Ontario, as expected, delays bulb ban — and its reason for doing so doesn’t stand up

On Dec. 16 I first hinted it would happen — and now it has.  Just days before Christmas, the Ontario government has backed away from plans to start phasing our inefficient light bulbs on Jan. 1, 2012. You can read in my earlier post why I think that is a mistake, and how the McGuinty government can no longer be believed when it says it cares about the impacts of climate change and recognizes the urgency of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Let me be clear: the Green Energy Act is great and full of potential, and the feed-in-tariff program is helping create green jobs, but it’s probably one of the most expensive ways to reduce emissions in Ontario. The government likes to point to the coal phaseout as if that’s all that needs to be done, but by neglecting the low-hanging fruit that is energy efficiency, it is showing that it’s still only interested in half-measures and sexy solutions that make for a great photo opp.

But what fires me up most is Energy Minister Chris Bentley’s reason for the delay to 2014.  He more or less blamed the federal government for being first to impose a delay, telling the Toronto Star it was essential to harmonize with the federal schedule. “To ensure a consistent approach and to make compliance easier for consumers, retailers and manufacturers, the province proposes to harmonize compliance dates for incandescent light bulbs with the federal government,” the Star quotes an energy ministry official in a statement.

This completely contradicts Ontario’s earlier motives. Remember, it was Ontario that made the first move, announcing in mid-April 2007 it planned a phaseout of inefficient bulbs. This made it the first jurisdiction in North America to make such a commitment. Apparently harmonization of policy wasn’t a concern back then, as the federal government didn’t announce its intentions to do the same until a week later. McGuinty at the time basked in the glow of showing leadership on this issue. Leadership and setting an example mattered. Now it apparently doesn’t. Following is more important now.

British Columbia, meanwhile, announced its own planned ban after Ontario and has already followed through. That’s leadership, the same kind of leadership it showed by introducing a carbon tax.


Biofuels production is not our wisest use of limited land resources

My Clean Break column this past week looks at the missed opportunity of growing crops for biofuel production when making green chemicals is a higher value proposition, both economically and environmentally.


By Tyler Hamilton

About seven million tonnes of grain corn was grown in Ontario in 2011, and by year’s end roughly 30 per cent of that is expected to go toward ethanol fuel production.

Let’s ignore for the moment the whole food-versus-fuel debate, and assume that devoting nearly a third of Ontario corn production to making renewable fuel doesn’t help drive up global food prices, or for that matter, reduce our capacity to feed the world.

Let’s focus instead on the use of corn as part of a greenhouse-gas reduction strategy that returns more economic value per harvested bushel. Through this lens, is biofuel production the best use of a renewable but also land-limited resource?

Corn, after all, doesn’t have to be made into ethanol and burned in the gas tanks of our cars to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It can also be used to make a variety of “green” chemicals that form the basis of a wide variety of products currently made from petroleum-based chemicals.

Let’s take, for example, Burlington, Ont.-based EcoSynthetix, which takes starch from corn to make certain biopolymers. These biodegradable biopolymers can displace petroleum-based ingredients used to make coatings for packaging and cardboard, adhesives, carpet backing, building materials and a wide range of other products.

John van Leeuwen, chairman and chief executive of EcoSynthetix, which had a successful initial public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange in August, says he can make $35 worth of biolatex for every bushel of corn the company consumes in its process.

Ethanol, by comparison, fetches about $10 for every bushel of corn, he says. Indeed, the amount of corn that’s consumed annually by 10 large ethanol production plants – out of about 200 in North America—could probably supply enough starch for the entire emulsion polymer market worldwide if it were to switch to 100 per cent biopolymers.

More than that, EcoSynthetix’s biopolymer can compete head on with petroleum-based polymers that currently dominate the marketplace, unlike the heavily-subsidized ethanol industry. “We don’t need subsidies. We can actually go into a deal and offer a discount against petroleum-based products to win business,” says van Leeuwen.

Asked about the growing volume of corn consumed by the ethanol industry, van Leeuwen, without pointing fingers, responds sensibly. “We really need to be thoughtful as an industry to make sure what we make derives maximum value from our agricultural feedstocks.”

Such wise advice could be directed to Canada’s bioproducts sector as a whole, which as I wrote in August has been shrinking when it should be flourishing. That was the conclusion of a report by the Richard Ivey School of Business, which called Canada’s performance on the global stage “disappointing.”

In that report, ethanol represented more than two-thirds of Canada’s bio-products market, while higher-value polymers accounted for just 2 per cent and organic chemicals 12 per cent. In the area of green chemicals, Canada’s landscape was described as “stagnant.”

This isn’t just about corn; it’s also about how we choose to use agricultural residues, municipal organic waste, wood waste, algae biomass, and non-food crops.

Does it make sense to just burn this material for energy, or convert it into fuel so it can be burned? Or, should we be doing a better job of targeting niche markets with high-value “green” products that are just as effective at reducing our dependence on fossil fuels?

