Siemens to acquire Canada’s RuggedCom for $382 million, a 50% premium to Belden’s hostile offer

Good news for shareholders of Toronto-based RuggedCom, one of the world’s leading makers of ruggedized networking gear for the smart grid. Facing a hostile takeover from St. Louis-based Belden Inc., RuggedCom has found a white knight in Siemens Canada Ltd., the Canadian subsidiary of German industrial giant Siemens AG.

Siemens has agreed to purchase RuggedCom for $382 million or $33 a share, compared to the $272.4 million or $22 a share offer from Beldon. It represents a 50% premium on a per-share basis and, quite frankly, Siemens is a better fit for RuggedCom and for keeping innovation in Ontario.

Siemens Canada, which is based in Burlington, Ont., has a strong and growing presence in Canada — about 4,400 employees and $3 billion in annual revenues. It is also pushing hard into the same smart grid space occupied by its main competitor, General Electric. Ontario is shaping up to become a hub of smart grid development in North America, so it makes sense for Siemens and Vaughan, Ont.-based RuggedCom to hook up.

I was the first journalist to write about RuggedCom with a story in the Toronto Star back in July 2006. Since then it has consistently grown revenues and profits, even during the downturn. “Either we’re going to get acquired by a strategic peer or reach a point where we’ve got … a good story to take it to an IPO,” company founder and CEO Marzio Pozzuoli confidently told me when we first spoke nearly six years ago. Pozzuoli, by the way, was a technology manager in GE’s power management operation before deciding to leave the company to found RuggedCom. Such a good move. The successful IPO part came true in 2007, and now the strategic acquisition part is coming true with the Siemens purchase. As Pozzuoli stated today, “We have great respect for Siemens and believe RuggedCom will be well positioned for continued growth and industry leadership under their ownership.”

Could RuggedCom have done it alone? Perhaps — but with the massive clout of Siemens behind it, it can do a heck of a lot better. That’s just how the cleantech space is expected to be over the coming years, as startups with great technology and proven leadership seek the resources and reach of established multinationals. An added benefit to this deal is that it seems to reinforce Siemens’ commitment to Ontario.

Boomers get boost as high-end bicycle tour company embraces electric bikes

My Clean Break column today takes a look at how Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, the high-end travel company, has slowly started to add electric bicycles to its fleet as a way to accommodate aging boomers and people of different fitness levels. Replacing regular bikes with e-bikes on a tour isn’t really an environmental story, for obvious reasons, but this is a positive health story if it means getting more people out and exercising. And in a broader sense, e-bikes could encourage more people to get out of their cars. In that sense there are environmental benefits to this tech.

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Tyler Hamilton

We’ve all met them. Super-couples that hike together, run half-marathons side by side, and jump out of airplanes holding hands.

Sickening. Young and old, they make the rest of us feel inadequate.

But super-couples are an anomaly. The reality is that many couples aren’t such a good match when it comes to physical activity. Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson, the high-end travel company that does bicycle tours throughout world, knows this first hand.

“With a lot of people who take our trips, one half of a couple really doesn’t want to do it,” says Norman Howe, president of B&R. “The one who doesn’t want to do it is intimidated by the idea that they won’t be able to participate as an equal with their partner.”

It’s partly why, about a year ago, company officials began exploring the benefits of adding electric bicycles to their fleet. The simple fact is that some tours are more difficult and demanding than others, be it because of longer routes or uneven terrain. The company’s bike trip to Tuscany is a case in point.

“It’s probably the scariest destination from a hill point of view,” says Howe.

Last October, the company held its annual end-of-season gathering and invited a number of electric bicycle makers to give product demonstrations. The E-Venture electric bicycle, manufactured by Swiss firm Scott Sports SA and equipped with a Bosch lithium ion battery system and drivetrain, got the highest grade. After the event, B&R purchased 30 of these e-bikes and added them to its European fleet.

“Our customers will get the option of using them for this first time this spring,” says Howe, adding that it is considered an upgrade so does come at a slight premium.

He emphasizes that the bikes are only assisted by electric propulsion – that is, they don’t rely exclusively on it. Travellers can’t ride them like mopeds or electric scooters. What they get is a boost when they need some help, such as when battling a head wind or taking on a steep hill.

“These things look like a bike, ride like a bike, feel like a bike, but when you hit the hills it just makes the experience a little better,” says Howe, adding that in his view it will be a “great democratizing thing” for people who may otherwise be reluctant to travel by regular bicycle. “And you still get a sense of accomplishment riding these things.”

The potential reaches far beyond the weaker half of a couple. It includes all consumers that have never given bicycle tours a thought, perhaps because of that intimidation factor. It also includes aging but devoted long-time customers, who can keep coming back every year even if the knees are starting to give out and energy levels are in decline. The e-bikes are designed to compensate.

