Hummer, the epitome of all that’s wasteful in our society, is winding down

Turns out the Chinese couldn’t get it together, as attempts by Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machines Co. Ltd. to acquire GM’s Hummer division have fallen through. GM, in response, announced today it will begin the orderly wind-down of Hummer. Sure, some Saudi prince could decide to step in and buy the operation at the last minute as his own play thing, but I doubt it. GM didn’t say why the deal couldn’t be complete, but who cares: one of the world’s most wasteful and pointless machines is at the end of its road. Sorry Arnie.

Waste Management invests in Enerkem as part of $53.8 million round

Kudos to Vincent Chornet. The president, CEO and co-founder of Montreal-based Enerkem (along with his father, Esteban) has in just a few years turned his company into a leading player in the emerging waste-to-fuel market. Today, Enerkem gained even more momentum, announcing it had secured $53.8 million in venture financing in a round that included Houston-based Waste Management, the continent’s top waste-management firm.

Enerkem uses a thermochemical fluidized-bed process to gasify municipal solid waste (organics, wood waste, plastics), demolition wood, and agricultural/forest residues. The resulting syngas is cleaned and, using a proven catalyst, can be turned into a variety of end products, including methanol, ethanol and high-value olefins (plastics). The company is in the process of building a waste-to-ethanol facility in Mississippi (75 million litres a year) and an Edmonton plant (36 million litres a year) that will also turn sorted municipal solid waste into ethanol. The Edmonton facility is being done in partnership with Greenfield Ethanol, Canada’s largest independent ethanol producer. Meanwhile, in Westbury, Quebec, the company has a commercial-scale demonstration facility that currently turns old wooden hydro poles into ethanol.

Rho Ventures, Braemar Energy Ventures and BDR Capital, all existing investors, participated in the financing round with Waste Management, along with new investor Cycle Capital. “This financing round validates Enerkem’s business and advances our path towards leadership in the waste and advanced fuels markets,” said Chornet in a release. In an earlier story (July 2008) I wrote for Greentech Media, Chornet said that burning waste or burning the syngas created from waste is, well, a waste. Based on electricity and ethanol prices at the time, a company can make three times more revenue per tonne of processed waste compared to a plant that simply burns its syngas to generate electricity, he said. Chornet also said Enerkem’s process is profitable with oil at $50 a barrel and if the company can get a competitive tipping fee to take the garage.

Large-scale storage of wind energy using compressed nitrogen and old pipelines… Could it work?

I just got back from a trip last week to Edmonton, Alberta, where I visited a startup called Lancaster Wind. I’ve been following this company for over a year now, but only recently has its founder and CEO — Dave McConnell — started talking about his approach to storing huge amounts of energy in the same pipelines used to carry oil and natural gas. You can read about it in my Clean Break column today, as well as in two stories recently written in the Edmonton Journal, here and here.

The basic idea is that specially designed hydraulic wind turbines are used to compress nitrogen into existing gas or oil pipeline infrastructure, some of it unused throughout North America. Several hundred, even thousand, kilometres of pipeline could be filled with nitrogen and kept under pressure, in effect becoming a kind of massive nitrogen battery for wind. When electricity needs to be generated anywhere along the pipeline, the nitrogen gas is released and expands to turn a turbine that generates electricity. Wind, under this setup, suddenly becomes dispatchable and has baseload characteristics. Also, the pipeline eliminates the need for transmission lines.

There’s still much to learn about Lancaster’s approach, but it’s an intriguing idea that in my mind is worth investigating. Some questions: Can these pipelines handle the expansion/compression cycles over time? How efficient would the process be? Can such a small company pull off such an ambitious feat? How does it compete with other options, such as compressed-air cavern storage or pumped storage or even flow batteries?

Stay tuned…

The Bloom Box: Am I missing something?

There’s much hype around the 60 Minutes segment Sunday night about Bloom Energy and its miraculous Bloom Box. I’m scratching my head wondering why this is such a big deal, so maybe someone can enlighten me. This to me seems like a fancy solid-oxide fuel cell system. It’s still super expensive, though Bloom claims that it can get the cost down to $3,000 (U.S.) for a residential unit. It still relies on fuel, such as natural gas, meaning it still produces CO2 emissions. Yes, far less emissions than burning that natural gas in a power plant and sending it via transmission lines to your home, but it’s not the emission-free miracle that 60 Minutes is touting. I didn’t hear much talk on the segment about whether the Bloom Box has a dual purpose: that is, electricity generation and heat production. And while it may replace the need for electricity lines coming into your home, you still need a natural gas line. In this sense, I can see tremendous interest from natural gas utilities looking to compete against electric utilities (a good parallel is how cable and phone companies over the years ended up offering the same services as technologies converged).

Perhaps there’s more to this story that wasn’t revealed by 60 Minutes, but there are many companies out there working on this kind of fuel cell so I don’t see what’s particularly special or unique about Bloom Energy. More details are expected to be released on Wednesday, however, so maybe then my questions will be answered.

In the meantime, would someone out there please enlighten me?

Car sharing gains traction with urban drivers

Car-share services across North America are proving they’re not a passing fad as a growing percentage of urban dwellers — facing high parking prices, a lack of spaces, urban congestion and urban smog, not to mention higher fuel prices — are choosing to not own vehicles. Research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts car-sharing membership will grow eightfold between now and 2016, when North American membership is expected to reach 4.4 million. This represents a car-share fleet of 70,000 vehicles. Since every car-share vehicle is estimated to replace 15 cars on the road, this works out to about a million fewer cars on the streets by 2016. It’s a trend that automakers can’t ignore, according to Frost, which predicts car sales will be affected over the long term.

I’ve got a weekend feature in the Toronto Star that takes a closer look at car-sharing in Toronto, where two services — Zipcar and AutoShare — currently compete. I’ve also got a short story on a new car-share service starting out in Baltimore called RelayRides, which pegs itself as the first peer-to-peer car-share service in North America. Instead of owning its own fleet, RelayRides enables anyone who owns a car to sign up and make their vehicles available for short-term rental by other members of the public. It’s an interesting model that, while full of risks and very tricky to implement, could work in certain markets.