Ontario needs to reconsider offshore wind in the Great Lakes, though it may need a different approach

My Clean Break column this week takes a look at Ontario’s decision back in February to put a moratorium — once again — on the development of offshore wind in the Great Lakes, and argues the province should reconsider development of this resource even if this time around it takes a more measured approached.

My own beef with the February moratorium is that the government cited environmental concerns that were supposedly addressed in a previous round of studies done prior to the lifting of the last ban in January 2008. At that time, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced that environmental studies had been done and, in his mind, “you can do it in a way that does not compromise ecosystems.” At that point, he fired a starting gun for industry and, to stimulate interest even further, the government included offshore wind in its feed-in-tariff program. Three years later — i.e. this past February — the plug was pulled once again. Turns out Ontario was jerking the industry’s chain.

Now, I can understand the desire to pull back a bit. One could easily argue that the government moved too fast by including offshore wind in the feed-in-tariff program. But why completely halt all development, indefinitely, especially when jurisdictions such as Ohio are pushing ahead? Why go so far as to tell all developers that if and when offshore wind is put back into play, they have to start from scratch (effectively rendering all past site-specific research and studies useless)? It made no sense.

Anyway, as you’ll read in the column, I think the government needs to reconsider its decision. Perhaps a way back into it is to start by focusing on a pilot project, maybe 50 to 100 MW in size, developed far enough offshore that it wouldn’t get the NIMBYs all worked up. This could be the basis of real-world study, during which new rules can be set making a distinction between near-shore and truly offshore resources, and bringing clarity to a new market craving guidance.

To simply sit back and let U.S. jurisdictions take the lead — and future manufacturing and job creation — isn’t fitting of a province with the most to gain from offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, and the most to offer.

Enbala Networks brings demand-response to grid regulation

Toronto-based Enbala Networks has brought demand-response to a new level — just don’t call it demand-response.

In traditional demand-response, companies such as Comverge and EnerNOC sign up dozens, potentially hundreds of clients that agree to reduce their energy demand when asked.  When a heat wave hits and electricity demand spikes, a power system operator will ask a Comverge or EnerNOC to orchestrate a large-scale demand reduction for a specific period of time. These companies (and their clients) get paid to reduce their electricity, with the idea being that the cost of such programs is far less expensive than the cost of building (and paying for) a natural gas peaker plant to do the job — that is, negawatts is cheaper than natural gas megawatts.

EnerNOC, for example, said it was able to reduce power demand across the United States last week by 1,230 megawatts when asked to kick its services into action.

But this is only one form of demand-response. What about the second-by-second fluctuations on the grid that require what the industry calls “regulation”? Regulation is a way to constantly balance supply and demand on the system, and it’s usually accomplished by power generators that get paid a hefty premium to do the job (In Ontario hydroelectric facilities in Niagara Falls play a major role). In early 2010, Enbala Networks decided to participate in an Ontario Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO) program aimed at proving that demand-response could work for regulation services as well.

The company issued a call in June 2010 for municipal and industrial partners that had the flexibility, when asked, to reduce power demand regularly throughout the day and night. Ideal candidates were water and wastewater treatment facilities, wood chipping and rock crushing facilities, companies that had large electric boilers, chillers and battery charging loads, and partners that relied heavily on industrial ventilation. In other words, anyone that used lots of electricity for equipment that could easily be turned on and off without materially affecting the overall operation of the organization. You might call it flexibility harvesting, and Enbala has built a smart grid platform that does it well.

Enbala went ahead with the pilot project and a year later the company and the IESO appear satisfied with the outcome. Now that proof-of-concept is out of the way, it will be interesting to see where it leads. Will Enbala be able to replicate it in other jurisdictions and turn it into a vibrant money-making business? Will the IESO expand the pilot into a full-scale commercial program, giving the Ontario grid a faster and cheaper way to balance supply and demand?

The smart grid demands no less, and this approach will become increasingly important, along with energy storage, as we add more intermittent renewables to the power mix.

You gotta boat, I need a boat, let’s save lots of money: P2P vehicle sharing expands from cars to boats. What’s next?

Okay, did anyone get that Pet Shop Boys reference in the headline? I kinda like it.

My Clean Break column today begins with a look at a new Web-based beta service launched by a Texas company called Nautical Monkey, and how the trend in peer-to-peer vehicle sharing is poised to expand into many new areas beyond the road. Nautical Monkey was designed to match up people who own boats with people who want to use boats but don’t want the hassle of owning one. The service let’s boat owners make some money on the side for the majority of the year when the boat sits idle, while also providing a way for folks like me — who could never justify buying a decent-sized boat and wouldn’t want the headache of owning one — to partake in the nautical experience without breaking the bank or my marriage. As I say in the column, it’s Craigslist meets Facebook meets Zipcar, with a twist on the traditional time-share model used today by vacationers. Nautical Monkey charges $10 a month for the service, and with that you get all the tools you need to connect with someone and manage the relationship.

