Happy New Year… and some 2006 highlights

Well, the end of another year and time to gloss over some of the highlights. Professionally, this was a satisfying year for me as I was able to transition from being a technology/telecom reporter to being a full-time energy reporter, with alternative energy technologies now officially a major part of my day-to-day coverage. I covered the tech beat for nine years, and while there are some incredibly interesting advances going on with wireless and on the Web, I found myself getting pulled more and more toward clean technology coverage. As energy reporter, it’s easier to justify this focus, while at the same time deepening my knowledge and understanding of the energy sector as a whole, old and new. I also began doing bi-weekly podcasts, which I think some of you have enjoyed and which I will continue into 2007.

The year’s cleantech highlights for me:

1) Cleantech investment continued to soar. I’m always excited to see the latest quarterly numbers coming out of the Cleantech Venture Network. This was a record year for investment, and the cleantech category surpassed many others. I expect more of the same in 2007, though I also expect to see some industry consolidation, particularly around solar and water technologies. Of course, it didn’t hurt that 2006 was also the year that the mainstrean media and tech magazines jumped on the cleantech bandwagon. This has led to speculation it’s just another bubble waiting to burst. You have to ask, is it a good thing or a bad thing that a gimmicky guy like Richard Branson or an “evil” retailer like Wal-Mart is now big on cleantech? Personally, I think it’s a good thing, regardless of the motivation behind their actions. Some ventures will bite the dust and have already, but as a whole my prediction is this sector isn’t slowing down.

2) Solar shined even brighter. Yeah, there’s a silicon shortage. Yeah, some of the high-profile solar stocks that shined at the end of 2005 had their ups and downs in 2006. And yes, perhaps there’s disproportionate attention being given to this technology. But let’s face it folks, demand for solar panels and related technologies continues to soar and the innovation going on is nothing short of outstanding. With Europe’s solar market still on fire and North American regions such as California and Ontario pushing solar adoption through innovative programs, there appears little fear that the new supply of silicon and modules we’ll see in 2007 won’t be scooped up, if they haven’t been pre-sold already. But as I mentioned, I expect some consolidation, as we’ve already seen with SunPower’s acquisition of PowerLight.

3) Climate change was finally an issue that was seriously discussed, and we started asking some hard questions about Canada’s oil sands. Strangely, you can thank Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government for this (particularly his environment minister, Rona Ambrose). Harper’s complete lack of respect for the environment, his lame-ass environmental plan, and Ambrose’s complete incompetence on the Kyoto file, was a gift in many respects because the criticism that followed gained volume as the year went on. Now, we’ve got a new Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, who won largely because of his commitment to fighting global warming and environmental sustainability. There will be a federal election in 2007 and you can guarantee the environment and Canada’s position on Kyoto/climate change will be one of the top, if the THE top, campaign issues. It’s about time. I should also point out more generally that books such as Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers and Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth put the much-needed spotlight on global warming, something that past works on this topic have failed to do.

4) Electric vehicles grabbed the spotlight from hydrogen/fuel cells. Hydrogen smydrogen. Advancements with battery technology has given new life to the electric vehicle, particularly the concept of hybrid-electric cars that can be plugged into an average home power outlet — i.e. plug-in hybrids. The idea was resisted by the big manufacturers at first, but individuals such as Felix Kramer, organizations such as Plug-In Partners, and the expressed interest from a number of municipalities and U.S. states forced the big carmakers to reconsider. Now we’ve got Toyota and GM not just talking nice about plug-in hybrids, but also making commitments to manufacture and sell such vehicles within a few years. Let’s not forget, of course, the launch of Tesla Motors, and the continuing work of companies such as Phoenix Motorcars and Feel Good Cars, which all helped raise the public profile of electric vehicle technology, as did the documentary Who Killed The Electric Car? I see great momentum for plug-in hybrids in 2007, and also expect a handful of “breakthroughs” with lithium-ion and other storage technologies… Hopefully, we’ll finally get some information on EEStor as well.

