Greentech and Web 2.0 collide with PickupPal.com

I’ve got a feature today on a Barbados-based company called PickupPal Online Inc., whose founders are based out of Ontario. The Web service takes a bit of eBay, a bit of Facebook, and a dash of online dating to create a rather slick service that matches up drivers with people who need a drive. Now, there’s no shortage of rideshare services out there, but what makes PickupPal so unique is its global reach and its unique application of Google Maps to find common routes. And unlike other rideshare sites, which tend to be non-profit and encourage workplace carpooling, PickuPal focuses on events: music events, sporting events, or any other gathering where a particular group of people are congregrating at a particular time and place. It’s a great way to reduce the number of cars on the road, and the amount of emissions.

The business model is a bit daring. They plan to take a 7 per cent commission from any driver who charges someone for a ride. The only problem is there’s nothing forcing a drive to charge for a ride, and nothing really forcing a driver to pay — except the fact that PickupPal has a rating system, so if you want repeat business and good reviews you’ve got to be honest. Bottom line is PickupPal is basing its future revenues on good will, and the ability to collect recurring commissions from a growing stable of loyal users. Now, there’s a reason they’re based in the Barbados: not only is it a tax haven, it also offers the company some protection from jurisdictions that frown upon anything that takes business away from buses and taxis. Imagine if people start using this service for airport dropoffs and pickups? Huge.

I also wonder about other legalities. What if somebody is assaulted, abandoned, or wronged somehow during a ride and decides to sue PickupPal? I guess it’s no different than a dating site — user beware. That’s something for the lawyers to deal with.

Biochar sequestration needs a serious look

My Clean Break column today revisits the idea of creating “biochar” out of wood waste using a pyrolysis process, and then blending the char in topsoil as an alternative way of sequestering carbon. We know that, done properly, we can lock about 60 per cent of the biomass’ carbon into the char. We also know the char, when mixed in topsoil, helps with water and nutrient retention. The char is also easy to weigh and package, meaning it’s an ideal substance for calculating carbon offsets as part of carbon-trading efforts. I wrote the column specifically to draw attention to the pine-beetle infestation on the northwest coast and a recent study that said the dead trees — rather than absorbing CO2 — are releasing huge quantities of greenhouse gases as they decay and rot. One solution could be to harvest the dead wood and convert it into biochar. It’s worth a serious look, since carbon capture and sequestration technologies being considered by the oil and coal industries simply can’t be applied outside of specific facilities and locations. With Canada’s emissions growing, not shrinking, we have to consider all approaches.

VRB Power selected for one of DOE “smart grid” projects

The U.S. Department of Energy detailed nine projects destined to get funding as part of a move to make the U.S. electricity grid more efficient. The department, which is allocating $50 million over five years to these projects, aims to reduce peak load electricity demand by at least 15 per cent by integrating renewable energy and distributed generation into the grid. The only Canadian company taking part in the nine projects is Vancouver-based flow-battery maker VRB Power, which has a compelling product but so far has been unable to gain any sales traction.

VRB will be working with Chevron Energy Solutions, Pacific Gas & Electric, SatCon Technology Corp., the University of Wisconsin, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, among others, on a three-year, $14 million project that will integrate solar energy, fuel cells, flow-battery storage and control systems in a way that significantly reduces peak load and improves power reliability at the Santa Rita Jail, in Alameda County.

Frankly, I don’t get it. Storage seems more important for wind, in the sense you can store the energy overnight when you don’t need it and dispatch it during the day. Solar is inherently beneficial during normal peak times, so I can’t immediately see how storage will reduce peak load — unless off-peak daytime solar is stored and dispatched during the highest peaks in the day. I suppose this helps reduce reliance on inefficient, dirty fossil-fuel superpeaking plants. Perhaps it can also smooth out solar output on cloudy days when the sun is obscured many times throughout an afternoon. Even so, I can’t see how using storage in this way would be as economical compared to coupling it with wind.

On another note, Ontario seems to finally be putting some thought into grid modernization and intelligence. The Independent Electricity System Operator recently announced the formation of a working group composed of several utilities, which plan to brainstorm on a smart grid vision for Ontario and come out with a white paper later this month that more or less provides a rough roadmap of where we need to go. It’s about time. For too long the industry here has equated smart meters with smart grid, not appreciating that intelligence has to be injected into the core AND the edge of the system.

VRB Power selected for one of DOE “smart grid” projects

The U.S. Department of Energy detailed nine projects destined to get funding as part of a move to make the U.S. electricity grid more efficient. The department, which is allocating $50 million over five years to these projects, aims to reduce peak load electricity demand by at least 15 per cent by integrating renewable energy and distributed generation into the grid. The only Canadian company taking part in the nine projects is Vancouver-based flow-battery maker VRB Power, which has a compelling product but so far has been unable to gain any sales traction.

VRB will be working with Chevron Energy Solutions, Pacific Gas & Electric, SatCon Technology Corp., the University of Wisconsin, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, among others, on a three-year, $14 million project that will integrate solar energy, fuel cells, flow-battery storage and control systems in a way that significantly reduces peak load and improves power reliability at the Santa Rita Jail, in Alameda County.

Frankly, I don’t get it. Storage seems more important for wind, in the sense you can store the energy overnight when you don’t need it and dispatch it during the day. Solar is inherently beneficial during normal peak times, so I can’t immediately see how storage will reduce peak load — unless off-peak daytime solar is stored and dispatched during the highest peaks in the day. I suppose this helps reduce reliance on inefficient, dirty fossil-fuel superpeaking plants. Perhaps it can also smooth out solar output on cloudy days when the sun is obscured many times throughout an afternoon. Even so, I can’t see how using storage in this way would be as economical compared to coupling it with wind.

On another note, Ontario seems to finally be putting some thought into grid modernization and intelligence. The Independent Electricity System Operator recently announced the formation of a working group composed of several utilities, which plan to brainstorm on a smart grid vision for Ontario and come out with a white paper later this month that more or less provides a rough roadmap of where we need to go. It’s about time. For too long the industry here has equated smart meters with smart grid, not appreciating that intelligence has to be injected into the core AND the edge of the system.

Wind-turbine newcomer AAER raises $7.5 million in bought deal

A Montreal-based company touting itself as “Canada’s only original equipment manufacturer of wind turbines of 1 megawatt and more,” has raised $7.5 million in equity from a syndicate led by Canaccord Adams and National Bank Financial. AAER Inc. will use the proceeds to purchase manufacturing equipment for production of turbine blades and put deposits toward the purchase of required nacelle components. The syndicate has an option to purchase another $1.125 million in common shares. “AAER Inc.’s short-term business strategy targets market niches for wind parks not exceeding 50MW,” according to the company’s Web site.

Focusing on smaller wind projects could prove a good way for a newcomer in the wind-turbine market to gain some traction and slowly build up. There is so much demand for turbines these days that small projects are getting squeezed out, unable to reserve a spot in line because they’re considered too small potatoes compared to larger wind-farm projects in the hundreds of megawatts. While it won’t be a cakewalk for this company, it’s certainly a new venture worth watching.