It’s very interesting how technology is truly beginning to enable this whole peer-to-peer culture of asset sharing. We have services today like Zipcar (or, for my local homeys in Toronto, AutoShare), which is to car use what Napster was to digital music — a centrally managed system shared by many (though unlike Napster, Zipcar actually owns the asset it’s sharing). Now, we’re starting to see true peer-to-peer vehicle sharing services, where anybody with a car in their driveway can “rent” out their vehicles to neighbours and local strangers. Services like this — Getaround, RelayRides, Spride and Buzzcar among them — are more like all those music-sharing sites that use the BitTorrent platform. It’s not a direct analogy, but close enough. P2P vehicle sharing gets around the requirement for some centrally managed and owned fleet, which can become costly and can’t be done economically when expanding into less dense (i.e. suburban) areas. Now, there are major hurdles to overcome, such as murky insurance laws and logistical challenges, but I’m sure these will be dealt with over time and that first-generation car share providers will help legitimize the approach. For example, Montreal’s Communauto is the first in Canada that appears to be taking this on with the coming launch of a P2P vehicle sharing pilot project.

Now, Nautical Monkey comes along and brings the P2P sharing model to boats. The company has already indicated it’s interested in expanding the model to recreational vehicles, planes, and a host of other “assets” that I’m sure many people would feel comfortable sharing. As more people do, it lowers consumption and the energy required to feed higher consumption, and it creates positive behaviour. Car-share members, for example, tend to walk more, bicycle more, and take more public transit. Let’s face it folks, there’s no reason we all have to own this “stuff.”

Where will the P2P-sharing journey take us? Kayaks, lawn mowers, camping equipment, pressure washers, etc…  the opportunities are endless, and it may pose a significant threat in the not-so-distant future to traditional physical rent-all outlets.

This fuel-cell forklift thing may be catching on after all…

Ballard Power saw a nice lift in its otherwise depressed stock price with the announcement today that it will supply at least 3,250 fuel cell stacks over the next 18 months to Plug Power, which will incorporate the stacks into its own fuel cell systems designed for the materials handling industry — i.e. forklifts. “Ballard anticipates that both the scale and cadence of associated product shipments will contribute to increased manufacturing efficiency and reduced fuel cell stack cost,” according to the company’s press release. Plug Power CEO Andy Marsh said the agreement with Ballard “is a reflection of the continuing growth of the sector, including new customers like Kroger Co. and repeat customers such as Sysco, who all feed into our manufacturing pipeline. Whole Foods, BMW, Central Grocers, Coca-Cola, FedEx Freight, Walmart Canada and Wegmans are among the companies now using Plug Power/Ballard fuel cell systems as part of their fleets of forklifts. Neither Ballard nor Plug Power are profitable yet, but they’re getting closer. That day when they get out of the red will be a long time coming and one to celebrate in the industry.

Library Journal review of Mad Like Tesla: “This book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders”

Hi all, I’m delighted to report that the first review of my upcoming book, Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy, is in and it’s, well, pretty encouraging. Here’s what Library Journal, an important industry trade magazine used as a purchasing guide by library buyer and book wholesalers, had to say:

Hamilton, energy and technology writer for the Toronto Star, examines some of the latest, most far-out green energy innovations and the people behind them. How far-out? Take, for example, a retired engineer’s idea to produce electricity via an artificial tornado, or a plan for a space-based power station that would harvest the sun’s energy, using microwaves to beam it down to earth. Other gizmos and processes seem more amenable to commercial success and social acceptance: Hamilton tells of a secretive company called EEStor that claims to have made a breakthrough in energy storage, and of a team building a low-cost nuclear fusion reactor. He strikes a fine balance between hope and hard realism when considering barriers to energy transition. As the “tornado guy” says, upon considering financial and regulatory obstacles: “Holy crap, that’s a lot to get through.” VERDICT: Mad Like Tesla is easy to get through, even for readers with only a basic knowledge of energy issues. Hamilton makes complex technologies comprehensible, and he clearly enjoys the remarkable human stories behind the science. Many of the risk takers and visionaries portrayed are Canadian (rocker Neil Young makes a cameo appearance!), but this book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders.

Can’t complain with that. The book is scheduled for public release on Sept. 1 and is already available for pre-order on a number of sites, including Amazon.com/Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca. The book won’t break the bank, either. We decided to do paperback release on first run to make the book more accessible to a larger audience. You can likely pick it up for $13 or so. I built a Web site I’m not entirely happy with, so plan to have a newly designed site finished by the end of August. Stay tuned!