Modifying wind turbines so they kill fewer bats… it can — and is — being done

My Clean Break column today takes a look at the importance of bats when it comes to agriculture and how bat populations, under threat by white nose syndrome and wind turbines, are getting some help by the Electric Power Research Institute. EPRI researchers have designed a system that can detect a bat’s echolocation call and adjust the operation of a wind turbine to reduce its potential for harm. The researchers have run the models and done preliminary ground tests, and are close to demonstrating the system on the nacelle of a GE wind turbine. The ultimate goal is to have the detection system a common, build-in feature of wind turbines, completely integrated into the turbine’s control system. It’s just the latest example of how innovative thinking is addressing some of the problems associated with wind energy. Siemens and Vestas are watching the research closely.

Happy (or sad) Earth Day: A Gallup poll that’s encouraging and disturbing at the same time


The kind of good news: the majority of Canadians know about climate change and believe global warming is caused primarily by human activities. Even better, 76 per cent of those surveyed in regions dubbed “Developed Asia” have reached the same conclusion.

The clearly bad news: nearly half (47 per cent) of Americans believe global warming is the result of natural causes, and only a third say human activities. I wonder what Adam and Eve would say? Hmmm….

The clearly depressing news: On average, 36 per cent of folks in the entire world aren’t even aware of global warming as an issue, and in Africa and developing parts of Asia that figure climbs to a stunning 50 per cent!!! These, ironically and sadly, are the people who will be most affected by it.

Temporal Power brings new spin to flywheel energy storage

A Burlington, Ontario-based startup called Temporal Power is the focus of my Clean Break column in today’s Toronto Star. Temporal has designed a stationary flywheel energy storage system that it claims can dramatically outperform the next-best system on the market, which you might say comes from Mass.-based Beacon Power. The company has filed patents on the system but they have yet to become public — likely in a few months. Until then, the company is keeping quiet about how it achieves its claimed performance, and I don’t blame them given the competitive pressures. The story behind how the company came about, however, is interesting. And if Temporal can convincingly demonstrate what it claims, it could prove a breakthrough for economical grid-scale energy storage.

For a good primer and innovation update on flywheel energy storage systems, check out this recent story in the Washington Post. My column also explains the basics of how the systems work and the challenges of making them efficient and economical.

So what does Temporal claim? The company says it has designed a system with zero parasitic losses and extremely low friction using relatively simple and easily available components. It uses permanent magnets, not electromagnets, but the overall integration of components is largely a mystery — for now. It claims its flywheel will lose less than 5 per cent of its energy after up to 10 hours of spinning, making it ideal for storing energy from a wind farm in the evening and dispatching it hours later when the power is needed. This is a departure for flywheel systems, which are typically used for short-term energy backup and services such as grid regulation.

The company plans to standardize on 50-kilowatt-hour units, double the size of the main Beacon model, and these systems could be grouped together to achieve a larger scale of energy storage. It already has a working 20-kilowatt-hour prototype. Its first demonstration is likely to be a 10-flywheel project deployed in Hydro One’s distribution network, where the technology will absorb fluctuations from nearby wind turbines in an area of the grid that has strained capacity. The project is partially funded by a grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

I’ve already received a couple of e-mails from skeptics who say flywheels have been researched for years and what Temporal is claiming can’t possibly be done, at least not economically and reliably. I always get a kick out of these knee-jerk, borderline arrogant reactions, usually by engineers who think they’re smarter than everyone else and that anything new can’t be true because, if it was, it would have already been done. I like to keep an open mind. No doubt, others will question the fact Temporal isn’t explaining in detail how it can do what it claims, but really folks, why would it reveal its secret sauce at this point? Why would it risk erasing a competitive edge prematurely?

 Anyway, skepticism is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t degenerate into outright uninformed dismissal.

Do solar PV panels add value to your home? The U.S. Department of Energy thinks so

The study was focused on California, but new research from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory could give us a peek into how home valuations across North American are affected by the installation of rooftop solar PV systems. The research was based on an analysis of 72,000 homes sold between 2000 and 2009, of which 2,000 had rooftop PV systems at the time of sale. It found that, on average, the premium fetched through the sale of the home more or less matched the initial capital investment in the solar PV system. In other words, not only does a homeowner benefit directly from the clean energy produced while living in the home, but they get a return on their initial investment through the sale of their home. Looked at this way, it dramatically changes the economics of purchasing a rooftop PV system.

The Berkeley Lab research is the first to empirically explore the existence and magnitude of residential PV sales price impacts across a large number of homes and over a wide geographic area. “This is the most comprehensive and data-rich analysis to date of the potential influence of PV systems on home sales prices,” says co-author and San Diego State University Economics Department Chair Mark Thayer. The research controlled for a large number of factors that might influence results, such as housing market fluctuations, neighborhood effects, the age of the home, and the size of the home and the parcel on which it was located. The resulting premiums associated with PV systems were consistent across a large number of model specifications and robustness tests.

There’s no saying this research is representative of other markets, such as Ontario, where general attitudes and perceptions of solar technology are likely quite different from those in California. However, it’s encouraging to know that if a homeowner does invest in such a system as part of participation in the province’s feed-in-tariff program, there’s a good chance that if you decide a few years later to sell your home there’s some like-minded individual out there willing to pay a premium in recognition of the investment you have made. An Ontario-focused study, similar to the one done by the Berkelely Lab, should probably be done in the 2013-2014 timeframe. Perhaps this is something a university, such as Queen’s or U of Waterloo, should start planning.

Good news for Canadian green technology inventors: patenting your idea just got easier, quicker

I’d like to draw attention to changes in the Canadian Patent Rules which went into effect in March 2011. The amendments basically expedite the examination process for patent applications related to “green technology.” As Wilfred So of law firm Blakes writes, “The Canadian government’s position is that fast-tracking green technology patent applications is for the public benefit and is aligned with other priorities on science and technology. The government has stated that this approach supports the growth of small- and medium-sized enterprises, develops a clean energy economy, and is responsive to global warming.”

Other countries that expedite the examination of green technology patent applications include Australia, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For more info on this, check out this Blakes bulletin.