Market research firm Pike Research has estimated that nearly half a billion e-bikes, electric motorcycles and electric scooters will be sold worldwide between 2010 and 2016. E-bikes would represent 56 per cent of that market, it predicted.

“Demographics and economics are aligning to create a strong market opportunity for two-wheel electric vehicles,” according to Pike analyst Dave Hurst. “In some countries, these vehicles will be engines of economic growth, while in others they will be signals of broader consumer behavioral shifts.”

For B&R, it’s all part of the evolution of its business, and certainly shifting demographics play an important role. Average customer age lands somewhere in the low 50s – the classic baby boomer.

“The boomer crowd is in denial about aging, so they’re going to hang on to the activity component of their lives for as long as they can,” says Howe.

By adding e-bikes to its fleet, B&R is helping them to do. E-bikes may represent only 3 per cent of the fleet today, but as boomers age “I would imagine the number of e-bikes we have will grow as a percentage of our overall fleet,” he says.

No doubt, bicycle tour companies around the world are heading in the same direction.

Call it a boomer boost that leads to happier and healthier trails.

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

 

U.S. venture capital firm SAIL Venture Partners goes on hunt for Canadian cleantech, plans to establish Canadian-focused fund

This is an encouraging sign for the Canadian clean technology sector. SAIL Venture Partners, the early-stage venture arm of SAIL Capital Partners, said today it is partnering up with the Canadian subsidiary of Stifel Financial Corp. to create a joint venture and fund that would tap into Canadian cleantech opportunities. Specifically, the fund would invest in early stage cleantech companies in Canada that have ready-for-market products. “SAIL’s expansion into Canada represents a tremendous vote of confidence in the quality of Canada’s cleantech sector,” according to David Fransen, Consul General of Canada in Los Angeles.

It’s nice to be loved.

Hamilton consortium puts pressure on Ontario government to lift moratorium on offshore wind in the Great Lakes

For a year now there has been a moratorium on the development of offshore wind projects in the Great Lakes. The Ontario government issued the ban because it said more study was needed to make sure the projects can be developed safety and responsibly, even though such studies were supposedly already done when the previous moratorium was lifted in January 2008. It’s more than likely that the latest ban was politically motivated, which is why a consortium of companies stretching from Kingston to Niagara Region has high hopes of changing the government’s mind.

The consortium, calling itself the Lake Ontario Offshore Network, aims to make Ontario the North American capital of offshore wind development. The group includes Windstream Energy Inc., the only company that holds a feed-in-tariff contract with the Ontario Power Authority to sell power from offshore wind turbines into the province’s electrical grid. It doesn’t matter that Windstream, because of the moratorium, can’t currently develop its project. It hopes that by bringing together an industrial consortium it can dangle thousands of jobs in front of the government and possibly convince the powers that be to reconsider its offshore ban.

The cast that has been assembled for this PR play is impressive. The consortium includes turbine suppliers Siemens Wind Power and Vestas Wind Systems, steel fabricator Walters Inc., steel supplier Essar Steel Algoma Inc. and a number of small and medium-sized companies — Anchor Concrete Products Ltd., Ortech Power, Samuel & Son Limited, Akzo Nobel Coating Ltd. and Bermingham Foundation Solutions, to name a few. In total, 18 companies/organizations large and small have signed on, representing a comprehensive supply chain and about 1,800 jobs that could exist over a five-year period if Windstream’s project ever got the go-ahead.

And what is this project? Windstream, which is based in Burlington, Ontario, is planning to build a 100-turbine, 300-megawatt offshore wind project about five kilometres west of Wolfe Island, which is an island just offshore the city of Kingston, itself about 250 kilometres east of Toronto. My own personal feeling is that it’s not the greatest site for development, if only because it’s not far from the onshore wind farm that’s currently located on Wolfe Island and has been a lightning rod for controversy from the beginning (partly because of the density of wind turbine development there). Windstream is proposing that the government keep its moratorium but allow an exemption for its $1.5 billion Wolfe Island shoals project, on the grounds that it would be a pilot project used as part of studies that would determine if further offshore development is the right step forward.

You’ll recall from an earlier column of mine that the “pilot project” approach is one that I support and proposed last July. Specifically, I wrote, “Maybe we would have been better off to focus initially on a public-private pilot project, one located several kilometres offshore in a carefully selected location; one that could be closely studied and be a launch pad for future economic growth.” I’m happy that Windstream has embraced this approach, and it will be interesting to see how the government responds to this invitation.

But here’s the thing: I’m not convinced this is the “carefully selected location” that would be ideal for a pilot project. I’m also not convinced that a 300-megawatt project could rightly be called a “pilot”. I understand the need to go big. There are simply better economies of scale. But if a pilot was truly what Windstream envisions, it should break up the project into smaller phases, with the initial pilot phase being no larger than 20 or so megawatts (similar in size to the world’s first lake-based wind farm in Lake Vanern, Sweden) with plans to develop larger phases once the pilot has been properly studied and ultimately convinces the Ministry of Environment that offshore wind makes sense for Ontario.

