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!

8 thoughts on “Happy New Year… and some 2006 highlights”

  1. Could this be our motto this year:

    “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: the being a force of nature instead of a feverish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

    I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

    I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.

    Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it to future generations.”

    G.B.Shaw

  2. Appreciate statements. Have some additions and comments;

    – With reference to Solar power I like to draw attention to Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) as the most efficient way to convert solar into electric power. This complements PV which is better fit for local application. An area smaller than the Benelux (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxemburg) in the Sahara can supply the whole of Europe with electric energy. The technology is close to maturity. The long distance HVDC transport technology made great strides and is ready to transport the energy from the place of conversion to the place of consumption. Many weblinks are available to support statements;

    – The “methanol economy” of Nobel Price Winner George Olah is not referred to and really needs attention. His approach can be basis for a totally different (bio) fuel approach. For more details see weblink http://www.techreview.com/read_article.aspx?ch=biztech&sc=&id=16466&pg=1 . This can be combined with the production of bio-methanol from cellulose based bio-mass which is abundantly available and is easier and cheaper to produce from that base material than bio-ethanol second generation. That approach will make renewable forestry feasible, which can be of great significance for Canada, will not compete with feedstock supply, can change the bio-fuel world totally and can replace the very disputable hydrogen society future. The Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) can, when ongoing developments are properly completed, complete the picture;

    – the electric vehicle via the Direct Drive/In-wheel technology is, instead of the hybrid approach, the real paradigm breakthrough. Fuel savings of more than 60% and harmful emission reductions of more 80% are proven. The technology is there and ready to be used. For more details see weblink http://www.e-Traction.com and references to the Mitsubishi In-wheel Electric Vehicle (MIEV) program. When we combine this with the features of the methanol economy and the DMFC we are facing a development with a potential to really “Change the world”;

    – decentralized power generation “Power from the community” opens a whole range of renewable applications and energy savings. The technology is there and waiting for application. This again requires a paradigm breakthrough, not the power company but project developers and city boards need to take initiatives to mobilize the society to act accordingly. Such an approach will accelerate involvement of citizens, face them with reality and motivate them to participate, save money and serve the renewable society.

    The bottom line: the technology is there, we need the leaders with vision to get the message across. I cannot wait to see them entering the scene in 2007. Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Stern are in any way good forerunners. When we look to World War II and the enormous effort then mobilized by Roosevelt to beat the Japs and the Germans simultaneously then that is the kind of leadership we need now and are badly missing.

    Canada and The Netherlands have several things in common. It may be a good moment to test joining forces on the referred subjects.

    Let us all not only hope, but put in our best effort as well to preserve our precious world !

    Ir Jan C.G. Heetebrij, The Netherlands, a strong believer in a renewable, economically strong and better society

  3. Strangely, you forgot to mention former environment minister Stephane Dion helped get us further into debt with Kyoto with lots of spending but no action plan. Our emissions have increased every year not just the past year. We need more effort on the enviroment and a lot less politics.

  4. Inspiring ideas Jan. Regarding the usual show stoppers for all these world saving ideas, let me add a financial and a staffing paragraph

    – financial: all major financial institutions with a paragraph on sustainability dedicate 10% of their investments in a 10yr, 4% ROI skunk work status fund. That will deliver a market voice, to allow leadership to steer us away from the dead water we’re in globally.

    No lawyers or short-term blind spotted economists and managers. Also public office recognizes its inability to tackle what needs to be tackled NOW.

    – staff: let the best of class (vision + proven sustainability-in-action track record) forge a coalition of the willing (sorry Dubya) to give humanity a lease on life. Engage best of class marketeers to brand what’s done. This has potential to change the hearts of the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Russians.

    This happens when they look at how Canada, the US, Australia and the EU overcome their lethargic and hypocritical stance re RES. Make their economies prosper by reducing their ecological footprint and again stand firm for human rights world wide.

    On a more general note, what about reversing the burden of proof: why could Jan’s ideas not be implemented?

