Tesla wows on first day of trading, but will it last?

I’m happy for Tesla Motors. The company’s initial public offering Tuesday was, despite the many doubters out there, a stunning success. The company closed its first day of trading at $23.89, which is roughly 40 per cent higher than its offering price. The doubters, quite understandably, point to the fact that Tesla is not profitable and has a long road ahead before it stops bleeding red ink. But there’s a sense of excitement around Tesla that bodes well for the clean technology sector generally. Yes, Virginia, there is a venture capital exit strategy for cleantech companies — even electric car companies. I have no doubt we’ll see Tesla’s stock fall below its $17 offering price, and that will likely happen in the next week or two. Still, I think there’s a solid group of investors out there that want to see Tesla succeed, believe it will succeed, and are patient enough to wait for that day. Personally, I think it will end up being scooped up by a major automotive OEM when the stock dips to bargain levels. Whatever the outcome, Tesla has a strong brand backed by strong engineering and ballsy vision, and while investors will likely be in the back seat for years asking, “Are we there yet?”, this company deserves a pat on the back and an “A” for effort and inspiration.

Boiled potatoes, solar bulbs can bring affordable light to developing world

I had to chuckle this morning when I checked my Clean Break column on the Toronto Star’s Web site. The business section has an area that ranks the most read articles by the hour. Despite there being G20-related business stories coming out of the city that hosted the controversial G20 Summit (I say controversial because $1 billion was spent on it and the past weekend saw hoodlums breaking store windows and lighting cop cars on fire), the top-read story so far this morning has been my column on turning boiled potatoes into batteries. Go figure — a sure sign that Torontonians have G20 fatigue.

In any event, my column takes a look at a study out of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that evaluates the practicality of using boiled potatoes to produce power for LED lighting in the developing world. The idea here is that a family would make dinner and boil an extra potato. The potato is sliced into four or five pieces and a zinc and copper plate are attached to each side of the potato slice. Connect the slices in series and finally to a couple of LEDs and, voila, for a few hours you’ve got a reading light in a village that has no electricity and therefore limited lighting alternatives. The scientists behind the study say it would cost 50 per cent less than using a AA battery and six times less than producing the same amount of light from a kerosene lamp. It’s also better than using a kerosene lamp because there are no harmful emissions or fire safety hazards involved. I was told that a dozen or so potatoes prepared this way could charge a cellphone.

My column also takes a look at a solar-powered bulb developed by a company called Nokero, which is also touting its product as ideal for villages in the developing world that don’t have electricity infrastructure to supply basic needs, such as lighting.

Offshore setback for Ontario side of Great Lakes a true setback for some developers

Just like that, a 200-megawatt offshore wind project proposed by utility Toronto Hydro is — to put it bluntly — dead in the water. Ontario’s Ministry of Environment issued a proposed regulation today that would prohibit the development of offshore wind projects that are 5 kilometres or closer to shore. Toronto Hydro’s project would place up to 60 wind turbines between two and four kilometres from shore, so if the proposed rules get passed then the utility’s offshore plan will be terminated. Toronto Hydro’s isn’t the only project that will be killed. There were several “near shore” projects proposed in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie that will be caught in this new setback rule, and even some projects that straddle the five kilometre barrier. Windstream Energy, for example, which is the first developer in North American to get a power purchase agreement for a 300-MW offshore wind farm (i.e. it got a feed-in-tariff contract with the Ontario Power Authority), may have to readjust the layout of its proposed project and drop a few turbines to fit within the rules. Trillium Power, which has a huge 700-MW project proposed for Lake Ontario, wouldn’t be affected because its turbines will be located 17 to 28 kilometres offshore.

I agree that a setback is necessary. I haven’t decided yet whether I think five kilometres it too far or not. I think three kilometers would have been a better compromise. The proposed rules could still change after public consultation, but for now, there are many angry offshore wind developers out there who face the prospects of seeing their projects killed. Toronto Hydro, for example, just spent $1 million or so to put an anonometer in the lake to measure wind speeds for two years. That now looks like wasted dollars.

