Is biomimicry a “megacategory” of cleantech?

I had a terrific interview last week with natural sciences expert Janine Benyus, who is the foremost authority on an emerging area of science called biomimicry. In fact, Benyus is credited with coining the term in the1990s. Basically, biomimicry is about innovation that replicates what already works well in nature, whether it has to do with shapes, biological processes, the design of ecosystems, or chemistries. Toronto-based WhalePower, which has designed a wind turbine blade that mimics the flipper of a humpback whale, is an example of a biomimicry innovator. OneSun, a secretive new solar venture co-founded by Benyus along with Paul Hawken, is another example — it intends to design solar panels that copy how plants convert sunlight into energy. My Clean Break column this week, which is based on my discussion with Benyus, looks at biomimicry and its huge potential role in cleantech innovation. The video at the top-left is from a speech Benyus gave at TED in 2009.

Dry winter, spring means water levels on Ontario rivers and lakes at historic lows

Low water levels on Ontario lakeI had a short article over the weekend about low water levels in Ontario and the impact on hydroelectric generation. Obviously, this is an issue that goes beyond Ontario’s borders. Record low snowfall over the winter and a dry spring has erased more than 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity in Ontario, and it’s likely to get worse. I just got off a conference call with the International Joint Commission, which regulates water flows and use on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Clearly, it’s not just the rivers that are suffering. “The levels of all of the Great Lakes are below average, and indeed are lower than they were at this time last year,” according to commission staff. “Lake Ontario is 30 centimetres, or one foot, below the average for mid-May and 36 centimetres below a year ago.” (Picture to left was taken by Gord Miller, Ontario Environmental Commissioner. It’s a shot of a small lake in northern Ontario. Thanks for the pic, Gord).

Lake Ontario levels are determined by inflows from Lake Erie, inflows from rivers, and precipitation, minus evaporation and consumption. Precipitation from January to end of April has been at a record low. “It’s the lowest amount for that four-month period since records began in the 1900s.” Now, I won’t make a direct connection to climate change here, since a single season of record-low precipitation is not evidence of global warming. However, this situation does illustrate how sensitive we are to climate change and how much the impact could truly be if low precipitation and dry winters become more common as a result — and I’m guessing they will. The following comments from Andrew McCammon, executive director of the Ontario Headwaters Institute, puts it this way:

Lower lake levels will result in less power available from hydro-electric generating stations, as well as in stranded docks and exposed rocks in cottage country. But they may also result in increased dredging costs for marinas, reduced loads on Great Lakes ships, the loss of coastal wetlands, changes in fish species, and potential impacts on municipal infrastructure such as the re-location of drinking water in-take pipes. More importantly from an ecological perspective, lake levels tend to be an early indicator of what is transpiring upstream. If a lake is down 1.5 meters, what has already taken place upstream? Is a drier climate reducing our wetland complexes? Have small streams withered? Are whole forests drier, with greater potential for fire, pest infestation, and other impacts?

Everything is interconnected. We forget about this too often.

Public wants government to take lead on climate change: PwC

A global survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that 94 per cent of Canadians expect to change the way they do business over the next two or three years in anticipation of climate change policies, and 98 per cent believe regulation is the best way to influence that change. Roughly 60 per cent of Canadian respondents think the government, not the private sector, should have primary responsibility for leading behavioural change. The global average here is 44 per cent, and only 23 per cent in the United States. So is government doing enough? Uh… no — 70 per cent of Canadian respondents said current government policies — and I assume they’re talking federal policies — are ineffective.

So, it makes one wonder: Why is our federal government attaching itself to the U.S. hip on these issues when clearly, Canadians think differently and want our government to lead, not follow? Opposition parties have failed us on this issue, particularly the Liberals. Federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has been ineffective on the climate change file. He’s been invisible. Even if there is a change in government, it’s unclear what it would accomplish. Increasingly, I’m hearing from the business community that a carbon tax would be the preferred mechansim for pricing carbon. There is growing fear that cap-and-trade is the wrong way to go, if only because it’s complex and open to widespread manipulation and abuse.

Is it time to rekindle talk of carbon taxes and “green shifting” on the federal political scene? Some might consider it suicide, based on how former Liberal leader Stephane Dion got killed on the issue. I disagree. I think it can be resurrected, and should be resurrected. But it needs a convincing leader behind it, one who is able to articulate the benefits clearly and stand up to the scare tactics of the Conservatives; one who can build alliances with the business community, with consumer and labour groups, and with provinces and municipalities.

