for solar lie.

B&W partners for SaskPower clean coal project

A pulverized coal plant built to operate more cleanly doesn’t necessarily sound like a “clean coal” plant to me, though there’s no denying it is cleaner. SaskPower announced today it has partnered with Babcock & Wilcox Canada and Air Liquide to jointly develop a CO2 separation technology for its Clean Coal Project.

SaskPower is studying the feasibility of building a 300-megawatt coal plant that would burn pulverized lignite coal that has been locally mined. But the plant would use a technological process called “oxyfuel” that removes nitogren from all of the combustion air, allowing the boiler to operate in the absense of nitrogen. Gases leaving the boiler become easier to purify, compress and sequester.

The company estimates that it would be able to capture 90 per cent of the CO2 released from the plant — i.e. 8,000 tonnes of CO2 a day could be sequestered in underground deep saline aquifers or sold in the market for enhanced oil recovery. The project has an estimated pricetag of $1.5 billion, and if it goes ahead, it would be the first “advanced clean coal power plant” of its kind on a utility scale, SaskPower claims. (A claim I have a difficult time believing).

A decision on whether to proceed or not will apparently be made in mid-2007. If it gets a green light, the plant would become operational in 2011. The Energy Blog had a great posting last week comparing cleaner pulverized coal and coal gasification technologies. The latter is less tested and considered more expensive, but it’s much more deserving of the label “clean coal.” The posting refers to a recent TIME/CNN article on the issue.

Residual biomass: the new oil

My Clean Break feature in today’s Toronto Star is about a technology that turns residual biomass — everything from forest slash to industrial wood waste — into a renewable oil for heating and power generation. Two companies are the focus of this piece: Advanced Biorefinery and Dynamotive Energy Systems, with each targeting a different part of the market. Advanced Biorefinery (which I’ve written about before) has designed a transportable pyrolysis system that can go to where the biomass is, for example, out in remote logging country where there’s plenty of forest slash to process. Dynamotive prefers to build larger, more permanent plants beside a feedstock supplier, such as a wood-flooring company in West Lorne, Ontario.

The end result of their process is “bio oil,” a carbon-neutral alternative to conventional fuel oil that can be used for industrial heating and power generation. It’s a fascinating area, unfortunately overshadowed by the hype around alternative transportation fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.