UOIT researchers develop cheaper membrane material for PEM fuel cells

There’s still a bright future for fuel cells, even if the hydrogen economy won’t turn out as many had expected. But fuel cell costs, though they have come down substantially over the years, are still too high for a number of reasons. One is the membrane material in the fuel cells, which today are quite expensive to make and don’t operate efficiently at temperatures under 80 degrees C. Researchers at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology say they’ve developed a new membrane material that is cheap to produce and can function at temperatures ranging from 120 to 150 degrees C, a level that the U.S. Department of Energy is targeting for next-generation fuel cells. Bit by bit, the fuel cell is getting better and cheaper…

Climate change action under threat in Toronto, and come next Tuesday possibly Ontario if Prop 23 is accepted in Cali

My latest Clean Break column, which appears in Friday’s Toronto Star but has already been published online, looks at the next election Torontonians and the rest of Ontario’s citizens have to worry about, this one in California on Nov. 2. That’s assuming, of course, that you believe climate change is happening, believe human activity is the cause of it, and feel we have a moral obligation to take action. Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, doesn’t seem to fall into that category, which itself is alarming. But consider that the outcome of California’s election next Tuesday could pull the rug out from one of Ontario’s most important greenhouse-gas reduction strategies — cap-and-trade.

I’ll let you read my column for the full details, which echo concerns recently raised by Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller, on his commission blog and subsequently republished here. In a nutshell, Californians vote for a new governor, but they also vote to accept or reject Proposition 23, which aims to kill existing climate-change legislation that enables California’s participation in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), a regional carbon-trading market that Ontario is heavily involved in.

WCI has 11 members but California, New Mexico, Ontario, Quebec and B.C. are its anchors. These five jurisdictions all have enabling legislation in place and all were expected to launch the market in 2012. California on its own represents half the GHGs in the market. If California is forced to pull out — that is, if the “yes” vote for Prop 23 wins — then the WCI dominoes begin to fall. Ontario has not said it won’t move forward if California doesn’t, but it hasn’t said it will, and we know New Mexico will certainly bail if California bails.

If WCI collapses, I expect at least a couple more years of delay before Ontario participates in a carbon market. At best, Ontario, Quebec and B.C. could decide to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Intiative (RGGI), a much smaller regional market that includes 10 northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. It has been in effect for two years. Problem is RGGI has weaker emission-reduction goals and is much narrower in focus — that is, its market only applies to power producers, while WCI also applies to large industrial emitters. (Again, read the column for more details). Better to keep WCI alive.

So, that’s why the California vote on Nov. 2 is so important. If the oil lobbyists and the Tea Party/Republican climate deniers manage to convince California voters to accept Prop 23, it won’t just derail Ontario’s efforts, it will kill what would have become the second-largest carbon trading market in the world and it will set back efforts in Washington and Ottawa to establish national cap-and-trade systems that are harmonized with each other.

Keep your fingers cross. The encouraging news is that, if you believe the polls, Proposition 23 is likely to be rejected. But polls have been wrong before, so this will remain a nailbiter until it’s over. Those who read this blog regularly will know that I’m a bigger fan of carbon taxes than I am of cap-and-trade. I worry about the complexity of a carbon market, all the bureaucracy and all the potential to manipulate it. But without alternatives waiting in the wings cap-and-trade is the best we’ve got. We need it. We need something to happen.

Why cancellation of the Oakville power plant won’t cost us $1 billion

There’s been a lot of speculation in the press about how the Liberal government’s cancellation of TransCanada’s natural-gas power plant in Oakville could end up costing taxpayers/ratepayers $1 billion or more. The emphasis here is on could. Sources have cited legal opinions that suggest TransCanada could sue the province for $1 billion or so, which is roughly the estimated cost of the plant. That’s an unlikely outcome, and I’ll tell you why. TransCanada does a lot of business in Ontario, and while this plant was an important project in its pipeline it also knows that it’s past and future relationship with the province is more important. It’s that old saying, “Don’t bite that hand that feeds you.” TransCanada is in no rush to piss off the Ontario government or Ontario taxpayers, it just wants to be treated fairly and be considered for future business. Fact is, the province has been good to TransCanada. Continue reading Why cancellation of the Oakville power plant won’t cost us $1 billion

WindTronics to start selling “breakthrough” small wind turbines in Canada… but will it break through?

I’m not about to pass judgement on the claims that WindTronics has made regarding its Honeywell Wind Turbine for homes and businesses. I’ve heard bad stuff from the skeptics and good stuff from the enthusiasts, but at least we don’t have to speculate anymore. WindTronics announced today that it will start selling its Windsor-manufactured small turbines in November, so we’ll get a sense soon enough whether the claims hold up.

And what are the claims? The company says its turbine has “higher performance output and lower installed cost per kilowatt than any other unit on the market today in class and size.”

The Honeywell Wind Turbine is a gearless wind turbine that measures just 6 feet in diameter, weighs 185 lbs (84kgs) and is able to produce 2752 kWh/yr in Class 4 winds. The Honeywell Wind Turbine’s multi-stage blades allow the system to react quickly to changes in wind speed, ensuring that the maximum wind energy is captured, without the typical noise and vibration associated with traditional wind turbines. It is designed to be installed where power is consumed, allowing home and business owners to harness wind energy in a cost effective and efficient manner.

