Lower demand: Nuclear renaissance being pushed aside in favour of refurbs, uprating

Are the wheels falling off the nuclear renaissance?

There’s a lot of rethinking going on in the utility sector these days. Utilities once intent on building new nuclear plants are now scrapping those plans and focusing instead of refurbishing existing  reactors. Last week Canadian nuclear operator Bruce Power announced it was withdrawing two new-build site licensing applications from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. The company said it would concentrate resources instead on refurbishing several reactors at its site northwest of Toronto. Then Russia’s state nuclear company said it would cut back its new-build program by half. Exelon, the biggest nuclear owner and operator in the United States, has said it would halt all new-build efforts for at least three years (and possibly as much as 20) and instead move toward uprating the capacity of its existing 17 reactor units.

The common theme is simple: the economic downturn has reduced electricity demand and with it the need for new reactors. Continue reading Lower demand: Nuclear renaissance being pushed aside in favour of refurbs, uprating

The big boys of industry move into next-generation algae fuels

I’ve got a lengthy feature in the Toronto Star this weekend about the recent wave of activity around algae as a source of renewable fuel. Now, in the past there has been no shortage of algae-to-biofuel startups — some have already failed, others have managed to raise money and continue to work away. But the new wave of startups — Algenol Biofuels, Catilin, Synthetic Genomics and others — have two things going for them. One, they’re overcoming one of the biggest economic obstacles, which is the difficulty and cost involved with harvesting algae so that they can be processed for their oils. Instead, these new startups are developing strains of algae that continuously produce and actively secrete oils and ethanol. By turning the algae cells themselves into microscopic refineries, several process steps can be eliminated along with costs. Second, these startups are also hooking up with some big partners in industry to demonstrate that their technologies can be scaled to a size that matters. Algenol has hooked up on a massive demonstration project in Texas with Dow Chemical, while Synthetic Genomics (Genomics pioneer Craig Venter’s company) recently snagged $300 million in funding from ExxonMobil, which has committed $600 million to algae fuel R&D and says it will contribute billions of dollars more if efforts over the next few years prove successful. Honeywell, by the way, is leading the charge in turning algae oils into green jet fuel, and it’s working with Boeing, Airbus and several major airlines to make it happen. Dow, Exxon, Honeywell — these are no corporate pansies. These are serious companies putting flesh in the game.

My feature, by the way, starts out focusing on Florida-based Algenol. Many don’t realize the company’s technology emerged out of research at the University of Toronto, and that founder Paul Woods is a Canadian who was born, grew up and ran a natural gas marketing business in Toronto before heading south at age 36. Algenol’s chief science officer, John Coleman, is the U of T professor who worked with Woods over the past 25 years to perfect the Algenol process.

I’ve said this in many posts before, but I’ll say it again: These are exciting times people. The engine of innovation is in high gear.

30-plus minute interview with Dick Weir of EEStor

(NOTE: The video on Yahoo has been disabled, not surprisingly. But someone over at TheEEStory.com has kindly supplied a transcript.)

Mr. Weir probably had no clue the person interviewing him would post this on the Internet, but it appeared just a few hours ago. Weir talks about the history of EEStor, how he hooked up with Ian Clifford at ZENN Motors, the relationship with Lockheed, and the status of EEStor’s ultracapacitor development. Weir says there’s really nothing standing in the way now from commercial production, and that pre-production of EESU units will begin in the fourth quarter. This is a lengthy, very detailed phone interview, and I don’t believe Weir would be talking this way if he wasn’t confident in the road ahead. It sounds like, from the interview, that somebody is trying to profile EEStor and Weir — perhaps, maybe, for a documentary that’s being made?

(NOTE: I’ve spoken with Dick Weir several times by telephone. This is his voice in the interview, 100 per cent, for those who wonder if it’s some kind of impersonation hoax.)

A few nuggets:

* Says Kleiner Perkin’s owns “20-something per cent” of the company.

* Weir says he and his co-founders still own controlling interest in the company.

* On Lockheed: “I’m really in deep with Lockheed Martin.” He said Lockheed has no investment, but relationship goes way back.

* On EEStor’s value: “If we make an EESU… God only knows what we’ll be valued then.”

* He has two patents on grid-load levelling. “You can put 45 per cent more electricity on the grid and do nothing more than put our batteries on there…. that electricity could supply the electricity to the electric vehicle market as it emerges… we make wind and solar real… you can make a wind farm operate like a coal-fired plant and it’s really cost-effective.”

