Enbridge, Hydrogenics partner for utility-scale energy storage for renewables

UPDATE: My Clean Break column this week has some more detail.

Oil and gas pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. has invested $5 million in Mississauga, Ont.-based Hydrogenics, a leading maker of proton-exchange membrane fuel cells and electrolysis systems for producing hydrogen gas from water.

Gotta say, I wasn’t expecting this announcement. I know Enbridge has invested in fuel-cell technology before, and I know it has purchased hundreds of megawatts of solar capacity, operates wind farms and is dabbling in geopower. And yes, it has invested some money into Toronto-based Morgan Solar. What surprises me about this announcement isn’t so much the investment itself, but how Enbridge plans to strategically collaborate with Hydrogenics to bring utility-scale energy storage to renewables in Ontario. You’d think this was about using renewables to generate hydrogen during off-peak hours, storing it, and then putting it through a fuel cell to generate electricity during peak hours. And perhaps this is the longer-term vision. But the way Enbridge describes this collaboration, it has little interest in fuel cells. Instead, it wants to generate hydrogen and inject it into its natural gas pipeline assets, “proportionally increasing the renewable energy content in natural gas pipelines.” In other words — the way I read it from the press release — it wants to reduce the carbon intensity of the natural gas in its pipelines by mixing it with hydrogen. That cleaner natural gas will then be burned in natural gas-fired plants, people’s home furnaces, etc…

Perhaps I’m missing something. If there’s someone from Enbridge reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.  (I’m right).

Here’s how the two companies describe their “Power-to-Gas” strategy in their press release:

With ‘Power-to-Gas’, the hydrogen produced during periods of excess renewable generation will be injected into the existing natural gas pipeline network, proportionally increasing the renewable energy content in natural gas pipelines for essentially the operating cost of the electrolyzer. Small quantities of hydrogen can be manageable in existing natural gas pipeline networks. With the significant scale of the natural gas pipeline network, these same quantities of hydrogen have a very meaningful impact on electricity energy storage potential.  The natural gas pipeline network represents a vast energy storage system which already exists. The utility scale energy storage leverages existing natural gas pipeline and storage assets to enable improved operability for the electrical system. Furthermore, the economics are further improved by leveraging existing gas generators to bring this renewable energy back to the electrical grid where, and when, it is needed most.

The companies said they will initially focus on Ontario. And Hydrogenics will have the opportunity to participate in up to 50 per cent ownership in a build-own-operate model for energy storage services. I have no clue how the economics will work. I mean, if the hydrogen is being blended with natural gas how can Enbridge capture that value when it sells that gas? How will this work with Ontario’s feed-in-tariff program, which doesn’t have any rules or tiered (peak, off-peak) FIT rates to encourage energy storage services? I’m very curious to learn more about this (and will over the coming days).

What’s clear is that there is momentum building for energy storage solutions in Ontario. Hydro One is testing out Temporal Power flywheels to relieve congestion on its transmission lines. Toronto Hydro is piloting bulk lithium-ion battery storage and testing underwater compressed-air storage in Lake Ontario. Annette Verschuren, former chief executive of Home Depot Canada, is heading up a new venture called NRStor that wants to bring an energy storage park to Ontario. And word has it that the Ontario Ministry of Energy — or the Ontario Power Authority — is sitting on a large draft policy paper related to energy storage that will be released later this year. Perhaps we’ll get some clarity around energy storage after all. There seems to be enough activity in the province to suggest that something is going on behind the scenes to stimulate strong interest in energy storage.

We’ll see.

NOTE: Just got my hands on a backgrounder Q&A from Hydrogenics that explains the above in more detail. A few interesting points, according to this backgrounder:

Injecting only small amounts of hydrogen into the gas grid (less than 5% by volume) offers significant potential. In large markets, like Ontario, the energy storage potential could provide power for over 160,000 homes. This is the equivalent of the new Niagara Tunnel hydro power project in Niagara Falls.


Every GJ of hydrogen produced by a Power-to-Gas application converting surplus renewable generation will displace one GJ of natural gas consumption with a commensurate reduction of 56kg of CO2 equivalent. The estimated annual GHG reduction from a 100MW Power-to-Gas project would be 25 CO2 equivalent kilotonnes.


The first stage will be to develop a 1 MW Power-to-Gas pilot project in Ontario to test the integrated system, develop gas network interconnections and work with the IESO and Canadian Gas Association to design the operating standards and market protocols to run a Power-to-Gas application. After developing commercial scale electrolyzer capability, Hydrogenics will have the opportunity to participate in up to 50% ownership in a build own operate model for energy storage projects with Enbridge.