I would also argue that there are much better sites to consider for a pilot, including those once held by Trillium Wind Power before the government wiped the slate clear and unjustly forced all developers without a FIT contract to start from scratch. Trillium, by the way, had also started developing a supply chain consortium before the rug was pulled from under it, resulting in a $2.25 billion lawsuit filed against the Ontario government. One wonders how any company could trust dealing with Queen’s Park these days.

But Windstream is the one that finds itself in the fortunate position of being the only developer with a FIT contract. Whether the piece of paper it holds gives it the edge when it comes to pilot-scale projects, that’s unclear. After all, pilots are given special consideration. Presumably, FIT or not, picking the location of a pilot project should be based on the site, not the developer.

The saga continues…

Marnoch Thermal Power: a new type of heat engine for tapping into lower temperatures

My latest Clean Break column on Ontario inventor Ian Marnoch and his new heat engine design that could make efforts at turning low-grade heat into electricity more economical.

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Tyler Hamilton

The Geological Survey of Canada put out a research paper in 2010 that concluded the country has enough geothermal heat to power itself many times over.

The big question is how much of that heat can be economically tapped?

As a general rule, the hotter and shallower the resource the more economical it is to exploit based on current technologies. The higher the temperature the easier it is to extract the volume of heat required to spin a turbine and generate electricity.

But there aren’t many places in Canada, beyond northern B.C., Alberta and the Yukon, that have that right combination of temperature and depth. Everywhere else, you’ll have to drill deep – as much as 10 kilometres down – to find enough heat. That’s a deal-breaker with respect to cost and risk.

It’s also a nut Ian Marnoch of Port Severn, Ont., is trying to crack. For the past seven years the Ontario inventor has been developing a new kind of “heat engine” that he says can generate electricity more economically from lower-grade heat. And that heat could come from anywhere: the ground, the sun, or an industrial waste process.

Not that the technology doesn’t already exist to do it. There are other heat-engine technologies out there, most notably those based on the Organic Rankine thermodynamic cycle. These systems transfer heat to a working fluid with a low boiling point, such as ammonia.

As the fluid heats up, expands and vaporizes it drives a turbine that generates electricity. The vapour is then cooled, condensing it back into a fluid which is recycled back through the process.

Marnoch’s heat engine works under a different principle. There is no vaporization of fluids. Instead, the Marnoch system relies on dry pre-pressurized air that expands and contracts as it is heated and cooled, causing pistons to turn that generate electricity.

This in itself may not be new, but it’s the way Marnoch has configured his machine that may give it an edge over other technologies. He says his thermal power engine can process heat much faster and at bigger volumes than Organic Rankine machines.

“It can process about three times as much heat by value as an Organic Rankine machine of the same size,” says Marnoch, adding that his heat engine can be designed to be much smaller and, therefore, less expensive.

That it operates more efficiently also means it can tap into lower temperatures that aren’t viable with other technologies. One area where Marnoch hopes to demonstrate the superiority of his design is in northern communities that currently rely on diesel generators for electricity production.

All he needs is the right temperature differential – that is, the gap between the heat source, such as the water in a deep mine shaft or temperature at the bottom of an old oil or natural gas well, and the heat sink, which would be the cool northern air.

If that gap is 20 degrees C or higher there’s potential to generate electricity. The system becomes more economical the wider the gap.

Marnoch has been working to perfect his patented heat engine with a team of PhD students and professors at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which has supported development of the machine for the past five years with funding from the federal and Ontario governments. The Ontario Power Authority and Ontario Centres of Excellence were also early funders.

The latest prototype of the machine is at the university’s new Clean Energy Research Laboratory, but Marnoch is eager to get the machine out in the field and tested in a real-world situation.

St. Marys Cement is one possible candidate. The company is exploring using the Marnoch engine to generate electricity from the waste heat of its Bowmanville cement plant.

“It is in very early discussions but we are very enthusiastic about the potential and what this can mean for industries with large volumes of low-grade waste heat,” says Martin Vroegh, environmental manager at St Marys.

Marnoch is hoping that the smaller size of his machine, relative to an Organic Rankine set-up, will make his technology more attractive to operators of industrial facilities, which often lack the real estate to host such equipment.

“It could open the door for us,” he says. “We just need to get out there and prove it works.”

If only it were that easy. Like any inventor or entrepreneur trying to bring a new clean technology to market, particularly one that directly challenges well-entrenched products, Marnoch knows he has many more hurdles to overcome and many years of trying.

It comes with the territory. But persistence is the soul of innovation, and Marnoch has plenty of it.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. Contact him at tyler@cleanbreak.ca