* On storage for PCs and handhelds. “We can take a battery for a cellphone and give you three to five times more energy storage that would never degrade on you and you can charge in seconds.”

* Electric vehicles: “It’s going to take time to emerge, but I think with ZENN Motors it’s going to be very interesting to see them grow dramatically to capture that market.”

* On portable tools: “I’m already in knee-deep with the people in the portable tool business. They’re waiting for me to emerge and they’ll come on strong.”

* On relationship with ZENN and the EESU: “They buy it for a certain amount and they put it in their car. Right now our contract says $100 per kilowatt-hour, excluding electronics, and it’s extremely attractive. You take a lithium-ion battery right now it’s $350 to $1,200 dollars… nobody is going to compete with us, certainly no lithium-ion.”

* How quick to market for EESU electric car? “Need is always a wonderful thing, and the need is very high for our technology…. there’s nothing corrosive, harmful or explosive in our technology… there’s nothing, there’s no chemistry part of our product. It’s all solid state… I think also ZENN is going to happen very, very quickly… people will want that electric car. They’ll be able to test it, don’t get me wrong, but they’ll be able to pass those tests quickly because we’ve got the UL.”

* On EESU status: “I’m already out there putting EESUs together and I’m still in June. I’m ahead of schedule.” Says ZENN will get pre-production prototypes by the end of this year. “Once I do that, all hell is going to break loose for ZENN as well as EEStor.”

* Ending note: “We’ve done our homework, and you’ll see the results when we get into 2010… you’ll see a very effective and constant ramp-up to our production capabilities.”

I can guarantee one thing: this audio/video will spread like wildfire across the Internet over the next few days.

Ontario signals to automakers, and consumers, that it’s serious about electric cars

When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty revealed in January that the province was partnering with Better Place, it wasn’t clear whether it was simply a PR stunt or if the government was serious about bringing electric cars in Ontario through the appropriate investments and incentives. That’s because the province put no flesh in the game.

Now, it appears, McGuinty is truly serious. He announced today the goal of having one out of every 20 vehicles driven (not just sold) in Ontario be a plug-in hybrid or pure electric vehicle by 2020. To get there, the province will offer rebates of between $4,000 and $10,000 for plug-in vehicles purchased after July 1, 2010. Buyers of such vehicles would also get green vehicle licence plates allowing the vehicles to be driven on High Occupancy Vehicle (carpool) lanes and providing access to public charging facilities and parking at Ontario government and Go Transit parking lots. The government itself plans to add 500 electric vehicles to its own fleet.

These are the kinds of moves that signal to automakers that Ontario is a place to focus on as a market for both sales and investment. By aiming to have hundreds of thousands of plug-in vehicles driving on Ontario roads by 2020, and by providing generous incentives to help get us there, manufacturers will be more inclined to set up shop in the province.

I should add that Ontario, unlike Michigan, will by 2020 have an electricity system that’s 90 per cent emission-free. Michigan will be closer to 30 per cent. This means the cars being produced in Ontario could be designed as green and manufactured as green.

Prediction: I expect Chinese car manufacturers to rush into Ontario.

Cost of new nuclear in Ontario? Anywhere from $7,400 to $10,800 per kilowatt, depending on your appetite for risk

I have a story in today’s Toronto Star that pegs the price of two 1,200 megawatt ACR 1000 reactors from Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. at $26 billion, including all balance of plant costs. That would put the cost at $10,800 (Canadian) per kilowatt, far beyond previous projections. Really far. The story was based on information supplied by sources close to the bidding, including one directly involved on a bidding team. It also found that the Areva bid — involving two 1,600 EPR reactors — came in at $23.6 billion, or roughly $7,400 per kilowatt. It was deemed non-compliant, however, likely because Areva wouldn’t guarantee the price (which explains the lower price, maybe?).

I can understand the Areva price (apparently it’s based on a similar bid for a plant being planned in Maryland), but like many I’m personally shocked at the high amount of the AECL bid. Yes, I wrote the story but like many have a difficult time believing such a high number. My sources, however, are quite credible.

I’ve yet to get any reply from the government or industry that denies or confirms these numbers. Premier Dalton McGuinty was scrummed by reporters earlier this morning and he didn’t refute the numbers, saying only that the process is confidential. McGuinty could have said something general like “The numbers are far off” or “Not even close” to dispute the article, but he didn’t. The $26 billion figure, by the way, almost completely consumes the budget for Ontario’s 20-year nuclear expansion strategy, as estimated in 2007 by the Ontario Power Authority. That budget was to cover a new build at Darlington and at least two refurbishment projects.