Sub-metering in condos, apartment units can lead to big reductions in electricity consumption

My Clean Break column this week highlights a commissioned study by Navigant Consulting, which looked at the impact that sub-metering has on electricity consumption in apartment units and condos versus those units on a bulk metering/billing system. The reductions appear to be quite large, as you’ll read, but there’s one caveat before you read on: lower electricity use doesn’t necessarily translate into lower bills. Given the additional fees charged by sub-metering service providers, the financial benefits of sub-metering are more murky. At the same time, while it might not lead to dollar savings today, it can certainly empower residents to shield themselves from dollar increases tomorrow. Another caveat: the research, while conducted by Navigant, was commissioned by EnerCare, a sub-metering provider in Ontario.


Tyler Hamilton

There are nearly 410,000 apartment and condominium units in Ontario that could be—but aren’t—individually monitored for their electricity consumption.

Instead, the buildings in which they’re located engage in “bulk” billing, meaning a single bill is issued for an entire building. The amount on that bill is equally divided by the number of individual residential units in that building.

It’s a simple formula, sure, but it’s one that encourages waste. It means residents who make an effort to conserve and use relatively less electricity end up subsidizing those who always keep the lights on and load their homes with energy-hogging devices and appliances. There’s no incentive for them to conserve.

But what if 410,000 residential units in Ontario currently on bulk metering were suddenly put on individual sub-meters – i.e. smart meters for building units? What would be the impact on electricity conservation?

The short answer, according to a study this week from research firm Navigant Consulting, is that the average reduction in electricity use would be “significant.”

Navigant found that in buildings heated by electricity average consumption would fall by 27 per cent, or 106 kilowatt-hours a month, while those building units that don’t use electricity for heating would see average power use reduced by 34 per cent, or 112 kilowatt-hours a month.

“If sub-metering were deployed in all currently bulk-metered, multi-residential buildings the annual potential electricity savings following complete deployment over five years could be 3.3 terawatt-hours annually – more than all of the electricity produced from Ontario’s wind power facilities in 2010,” according to the study.

During peak times, it would equate to eliminating the need for 383 megawatts of generating capacity, equivalent taking a medium-sized gas-fired power plant out of the province’s fleet of generators.

It should be noted that Navigant didn’t do this study out of the kindness of heart. It was hired by EnerCare Connections (formerly Stratacon), one of the largest suppliers of sub-metering devices in Ontario. EnerCare’s interests are obvious. At the same time, Navigant is a respected international research and consulting firm not known to customize conclusions to satisfy its clients.

As for how Navigant came to such conclusions, it relied on data from Natural Resources Canada, Statistics Canada’s 2007 Census data, and hundreds of samples of monthly electricity consumption data from customers of EnerCare that had already switched from bulk billing to sub-metered billing.

So if the conservation benefits are so obvious, why isn’t there a mass rush to embrace sub-metering?

Sub-metering in buildings is for some a hot-button issue. Clearly, individuals in buildings who use relatively more electricity than their neighbours are going to end up paying a higher monthly bill. It’s hard to sympathize – either they should pay for what they use or use less.

It’s a bit trickier with renters. Switching to more efficient light bulbs can only go so far. Apartment tenants are often stuck using old and inefficient appliances that gobble electricity. They can reduce use of these appliances, but they’re still at the mercy of landlords not keen on upgrading to more efficient models.

Chris Jaglowitz, a “condo” lawyer at Gardiner Miller Arnold LLP and publisher of the Ontario Condo Law Blog, says a big sticking point with all building residents relates to the extra charges they must pay to get their bills separately.

“That’s what gets people’s ires up,” says Jaglowitz. “Even people using very little electricity are getting dinged with fairly significant charges. Anecdotally, I’m hearing people are paying more.”

Then again, they’re paying more because electricity prices have been going up – and will continue to go up. With sub-metering, at least condo owners and tenants can take some actions to shield themselves from the impacts of rising electricity rates.

“That’s the argument everybody forgets,” says Jaglowitz.

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


A new, more efficient transmission technology for everything from HVAC equipment to wind turbines

My latest Clean Break column is about a Toronto-based company called inMotive that has developed a new type of transmission technology that can help everything from HVAC equipment to wind turbines operate more reliably and efficiently.


