Enerkem-Greenfield to build waste-to-ethanol facility in Edmonton

Greenfield Ethanol, Canada’s largest ethanol producer, and gasification-system developer Enerkem announced this afternoon that they will jointly build and operate (and possibly own?) what they’re claiming will be the world’s first industrial-scale facility dedicated to converting municipal solid waste into ethanol. The $70 million plant is expected to be in operation by the end of 2010, and based on past presentations from Enerkem will process 100,000 metric tons of MSW per year — i.e. the residual stuff that’s left over and would otherwise go to landfill after recycling and composting. It will initially produce 36 million litres a year of ethanol (nearly 10 million gallons a year). The City of Edmonton, which is the capital of Alberta, has signed a 25-year contract with Greenfield/Enerkem to supply residual MSW to the plant. It’s unclear what kind of tipping fee Greenfield/Enerkem will get, but Enerkem claims its process is competitive with current landfilling costs, substantially reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and can divert more than 90 per cent of residual MSW from landfills.

The race is on. Rivals, such as Khosla Ventures-backed Coskata, have set similar targets. Coskata has plans to have a 50 million to 100 million gallon plant up and running by late 2010/early 2011. What’s interesting about the Edmonton project is that the municipality initially wanted to use the Enerkem process, under license to provincial utility Epcor, to produce syngas that would be used to produce electricity. But they decided, and it appears rather quickly, that producing ethanol made more sense economically than producing electricity. It begs the question for other municipalities that may be considering the electricity route.

What I like about this Edmonton project (and similar projects in the pipeline) is that it bypasses pretty much all the criticism currently around producing ethanol from food crops. It also eliminates a lot of transportation from the equation. Fact is, corn ethanol facilities tend to be located in the country where the corn is located, requiring lots of transportation to bring the corn to the facility, and then to take the ethanol to market. But producing ethanol from local MSW means the plant can be located near an existing landfill, so it adds virtually nothing to the transportation of feedstock. One can even envision mining the current landfill for feedstock, though I guess you wouldn’t get a tipping fee for that. And because the ethanol is produced near the city, it doesn’t have to go far to market. In Edmonton, greenhouse-gas reductions from the 25-year project will be the equivalent of taking 12,000 cars off the road.

$135 oil forces industry to embrace efficiency

My Clean Break column today takes a look at the rising interest in industrial-scale heat recovery technologies as pulp and paper, food and beverage, biofuel and a range of other companies cope with rising fossil fuel prices. Tim Angus, president and CEO of Ottawa-based Thermal Energy, estimates that a third — up to $1 billion — in oil and gas used in industrial boilers and dryers in Ontario is lost in the form of waste heat. He says it’s possible to capture up to 80 per cent of that heat and redirect it to industrial processes. Alternatively, companies such as Ormat Technologies are helping some industries turn that heat into electricity. I posted about Thermal Energy recently, but this column takes a closer look at the opportunity and why interest in heat recovery technologies is, well, heating up.

Multibrid eyes Ontario for offshore turbine manufacturing

Multibrid, the German maker of the M5000 offshore wind turbine that is majority owned by French nuclear giant Areva, says it wants to build a turbine manufacturing plant in North America and believes Ontario is an ideal location. A Multibrid representative told reporters in Toronto today that there are 22 offshore wind projects proposed in North America, many of them to be located in the Great Lakes. He said southern Ontario is centrally located, has good highway, rail and waterway access through the St. Lawrence, has local steelmaking capacity, and has a skilled manufacturing base that makes it a strong candidate for a plant.

A recent report from Helimax Energy Inc. estimated there are 64 offshore wind sites on the Ontario side of the Great Lakes alone, representing 35,000 megawatts of development potential. To make Ontario even more attractive, Trillium Power — a Toronto company that wants to develop a 750 MW wind farm in Lake Ontario, and possibly a second of equal size — has created a buying consortium called Tai Wind. The consortium includes Trillium and Fisherman’s Energy of New Jersey, which is proposing two offshore projects off the coasts of Massachusetts and New Jersey. So far, Tai Wind represents a potential of 300 turbine purchases, but it is in talks with six other offshore developers about joining the consortium. With enough potential orders under its belt, Tai Wind hopes to assure Multibrid that there’s enough demand in the market to justify building its plant in Ontario. At the same time, consortium members would be assured easier access to offshore turbines that would otherwise have to come from Europe at greater expense and after a lengthy wait. As a developer, said Kourtoff, “you’re simply not going to get an offshore turbine unless you get a manufacturer here.”