    Emil M

  5. Hallo Larry,

    Reacting from The Netherlands, Stephen Dion does not ring a bell with me. Without knowing details I can well imagine what’s goning on. A lot of big talk, a lot of perceived action, closely watched by custodians of the established order, guarding the paradigms, serving their interests and preventing to “rock the boat”. A lot of time and money is subsequently often being wasted without realizing goals. Plenty of examples available. The same overhere. Paradigm breakthroughs and leadership is what we need. Present breed of politicians often serve their own interests first instead of primarily serving the society they are supposed to be serving. In democracy it is difficult to change that vicious circle. Disasters, calling for leadership are nearly inevitable to change the tide. History can learn us a lot. The book of Jared Diamond “Collapse” is worthwhile to read if you want to learn from the past.

    Jan Heetebrij, The Netherlands, a strong believer in a renewable, economically strong and better world

  6. First I would like to said, finally, somebody is pointing out the only correct Hybrid type, meaning only an electric Driven car. I drove, but do not own, a Prius and believe the car used the electric drive for ALL acceleration at all speeds. This means to me the only thing it needed the ICE engine for was to provide power. It is possible the electric motor could not sustain the heat of continuous uses. We drove up a continuous clime and the battery power continued to go down; then all of a sudden you could hear the ICE engine. Therefore if you changed the software so that it would let you tell the car to just leave the ICE engine off; then you could use the series mode only for local uses (plus plug-in).

    As for the Methanol, that is a great idea and add to that converting it to Hydrogen for fuel cells. In any case whether we make Ethanol or Methanol from cellulose this IS the way to go. There is a small group that have been using corn (die) and or now expanding to the whole plant. They will get 27% more Ethanol, but using 83 % less energy plus all the feed by-product. This is just a small example of the plants going online in the next 3 years, ant that greaty!!!!

    However, please explain how Mr. Bill, AL, and who ever “Stern” is had anything to do with this. Explain how they helped NanoSolar to get $100 mil to build a 1 Billion dollar 430 MegWatt solar cell production plant, which may be the second biggest thing of 2006. So what was the biggest, IPEC

    If the oil greedy had not let the price of oil get over $50 to $55 for the last 2 years, the investment community would not be investing in all these new ideas.

    Government can only set favorable rules, but when the money people see the financial benefit, that is when things can be changed.

    My predictions are that electric car production, with or without an on aboard APU, will be come real by 2010. That because of third generation Solar Cells, by 2010 we should be down to $2 to $3 per watt and by 2012 it should be down to $1 or less. NanoSolar will be the biggest manufacture of solar cells.

    For me personally, by 2008 I hope to be building a contracting business, which can design and install power recharge stations, whether for electric or hydrogen, and solar systems for home owners.

    Regards, Tom

  7. With reference to Tom’s comments.

    Tom, you are right, the type of car we are talking about is from many aspects the right way to go. The same applies to the conversion of cellulose based bio-mass to bio-methanol. The further development of the Direct Methanol Fuel Cell (DMFC) may in combination with the before going and battery developments provide us “The holy grail” for new generation vehicle propulsion. The beauty is that we are in the Netherlands proceeding to get those development tracks materialized. It may, taking the enormous amount of cellulose based bio-mass you have in Canada, be of interest to find out what kind of co-operation may be possible with parties in your country to combine our methanol/gasification expertise with renewable forest exploitation for energy production purposes in your country. Converting to renewable forestry and bio-methanol production may become as interesting or even better than development of tar sands !

    Referring to our beloved politicians and investors: no investments if there is no money to be made. There is however a way out if politicians have the courage to really use “the stick and carrot”: we will tax you heavily when you do the things that are against the public interest, we will use that money to stimulate developments that are in line with public interest.

    Simple in its reasoning, more complicated to get it done, but not impossible if their is enough public pressure and sense of urgency to resolve climate problems.