Tyler Hamilton

When Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla came up with the design of his alternating current induction motor — which truly revolutionized the way we thought about electricity — it is said he was walking in the park when a picture of the motor shot into his head like a flash of lightning.

Disruptive innovations are often associated with such flashes of brilliance. It happened this way to Anthony Wong, 38, who in 2000 was riding a streetcar in Toronto when he came up with the design for a new transmission technology, one that could make everything from fans and pumps to windmills and vehicles operate more efficiently and reliably.

An avid cyclist, Wong had for some time been thinking about how to make bicycle gear systems better.

As most cyclists know, when you want to shift to a higher or lower gear there is a mechanism that physically moves the bicycle chain left or right to a larger or smaller sprocket, which is the metal disc that grabs the chain with its teeth. During this transition from one sprocket to another there is a brief period when fewer teeth are engaging the chain. It is at this point of vulnerability that the chain can slip, lose tension, or completely fall off.

“I was thinking, how can we change gears without pushing the chain side to side? How can we keep the chain always in line with the sprockets?” Wong recalled. “Then it hit me, instead of pushing the chain side to side, why don’t we move the sprockets underneath the chain?”

In other words, cut up the toothed sprockets into smaller pieces and move individual pieces under the chain in a way that seamlessly changes the size of the sprocket. The sprocket, in essence, becomes a kind of puzzle with a wide range of pieces that allow it to morph from small to large, kind of like a kid’s Transformer toy. More importantly, the chain is always solidly engaged on the maximum number of sprocket teeth while carrying a load.

(Note to reader: It’s really something that has to be seen, so I encourage you to check out the demo video.

Now, if all of this seems terribly complicated, well, that’s because it is. Still, advancements around electronics, controllers and materials have made it possible to choreograph the movement of these sprocket pieces with high reliability and precision. It’s not easy — especially when attempted at high speeds — but it can be done.

Wong, in his late 20s and growing tired of his computer programming job, was drawn to the challenge. After a bit of soul-searching that included a motorcycle journey across the United States, he decided to dedicate himself to turning his invention – called a mechatronic variable speed drive—into a commercial product.

But he also knew he needed help, so in 2002 he recruited his friend Paul Bottero, a man with a history of building and running businesses. The two spent many evenings in Bottero’s loft scouring patent databases, and they soon realized they had more than just a potentially new type of gear system for bicycles.

“We believe we have the world’s most efficient and cost-effective variable speed device,” said Bottero.

Cars. Wind turbines. Fans. Pumps. The design had application for all sorts of industrial equipment that operate at different speeds. The most obvious market, at least to start, was heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC). Consider that 45 per cent of the world’s electricity is used to operate electric motors, and nine per cent of that market – about $50 billion annually – relates to HVAC equipment.

Their first patent was filed in 2007. A year later they built their first prototype and formally established a company named Vicicog, which operates out of the MaRS Discovery District and last September renamed itself inMotive. So far the company has raised about $1 million in private financing and $1.4 million in government funding.

Investors have reason to take note. “We can get paybacks that are twice as good as our competition,” said Bottero.

He explained that inMotive’s devices are less expensive to manufacture and operate 5 per cent (at least) more efficiently than the best competing variable frequency drive on the market. When applied to motors that currently don’t operate at variable speed, energy savings can be as much as 70 per cent.

The company’s mechatronic device also doesn’t create the kind of electronic noise normally associated with variable frequency drives. Electronic noise, often referred to as harmonics, can damage sensitive equipment found in places such as hospitals, data centres and airports. Harmonics can be controlled, but that adds extra layers of cost.

“All along the way engineers have told us this isn’t going to work, that we’ll never move the sprocket segments fast enough,” said Wong.

So far, he’s proved them wrong.

As for building a better bicycle gear system, “we still plan to do it,” he said.

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

REPOST: Visit the Green Living Show this weekend and check out the Ontario Green Innovation Exhibition

For the past six months I’ve been helping the organizers of the annual Green Living Show in Toronto create a Green Innovation Exhibition that shines a spotlight on clean technology invention and innovation in the province. The show and exhibition will be taking place between April 13 and 15 at the Direct Energy Centre (Exhibition Place). I encourage all of my friends and colleagues in the sector to attend.

