The challenge of life-cycle analysis in a world of rapid innovation

There was a big stink this week when a published study, led by University of Virginia civil engineering professor Andres Clarens, concluded that producing biofuels from algae isn’t as climate-friendly as many people believe, at least when compared to getting biofuels from switchgrass, canola, and — Huh? — even corn. The results, according to an abstract of the study, “indicate that these conventional crops have a lower environmental impact than algae in energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and water regardless of cultivation location.” Why? Because of the need to supply more nutrients — i.e. fertilizer — to algae to stimulate growth, and fertilizer is energy-intensive to produce.

The problem with this conclusion? Clarens based the life-cycle analysis on data that was mostly 10 years old. For example, some current algae cultivation practices, particularly those based on wastewater or sea water, tackle the fertilizer issue head on. So the age of the data is an important bit of information that should have been made very clear in the study — even the abstract. Ten years in the world of technology, particular cleantech, is a long time. I mean, the big R&D push around algae-based fuels only began three or four years ago, and 10 years ago the “cleantech” sector didn’t exist in name. Ten years ago the world was still wrapping its head around Y2K, George W. Bush was just getting into office, Google was still a start-up years from going public, and the TV show CSI (the original one) had its world premiere. In other words, you can expect data about algae cultivation to be, well, rather useless as a reflection of current practices.

This isn’t to blame Clarens. As he told the New York Times’ Green Inc., the most current data out there is simply unavailable to academia. It’s proprietary. Continue reading The challenge of life-cycle analysis in a world of rapid innovation

Attention Toronto fleet managers: the city needs your EV

My story today in the Toronto Star is about an ambitious electric-car project being spearheaded by the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which is an agency of the city that promotes and provides grants for projects that reduce air emissions and pollution. Called the EV300 Initiative, the aim is to create a buyer’s club of private- and public-sector fleet managers in the Greater Toronto Area. The goal is to get at least 300 EVs in the program, which would monitor the cars over a year or two and collect data on charging patterns, winter and summer time driving performance, as well as the impact of charging on the grid. Members of the group would be able to exchange information and experiences, while a working group would be set up to analyse the data and make recommendations for what the city can do to prepare for greater penetration of electric vehicles on Toronto streets.

The Toronto Atmospheric Fund has so far signed up several public-sector partners, including Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation, Toronto Hydro, Hydro One  and the Ontario Power Authority, and smaller electric utilities and municipalities that surrounding the city are also being invited to participate. Next month, efforts will begin to start attracting private companies that would like to purchase at least one electric vehicle for their fleet as part of the program. The hope is that the buyer’s club will be set up and committed to a bulk purchase by July 1, which is when provincial incentives (up to $10,000) for purchasing electric cars are supposed to kick in.

So, if you’re in a company with its own vehicle fleet, spread the word. The more who take part in this program the merrier.

BTW: Wonder what Better Place is up to? After a big splash last January in Ontario its interest in the market seems to have faded.  Where’s the electric-vehicle demonstration and education centre it promised?  Where’s the network rollout plan and the investment timeline it was going to put together for Ontario? At least it’s making progress in Denmark, Tokyo and other parts of Europe and Asia, having just raised another $350 million.

Shortage of IPv4 Web addresses could impact smart grid, lighting, buildings, appliances

Reports surfaced last week that we’re running out of Web addresses. The Number Resource Organization, which is in charge of allocating Web addresses based on the IPv4 standard, warned that there is less than 10 per cent of these addresses left and that a severe shortage — and “grave consequences” — will be upon us if we don’t migrate quickly to the new IPv6 standard, which offers a virtually unlimited number of addresses.  “The limited IPv4 addresses will not allow us enough resources to achieve the ambitions we all hold for global Internet access,” said NRO chairman Axel Pawlik. “The deployment of IPv6 is a key infrastructure development that will enable the network to support the billions of people and devices that will connect in the coming years.”

Most media coverage has highlighted the growth in laptops, mobile devices, servers and routers, but more eye-opening is the coming wave of “smart” grid devices that will need to have their own IP addresses. Thermostats, smart meters, dish washers, laundry machines/dryers, intelligent lighting (in homes and buildings), electric cars — really any appliances or devices or machine that will be controlled remotely through the Internet. Here’s a question I honestly have no answer to: Are energy management and smart grid/appliance companies — General Electric, for example — aware of this coming shortage of IP addresses, and have they taken the necessary measures to avoid the crisis?

