The sad tragedy of Peter Gleick and how a hypocritical Heartland Institute, skilled at the art of communication, has spun good out of a bad

This story has had plenty of coverage in the U.S., so this is more for Canadian readers. If I was to ask Peter Gleick one question, I’d ask why he decided to verify the anonymous documents himself? He could just as easily let someone else — the media, perhaps — do the dirty work and spare himself the controversy he is currently in.

I still can’t get over how hypocritical Heartland Institute is being about this, given how it delighted in seeing climate scientists’ e-mails hacked in the 2009 “Climategate” non-scandal. This so-called “charity” has been extremely vocal in criticizing news organizations for reporting on the Gleick-supplied documents. “How could they not have known that posting the documents would invade the privacy and endanger the safety of many people?” according to a statement from Heartland.

Hmmm… Heartland didn’t seem too concerned about the privacy and safety of those scientists whose e-mails were stolen and who were the target of earlier attacks, including death threats from whack-jobs in the blogosphere.

Do I, as the beginning of the column asks, think Gleick is a whistleblower who deserves our gratitude? I have to say, I’m having a hard time answering that question. More information is needed. What I can say is that I’m sympathetic to climate scientists who have been the subject of well-organized, targeted smear campaigns, and I understand why one would resort — out of frustration and desperation — to some of the same dirty tactics in an effort, however misguided it may have been, to get the truth out to the public. A lie to one is worth it if it brings truth to all. But climate scientists, not the spin doctors at Heartland, are held to a higher standard and this is how it must be.

Without the intention of bringing a religious tone to this discussion, it all reminds me of that excellent Chris De Burgh song “Spanish Train,” in which The Lord is playing poker against the Devil for the souls of the dead on the Spanish train. The Devil cheats and wins, taking the souls. The song ends, “The Lord and Devil are now playing chess. The Devil still cheats and wins more souls. And as for The Lord, he’s just doing his best.”



Tyler Hamilton

Is Peter Gleick a heroic whistleblower or a climate scientist in disgrace?

Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute, placed himself in the middle of controversy this week after admitting he had assumed a false identity to verify the authenticity of documents he says he received anonymously through the mail.

The documents in question reportedly came from within the Heartland Institute, a  libertarian U.S. think tank that disputes the consensus scientific view of climate change: that the planet is warming and human activity is the primary cause.

Critics say Heartland, under the guise of serious debate, has put great effort into planting doubt and sewing confusion around climate science, with the intention of delaying or halting government action aimed at reining in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The package of documents Gleick obtained backed up such criticisms. “It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy,” he wrote this week in a Huffington Post commentary.

Citing public interest, Gleick made the decision to release the information to select media outlets. Heartland has since declared at least one of the documents a fake – a confidential memo about its 2012 climate strategy – but two other documents, a fundraising plan and a budget plan, appear to be legitimate.

What do they reveal? Nearly half of the think tank’s budget in some years has come from a single anonymous donor, showing how much influence a single individual can have in shaping public opinion, which Heartland – a leading voice in the climate skeptic movementhas been quite effective at doing.

But most disturbing is a plan to hire a consultant working for the U.S. Department of Energy to create a “global warming curriculum” for schools, specifically grades six to 12, which would question whether humans are changing the climate or altering our natural environment.

These teaching “modules” would train students to question the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and attempt to paint the climate models that underpin modern climate science as unreliable and controversial.

Where there’s controversy there’s uncertainty, and where there’s uncertainty there’s inaction. The tobacco industry milked this line of reasoning for years before governments got the courage to clamp down. If past actions are any indication, this is Heartland’s approach as well – borrowing from the well-worn book of Republican strategist Frank Luntz.

It doesn’t seem to matter that 97 per cent of the most cited and published climate scientists have concluded that climate change is a human-caused problem, as found in a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If 97 per cent of oncologists said you had curable cancer, would you act on their recommendations to treat it or listen to the 3 per cent telling you it’s nothing to worry about?

What’s telling is how Heartland has responded to this week’s revelations. You may recall that Heartland was among the first to attack and spread false allegations against several well-regarded climate scientists in 2009, when e-mails from a climate research group at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. were illegally obtained – likely hacked from university servers – and posted on the Internet.

