Iceland sends mixed signals, goes to the dark side…

Okay, now I’m discouraged. If there was one place on the planet I thought drilling for oil would not happen, I would have pegged Iceland as the place. This is a country that powers itself on renewable geothermal and hydroelectric power. This is a country that, before all others, set a goal of running all its cars and boats on hydrogen and fuel cells. It’s also a country that, historically, has proudly touted its renewable leadership. Just yesterday the tiny island country signed a pack with the United States and Australia to promote geothermal technologies, specifically enhanced or “engineered” geothermal systems. “This international collaborative will bind the U.S., Australia and Iceland to work together to accelerate the development of geothermal energy, bringing this clean, domestic and natural energy to the market in the near-term to confront the serious challenges of climate change and energy security,” said Katharine Fredriksen, acting assistant secretary for policy and international affairs in Iceland’s energy department.

Then I get this notice in my inbox, with the headline: “Potential oil fields being opened for exploratory drilling in the Atlantic Northeast of Iceland.” Wah? Apparently the Icelandic government made a decision in January to open up drilling and is holding a conference next week to talk about the opportunity. “We have high expectations of finding oil in the Dreki area since scientific research has indicated that valuable oil resources may be found there,” said Iceland’s Minister of Industry Össur Skarphédinsson. “We therefore urge all parties interested in new oil fields in northern areas to attend the conference in Reykjavik.”

Is this depressing or what? If there was one country I figured could stick to its guns, I would have said Iceland. Now, it risks being a hypocrite where it was once a leader.

Tech development group issues call for top cleantech firms

The Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) is currently accepting applications for companies wishing to compete in its annual Canada’s Top 10 Competition. The competition has been around since 1999, but was initially focused on life sciences companies. It has since expanded to include the Top 10 innovators in the cleantech and IT sectors. Continue reading Tech development group issues call for top cleantech firms

REC to spend $1.2 billion for solar silicon plant in Quebec

Last week we knew a big announcement would be made, but this morning the cat is out of the bag.  Norway’s Renewable Energy Corp. said today it will build a solar silicon materials plant in Becancour, Quebec, and will invest at least $1.2 billion (Cdn) to do it. This is a huge announcement, and will create 300 jobs in the province. REC said it chose Quebec because it was able to negotiate a competitive 20-year electricity rate from the province. That, combined with the fact that a lion’s share of power production in Quebec is hydroelectric, sat well with REC. The company apparently was interested in lowering the carbon footprint of its energy-intensive business.

Good on Quebec for driving this deal through. According to REC, it spent 17 months screening more than 100 possible locations in 16 countries. It then narrowed the list to 40 sites before going through intense due diligence. Once a short list was established it engaged in final negotiations. Certain jurisdictions, like Iceland or Quebec, have an advantage over others because they are heavy on renewables — such as geothermal and hydroelectric — and aren’t subject to fuel price volatility. This means they can not only offer power for cheap, but can also offer a price that stays the same for 20 years.

Something to watch: hydraulic storage for wind

My Clean Break column today takes a look at the shortcomings of wind power and the need for economical storage. On the latter point, the last half of my column discusses an Alberta-based company called Lancaster Wind Systems (no Web site yet, sorry), which is building a new kind of wind turbine that has all its components and complexity at the base of the turbine, not in the nacelle. At the same time, it is developing a system that “locally stores wind energy using a hydraulic accumulator in conventional high-pressure pipeline storage banks, enabling its use as on-demand peak power.”

Lancaster won’t go into much detail about this, preferring to wait until it has filed all its patents. But CEO Daniel Kenway says the plan is to take knowledge and expertise in the Alberta oil patch, as well as manufacturing capabilities, and apply them to wind-energy systems. Intriguing. He also says a first project, partly funded by Sustainable Development Technology Canada, will demonstrate a 1-megawatt turbine with a 2-megawatt-hour storage capability. After which the company plans to scale up by “orders of magnitude.” Kenway says two configurations are possible: storage paired to a single turbine, or a larger-scale storage system paired with clusters of turbines. The latter, obviously, would prove more economical because of economies of scale. But he says the single-turbine storage system could prove useful in remote communities that are dependent on diesel generators. 

As Kenway told me in an interview (and this comment wasn’t in the column), “If you choose your components correctly, it turns out it’s possible to store as much as a few hours worth of energy at the side of the turbines. How we do that I would leave as a secret for a little while. But the notion is that in the end all of what we’re using are elements of technology already commonly found in Alberta. It’s not like we’ve discovered some new vanadium cell or some speculative thing. It’s a case of using good engineering principles and novel integration.” The only detail he gave is that the initial stage of the energy storage conversion process has to do with pressurization in a hydraulic circuit. Beyond that, we’re left guessing.

The result is dispatchable wind energy, and the goal is to achieve the same degree of reliability and efficiencies as found with coal or nuclear plants. Kenway says with economies of scale means the cost of the storage would be about 10 per cent of the cost of the turbines, and capital efficiency could reach about 85 per cent. “When you start looking at how much money you spend on the means of energy production, versus how much money you spend on storage, and how you allocate your capital ratios, that interplay (let’s you) effectively put most of the grid on renewable energy,” he says.

T. Boone Pickens may be interested in this one. Lancaster is working with the Wind Energy Institute of Canada and the University of Alberta on the SDTC project. One of the most interesting aspects of its planned storage system is the fact that it can be retrofitted to existing turbines or wind farms. In other words, if the company’s system works as planned at the costs forecasted, the tens of thousands of wind turbines already in operation around the world can be coupled with storage.

Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?