“There is an overemphasis on biomaterials as a source for energy,” says Dr. Rui Resendes, executive director of Kingston-based GreenCentre Canada, which helps commercialize green chemistry innovations coming out of Canadian universities.

And that energy isn’t as green as often claimed. After all, Resendes points out, the fertilizers used to grow crops are petroleum-based, as are many other products consumed along the supply chain.

“Just because you pluck it out of farmer’s field doesn’t mean it’s sustainable,” he says, adding that the entire value chain has to be considered. This is where green chemistry and the products it supports play a crucial role. “I’m a firm believer in technologies that are addressing niche markets where volumes are much smaller and margins are much higher.”

Green chemicals may be a broad category, but it’s one that serves highly targeted markets where petroleum-based products currently dominate, including the manufacture of fertilizers, polymers, and lubricants, to name a few.

And, as EcoSynthetix is demonstrating, you can be competitive and aim for profitability without relying on subsidies.

This isn’t to suggest we abandon biofuels. Renewable jet fuel, for instance, is emerging as an attractive subcategory of green fuels and fulfills a role that electricity, while an alternative source of energy for consumer vehicles, simply can’t based on current-day technology.

But certainly Canada can have a much more balanced portfolio, and that means doing a better job of nurturing our green chemistry sector, and – in the particular case of corn – getting more pop per kernel.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Breaking: U.S. delays bulb ban. Is Ontario poised to backtrack on its commitment?

When the Canadian federal government decided earlier this year to delay plans to phase out inefficient light bulbs, it drew the ire of environmental groups who argued the delay was unnecessary and would further set back the government’s already weak emissions-reduction strategy. The Pembina Institute, for example, said the two-year delay — from Jan 1, 2012 to Jan 1, 2014 — would negate 13 million of avoidable greenhouse gas emissions and potentially $300 million in permanent energy savings.

Fortunately, the provinces can do their own thing. As of Jan. 1, 2010, for example, retailers in British Columbia have been prohibited from restocking 75-watt and 100-watt incandescent bulbs. It was also assumed that Ontario would follow through with a similar commitment beginning Jan. 1, 2012, but there’s a strong possibility the government will backtrack at the 11th hour.

I was curious about the status of the planned phaseout, so put in a query to the Ontario Ministry of Energy. Here was the initial reply: “Following the decision by the federal government, Ontario is reviewing its options to proceed with proposed efficiency standards for general service lighting,” wrote spokesman Paul Gerard in an e-mailed reply. I asked whether the review would continue into next year, meaning the government would miss the Jan. 1 start date of the phaseout. “The outcome of the review will be announced very shortly, before the new year,” Gerard replied.

I’m not expecting good news — you never get good news during the holiday season. It may be that the province will stick to its guns and follows through, but I’m getting the feeling they won’t given the fact that, just today, U.S. Congress succeeded in neutering its own country’s 2012 light bulb phaseout by preventing the U.S. Department of Energy from enforcing the law, as detailed in the Energy and Independence Security Act 2007.

That would be a tremendous shame, making one question whether Ontario — despite the rhetoric — is taking the issue of greenhouse-gas reductions seriously. It would also further tarnish Canada’s already lackluster reputation on the climate file in the aftermath of climate talks in Durban, South Africa. At a time when we should be adding to our efforts, it seems we’re instead backtracking on previous commitments, including delaying our participation in the Western Climate Initiative (fortunately Quebec is following through). The momentum is in the wrong direction, and this is alarming. Perhaps some public pressure is needed over the next few days to convince Ontario to stick with its guns and start the light bulb phaseout Jan. 1, as planned.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about banning incandescent bulbs — this is about bulb efficiency, where compact fluorescent bulbs and LED bulbs have the advantage. But there have been innovations around incandescent technology as well. As Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, pointed out today, “five manufacturers are now producing and selling efficient incandescent bulbs that meet the standards.”  In the U.S. context law-abiding companies will still follow the rule. “Less scrupulous companies will take advantage of the lack of enforcement, selling products that waste energy and increase energy costs for consumers. If many manufacturers take advantage of the lack of enforcement, recent investments that these five manufacturers have made to produce efficient lamps could be undermined.”

Ontario needs to consider this as well. Many companies have made business decisions based on the expectation of a phaseout starting Jan. 1. Companies such as Sears Canada and IKEA have already stopped selling (inefficient) incandescent bulbs, proving that the time is right to follow through. There’s no justification for putting on the brakes now. Indeed, by forging ahead Ontario can stand out as a leader and not fall under the shadow of a federal government that’s more concerned about short-term economic gain than the long-term health of our economy and environment.

So what path will you choose, Mr. McGuinty?

Nuclear power at a crossroads

My Clean Break column this week picks up on the noticeable absence — or quietness — of the nuclear power lobby at the climate talks in Durban these past two weeks, and the declining fortunes of the industry. This is good or bad, depending on your perspective. If you’re a George Monbiot, you’re worried about the impact on our already impossible struggle against climate change. If you’re Greenpeace, you’re saying good riddance. Some believe in a post-Fukushima world that low natural gas prices and the high cost of conventional fission reactors are creating a rare opportunity for the emergence of better, safer and lower-cost nuclear technology designs. That may be so, if you’re an optimistic, but those will still take time to develop… ah yes, time. We could use more of that.


