FutureGen in trouble: I rest my case

Now isn’t this timely. Reuters is reporting that the U.S. Department of Energy is getting cold feet with its much-touted FutureGen clean coal project, largely because the $900 million project pricetag has ballooned to $1.8 billion, and climbing. Seems the U.S. government, which had promised to fund 75 per cent of the public-private initiative, is having second thoughts because Energy Secretary Sam Bodman isn’t happy about the cost overruns so far.

Here’s a message for you Sammy: Get used to it.

Clean coal. Carbon capture and sequestration. Nuclear. It might lead us to energy independence, but it will come at a price. Half measures won’t get us there, and neither will promises and big talk. Aren’t conservation and renewables looking good at this point?

Is CCS just a smokescreen for inaction?

My Clean Break column today takes shots at the hype surrounding carbon capture and storage technologies, which politicians and industry cling to when asked what they’re doing to reduce greenhouse gases. Separating CO2 from coal plant emissions and oil sands production and sequestering it underground can technically be done, there’s no question. But beyond lots of talk and a handful of tiny pilot projects, it’s not being done in a way that would suggest it will save us from climate change anytime soon. Even if we do prove it can work on the massive scale required, there’s no indication at this point that we have the manpower and resources required to do it. The danger here is that the public is being told about the potential of CCS and in the process being given false assurances that action is being taken. Meanwhile, Rome burns. Citizens — voters — have to start demanding more immediate actions from industry, and this will only come by forcing our governments to impose a carbon tax ASAP. Like grand promises 10 years ago of a hydrogen economy and all the wonderful cleanliness that comes with it, CCS is merely another buzz phrase being exploited to pacify a concerned public. This, in my opinion, is reckless.

Lead-acid versus EEStor

Here are a couple of pieces that appeared recently in Technology Review: one relates to EEStor’s recent announcement with Lockheed Martin and what it means for the company, while the other is a look at a new type of hybrid lead-acid battery with an integrated supercapacitor that claims to last four times longer than conventional lead-acid systems and to perform just as well as nickel-metal hydride systems — but at a fraction of the cost.

Obviously, for those watching the “EEStory”, the impact on transportation, power management, and portable electronics would be immense if the tiny company’s almost unbelievable claims prove true. In the story, EEStor CEO and founder Dick Weir hints that another announcement — this one “technical” — will be coming out soon. Meanwhile, makers of advanced lead-acid batteries, such as the “UltraBattery” discussed in the TR story, believe this new twist on 150-year-old technology (which they argue doesn’t get enough respect these days) could satisfy market demands for low-cost, high-performance hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles — at least until lithium-ion technology gets to the point where it’s cheap enough, safe enough, and reliable enough to make a difference.

Let’s not forget the recent announcement from Shai Agassi of Project Better Place and the Israeli government. It seems lithium-ion batteries (the Wall Street Journal reports that A123 will supply some of them) will be at the center of this very ambitious — and I must say exciting — experiment. All of these announcements and innovations around electric cars and batteries keep reminding me of that Eddie Grant song from 1983 called “Electric Avenue”: “Oh, we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we’ll take it higher.”

Okay, now I’m aging myself.

NOTE: While we’re on Electric Avenue, forgot to mention that Mississauga, Ontario-based battery maker Electrovaya, fresh off its joint-venture announcement with Malcolm Bricklin’s Visionary Vehicles (a hopeful electric car maker), announced Wednesday that it will soon be launching a low-speed electric vehicle called Maya-300 that will have a 120-mile range but be limited to 35 miles-per-hour. “It will be ideal for fleet operators in cities, universities and parks as well as the many households with a second or third vehicle for urban driving within a local neighborhood,” the company said in a statement. It did not disclose when the cars would be available or what the price might be, but clearly it’s targeting the same market as ZENN Motors and other low-speed EV makers aiming for the urban, second-car market. Click here to see a picture of the Maya, which will be powered by Electrovaya’s lithium-ion SuperPolymer battery technology.

