Toronto’s AutoShare adds six plug-in vehicles to its local car-sharing fleet

It’s good to see the first car-share program in Toronto begin to embrace plug-in vehicles. CarShare, which has about 10,000 members, is part of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund’s EV300 Initiative and announced yesterday that it will be introducing a half dozen plug-in vehicles — full electric, extended range and plug-in hybrid — to its citywide fleet. The first location is downtown at Mountain Equipment Co-Op’s King St. and Spadina Ave. store. This location makes sense, given the progressive and eco-aware nature of MEC’s customers. Members of AutoShare will get a chance to reserve the Mitsubishi i-Miev that will be based at the charging spot, giving Torontonians an easy way to test drive plug-in vehicles and get a feel for their performance. I’ve always thought that car-share programs and even car rental agencies are the best avenue through which electric vehicles can be introduced to the broader public, who may be curious about these vehicles but really have no other way to get a feel for the technology. As AutoShare president Kevin McLaughlin said, “This is the first step in letting Torontonians experience the future of the personal mobility.”

I use ZipCar myself, only because it has more convenient pick-up locations in my neighbourhood, but am a big fan of AutoShare and am eager to join up when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t know if ZipCar has plans to introduce plug-in vehicles to its fleet, but I hope it does — in fact, if it doesn’t, it could be the one thing that gets me to jump ship to AutoShare (or simply be members of both services).

Great post-debate TV debate between Tom Rand and Bjorn Lomborg

This afternoon at the International/Canadian District Energy Associations’ annual conference in Toronto there was an interesting — if not overly structured — debate between “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg, waste-heat recycling evangelist Tom Casten, and Toronto’s own Tom Rand, author of Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit and a cleantech advisor at the MaRS Discovery District.

I think both Toms did a superb job, particularly in their opening arguments, but Lomborg continues to just talk in circles about how climate change, while a problem, is overhyped and that instead of spending money on action today we should invest instead in R&D and wait for that magic day when somebody walks out of a lab and says, “Eureka! The world’s problems are solved.” He completely ignores points about how all past industries and major innovations required a degree of government support and that, at the beginning, they too came with higher costs. He also ignores that silver bullet solutions aren’t just hatched from eggs only to land directly in the market with chicken legs running. R&D is arguably the shortest step in a long path toward commercialization, even if the innovation in question is considered disruptive or a breakthrough. I’d be curious to know exactly what kind of breakthrough innovation he believes R&D might deliver us.

Anyway, my comments here do no justice to Tom Rands debating skills. I’d rather point you to an excellent post-debate TV debate between Lomborg and Rand that ran this afternoon on Canada’s Business News Network. You can watch the segment here.

Spray-on solar based on nanoparticles takes another step closer to reality

I had a nice chat Sunday with Ted Sargent, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto who is also Canada Research Chair in nanotechnology. Sargent and his team have for the past six years led research on the development of colloidal quantum-dot (CQD) solar cells. The basic concept, which I first wrote about back in May 2005, has to do with the ability to design nanoparticles that are tuned to absorb a specific part of the electromagnetic spectrum of sunlight — that is, the ability to create quantum dots that can tap into both the visible and invisible spectrum of light. The potential, of course, is the ability to place these particles in some kind of liquid that becomes part of a high-volume spray-on process for manufacturing solar PV cells. Sargent’s goal is to produce a solar cell that’s both extremely low cost to make but without sacrificing efficiency, which is generally the case today.

Over the years Sargent’s group has steadily improved the technology, including extracting electrons from the solar cells more efficiently. From efficiencies of less than 1 per cent six years ago they’re now up above 5 per cent. Another way of improving efficiency is to design tandem and triple-junction solar cells, where each layer is specifically and optimally tuned to the slice of spectrum it wants to capture. “You can change the colours of light they absorb very readily by just changing the size of the nanoparticles,” Sargent explained to me. But if you want two layers — one for invisible spectrum and one for visible — it means you have to stack them in a way where you don’t compromise the efficiency of one or both layers. Sargent, whose group just released its latest study in the journal Nature Photonics, says they have cracked that nut. “The bottom line is, we’ve figured out how to stack these two solar cells on top of each other and make a totally smooth path for electrons to flow between these two cells.” It removes a major barrier to progress.

Achieving this flow isn’t so easy. Sargent says there’s a high wall for these electrons to pass, so the trick is to lower the wall separating the front and back layers (both made of titanium dioxide boosted with light absorbers) or make the wall easier to surmount. The solution was what Sargent’s team labelled the Graded Recombination Layer, which is composed of a series of conductive metal oxides — starting with molybdenum, then indium-tin, then zinc and finally titanium –that help transport the electrons between layers. “It’s a staircase, a little escalator, that brings electrons from the front cell to the back cell without having the losses,” says Sargent, who also likes to make comparisons to an electron ladder. “We ended up building a ladder with step heights that make it easier for the electrons to surmount.”

The device they built is only a couple of millimetres square, but that’s all you need to show the approach works. It achieved 4.2 per cent efficiency, with about two-thirds of that coming from visible spectrum and the remaining third from infrared spectrum. This is less than the single-junction efficiency record, but Sargent says for this experiment the objective wasn’t to improve efficiency but to establish an efficient flow between the two cells. The next step will be to up the efficiency, and even look at triple- or quadruple-junction cells.