At the time, Heartland officials did not hesitate to quote the illegally obtained e-mails out of context. It moved quickly to dub the controversy—known as “Climategate”—as a conspiracy to falsify data and suppress academic debate. Its supporters then continued on this war path, even after several independent investigations cleared the scientists named in the e-mails of any wrongdoing.

Now that Heartland is on the receiving end, the think tank’s hypocrisy is palpable. It insists it has been the target of Internet fraud and defamatory speech, though it’s still unclear what fraud or defamation has taken place. It has let loose its lawyers, threating legal action against Web sites and blogs that have posted the documents.

In the words of Heartland president Joseph Bast, “It was an outrageous violation of ethics and the law.”

It’s no surprise that several climate scientists targeted by Heartland in 2009 shined a light this week on the think tank’s blatant double standard.

“We hope that the Heartland Institute will heed its own advice to ‘think about what has happened’ and recognize how its attacks on science and scientists have helped poison the debate over climate change policy,” they wrote in a letter published in the U.K. Guardian newspaper.

And Gleick? He says his frustration with the “anonymous, well-funded, and co-ordinated” attacks on climate science clouded his judgment and that he deeply regrets his actions.

Climate scientists in general have a reason to be frustrated. They have been muzzled, misquoted, defamed and threatened for doing their jobs. More are fighting back, but without the public strongly in their corner it’s an unfair contest. Some, out of desperation, resort to the same below the belt punches thrown at them.

Whether you praise Gleick for blowing a whistle or condemn him for playing dirty, he will take the heat on this. But the message, really, is that we’ll all take the heat if we don’t start dealing with a global threat that can’t be argued or wished away.

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

Ontario leads Canada with installation of geothermal heat pump or “geo-exchange” systems, but residential lags commercial market

My latest Clean Break column reviews some fresh data on Canada’s geothermal heat pump or “geo-exchange” market. In a nutshell, Ontario is leading the provincial pack, commercial installations are thriving, the residential sector isn’t getting enough support, and cheap natural gas may be hurting sales.


Tyler Hamilton

Wind and solar technologies may hog the spotlight (and subsidies) in Ontario, but behind the scene geo-exchange heating and cooling systems are being quietly deployed by the thousands across the province every year.

In fact, Ontario dominates when it comes to deploying these systems, according to a just released national report from the Canadian GeoExchange Coalition, a non-profit organization representing the industry.

The province saw more than 7,000 geothermal heat pump units installed in 2010. This is down from more than 9,000 in each of 2009 and 2008, but far higher than next-best ranking Quebec and British Columbia, which have only installed between 1,000 and 2,000 units annually between 2008 and 2010.

Put another way, Ontario represents nearly two-thirds of the Canadian market in 2010.

Heat pumps are the core part of a geo-exchange system. These devices transfer thermal energy from a warm place — the “source” — to a cooler place — the “sink” — via ethanol-filled plastic tubing laid two metres or deeper underground.

In the winter, the source tends to be the ground (which holds heat from the sun) and the sink is the inside of a building. The system works in reverse in the summer. Heat is carried from a building and dumped into a cooler underground sink.

The ethanol or “working fluid” inside the plastic tubing is what absorbs and carries the heat to its destination.

It has been about 60 years since the first system of this kind was installed in Canada. Credit for that effort goes to Frank Hooper, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto, who as a university lecturer in the late 1940s worked with the former Ontario Hydro to equip a house in Port Credit with its own geothermal heating and cooling system.

Hooper was fascinated with the efficiency of such systems. Rather than make heat by burning fuel or creating electrical resistance in metal wires, Hooper realized that it made more sense and required less energy to simply shift already existing heat around.

Some electricity is required to run a geo-exchange system, but, in the case of heating, more than two-thirds of the thermal energy that is delivered comes from the ground. This is why the most efficient geo-exchange systems are as much as 50 per cent more efficient than the best natural gas furnaces and more than 75 per cent more efficient than oil furnaces.

“I was enthusiastic about its potential,” Hooper recalled in a chat we had last year. “I could see, in my mind, streets full of houses using heat pumps. But I can’t say Canadians came rushing to replace their heating systems with this.”

At the time, it made little economic sense. Electricity and fossil fuels (coal at the time) were so inexpensive that it wasn’t worthwhile to make the switch. Indeed, the technology only started to gain traction 10 years ago as hydro bills and oil prices kept rising.

