Higher oil prices aren’t leading to higher clean energy investments… sadly, it’s quite the opposite

There’s been a lot of investment and deployment in renewable energy technologies for power generation and for displacing petroleum products, but as far as we’ve come over such a short time, and as much as triple-digit oil prices are helping to accelerate the transition, the disturbing fact is that higher-priced oil is leading to dramatically more investment in dirtier, harder to access and riskier to extract heavy oil. So while we may be experiencing the beginnings of “peak” conventional oil we’re also seeing the word “conventional” being refined to include heavier crude, starting with the oil sands and now moving toward oil shale and heavy oil trapped in aging oil fields of the Middle East. My Clean Break column takes a closer look at this issue and comes to the conclusion that higher fossil fuel prices alone won’t wean us off fossil fuels, it will only make us go for deeper, heavier and more remote resources in an effort to feed our petro addiction. The answer is to put a meaningful price on carbon, impose stricter environmental regulations and eliminate unnecessary incentives for the oil industry. Sadly, we’re heading in the wrong direction and there’s no sign in Canada or the United States of the political will, or public pressure, required to shift course. What we’ve seen so far is window dressing.

George Monbiot raised this issue in one of his recent columns. He cited the fact that Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, revealed in late April that crude oil production peaked in 2006. Yet the global economy didn’t collapse as predicted. Why not? “The reason, as Birol went on to explain, is that natural gas liquids and tar sands are already filling the gap,” Monbiot wrote. “Not only does the economy appear to be more resistant to resource shocks than we assumed, but the result of those shocks is an increase, not a decline, in environmental destruction.” The problem, Monbiot continued, isn’t that we have too little fossil fuel but too much. “As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines they’ll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world’s surface.”

We’re letting it happen. Until we stop letting it happen, things will continue as they are, despite talk of peak oil and despite rising oil and commodity prices.

Finally got a chance to test drive the Chevy Volt: A nice, smooth and quiet ride

The Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF) gathered several fleet managers from Toronto and surrounding areas this morning to test drive GM’s Chevy Volt, which isn’t on sale yet in Canada but should be by the end of this year. Through its FleetWise program TAF has launched its EV300 Initiative, which has a goal of getting at least 300 plug-in vehicles on Greater Toronto Area roads by 2012 so they can be monitored and studied. The idea is that any learning can be shared to help plan for and improve supporting EV charging infrastructure in the area. It’s also an opportunity for fleet managers participating in the initiative to compare notes and basically get a feel for how the cars behave in the real world. The Chevy Volt is one of several plug-in vehicle models expected to be added to fleets. The Nissan Leaf and I suspect the Mitsubishi iMiev will also be put to the test.

There were three Volts on hand this morning at the grounds of Toronto’s Exhibition Place. I’ve been in many electric vehicles and I have to say that the Volt was quite comfortable and ranked up there for having the best mix of smoothness, speed, space and comfort. I thought the car I was in had some tacky interior detailing, but fortunately that is optional. Near the end of our test drives, Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s The Agenda, coincidentally passed by en route to shooting one of his shows. The TAF folks convinced him to take a drive as well. (see pic top left… click on pics below for full view).

Help for renewables: new GE natural gas turbine meshes flexibility with combined-cycle efficiency

Natural gas-fired power generation has generally been considered necessary for the transition away from dirty electricity generated from coal toward clean electricity generated from renewables. Wind and solar are intermittent so integrating them into the grid means we have to be able to balance their intermittencies against another source of power generation that is flexible. That “other” source is natural gas, which despite its own controversies (particularly around emissions and water contamination as they relate to shale gas production) is generally much cleaner than coal.

But here’s the problem: There are two basic ways of deploying natural gas-fired power plants. One is in single-cycle mode, where you run the fuel once through a gas turbine. This kind of plant is usually used for peaking purposes because it can ramp power output up and down quite quickly, and because of this flexibility it is generally matched up with renewables — i.e. when the wind stops blowing the single-cycle peaking plant ramps up accordingly, and when the wind picks up the gas plant ramps down. This assures demand and supply on the grid remain in proper balance.