As far as technology commercialization goes, Sargent’s goal is to achieve 10 per cent efficiency, which with the potential for super low-cost manufacturing would allow for the manufacture of flexible solar PV modules for about 50 cents per watt peak solar — a highly competitive price-point. After that, the group will shoot for 18 per cent efficiency. The goal is to achieve the highest efficiencies at the lowest possible cost. “We don’t want to sacrifice either,” he says. Asked about competition from other solar technologies, such as organic solar cells or thin-film cells based on CIGS or cadmium telluride, he’s optimistic about the superiority of the quantum dot approach. “We have solid reasons to believe we can be superior on cost and have a roadmap to be potentially better in terms of efficiency.”

It may contaminate your well water and emit more emissions than expected, but is shale gas business also a Ponzi scheme?

The New York Times had a great piece today called “Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush,” which quotes from among hundreds of industry e-mails and insider documents suggesting that shale gas isn’t as easy or inexpensive to extract from the ground as claimed. Some of the e-mails compare the current shale-gas lovefest to a dot-com bubble destined to burst, or to a giant Ponzi scheme because the economics don’t work. I’m sure the economics do work on a certain percentage of wells, but when companies talk generally about the productivity of shale-gas wells or the size of their reserves are they exaggerating reality? Are they pumping up their stocks and duping investors? And if so, are we grossly overestimating the true contribution — environmental problems aside — shale gas can make to our energy future?

This reminds me of some comments Jeff Rubin made during a chat we had in December. Rubin, former chief economist at CIBC World Markets and author of Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, compared the current path of the shale-gas industry to what we saw with the sub-prime mortgage market. Here’s what he had to say, taken from a Q&A that ran in the Toronto Star:

The debate is about the real cost. If you exclude the natural gas liquids that come with most shale projects, is the real cost $4 per Mcf (1,000 cubic feet) or is it $8? If the real cost is $8 then a lot of people, like Chesapeake Energy, the biggest gas producer in the U.S., have a big problem. Is shale gas the sub-prime mortgage market of the natural gas market? Is this one giant con and investors are being conned into thinking there’s a huge supply of gas at $4 when it really costs $7 or $8 to bring it to market? In the fullness of time economics will assert itself, just as it did in the sub-prime mortgage market.

The question is, when will that time come?

Home energy management technologies, if they are to be embraced, will have to be bundled with other “stuff” we want

Sorry for the extended lull. I’ve been off sick. My Clean Break column today takes a look at the overcrowded market for home-energy management devices and systems. There are many — arguably too many — different flavours and approaches out there, and for the average consumer it must be pretty darn confusing and at times overwhelming to hear about what’s coming, but not have a sense of what it means and why, beyond the hype, anyone should buy into it.

That’s assuming consumers are even listening. To be fair it is still early days, but you have to wonder whether market expectations placed on consumers — and by that I mean people who get an electricity bill every month — are unrealistically high.

I mean, we all know energy prices are rising and that, to help manage the impact, we’ll need to start consuming electricity more wisely and less often. Energy management technologies are one way to do this, but at what cost and sacrifice of time? You can spend hundreds of dollars on some of the options out there, but do the savings justify the upfront expense? Large commercial building owners are one thing, but are consumers going to go through that complex calculation for each new product on the market? I doubt it. Plus, as I write in my column, energy management as a product or service has other hurdles to jump:

As cool as these technologies are — at least for the tech-heads among us — let’s remember they’re not offering the kind of entertainment or services that might convince folks to upgrade their cable package or Internet hardware, or buy that big-screen TV.

Monitoring your electricity use isn’t enjoyable and getting to know the operation of your refrigerator better isn’t what I’d call fun. It’s not like hanging out on Facebook, Skyping with friends, or tuning into your favourite prime-time TV show.

There’s nothing sexy about energy management. It’s likely to be an annoyance to most people already suffering from information overload and other complexities of life. For this reason alone, the simpler and least intrusive the energy management technology the better.

On that note, I’m convinced that energy management will only fully penetrate the home by piggy-backing on other products and services that consumers are truly interested in, whether it be electronic entertainment, online connectivity or mobility, or home security. In this sense, energy management is just another “app” — and maybe even a free one — that’s part of a bundle of services on offer that are embedded in a single technology platform. People don’t want to buy more devices unnecessarily to accommodate some new communications protocol, like ZigBee. They also want services and devices that can accommodate new applications. For example, energy management today is largely focused on electricity consumption but shouldn’t we also have a strong sense of how much natural gas and water we’re using?

This seems to be the thinking, increasingly, of large broadband providers. Recently, Palo Alto, Calif.-based iControl announced it had raised more than $50 million in a Series D financing.  The company has a home automation platform and supporting devices that combines home security, healthcare monitoring and energy management in a single package, all capable of being remotely monitored through the Web or mobile devices. U.S. cable giant Comcast was part of the round, which isn’t surprising given that it has already started to offer iControl’s services to its existing customer base. Canadian readers should find it interesting that Rogers Communications also invested in the round, meaning the new home automation platform it talked about launching earlier this year will likely be based on iControl technology. The company’s “smart home monitoring” is “coming soon,” according to its Web site, which shows a picture of the same iControl display being used by Comcast. (Control4 is another platform I like)

This, in my view, is how energy management is going to be sold to homeowners. As a standalone service it won’t get traction, but by riding on the coattails of other offerings there’s a chance that, over time, we can at least put the necessary tools in the hands of consumers. Whether they use them or not will be their choice, but if it costs too much, is difficult to set up or navigate, or doesn’t deliver the expected benefits within a short period of time, it’s destined to fail.