    Jan Heetebrij, The Netherlands, a strong believer in a renewable, economically strong and better society

  8. Jan, thanks for the response and I’m glad to agree on what should be governments role, that being set GOOD general guidelines with goals to be accomplished. Where we may disagree is on the required reasons or some of the goals. My reasons are world and national security and that I am just cheap. I don’t want to send any more money to OPEC (or any other group) then I have too. I would not write off any technologies or sources of energy of any kind; where I think you and Tyler would. I would try to set rules and if an old technology or energy source can be cost effective and still work in or close to the rules; then it should be acceptable for uses.

    For me the hype against Nuclear power may be an example of a difference we may have. Many years ago I read about a new style reactor that would require NO containment building. It used nuclear pellets; it used Helium as the heat medium; it was small and modular (no large financial initial investment); it has no coolant or control rods; and it rans at a constant 1500/1600 degrees C. Now to me I couldn’t get this type of plant fast enough because this was going to get me to electric cars faster.

    I have been an advocate of Fuel Cells for a very long time, but only as a means of getting to electric cars. Now I’m not sure. We are doing so well with the newest batteries and Ultacapacitors that I am no longer sure the fuel cell is needed at least for cars.

    If one looks at Bush’s Energy Bill, the key was a 30 year plan to develop an expanded natural gas intra-structure. Then it is believed Hydrogen would replace the natural gas. Now if you have distributed power systems using fuel cell power stations, fuel cell could still be of value. One of the main problems of electric is overhand power lines; where under ground gas distribution does have as many natural weather type problems. As an example, my power has been out many times, but my gas has never stopped under any conditions.

    Envision an unlimited Hydrogen supply system using an already in place underground distribution system. You would or could have a home fuel cell for electric power. A small storage area for storage of hydrogen, which would store Hydrogen made from the power from the solar panels on the roof. Your hot water and cooking heat would be gas (Hydrogen). You would have 100% of the heat go into your house and self humidify; in fact there could be gas heaters in each room. Now since you have all of this, you could also have a fuel cell APU in your electric car.

    Who knows what will generate the Hydrogen. It could be Fusion, Fission, or closed loop coal processes. It could even be Solar, whether by sun or wind. We need to think how we want the system to work and not what will supply the system. The system requirements are time and money in order to put in place the underground gas pipes and would never make money. Therefore, there is little reason for individuals to generate the delivery systems. This is the one place I would like to see government get involved. Like roads the delivery systems of energy should be paid for by the government. They could also (I have a problem here – “provided” it does not seem to be the right things – they could do something like “promoted” but we need more then words), but the one thing we don’t want is the government to run it.

    My passion for electric cars has gone from Pro fuel cells to ICE Hydrogen Engine electric Hybrids to just plan old electric CARS again. I can not see a need to rush out and go with a Hydrogen economy with these new 40 year 10 minute charge batteries or Ultacapacitor systems coming out now.

    One last comment on global warming, as you may have guessed by now, I am not an advocate. I have many ideas and beliefs. I also believe that discussions on this subject are like discussing religion or politics, where it usually has no end. I only wish to point out one fact and you all may have the facts better then I do, but a resent release, which I have not seem, indicated that man has most likely had little to do with or can reverse global warming. I heard the author had sighted Methane (or something like that) as the primary cause of global warming and only fixing that would help resolve global warming. I heard the same thing in 1976 that at a luncheon lecture at the University of Illinois; however, the professor added Nitrites based on fertilizers and ammonium as the other additional cause, but NOT CO-2. He sighted as termites the primary source of the Methane; I would add plant eating animals to the list.

    Now I ask you what is the real agenda here about global warming? Is it cutting CO-2 or industrialization? If there is a real problem, it will be industrialization that will fix it not the once red now GREEN anarchists. The problem is that there to many people listening to anarchist about what is wrong and not trying to fix the problems. What I am happy to see here at this site are good people with good ideas to share, so we can know what is really happening toward cleaning and improving our whole.

    Well, thanks for letting me rant and I hope we all will see a lot of new great products coming out this year and I hope one of them is from EEstor!!!

    Tom McGreer, Green Works

    Marietta, GA

    PS: i’ll try to log in again, but i have not had good luck there!

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