In 2000, for example, there were about 1,000 heat pump units installed cross Canada. That figure rose to nearly 6,000 in 2006 and spiked to a high of 16,000 just three years later.

Significant rebates from both the Ontario and federal governments helped give a boost to geo-exchange system sales in the province, but it remains a hard sell for homeowners and building owners, which are enjoying historically low natural gas prices.

Of all units sold between 2008 and 2010 in Ontario, 79 per cent displaced the use of fuel oil and electricity — only 6 per cent displaced natural gas.

Ontario has since discontinued its rebate and the federal government is poised to do the same, so it remains unclear how steady the growth will be in 2012 and beyond, absent new policies or programs.

“The residential market has definitely shrunk,” says Stanley Reitsma, president of Caledonia, Ont.-based Geosource Energy Inc. “But the commercial market in Ontario is a different story. It’s still strong.”

Geosource has been busy installing systems in midrise and highrise buildings. It’s not fuelled by incentives. Instead developers are increasingly seeing the long-term financial and environmental benefits of moving in this direction.

Changes to the province’s building code in 2011 that require buildings to be 25 per cent more efficient has further boosted interest in the technology.

It’s the savings that come from cooling, not heating, that are proving most attractive to large building owners, says Reitsma. “Heating costs (from natural gas) are small compared to cooling costs (from electricity).”

Meanwhile, more building developers are choosing to play the role of energy supplier. They install the geo-exchange systems and sell the resulting heat or cool air to the building owner or tenant under fixed-priced, long-term contracts.

“It’s competitive and eliminates price volatility,” Reitsma says. “It’s also part of their green marketing.”

The caveat is that developers and building owners are still finding it challenging to get upfront financing for such installations. The banks aren’t particularly excited about these projects, assuming they even understand their value.

“It’s probably the one thing holding these projects back,” says Reitsma, adding that government programs that help make financing more accessible would go a long way to stimulating market growth.

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


Clean energy, environment-related nuggets from Ontario-commissioned Drummond Report

I’ve been reading through the recently released report from Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, also called the “Drummond Report” after commission chair Don Drummond, former chief economist of TD Bank. Drummond was always a big fan of putting a price on carbon, so I was curious to see if he raised carbon pricing in his report.

He didn’t.

He did, however, make several commonsense suggestions and raise some interesting points in the areas of electricity infrastructure, transportation, green energy and the environment. I highlight some of them below:

First, I was pleased to see that Drummond took issue with the unfair distribution of federal support for (green) energy projects across the country. He made his opinion of the federal government’s approach clear on p. 469 of his report, pointing out the disproportionate flow of federal dollars to two unnamed provinces — read: Alberta and Saskatchewan — and the oil and gas sectors, which continue to rake in billions in direct and indirect subsidies.

The federal government has provided little support for Ontario’s move towards green energy. Yet it provides direct and indirect subsidies to Canada’s oil and gas sectors worth $1.4 billion annually, in addition to $2.0 billion in total spending for carbon capture and storage, the Clean Energy Fund and the ecoEnergy Technology program — all of which are primarily spent in two provinces. Even where the federal government has promised support for clean energy, most has been directed to fossil fuels and projects that do not build on Ontario’s strengths. Ontario needs fair and equitable support for its clean energy initiatives.

He makes the following recommendation to the Ontario government: “Advocate for federal greenhouse gas mitigation programs to provide fair and equitable support for Ontario’s clean energy initiatives.”

I’ll second that.

On renewal of infrastructure, with specific mention of water infrastructure (p. 45):

More should be done to keep infrastructure in good condition. The equivalent of about half of the $72 billion of municipally owned water and wastewater infrastructure needs renewal. Full-cost pricing would encourage both stable investment — which is more efficient and fairer on an intergenerational basis — and conservation.

On funding public transit and encouraging its use (p. 46):

The province should pursue a national transit strategy with the federal government, other provinces and municipalities. General tax revenues will surely be part of any revenue solution — whether federal or provincial — but there are alternatives such as congestion charges, comprehensive road tolls, high-occupancy/toll (HOT) lanes, regional gas taxes and parking surcharges.