WindTronics made the decision in summer 2009 to manufacture the machines in Windsor, Ontario, which had been pummelled by the auto crisis and recession and suffered from huge unemployment. In that context it was a good-news story because the Michigan-based parent company, EarthTronics, said the facility it was taking over was a former Magna International autoparts plant where 200 new jobs would be created. I wrote the story in the Toronto Star in August 2009 and had a blog entry as well. Here’s how I described the turbine:

The turbine has a unique design — i.e. it has no gearbox or generator at the core; rather, it generates power from the magnets lined along a wheel that connects its blade tips. This, the company claims, allows it to start generating power at wind speeds as low as 1.6 miles per hour, compared to conventional turbine designs that typically require 8 miles per hour. The reason is low resistance because a gearbox is no longer required.

The company says on its Web site that the turbine’s installed cost is about half the cost of a traditional small wind turbine. It sells as part of a package that includes a computerized smart box, an inverter and an interconnect switch for wiring the system into a household panel. The MRSP is $6,495, but I’m sure that’s the U.S. pricing — not sure what Canadian pricing will be. Also not sure what installed cost would be, which is important if you want to compare it to, say, putting solar panels on your roof.

If you can truly get about 2,700 kilowatt-hours a year from this thing (keeping in mind that the estimate is based on having this thing at least 33 feet in the air), and if you get a microFIT contract in Ontario paying 13.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for all sizes of onshore wind, then you’re looking at earning $365 a year. That means it would take 18 years to pay back just the cost of the technology, never mind the added cost of installation. Not the greatest deal when you have a solar option promising a 10-year payback.

Now, suppose small wind got the same microFIT rate as solar — 80.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. Then you’d earn $2,165 a year from the WindTronics unit (assuming proper wind speeds in your area). That’s a three-year payback on the technology. I’m not sure what installation cost would be, but let’s assume for the sake of argument it would add 50 per cent to the cost. So we’re looking at roughly $10,000, which would be closer to a five-year payback.

This begs the question: Why such great rates for solar when you could offer the same 10-year return on investment for a WindTronics system at half the cost — i.e. about 40 cents per kilowatt-hour? I’m not a fan of small-wind technology, but it could prove a great solution for folks without southern rooftop exposure who have buildings and trees blocking the sun from hitting their rooftops. If you live in rural Ontario it may make more sense than solar PV.

Food for thought.

Capital Power goes for the old “bait and switch” with new coal-fired power plant in Alberta

NOTE: This post has been changed from an earlier version for clarification.

In 2001 Alberta’s EPCOR Utilities Inc., which is today called Capital Power, wanted so much to build a new coal plant in the province that it committed, voluntarily, to offset emissions from the proposed 495 MW Genesee 3 facility by 50 per cent. It did this to win public support and support from regulators. Alberta’s utilities commission approved the project but, as part of its approval, it made the 50-per-cent reduction promise a requirement. The commission created a similar requirement for TransAlta’s Keephills 3 coal plant that followed, which is rated 450 MW. TransAlta is half owner of Genesee 3 as well.

Now, Capital Power is trying to weasel out of its obligation. It has applied to the commission to have the legal requirement removed. It would be bad enough if the commission allowed this, but most certainly if Capital Power got its way TransAlta would be asking for the same relief on Keephills 3.

“They’re basically saying it’s not fair,” said Chris Severson-Baker of the Pembina Institute, which is urging the commission to reject Capital Power’s request. Baker has the more detailed story here.

This is truly an unbelievable request. More than ever we need to move forward on emission reductions, not take steps backward. Alberta already has a sullied reputation when it comes to the tar sands and greenhouse-gas emissions. Reducing emissions from coal-fired plants — or at least offsetting them — is one way Alberta can try to buffer the emissions impact of the tar sands.

Both Capital Power and TransAlta know that the federal government will soon create regulations that require all new coal plants to meet the emissions profile of an equivalent-sized natural gas plant, and not through offset purchases, but through carbon capture and storage technologies. Genesee 3 has been operational for three years, and Keephills 3 will be coming online soon. They’ll be two of the newest coal plants in Canada and, by coming online before the federal rules, won’t have to comply until they reach the end of life in 40 years or so (though a future national cap-and-trade regime would presumably apply). If they can shake free of their commitment to the Alberta utilities commission it will mean more profits but more emissions as well.

I should say that Capital Power is arguing it should be permitted to break free from its earlier obligations so it can be subject to new provincial climate change pollution rules introduced a few years ago. The company says all power plants should be treated fairly and consistently and that its original voluntary commitment was not a permanent commitment, but that will be a matter to be decided by the commission. If the commission agrees, however, it will mean the 50-per-cent offset that Genesee 3 was once required to meet will fall to just 2 per cent under the province’s weaker rules and only reaching 12 per cent over the next six years. That’s a nice trade-off for Capital Power.

Letting them pull this kind of “bait and switch” would add significant GHGs in a province already struggling with an image problem. To cut Capital Power some slack would be an insult not just to Albertans, but to all Canadians.