5) Ontario debated its energy future and launched a standard offer program for renewables. For the first time in nearly two decades, the province put together a long-term electricity system plan to help the government achieve its goal of phasing out all coal plants and to figure out what to do as aging nuclear reactors come to the end of their life. The coal closures were delayed three times, but the commitment is still there. Nuclear will continue to supply about 50 per cent of demand in the coming years, but on a more positive note there has been a large commitment to renewables and conservation. That said, distributed generation – such as combined heat and power systems – have been given little respect, and many critics of the government plan, including me, feel much more can be done in the areas of energy-efficiency and renewables. California did it. The question going into 2007 will be why Ontario can’t follow, and whether we truly need to build new nuclear reactors AND refurbish the ones we already have.

6) Biofuels were debated and mandated. There was considerable controversy over the merits of ethanol and biodiesel, with many arguing that policies in support of biofuels are basically subsidies for corn farmers. Other complaints included the claim that ethanol doesn’t give back much more energy than it takes to produce it, and that widespread production of ethanol and biodiesel is going to lead to worldwide food shortages as fuel crops take precedence over food crops. Now, if you’re like me and you don’t believe biofuels are going to totally replace gasoline, then this isn’t as much of a concern. Also, the whole energy output question, while it might apply to corn-based ethanol, doesn’t apply to cellulosic ethanol that’s made from agricultural residue and other biomass waste. If you view corn as a transition crop for biofuels, and have confidence in the future of cellulosic ethanol, then you can see the potential role of biofuels in the future. Also, if the plug-in hybrid model is embraced, we can see more cars relying on the grid and less on fuel, and in the future more of that fuel can be biofuels without food shortage concerns. BTW: Ontario’s 5-per-cent ethanol blend mandate takes effect on Jan. 1, so it will be interesting to see how the province’s industry handles the increased the demand. Will we be able to produce it ourselves or will we rely on imports to bridge the gap?

7) The geoexchange industry got its act together in Canada. This is a good thing. People are beginning to become more aware of and excited about the potential of low-temperature geothermal systems (earth systems, ground-source heat pumps, etc.) in this country. The Canadian GeoExchange Coalition has created a national training program, established standards, and held its first annual conference this year in Ottawa. Provinces such as Ontario are also looking at how geoexchange systems can play a role in their energy mix, by reducing the demand for electric heating and air conditioning and tapping more of that energy from the earth. My hope is that in 2007 the province will establish a standard offer program for geothermal and solar thermal, similar to the one that went into effect in 2006 for wind, solar PV, hydro and biomass. Also in 2006, home developer Marshall Homes became the first in Canada to offer combined geothermal/solar thermal systems as an option with new homes at one subdivision. Other developers are apparently keen to follow.

8) Finally, as strong as the cleantech sector was in 2006, many Canadian cleantech companies struggled. Fuel cell maker Hydrogenics didn’t have a great year, we saw hybrid-locomotive developer Railpower run into difficulties (its stock plunged, but has since gained back some ground), and ATS Automation has so far bungled its planned IPO for Photowatt Technologies, partly because it is late to the solar IPO party and partly because its much-anticipated Spheral Solar product appears is on its deathbed because of manufacturing problems. Even fundamentally strong companies such as Xantrex and Carmanah Technologies struggled to get respect from investors, though perhaps 2007 will be breakout years for these companies. On a sad note, we saw the shutdown of Quebec battery innovator Avestor and solid-oxide fuel cell developers Fuel Cell Technologies of Kingston. On the brighter side, I did discover many private Canadian companies doing exciting things. I’m optimistic for 2007.

So there you have it, a few notes to end the year. For a completely different and non-Canadian take, you might want to check out Joel Makower’s Two Steps Forward blog, where he highlights his top “green” stories for 2006.

And with that, I wish you all a happy new year and healthy 2007!

Solar guy to become T.O. energy guy

For my Toronto readers, some news you might find interesting. Rob McMonagle, executive director of the Canadian Solar Industries Association, has taken on the new job of Toronto’s senior energy consultant. His main job, McMonagle outlined in an e-mail today, is coordinating “the development of the city’s energy plan and to begin implementing programs and policies related to this plan.”

It’s a sign that Canada’s largest city may, in 2007, finally get around to rolling out some serious energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects. I’m looking forward to working on this front with Rob, who has done a terrific job of raising the profile of solar in Canada. His replacement at CanSIA will have the task of launching our country’s solar industry into its next phase of growth — hopefully rapid growth. It’s an exciting time to take on such a job.