Network World had an informative article on this issue in October.

Apparently it’s not difficult to migrate from IPv4 to IPv6, but it does require a lot of investment in software and hardware upgrades. Will the energy sector be caught off guard by this? I’d love to open this up for discussion from some more knowledgeable people… please enlighten us.

Samsung deal: Criticism justified, but missing the bigger picture

I have a column in today’s Toronto Star that’s bound to upset a number of solar and wind developers, and the investors behind them. I argue that the $7 billion Samsung deal announced last week in Ontario isn’t a bad deal at all, and that Ontario was right to jump on the opportunity when it presented itself. The deal is controversial because the government gave Samsung an “economic adder” that amounts to a 4 per cent premium (on a price per kilowatt-hour basis) to existing feed-in-tariffs available to other solar and wind developers. The government also set aside 500 megawatts of transmission capacity for Samsung, which in addition to building four manufacturing plants (wind blades, wind towers, solar inverters and solar modules) also wants to deploy 2,000 megawatts of wind and 500 megawatts of solar in Ontario.

Samsung has said publicly that it plans to become the largest maker of solar panels by 2015, and wants to become a major player in wind. The fact that it chose Ontario as the launchpad is significant. This is a huge deal, and while not perfect, it has the potential to bring tremendous long-term benefits to Ontario. Sure, other developers would love the special treatment Samsung got, but have those developers been willing to step up, develop a comprehensive supply chain, and sign a deal that commits them to X amount of renewables and create X thousand amounts of jobs? My only big criticism of this deal is that the government may be overlooking some amazing Ontario-made opportunities — local consortia who have big plans but can’t seem to get the attention and support of the Ontario government. This apparent lack of confidence in local entrepreneurs and investors doesn’t send a good signal. Premier Dalton McGuinty needs to do a much better job of nurturing and having confidence in local ventures, even if they lack the deep pockets and brand appeal of an anchor tenant like Samsung.

Were smaller developers in Ontario betrayed? I can see why they think so, but I don’t recall anyone in the current government ever saying the feed-in-tariff program is the only way they will sign up renewables (or any source of power generation) in the future. What the feed-in tariff program and Green Energy Act does is let these developers access the program, equally, without having to go through an expensive RFP process. The fact is the FIT program, as it is, is more than generous to these developers. And while transmission is scarce, there’s a solid commitment to build more. So there is a bigger picture here, one that needs to be put into perspective.

Okay, let’s open this one up to some civil debated…

Samsung, Ontario ink $7 billion solar/wind manufacturing and development deal

They’re calling it the largest integrated solar-wind deal of its kind in the world. Whether or not it’s true, there’s no question that this one ranks high.

South Korean industrial giant Samsung Group signed a deal today with the Ontario government that will see 2,500 megawatts of solar and wind developments and construction of four manufacturing plants between 2013 and 2015. This $7 billion investment from Samsung is expected to create 16,000 jobs — a combination of permanent manufacturing jobs and temporary construction and development jobs. I first broke this story back in late September, but the deal is now official.

The first two plants — one to manufacture wind towers and one to manufacture solar inverters — must be in full operation by March 31, 2013. A solar module assembly facility must be in place by Dec. 31, 2013. Finally, a wind blade manufacturing plant must be in place by Dec. 31, 2015. Samsung, apparently, has long-term plans in the Ontario market, from which it hopes to export its products to the booming U.S. renewable-energy market. As for development projects, Samsung will get the same feed-in-tariff rate as any other company. But to the dismay of those other companies, the Korean consortium that Samsung is part of will get a $437 million economic “adder” — i.e. an incentive to make sure those manufacturing jobs do get created — and will have scarce transmission capacity set aside so the company doesn’t have to wait long in the grid-connection queue.

In addition to Samsung C&T, the consortium includes Korea Electric Power Corporation. Partners with the consortium include Satcon, Pattern Energy Group, and Dongkuk Steel.

See Toronto Star story here for initial details and comment about today’s announcement. See government announcement here and backgrounder here. Certainly more info to come…