On the Ontario Clean Energy Benefit, which gives people a 10 per cent rebate on their electricity bills (p. 47):

This program distorts the true cost of electricity and discourages conservation… because the Commission strongly believes the OCEB’s $1.1 billion could be used more effectively, the OCEB should be eliminated as quickly as possible.

On better managing the impact of rising electricity prices (p. 47):

The government should produce a detailed, 20-year blueprint for the energy sector. It should also consolidate Ontario’s 80 Local Distribution Companies (LDCs) along regional lines to create economies of scale; this would result in direct savings on the delivery portion of the electricity bill. Further, the government should mitigate the impact of the FIT program on electricity prices, first by reducing the initial prices offered in FIT contracts and reducing the tariff over time, and second by making better use of “off-ramps” built into existing contracts. Among other measures, the government should seek administrative efficiencies in various electricity sector agencies and restructure the wholesale electricity market so consumers located closer to generation stations can benefit from lower electricity prices.

On moving to full-cost recovery for environmental programs (p. 48):

Full cost recovery is not in effect for all of the government’s environmental programs, and existing fees do not keep pace with the rising costs of program delivery; where possible, the costs of those services should be shifted to the beneficiary. The Water Charges initiative should be expanded beyond high users to medium- and low-consumption industries and put on a full user-pay basis. The Renewable Energy Approval, which consolidates the range of approvals needed for renewable energy projects while recovering about 90 per cent of its direct operating costs, is a good example of a modern approval. The Drive Clean program fully recovers its costs.

On province-funded university campus expansion (p. 256):

Any campus expansions funded by the province should be viewed through a return-on investment lens. Factors such as the increase in productivity for the institution through a better learning experience for students, energy cost reductions through the use of renewable energy sources and energy-efficient building design should be considered. Currently, the principal driver for expansion may be increases in enrolment, and while energy conservation aspects may be part of the building design, they are not integral to the productivity outcomes expected from the expansion.

On new approaches to business support programs (p. 310):

A refocused mandate for business support programs would shift from an emphasis on job creation towards encouraging firms to enhance productivity through innovation; technology adoption and training; improved business practices; and energy conservation and efficiency.

On time-of-use pricing (p. 332):

Make regulated prices more reflective of wholesale prices by increasing the on-peak to off-peak price ratio of time-of-use pricing and by making critical peak pricing available on an opt-in basis.

These are all the nuggets I found interesting in the Drummond Report. There may be more, but the ones I’ve pasted above are commonsense and certainly worthy of serious discussion. Will be interesting to see which ones the province acts on…

Enerkem gains momentum with IPO plans. Wither Iogen?

My latest Clean Break column in the Toronto Star:

By Tyler Hamilton

Remember Iogen? Five years ago the Ottawa-based company, praised at the time for leading the development of cellulosic ethanol technology, was the crown jewel of Canada’s fledgling cleantech sector.

Iogen had pioneered an enzyme-based process for breaking down the cellulose in wheat straw, corn stover (stalks and leaves) and other crop waste, making the sugars inside easy to access and convert into ethanol fuel.

This was the sustainable future of ethanol production. Instead of turning food (corn) into fuel, the world could move toward wood and agricultural waste as the preferred feedstock. Less energy would be used, and production and consumption of the resulting ethanol would emit fewer greenhouse gases. That was the vision, anyway.

Based on its solid reputation, Iogen attracted serious global attention. German automaker Volkswagen and Royal Dutch Shell jumped aboard as joint-development partners. Petro-Canada (Suncor), Shell and Goldman Sachs became major investors. Canadian and U.S. governments dangled the promise of financial support in hopes Iogen would build its first commercial plant on their respective soils.

But the technology proved too expensive and not ready for prime time, and the risk of proceeding was too high. Iogen, having raised more than $450 million in financing to date, remains largely in R&D mode as it tries to push down costs and perfect processes.

“There was a lot to learn from the Iogen experience,” says Bob Gallant, president and chief executive of Greenfield Ethanol, one of Canada’s largest ethanol producers. “The industry will take it as a good lesson.”

The story stands in stark contrast to that of Montreal-based Enerkem, which last week filed for an initial public offering with securities regulators in Canada and the United States. It plans to raise $125 million, representing one of the largest IPOs to come from a Canadian cleantech company.