Congrats on the move, Rob.

In other news…

Nice Q&A with Art Aylesworth, CEO of Victoria, B.C.-based Carmanah Technologies, in Red Herring. Aylesworth talks about the company’s decision to start selling “solar engines” — a combination of solar panels, batteries and electronics — that can power telecom towers and other equipment in remote locations. I’ve talked to Aylesworth about this and posted about it before. It’s all part of Carmanah’s new five-year business plan. The Q&A in Red Herring is just another take on it. Worth a read.

Also, the Deal.com (via News.com) has a piece about using algae to produce biodiesel. Meanwhile, Technology Review has an article about India’s plans for developing biodiesel. Oh, and actor/environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. has a new show on HGTV called “Living With Ed.” It’s basically a reality TV show with a green twist, with Begley and his wife living out a lifestyle that has been designed around energy efficiency, conservation, waste reduction and renewables. Hopefully it will inspire others to consider a similar lifestyle, though you’ve got to wonder whether he’ll be preaching to the converted.

Wal-Mart going solar, in a potentially big way

Check out this entry by Joel Makower at his Two Steps Forward blog. According to Makower, Wal-Mart has issued a request for proposals to install solar PV systems on its stores in five U.S. states, with bids due on Jan. 5 and the winner expected to be notified Feb. 28.

He calls it “the largest procurement of solar ever proposed” and says it’s part of the retail giant’s commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent over the next eight years. Wal-Mart is considering one of three options: 1) a direct purchase of the systems; 2) a SunEdison-type arrangement whereby a third party installs, owns and operates the systems and sells the clean electricity to Wal-Mart under long-term contracts; and 3) a leasing arrangement with option to purchase systems.

According to Makower:

Wal-Mart doesn’t mention a specific purchase size, but my sources tell me that the company could put solar on as many as 340 stores in the next few years. Assuming that each store utilized about 300 kilowatts of solar panels (it could be as much as 500 kilowatts), we’re talking roughly 100 megawatts of solar. To put that into perspective, the solar system currently being installed at Google headquarters in California — the largest single corporate solar installation in history — is 1.6 MW, about 1/60th the size.

No doubt, this would be an impressive and, as Makower calls it, historic initiative if Wal-Mart follows through on even a fraction of these plans. The results of the RFP itself will be telling. And remember, this follows on previous commitments to being green and clean, including the purchase of wind power, the testing of hydrogen fuel-cell powered forklifts, and using more than 100 hybrid-electric vehicles in its corporate car fleet (as well as exploring the use of hybrid technology for its truck fleet).

Happy Holidays…

I want to wish all visitors to this site, those that celebrate Christmas or any other event during these days, a very happy holiday. Myself, this is a cherished opportunity to spend time with my wife and two young daughters, to relax, to reflect on the year and consider the future, and to… well, eat lots of food. I also get a chance to read things other than newspapers and blogs and Internet news sites. I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath and enjoyed it immensely. Talk about struggle and the importance of family. The book also illustrates in great detail how humans, even during the 1930s, can ruin the land and how vulnerable we are to the weather. In a way, the book is also a lesson for conservation during times of struggle. The Joads — the family in the book — let nothing go to waste.

Reading this book, you can’t help but feel tremendously fortunate — and guilty — for the way we live. We are wasteful, parasitic creatures who take far too much for granted.

Another book I just started reading is an advance copy of Joseph Romm’s Hell and High Water, which is about global warming and follows after other works that include The Hype about Hydrogen. The book is officially released on Dec. 26th — Boxing Day — and I expect it will get a lot of coverage. I interviewed Romm before heading away for the holidays and will have a podcast of that interview posted on New Year’s Day, complemented by a Clean Break column that discusses the main points of the book. Unlike The Weather Makers, Romm doesn’t go into great detail discussing the scientific evidence behind global warming — it’s a given as far as he’s concerned. The book seems to focus more on the politics of inaction in the United States and what could be done, if there was the political will, to curb emissions and at least minimize the inevitable damage and devastation to come. I’ll tell you one thing: Romm doesn’t hold any punches or sugarcoat the situation. We’re in deep trouble, as far as he’s concerned, and the U.S. will become a global pariah if it doesn’t wake up and take serious action soon.