Iceland: a hydrogen microcosm

Much of the investing world may be down on hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies, particularly those related to automobiles. But Iceland, the tiny volcanic country that gets most of its power from geothermal and hydroelectric energy, continues to push forward on its multi-decade plan of being a center for hydrogen innovation and deployment. It makes sense, given the country is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy resources, and rather they be the test bed for these technologies than North America. Jon Bjorn Skulason, who heads up Icelandic New Energy, predicts in this Reuters article that by 2035 most of Iceland’s road vehicles could be hydrogen-fuelled. More interesting, perhaps, is that in April the country will launch the world’s first hydrogen-powered commercial vessel. The goal is to prove that hydrogen fuel cells can be used on ships and boats, and the longer-term plan is to convert Iceland’s fishing fleet to hydrogen. It makes more sense than cars, and as with stationary fuel-cell applications, there could be an actual market for fuel-cell powered ships. Kudos to Iceland for giving it a try and letting the rest of the world watch. I got a chance to visit Iceland back in 2004. Rode on one of its first hydrogen buses in Reykjavik. Toured geothermal plants. Swam in the Blue Lagoon. It was awesome. But the uniqueness of the country also means a hydrogen economy may have limited application in regions of the world that aren’t blessed with the same renewable resources.

And I can’t help think: With all that cheap, abundant renewable energy, wouldn’t it make just as much sense — if not more — to embrace electric transportation using batteries? Iceland may well become an all-hydrogen microcosm on the world stage, but being such a small market, does it risk alienating itself from the rest of the world and ultimately hurting itself economically?

The ugly side of next-gen energy storage

If you want to know why large companies — telecom companies and utilities in particular — are very slow to adopt new products that appear far more superior than what they currently use, here’s why: When cool products go bad, or when the companies behind them go out of business, you’re screwed.

Take the recent example over at AT&T. The telecom giant had purchased lithium-metal-polymer batteries a few years back from a promising Quebec City company called Avestor. AT&T was using 17,000 of those batteries at sites throughout the country to provide back-up power for equipment that runs its U-verse TV service. In fact, AT&T appears to have been Avestor’s largest customer, having deployed about 85 per cent of all batteries sold by the small company.

But Avestor locked its doors in October 2006, citing its inability to attract investment and customers for its telecom back-up battery. Perhaps not so concindentally, that’s when one of these Avestor batteries sold to AT&T exploded. Since then, a number of them have blown up or caused fires. As AT&T said in a statement: “Normally we would work with a vendor to diagnose problems and develop solutions. We can’t do that in this case.”

And one wonders why telecom companies and utilities are risk-averse, lending support to the adage: “Nobody ever got fired buying _____” — usually, it’s Microsoft or IBM, but in this case you could fill in the blank with lead-acid batteries. Now, think of the risk the big automakers are taking by wanting to put a lithium-chemistry battery into plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles? In fact, nobody ever wants to see these kinds of accidents/explosions happen because it does make decision-makers take a sober, second look when they’re considering taking a chance on a new technology. Bless them when they go for it. It takes guts, and we need this kind of risk to bring these innovations to market, whether it’s an EEStor ultracap or a VRB Power flow battery or a A123 lithium-ion battery. Unfortunately, some startups bite the bullet and it’s a risk that has to be considered, and accepted.

This makes me worry about agreements like the one Malcolm Bricklin’s Visionary Vehicles signed this week with Mississauga, Ontario-based battery maker Electrovaya Inc., a maker of lithium-ion superpolymer batteries. It’s great news for Electrovaya, a company that appears to have a great technology but is nonetheless a money-losing penny stock that has struggled to keep its head above water. Bricklin, who has made clear his intentions to bring a full line of plug-in hybrid-electric cars to market, is a good, high-profile partner to have. In a statement, he admitted there will be challenges ahead. “This is a complex new terrain and the methodology and science that Electrovaya has developed stands apart from the others,” he said, adding that his company selected Electrovaya after a comprehensive review of battery manufacturers in the United States, Europe and Asia.

A memorandum of understanding has been signed to create a joint venture, which will be established as a standalone company — owned equally by Electrovaya and Visionary Vehicles — whose purpose is to develop and manufacture batteries and battery-management systems. R&D will also be a strong focus. As part of the joint venture, Electrovaya would receive royalties and license fees and each company would have the option to purchase shares in the other. Strangely, the deal has done nothing to lift Electrovaya’s shares.

Time will tell whether this will be Electrovaya’s big break, or whether a few years down the road it will be a train wreck for both companies. But the experience over at AT&T should be a lesson to those, including myself, who get over-excited about the prospects of a new technology but underestimate the time it takes to get it right.

I guess in this market — in the rush to please “green” consumers, tackle climate change, and put a lid on skyrocketing energy costs — getting new, exciting and in some cases disruptive technologies to market requires a little bit of “Go faster!” and a little bit of “Slow down!”