Joshua Magee, a wind energy analyst with Emerging Energy Research, told me earlier that the idea of creating a buying consortium in North America for offshore wind turbines is an interesting strategy. “It would certainly be unique,” he said.

If Ontario wants the manufacturing — and after watching our automotive and forestry sectors get pummelled, believe me, it does — then it likely has to approve and sign a PPA for the Trillium project in Lake Ontario or some other Great Lakes offshore project. This would show its commitment to offshore, and give Multibrid some degree of certainty for local turbine demand. If the government isn’t prepared to purchase offshore wind power (and soon), one can only guess that Multibrid will look to other jurisdictions more willing to act. I just spoke this evening with Donna Cansfield, Ontario’s minister of natural resources, and she said she’s excited about the potential investment from Multibrid and is confident the government is ready to talk business.

Time, of course, is off the essence. If Ontario doesn’t jump I’m sure Michigan, or New York, or Ohio would be more than willing to welcome Multibrid. And indeed, there’s nothing stopping these states from trying to pre-empt any move to Ontario with attractive incentives. One thing for certain is that offshore wind in the Great Lakes is now in play, and it is Ontario’s opportunity to lose.

VC dollars now chasing fast battery charging

Chrysalix Energy has led a multimillion-dollar investment in a Dutch-based maker of ultrafast battery chargers aimed at electric cars and plug-in hybrids. Epyon B.V., a spinout from the Delft University of Technology, has a “supercharge” technology it says can reduce the charge time of lithium-ion battery packs up to 20-fold. “Clearly, the bottleneck up to now has been the speed of re-charging and that is exactly what Epyon is good at,” said Rene Savelsberg, managing director and CEO of SET Venture Partners, a European affiliate to Chrysalix.

Epyon’s computer controlled, lightweight charger would reduce from five hours to 15 minutes the length of time it takes to charge up an electric vehicle’s battery pack. This would make it possible to begin adding quick-charge stations at existing gas stations, giving electric car owners the freedom of travelling longer distances without fear of running out of juice. Other companies, such as Vancouver-based AccelRate, are also working on quick-charge systems but still have some way to go. AccelRate currently claims it can reduce a five-hour lithium ion charge down to an hour. Even so, few people would be willing to sit at a charge station for an hour during a long drive.

As we get closer to 2010, when GM, Toyota and others are expected to come out with competing plug-in vehicles, the debate over quick-charge versus battery-swapping will continue to intensify. Shai Agassi, founder and CEO of Project Better Place, envisions a network of battery swap stations located throughout a country. Drivers of electric cars would become members of this network, paying a subscription just as they would for mobile phone coverage. Israel and Denmark have so far backed the idea. It should be noted, however, that Agassi isn’t against a charging infrastructure (and makes this clear on his Web site). And that’s probably a good things, as most experts I’ve spoken with say ultrafast charging is the future of electric transportation.

Keep on drivin’ in the free world!

My Clean Break column today is an overview of the Progressive Automotive X-Prize competition and an unlikely entrants among the more than 60 teams that have registered. Neil Young, the Canadian rocker who gave us classics such as “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold,” has teamed up with ride-pimpin’ mechanic Johnathan Goodwin and a team of engineers who have converted Young’s beloved 1959 Lincoln Continental into an electric car. Called team Linc Volt, they plan to prove that you can be efficient and good to the environment without sacrificing size and comfort. In the case of this Lincoln, it’s a 19-foot giant, which will no doubt stand out in the crowd as it races more futuristic cars for the $10-million X-Prize.

The main column is here. I also have a small sidebar detailing Young’s interest in a superefficient generator developed by Thane Heins, who I wrote about here. You’ll recall that Heins believes he has violated the law of energy conservation with his invention, which Young believes could have application to his electric Lincoln.

NOTE: For the best story written so far on the Linc Volt venture, the Wichita Eagle has a great feature published on June 1. Apparently the reporter just showed up at the shop where Young and Goodwin were working on the car. They were reluctant to be interviewed, but eventully invited the reporter in. Part of the reluctance, I think (beyong the fact that Young generally stays clear of the media) is that he’s also filming his own documentary of the Linc Volt conversion and its participation in the X-Prize, so presumably he doesn’t want to steal his own thunder.