Unfortunately, single-cycle plants are not efficient. Only between 33 and 40 per cent of the natural gas fuel that goes into it produces electricity. The rest is lost as waste heat. Now, the alternative is to build combined-cycle plants. With these plants, natural gas fuel goes into a gas turbine, but the waste heat is captured and used to power a steam turbine. A combined-cycle gas plant can be between 55 and 60 per cent efficient. But the tradeoff is that it doesn’t have the flexibility that comes with single-cycle mode. So combined-cycle plants tend to run more like baseload generation, but with minor flexibility to adjust to slow-moving changes in system load. In other words, combined-cycle gas plants and intermittent renewables can play together but not very well.

Now, all of this is background for what I really want to tell you: General Electric announced yesterday in France that it has developed a new power plant design that achieves the flexibility of single-cycle with the efficiency of combined-cycled. The new plant, called FlexEfficiency 50, is basically a combined-cycle plant with 61 per cent efficiency that’s based on jet engine technology (a newly developed 9FB Gas Turbine) and waste-heat capture for driving a steam turbine (109D-14 turbine). GE has rated the plant’s output at 510 megawatts. According to GE, the plant can ramp up by 50 megawatts per minute, which is apparently double the ramp-up rate that exists today.

This might not seem like a big deal, and it’s certainly not the sexiest of stories, but if we’re going to rely more on natural gas as we transition to renewables, and if more of that gas is going to come from shale resources (meaning it will have a larger carbon footprint), then having a natural gas plant that’s both efficient and flexible is actually a very good thing to have over the coming years. This is especially true in regions such as California and Ontario that are hoping to integrate a large amount of renewables into their systems over the next decade.

Morgan Solar snags $16.5 million on way to closing Series B funding round

News that Toronto-based Morgan Solar raised another $16.5 million leaked out last week but the concentrated solar PV company is about to confirm the details, which include the fact that strategic investors Iberdrola and Nypro have returned for more. They join newcomer The Frost Group LLC, a private investment firm based in Miami that is led by Dr. Phillip Frost, who is also chairman of Teva Pharmaceuticals and CEO and chairman of OPKO Health, a publicly traded healthcare company that develops and commercializes a wide variety of medical products. The $16.5 million represents the bulk of what Morgan Solar is trying to raise in this round. For the rest, it’s aiming to bring aboard another strategic investor that has experience with project finance or develpment capabilities.

Morgan Solar is in the middle of ramping up. This year it expects to complete a number of demonstration projects at sites in Ontario and the United States. It’s establishing a manufacturing facility in San Diego, and it’s expanding its existing manufacturing and R&D presence in Ontario. The company’s Sun Simba product allows for the creation of super-thin CPV modules using proprietary light-guide solar optics, which continue to be unique in the industry as far as I can tell. Morgan Solar promises to deliver solar power — without subsidies — at costs that are grid competitive, and the company says it can offer this low-cost solar option this year, not in five years.

Personally, I look forward to checking out Morgan’s Ontario demonstration sites once they are complete, and I sincerely hope the Ontario government figured out a way to accommodate the company in the province’s feed-in-tariff program. Apparently there were some hiccups because the province’s local content rules didn’t account for the availability of CPV systems. Tisk, tisk.

Get rid of coal: doctor’s orders

The following Victoria Day weekend guest post is by Gideon Forman, executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) – along with nurses and leading health charities – is running an advertising campaign to support renewable power and the speedy phase-out of coal-fired electricity. It’s a project unique in the country. Under the heading, “Doctors and Nurses Support Green Energy”, the ads – which are appearing in 15 newspapers as well as in magazines and online – tell readers that last year Ontario’s coal plants caused over 150,000 illnesses and over 300 deaths. They state: “Ontario doctors, nurses, and other health professionals support energy conservation combined with wind and solar power – to help us move away from coal.”
The ads are signed by organizations — such as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the Lung Association, CAPE, and the Asthma Society of Canada – which represent literally tens of thousands of health professionals. These professionals have long condemned air pollution for its damage to human well-being. In a landmark report entitled “No Breathing Room” the Canadian Medical Association calculated that, in 2008, air pollution killed 21,000 Canadians and it projected that, by 2031, the “number of deaths due to long-term exposure to air pollution will be 710,000.”
But CAPE’s campaign is different because it does more than just assess harm – as important as that is. This initiative, for the first time in Canada, sees health professionals  combating air pollution by urging both an end to coal and an embrace of renewables. Ontario has promised to close its coal-burning plants by 2014 but doctors and nurses want it to happen much sooner. Continue reading Get rid of coal: doctor’s orders