Any takers?

Queen’s U study says government support for solar manufacturing a no brainer

A Queen’s University study in the journal Energy Policy has come out in favour of strong government support for solar manufacturing in Ontario. The study looked at six scenarios under which both federal and Ontario government support would be provided.

  1. Full construction subsidy.
  2. Construction subsidy and sale
  3. Partially subsidized construction
  4. Public ownership of manufacturing plant
  5. Full loan guarantee for construction
  6. Income tax holiday

Under all scenarios, “both governments enjoyed positive cash flows from these investments in less than 12 years and in many of the scenarios both governments earned well over 8 per cent on investments from 100s of millions to $2.4 billion,” according to an abstract of the study. “The results showed that it is in the financial best interest of both the Ontario and Canadian federal governments to implement aggressive fiscal policy to support large-scale PV manufacturing.” Continue reading Queen’s U study says government support for solar manufacturing a no brainer

There’s enough deep geothermal to power all of Canada. So why can’t we try just a bit?

How much power generation in Canada comes from geothermal energy? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

How much of Canada could be powered by geothermal power? All of it. Many times over.

There is, of course, a catch or two. Cost is one. Location is another, because not all the best sites are near population centres. Still, as two new studies from Canada’s top geothermal researchers show, there’s a heck of a lot of geothermal resource to work with if we tried. And as I point out in my Clean Break column this morning, geothermal could be just as significant a contributor to Canada’s power needs in 20 year2 or 30 years as hydroelectric power is today. Again, that’s if we tried.

Stephen Grasby, a geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, and co-author Jacek Majorowicz, an Alberta-based geothermal consultant, have come out with two studies looking at enhanced geothermal system (EGS) potential in Canada. One study will appear online this month in the Journal of Geophysics and Engineering (I was expecting it out by now). It looks at the overall potential of EGS in Canada. Another just published study, this one in the journal Natural Resources Research, looks specifically at high-potential regions where EGS development would offer the biggest bang for the buck. “Results show areas with significant EGS potential in northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and southern Northwest Territories related to high heat flow and thermal blanketing of thick sedimentary cover,” they wrote. “Estimated installation costs in 2008 dollars are under $2 million per megawatt.”

That’s about $6 billion for 3,000 megawatts — more than competitive with nuclear, not just with respect to capital costs, but also operational and maintenance costs. Also, none of the high costs associated with storing spent fuel indefinitely or with decommissioning old plants. This figure, of course, is for developing the most promising EGS projects. Cost will rise depending on location, rock conditions, availability of an outside water source, and depth of required drilling. Still, the studies make clear the opportunities are immense.  The Geophysics and Engineering study, for example, said projects could be developed right across the country, including parts of Ontario, if you drill deep enough. Over time, as drilling costs fall and expertise of EGS climbs, this could happen one day.

“At 10 kilometres we can expect EGS temperatures in the 150 to 200 degrees C range across most of Canada, except some areas of the Canadian shield,” wrote Grasby and Majorowicz. “Given the widespread distribution of geothermal energy, and the high energy content, the potential geothermal resource in Canada is significant,” they concluded.

Sure, there’s risk to heading in this direction, just as there was risk of investing in the early days of the oil sands or nuclear industry. I would argue there’s much more risk drilling for oil offshore in the deepest ocean waters. For example, an accident could happen and you could end up with the equivalent of an oil volcano erupting kilometres below the surface. (Okay, now I’m being facetious).

The fact remains: geothermal power is baseload, it’s clean, it’s plentiful, and it can be done using proven drilling and rock fracturing techniques in Alberta’s oil patch. The Canadian Geothermal Association is targeting development of 5,000 megawatts of geothermal power by 2015 using conventional techniques. Imagine, if we started doing that development now in parallel with EGS research and development, what we could accomplish by 2030? It could be possible to wean Alberta entirely off coal, for one, and it would put us in a good position as we move to electrify the transportation sector.

These two Canadian studies come three years after the release of a groundbreaking U.S. study led by experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their research suggested EGS in the United States could realistically supply about 100,000 megawatts of power generation capacity by 2050, assuming the proper policies and R&D investments were committed. The MIT study didn’t cover Canada, but several experts who participated in that study said their conclusions could also apply to the Great White North. Still, it’s nice to have our own data — and this is exactly what Grasby and Majorowicz have given us.

Canada, clearly, needs a national geothermal development strategy — and it needs one now.

Time to beat the drum.