Ontario program to cover up to 70 per cent of industrial energy efficiency projects

Back in early March I wrote about this industrial efficiency program being in the works, but the Ontario government officially announced it today. The five-year Industrial Accelerator program, designed and managed by the Ontario Power Authority, offers the following:

  • Financial incentives will cover up to 70% of eligible capital costs.
  • Energy-efficiency projects offer potential electricity cost savings as high as 30%.
  • Support is offered for high-performance industrial installations that improve productivity and competitiveness.
  • The program could significantly reduce the demand on the electricity system from some of Ontario’s largest electricity consumers.
  • The program will also help drive the development of green technology and jobs in the province. Over seven years, this program will create an estimated 5,500 net jobs.
  • This is one of the smartest programs, in my view, that the Ontario government has launched. It targets the 45 largest industrial companies connected directly to the transmission system. It helps these big businesses become more energy efficiency, more competitive globally, and it helps them cope with higher electricity rates as the province renews its power system. While hundreds of millions of dollars will be devoted to this program, reducing several hundred megawatts of electricity demand from the grid will be far cheaper than building new generation to accommodate an inefficient industrial base.

    This is an important initiative in Ontario, even if it’s not as sexy as solar and wind.

    For more information, check out this article I wrote in the Toronto Star in March. Also, for details about the Industrial Accelerator program, go here.

    Federal coal plant announcement another government greenwashing exercise

    Another day, another cunning PR move by the federal Conservative government. Just days before the G20 summit in Toronto, and after much criticism about being inactive on the environment and climate-change policy in particular, Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced plans to regulate coal-fired power generation in the country with new rules that won’t take effect until 2015. “The proposed regulations will apply a stringent performance standard to new coal-fired electricity generation units and those coal-fired units that have reached the end of their economic life,” according to a government press release, which was short on actual details, saying only that draft regulations will be public early next year and final rules published at the end of 2011. “Canada’s fleet of coal burning electricity plants consists of 51 units, with 33 coming to the end of their economic life by 2025. The gradual phase-out of traditional coal-fired electricity generation is expected to have a significant impact on reducing emissions. This policy, coupled with the commitments of the provinces, and companies who have committed to coal closures, will reduce emissions by about 15 megatonnes (Mt). This is equivalent to taking about 3.2 million vehicles off our roads.”

    Here are the many problems I have with this greenwash: 1) The government says after 2015, so the signal this does send to the market is that industry should build as many coal-fired power plants as possible within the next five years, after which they will be grandfathered until a plant reaches the end of its life sometime after 2050; 2) The government’s claim that this policy will result in a 15-megatonne reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is based strictly on reductions directly related to coal and doesn’t take into account increased emissions likely to result from increased natural gas power generation; 3) This announcement was timed so that the government had something to point to during the G20 Summit when asked about their commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; 4) The government says 33 of 51 existing coal plants (excluding new ones that will be built between now and 2015) will reach end of life by 2025. That means two-thirds of plants will continue to burn coal without any applied standards for up to 10 years after the introduction of regulations and one third after 2025. We simply don’t have time to wait for these things to wind down; we need decisive action now.

    If this government was truly serious about eliminating the impact of coal, it would announce an immediate moratorium on new coal plants in advance of the 2015 regulations. If, after 2015, a company wants to use coal it would have to meet the same emissions profile of a high-efficiency natural gas generating station, which basically means it would have to have some sort of carbon capture and storage. For existing coal plants, a carbon tax or — less preferable — cap-and-trade system should be implemented and the monies collected should go toward cleaning up the grid.

    I repeat: We need to call for a moratorium on new-build coal plants TODAY.

    Fact: While 75 per cent of electricity generation in Canada is virtually emission-free, 13 per cent of our national greenhouse-gas emissions still come from coal, and by 2015 most of that will come from Alberta. In fact, if Alberta were to get off coal it could offset all GHG emissions resulting today from the oil sands industry. This would be REAL progress if we were serious about achieving it.

    Prentice said this week that it’s a shame the rest of the world doesn’t recognize that Canada has a very low-carbon electricity system. We do have a low-carbon electricity system, but we can’t simply refer to that as an excuse for inaction. It’s not like any government in the last 30 years did anything to help achieve this low-carbon status. Simply put, we’re lucky to have it and lucky that generations before us had the foresight to develop it. Still, isn’t it disturbing that we’re among the highest per capita emitters of greenhouse gases in the OECD even though 75 per cent of our electricity system is emission free? We’ve got a long way to go before we can start bragging about our electricity mix.