Look ma, no wires: charging plug-in vehicles, without the plug

Earth2Tech has an interesting post here (hat tip to Katie) about a company called Evatran that has developed a system for charging electric vehicles that doesn’t require a plug or a charging cord. The idea is that you would drive onto a parking block, which would sit permanently in your driveway or a parking spot. Once the front wheels are on the block it will establish a wireless proximity link with the vehicle and begin some form of magnetic induction charging. Now that’s convenient, and it would make it far easy for folks to dump their internal combustion engine vehicle and go electric. The only problem is that this form of charging is inefficient, and the idea of one day having millions of cars charging through this method but throwing away 10, 20 or 30 per cent of the energy for the sake of convenience is a non-starter (unless of course we’ve developed too-cheap-to-meter nuclear fusion and have more emission-free electricity than we need — i.e. a non-starter). Still, if we can get 95-plus per cent efficiencies some day it will be a welcome addition to electric-vehicle infrastructure.

BTW: For anyone looking for the latest assessment of wireless power transfer technology, check out this fairly recent and comprehensive study by the Electric Power Research Institute.

Canada to accelerate green technology patent process

The Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) has proposed changes to federal patent law that would help speed up the patenting process for “green” technologies. “No additional fee would be required to take advantage of the accelerated examination process,” according to law firm Ogilvy Renault in a blog post. “Applicants would only be required to declare that their application relates to technology that, if commercialized, could help resolve or mitigate environmental impacts or conserve the natural environment and resources.” If approved Canada would join the U.S., which last December began a pilot program for such accelerated examinations. “This accelerated examination mechanism will lead to earlier patenting, thereby crystallizing intrinsic value earlier,” wrote the firm. “This means financing may be easier to obtain at an earlier stage. As well, patent enforcement steps can be taken sooner to stop competitors who exploit the research and development efforts of others from enjoying first-mover advantages.”

A good idea.

Plasco raises another $110 million to fund “commercial delivery” of energy-from-waste system

Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group says its energy-from-waste technology is now proven and it’s time to move to commercial delivery. To help in that effort, it announced today a $110 million private equity placement led largely by Ares Management LLC of Los Angeles. Since 2005 Plasco had already managed to raise $135 million in equity, so this latest haul bring the total to $245 million — not bad in today’s markets. Another $25 million in government grants rounds out the total to $270 million.

Plasco chairman and CEO Rod Bryden called the latest investment in the company “a remarkable expression of confidence.” The company is targeting its efforts at North America, Europe and China. It has two pilot facilities already — a 100-tonne-per-day plant in Ottawa and a much smaller plant in Spain — but a 300 tonne-per-day facility is in the works in Red Deer, Alberta, and is expected to be completed in 2012. One can only assume that the Ottawa facility has worked out its kinks, otherwise I can’t see any responsible investor throwing down $100 million to pursue commercial projects.

This is good news for Plasco and another shot of confidence in the emerging market for new energy-from-waste technologies. Montreal-based Enerkem is another Canadian company riding this wave with its ethanol-from-waste systems, having recently raised nearly $54 million from Waste Management and a number of venture capital firms. Don Roberts, vice-chair of CIBC World Market’s clean technology and green energy team, recently told me that energy-from-waste was one of three main areas to watch over the coming years, along with energy efficiency and water. He may be right.

Why we need to proceed cautiously before full-on embrace of shale gas

My Clean  Break column today looks at the role that natural gas will play as we move toward lower-carbon sources of energy, but it also warns of relying too much on shale gas. Here’s the issue: shale gas is not just a water pig and a potential threat to water aquifers and lakes, it is extracted in a way that may release more greenouse-gas emissions than we bargained for. Sure, burn it in a power plant and, just like conventional natural gas, it emits as much as half the emissions of a coal-fired power plant. But fugitive methane emissions released during the extraction of shale gas could make this supposedly lower-carbon source of energy a much dirtier option that coal. I say “could” because we don’t know for sure — there isn’t enough information and there hasn’t been enough study of this issue to know for certain. Given this uncertainty, is it wise to call for a major transition to natural gas from coal — as some folks at MIT have suggested — as a way to lower greenouse-gas emissions in the short term? Is it wise for the U.S. to drop plans for a comprehensive climate bill in exchange for a narrow energy bill that would boost natural gas demand but do nothing for renewables? On the surface, it sounds like a winning strategy. I just worry that, when the full lifecycle analysis is done, we’d just be making things worse if such a transition relies on new shale gas development. Check out my column for more details.

Honda, finally, is going to rock down to electric avenue

Honda has always poo-pooed the industry-wide move to electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, stubbornly sticking to the idea that fuel-cell vehicles were the future. For example, it has been highly critical of GM’s Volt concept. Takeo Fukui, the company’s president, said in 2008 that he saw “no value in developing plug-in hybrid vehicles.” As recently as this May, the company’s head of research and development, Tomohiko Kawanabe, said it was questionable whether consumers will accept electric vehicles and the “annoyance” of limited driving range and the need to charge the vehicles. “We lack confidence (in the business),” he said. “We are definitely conducting research on electric cars, but I can’t say I can wholeheartedly recommend them.”

Two months later, the company is changing its tune. It announced today that it will begin selling two new plug-in electric vehicles in the United States in 2012, making it one of the last major automakers to join the electric vehicle party. One will be a small all-electric commuter vehicle, while the other will be a plug-in hybrid capable of travelling longer distances. Why the company suddenly changed its position is unclear, but being a loyal Honda driver I’m glad it came to its senses.