A way to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2?

A reader of mine recently e-mailed with a list of ideas on how to deal with our energy and environmental crises. One that struck me as interesting, and I hadn’t given it much thought before, was to use biomass — or municipal solid waste, for that matter — directly as a fuel for generating electricity, combined with the ability to capture and sequester carbon emissions from that approach. In the case of “clean coal,” this ability to capture and store carbon might make a generating plant greenhouse-gas neutral, but in the case of biomass it would actually take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the ground. “Ultimately, I think that we need to put the carbon back where it came from,” said the reader.

Then, today, I was reading reports about British Columbia’s new energy plan, which calls for proposals to produce electricity from sawmill waste, forest slash and trees that have been killed by the notorious pine beetle. The ambitious and comprehensive plan also requires that all new electricity projects, including coal plants, be greenhouse-gas neutral. To do that with coal, however, means employing carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. And if you’re going to do that with coal, why not do it with biomass and actually suck CO2 out of the atmosphere?

After a few Google searches, I realized there’s been a lot of good research in this area. For example, in 2005 a paper published in a journal called Biomass and Bioenergy concluded that gasifying biomass and then using CCS on the carbon emissions “could be roughly cost competitive with more conventional methods of achieving deep reductions in CO2 emissions from electric power.” David Keith, from the department of chemical and petroleum engineering at the University of Calgary, co-authored the paper.

This got me thinking more enthuastically about the potential for CCS. I’ve been down on it because, for one, I’m not convinced yet that permanent sequestration is possible to verify or monitor, or that it actually works. Also, in connection with coal, I thought it merely encouraged our use of fossil fuels at a time when we need to start thinking hard about ways to wean ourselves from them. I do, however, see tremendous potential in gasifying wood and municipal waste and capturing that carbon, if only because it helps to reverse — not just halt or slow down — the growth of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. It’s also a terrific way of getting some value from, and giving more purpose to, the pine beetle-devasted forests of British Columbia.

Iogen chosen for U.S. biofuel funding

The U.S. Department of Energy announced six cellulosic ethanol projects that stand to get $385 million in federal funding over the next four years. Among the six was Ottawa-based Iogen Corp., which could receive up to $80 million if it chooses to build its 18-million-gallon plant in Idaho, which would supply agricultural residue — such as wheat straw and corn stover — to Iogen. The company, however, told the Globe and Mail that it hasn’t made a final decision on where to build its first plant and says Canada and Germany are still in the running. The other five who qualified for the funding include Abengoa, Alico, BlueFire Ethanol, Broin Companies and Range Fuels — the latter being an investment of Khosla Ventures.

Bell Canada creates home energy-management system

Being a former telecommunications reporter, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Bell Canada, the country’s largest phone company, has spent the past two years designing a residential energy-management system as part of a consortium that includes Hewlett-Packard and CapGemini. The centrepiece of the system is a slick Web portal that consumers can use to remotely control the appliances (air con, pool pumps, hot water tank), lights and electronics in their home. Basically, the points you want to control are equipped with off-the-shelf wireless switches (or powerline switches) that communicate with a device connected to your home high-speed service. The device also communicates wirelessly with smart meters currently being installed in households across Ontario. Natural gas can also be controlled through wireless thermostats that control home and hot water temperature.

I won’t go into too much detail — you can read the story — but the system gives utilities a quick and simple way to communicate with customers during peak energy periods and get them to use less electricity through *spot* incentives. Milton Hydro outside of Toronto is launching a 250-home pilot this month and Bell hopes it will be enough to entice other utilities across Ontario, and eventually across North America, to adopt it. What’s cool is that I was speaking with one of the designers of Bell’s system and he said appliance makers such as GE are already preparing next-generation appliances that will have these wireless or powerline switches built directly into their products. A few years from now, online home energy management — another twist on the smart home — could be a reality. And I truly believe that, in Canada at least, it takes a company like Bell to get such a product to market. Here’s hoping the province supports such efforts.

Solar to power San Diego water treatment plant

SunEdison plans to unveil tomorrow a 1.135-megawatt solar PV system at San Diego’s Alvarado Water Treatment Plant. On its own not such a big deal — particularly in a progressive jurisdiction like California — but it’s yet another demonstration of where and how solar electricity can be put to good use, setting an example for other communities to follow.

Personally, I’m getting quite hyped about some of the projects in the pipeline in Ontario. Even though the Ontario Power Authority, in its first round of standard offer contracts, only approved this week three solar projects totalling 23 kilowatts, I’m encouraged by some of the projects in the planning stages. Toronto-based SkyPower and its partner SunEdison, for example, initially announced plans to build up to 50 megawatts of solar PV in Ontario, broken into a few solar parks at about 10 megawatts each. SkyPower CEO Kerry Adler told me last week — and you’ll hear this repeated in an upcoming podcast — that his company has scoped out 120 megawatts worth of projects, which includes a mix of large solar parks and many building rooftops. Arise Technologies also has plans to build a solar park of up to 1 megawatt at the new Portlands Energy Centre being constructed just east of downtown Toronto. Another company, Mondial Energy Inc., is exploring similar projects. And, of course, Exhibition Place is looking to expands its 100-kilowatt Horse Palace system to 2 megawatts. Just from these projects, assuming these companies follow through (and there’s no guarantee they will), we could be looking at more than 100 megawatts of solar power within the next few years feeding the Ontario grid.