Enerkem makes ethanol, too, but this is where similarities with Iogen disappear. Rather than rely on enzymes that must be tuned to break down specific forms of biomass, the 12-year-old company relies on heat and seeks out garbage – basically, a mix of residual municipal solid waste that can’t be recycled or composted. This can range from sneakers and soiled paper plates to shredded electricity poles and construction debris, which would otherwise be dumped in landfills.

At its most basic level, the company sorts, shreds and uses temperatures of around 700 degree C to gasify the waste materials. The resulting “syngas,” which must be cleaned and conditioned, then goes through a catalytic conversion process that eventually creates fuel-grade ethanol.

The company claims this ethanol, on a lifecycle basis, results in 60 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions when burned as a fuel compared to gasoline.

Enerkem is just as much a waste management play as an ethanol play, which is why municipalities are taking notice. Indeed, just as Iogen was pulling back from its grand commercialization plans, Enerkem was steadily moving ahead as it reached out to cities and strategic partners.

Its first commercial demonstration plant, in Westbury, Quebec, has been turning used hydro poles into ethanol since 2009. A full-on commercial plant in Edmonton, capable of producing 38 million litres of ethanol annually from mixed waste, is also close to operation. “It is expected to be completed at the end of the year,” according to Enerkem chief executive Vincent Chornet.

A plant of similar size is under development in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and earlier this week Enerkem announced it would be entering a joint-venture with independent ethanol producer Greenfield Ethanol to build a 38-million litre plant in Varennes, Quebec, adjacent to and integrated with Greenfield’s conventional corn ethanol refinery.

Meanwhile, it has two strategic partners and investors in trash king Waste Management and petroleum refiner Valero Energy, both based in Texas. It’s good company to keep.

Greenfield’s Gallant says there’s significant potential with the enzyme-based or “biochem” approach to producing cellulosic ethanol. Indeed, Greenfield is doing its own R&D in this area at its facility in Chatham, Ontario. But it remains costly, partly because different types of biomass must be matched with the appropriate cellulose-busting enzymes.

“It’s going to be a generation or two before you have a general enzyme that can work on a number of feedstocks at the same time,” adds.

Enerkem’s approach appears ready today. At a plant similar in size to the one being built in Edmonton, the company believes it can produce ethanol at a cost of $1.50 to $1.70 a gallon, before amortization and depreciation. At a plant that can process four times the volume, it claims in its regulatory filing it can get costs down to as low as $1.05 a gallon.

A decade ago it would have cost about $6 a gallon to produce cellulosic ethanol. Today it’s at best $2.50, and likely higher given the premium that comes with low volumes.

South Dakota’s Poet, the largest ethanol producer in the United States, says it can now make cellulosic ethanol for $2.35 a gallon using an enzyme-based process and is on path to $2 by 2013.

Enerkem seems well-positioned to outcompete on that front, with the caveat that past claims have let us down before.

Celebrity venture capitalist Vinod Khosla declared in 2007 that, in his educated view, cellulosic ethanol would be $1.25 a gallon or less within three years – that is, by 2010.

Two years later we’re still waiting.

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

GM to sell “Bullfrog Edition” of Chevy Volt, a $198 upgrade offering 2 years of green-certified electricity

Toronto-based green energy retailer Bullfrog Power is teaming up with General Motors Canada to offer what Bullfrog CEO Tom Heintzman is calling a “Bullfrog Edition” Chevy Volt. This edition of the Volt would be available via all GM dealerships across Canada and would come at a $198 premium. In return, the customer gets a Bullfrog Edition plaque on the vehicle and two years of green (incl. nuke-free) electricity from Bullfrog, based on average customer electricity consumption. “It’s really trying to get people aware of the fact that just because you’re plugging into the wall doesn’t mean it’s emission-free,” Heintzman told me. “Electric vehicles ultimately need to be tied to renewable energy. This makes the link in a more tangible and powerful way.”

The deal is very similar to how many car manufacturers already offer satellite radio, or how some have offered a year’s worth or more of free gasoline. “It works out to 7.5 megawatt-hours of electricity over the course of the two years,” he said. I asked if this is an exclusive deal with GM, or whether Bullfrog is able to make a similar offer with other EV manufacturers. “It takes a while to put a program like this together, so we don’t anticipate anyone else coming aboard within the next year. At some point in time, we would hope that all EV manufacturers would begin offering it.”