Tyler Hamilton

For years the nuclear power lobby has muscled its way into international climate negotiations and asserted itself as a critical part of any serious effort to reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Not so much during climate talks in Durban, South Africa, these past two weeks. There were some media mentions and the occasional sound bite from industry officials, but the nuclear lobby — still suffering from a Fukushima hangover — stayed relatively quiet this time around.

Even Patrick Moore, Greenpeace [alleged?] co-founder turned nuclear booster, seems to have moved on. His gig these days is defending the oilsands, part of a recent advertising campaign from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan certainly served a blow to the nuclear power industry. The low price of natural gas and the global economic downturn — and reduced demand for electricity — hasn’t helped matters.

The economics of building new nuclear plants also remain in question. A report just released by the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association points out that even before the Fukushima accident, the decades-long trend of reactor projects being delayed and coming in dramatically over budget was still a reality, as recent experiences in Finland and France clearly show.

The Worldwatch Institute reported last week that generating capacity of the world’s nuclear power fleet dropped 2.4 per cent in 2011, causing nuclear’s share of the world energy mix to fall slightly.

The first 10 months of this year saw the closing of 13 reactors, contributing to a reduction in the total number in operation around the world to 433 from 441. Growth is happening in developing countries such as China, India and Pakistan, but these are far outweighed by reactor shutdowns in France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom.

So much for the much-heralded nuclear renaissance. “These numbers can hardly encourage the (nuclear) industry,” said Worldwatch president Robert Engelman.

As much as the anti-nuclear lobby must be cheering, these numbers also beg the question: if not nuclear, then what?

Some environmentalists, while not particularly fans of nuclear power, do worry about the pullback and how it will impact what are already pitiful efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

If, for example, a decline in nuclear capacity means more countries — particularly China — burning more coal and natural gas instead of embracing more renewable energy, then we’re merely trading one risk for another (out-of-control climate change) with a more certain, broad-reaching outcome.

As U.K. Guardian columnist and environmentalist George Monbiot has said, “The choice between renewables and nuclear is a false one. We appear to need both” – as painful a reality as that might be.

If we accept this, then the question shouldn’t be about how to get rid of nuclear power, but about how to make it better and safer.

“For nuclear to gain significant share, it must change,” writes U.K. journalist Mark Halper in a recent report on emerging nuclear innovations, penned for Canadian cleantech consultancy Kachan & Co.

Fukushima gave the world cause for pause, according to the report, but it also created an opportunity to move the nuclear industry in a new direction. “There has never been a better time for mavericks to come forward with safer, better and less costly ways to split atoms or, in the case of the elusive but reachable notion of fusion, to meld them together.”

In Halper’s view, part of the problem is that the nuclear technology we have today was a poor choice from the start, given that it produces weapons-grade plutonium as its waste, is vulnerable to meltdowns, and can potentially release dangerous amounts of radioactive material if something goes horribly wrong.

There were many alternatives to choose from half a century ago, but the fission reactor design most in use today was the result of Cold War decision-making.

“As undesirable as plutonium waste is today, it was in demand during the atomic weapons build up of the Cold War, helping the water-cooled uranium reactor win the day in the 1960s,” Halper writes. “It was a VHS victory over several superior Betamax alternatives.”

Some Betamax alternatives, however, are trying to make a comeback. The Kachan report outlines a number of technology alternatives currently in play, some of them based on designs or ideas that have been around for several decades.

Included in this list are reactors that use thorium as fuel instead of uranium, or which are cooled using gas. Molten salt, pebble bed and fast-neutron reactors are also being seriously considered. And yes, even fusion technology, including a mechanical reactor from Vancouver-based General Fusion, is grabbing attention.

Some designs deal with the toxic waste and nuclear proliferation issues. Others improve significantly on safety, such as eliminating the potential for meltdown. This is all exciting news for those outside the old boys nuclear club.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer a quick fix. Our nuclear regulators, underfunded as they are, haven’t the resources and time to understand, let alone establish rules for, new nuclear reactor designs. It will take many years, perhaps decades, for competing technologies to take hold.

But time is something severely lacking when it comes to avoiding the worst effects of climate change. This, even with “old” nuclear technology in decline and better alternatives on the rise, is the conundrum we face.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Evergreen Brick Works: a panel and presentation on technology and sustainability

FYI: This is a presentation and panel that I participated in in late September at the Evergreen Brick Works Forum on Leadership, Innovation and Sustainability. We were confined to a PechaKucha presentation format, meaning you have to go through 20 slides and spend no more than 20 seconds on each one — i.e. total presentation of just six minutes and 40 seconds. Needless to say, we all felt rushed, but it allowed more time for discussion. You can find the other panels here, as well as video of the keynote presentation from Jeremy Rifkin.