Suncor reveals plans for geothermal in the oil sands

I have a story today that gives us a better sense of how geothermal may evolve as a clean-energy alternative to natural gas in oil sands operations. I spoke with Peter MacConnachie, manager of environmental strategy at Suncor Energy, who is heading up the recently formed consortium called Geopowering The Oil Sands. Members include Suncor, Shell Canada, Nexen, the Alberta Energy Research Institute and a few others that haven’t made their participation public. MacConnachie said they’re very serious about using geothermal heat to create the steam necessary for removing bitumen from the oil sands, and for their first project they’re going to use the approach for an in situ operation at Suncor’s Firebag site in Fort McMurray. So far they’ve just been taking temperatures of relatively shallow wells to do heat profiles and determine where and how to drill deeper, and to calculate the business case for doing so. If it works there, chances are it will work in other sites throughout the oil sands region of Alberta.

MacConnachie said it’s possible that the first commercial geothermal installation will become operational within five years, with a pilot project possible within three years — though he cautioned that this schedule is optimistic. That said, he seemed to dismiss the idea that nuclear power is going to save the day in the oil sands, suggesting that the push to go with nukes is coming mainly from the nuclear industry itself rather than the oil companies.

I encourage you to read the piece and keep up the pressure on politicians to support these activities. While geothermal can’t completely solve the emissions problem in the oil sands, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it can play a major role. Fortunately, the oil companies themselves see the opportunity.

Higher energy prices won’t kill the economy

My Clean Break column on Monday tackled the question of whether higher electricity prices automatically spell doom and gloom for the Canadian economy. I compare Canada to Denmark, where prices are about four times higher, renewables represents a significant portion of power production, and combined heat and power is distributed throughout the country — and guess what, the economy has remained strong and vibrant. Now, Denmark didn’t do this overnight, so we have to cut Canada some slack, but any suggestion that trying to dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions will cause some kind of recession is fearmongering, particularly when the more likely scenario is that it will spur economic opportunity, enhance Canadian productivity and make the country much more competitive on the world stage.

Plug-in hybrids, hybrid taxis and building automation in T.O.

My latest Clean Break podcast is an interview with Philip Jessup, executive director of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which is a Toronto agency charged with launching initiatives to reduce air pollution and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Phil talks about the city’s new plug-in hybrid pilot project, attempts to increase the number of hybrid taxis in the city, and efforts to make buildings in the community more energy efficient.

A plea to change the rules of the energy game

Vinod Khosla and two co-authors have prepared a nice little essay, posted on the Daily Grist, which argues that the rules that have defined energy markets and industry in the 20th century are no longer appropriate for the 21st century — in fact, they’re harming us and need to change.

The rules today give oil and gas companies — the most profitable industry in the history of the world — billions of dollars in tax breaks and research subsidies. The rules do not factor in the indirect costs of oil — the cost of protecting oil supply lines to the Middle East, the cost of oil price shocks that lead to recessions, and the cost of intensified storms that make coastal property uninsurable. Insurers have priced insurance in Florida so high that the state has stepped in and pledged tens of billions of dollars in public money if a major hurricane strikes — despite the fact that neither the state’s catastrophe fund nor the state-chartered insurance company has anywhere near enough money to pay the claims.

The rules perpetuate our energy habits. Auto companies sell cars that get as little as 13 miles per gallon — something they could never do in Europe, Japan, or even China. Utility companies make more money when their customers waste energy and less when they save it. Developers build with energy-inefficient materials because they don’t have to pay the utility bills. And power plants use the atmosphere as a free garbage dump for their global-warming emissions.

We need new rules that will make the best choice for the country also the best choice for consumers. We don’t have to undo investments we have already made. We don’t need to take old cars off the road or shut down coal-fired power plants prematurely. But the next investments we make — the next cars and buildings we design, the next power plants we build — should follow new rules that reflect our need for clean, renewable, efficient energy.

And what should these new rules be? They argue for a price on carbon, and they want a “carbon efficiency” standard assigned to new vehicles. They want utilities to see energy efficiency and conservation as a business opportunity, not a threat to their revenues, and they want rules in place that would offer utilities a way to monetize investments in structural efficiency. They want serious investments in a smart grid, and increased government support of the clean-energy industry in the form of incentives for clean energy and R&D in future technologies, as well as demonstraton and deployment (funded, of course, by clawing back subsidies to the oil industry).

All the arguments against action — from “global warming is not proven” to “India and China have to go first” — share the same assumption: that accelerating the move to clean energy will impose huge economic costs on the country. That’s a false premise. As soon as we get the rules right, we will create a multibillion-dollar market for new products and technologies here in this country. The sooner we create that market, the sooner companies will emerge to profit from it. Any delay simply forfeits an economic advantage to countries that are more far-sighted in setting their rules.

A message, of course, that also applies to Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. And what’s interesting is that once the rules are in place industry and consumers have direction. Some may bitch and complain in the beginning, but eventually everyone falls in line and it’s business as usual. We adapt, and the smarter ones prosper. I think industry wants guidelines and direction. I think consumers want to be told what to do, because they’re looking around and feel powerless and don’t feel their individual voluntary actions will have an impact if they know — or simply believe — their neighbour isn’t doing the same thing. The key is to put everyone on the same competitive playing field, and that means the same rules.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone said it best last week when he explained, based on his own experience, why New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg should push forward on plans to introduce a downtown congestion charge: “There may be one or two people who will predict doom and gloom — ignore them. There was this drip, drip, drip of negativity and it took a toll on my poll ratings. But within a week of the congestion charge starting, my rating had gone up 12 per cent.”

More of us, especially those in political office, need to realize that the drip, drip, drip of negativity — i.e. the folks predicting doom and gloom — come from the folks that benefit over the short term from the status quo. The oil companies. The auto makers. Big polluting industries. And unions.

But the long term — our sustainability as a country, an economy, and as a society — is what matters. And the short term, while there will be some pain, will also see growth and opportunity in other areas. That means we have to take our cod liver oil, not voluntarily, but as part of a mandatory global health program.

Toronto plug-in hybrid project launched

My story in today’s Toronto Star is about the launch of a 10-car pilot project in the city that will see hybrid cars — eight Priuses, one Escape and one Civic — retrofitted into plug-in hybrids during the first year, and next year up to 200 hybrids converted the same way. While not new in the United States, where a number of cities have launched retrofit programs, this is a first in Canada. A number of organizations are participating in the program, including green-energy retailer Bullfrog Power, car-sharing company AutoShare, local utility Toronto Hydro and both provincial and municipal departments. The idea is to expose the cars to a variety of driving conditions in an urban setting and, perhaps most important, test their performance during a Toronto winter.

Not surprising, local-area company Hymotion, now owned by Massachussetts-based A123 Systems, will be doing the retrofits. The University of Toronto, also participating in the project with their own hybrid, will be collecting emission and mileage data from all cars and analysing the results.

It’s good to finally see some concrete action from this city, though to be fair this project has been several months in the planning. I should point out that utility Veridian was the first organization in the area to do a plug-in retrofit of a hybrid (not only that, it put a solar panel on the roof of the car to charge the battery). So kudos to Veridian and its CEO Michael Angemeer for getting the ball rolling, and thanks to those U.S. organizations that inspired action in Toronto.