The exhibition will showcase the most outstanding examples of clean technology designed and developed in Ontario. Exhibitors have been selected by a panel of experts, which included directors and senior managers of Investeco Capital Corp., Green Chip Financial, MaRS Clean Tech Fund, Corporate Knights, Green Living Enterprises and NGO sponsors. The Exhibition itself has the backing of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, MaRS Discovery District and the Ontario Centres of Excellence, and its exclusive private sector sponsor is GE Canada. In other words, this exhibition is the real deal. For anyone interested in seeing the engine under the hood of Ontario’s cleantech sector, visit the show to find out.

About 20 companies, mostly start-ups, will form the core exhibition. They range from makers of electric-assist bicycles, to developers of cutting-edge solar and energy storage systems, to those making the latest advances in the areas of green chemistry, energy efficiency and intelligent transportation. Solar Ship, a designer of a hybrid, solar-powered airship, will also have a presence at the show, and to top it off — like the cherry on a sundae — we will have the greenest project from this month’s Toronto Science Fair competition, as selected by myself and a representative from GE Canada. Innovation and invention in this field stretches far beyond commercial enterprise. Indeed, it often begins in the laboratories and research facilities of our academic institutions. So to further round out the exhibition, we are also including some of the top “green” research projects at Ontario universities.

You can see which companies and universities are attending by clicking here.

I’m really excited about this exhibition and it’s great to see a half year of hard work finally coming to fruition. We don’t shine a big enough spotlight on the Ontario cleantech sector. Sure, we do individual company profiles and hold industry conferences, but rarely does the general public get a chance to see all this great innovation in one place. And let’s face it, we need the public to get excited about this stuff, because this is where our political leaders take their cues. If we want more public investment in cleantech R&D and deployment then we have to get public buy-in. At the same time, busloads of school children attend the Green Living Show. This is an opportunity to educate and inspire young minds — i.e. the green engineers and entrepreneurs in our future.

I hope to see you there. For my colleagues in the business community, consider attending the morning Business Forum Panel on the first day where we will discuss the growing importance of corporate venturing in the Canadian cleantech sector. We have some top-notch senior panelists lined up, and it promises to be an engaging and insightful discussion.

Canada’s Chalk River Lab could contribute to solving world’s nuclear waste problems

My latest Clean Break column draws attention to the future of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s history-rich Chalk River Laboratories, and suggests if we are to continue with nuclear research in Canada it focus on addressing existing stockpiles of nuclear waste, such as spent fuel recycling (via DUPIC) and putting our global expertise in tritium handling toward nuclear fusion research. (NOTE: Some readers have told me I should have focused on fast-neutron reactors. I agree fast reactors may be part of the solution going forward, but since Canada has no previous history or expertise in this area I didn’t pursue it. Also, for my readers who are shaking their head asking why I’m even contemplating a future for nuclear research, I ask you this: What do we do, then, with all that spent fuel?)


Tyler Hamilton

Change is in the air at Canada’s single-largest scientific outpost, located two hours northwest of Ottawa. That’s the history-rich home of Chalk River Laboratories, the heart of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.’s nuclear research division.

You’ll recall that the Crown corporation’s commercial Candu reactor division was sold last year to Canadian engineering giant SNC Lavalin. That transaction represented the first phase of a larger AECL restructuring plan.

Under the second phase, which kicked off in February, the government is targeting the research division with an eye to getting more bang for the taxpayer buck, and bringing in a private-sector partner to make it happen.

Such public-private arrangements are well tested south of the border, where companies such as Lockheed Martin and Battelle operate major national labs in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy. The model seems to work well.

“The restructuring needs to determine the activities of interest to those stakeholders willing to invest in AECL, which would enable enhanced sharing of both benefits and risks while strengthening accountability,” according to a call for expressions of interest on Feb. 9.

Which areas of nuclear research should Chalk River focus on? What role, if any, does Canada want to play in the nuclear world? Those with ideas and suggestions have until April 2 to have their say.

One sensible view: focus on the waste.

The world has massive amounts of nuclear waste in the form of spent fuel from its existing fleet of nuclear plants. Even if we closed down all nuclear power plants tomorrow and stopped making nuclear weapons, we would still have a major waste management problem on our collective hands. The waste is here and it’s not going away anytime soon.

We can try to bury it at considerable expense and hope all will work out well for the next hundred thousand or so years, or we can purse ways of reusing that waste as a new source of fuel. Those are really the only two options.

The latter, if done right and responsibly, can solve many problems: It can reduce the volume of radioactive material that must go into long-term storage. It can reduce our need to mine new uranium and the associated environmental impacts of doing so. And it can give us more emission-free energy to wean us off fossil fuels and reduce global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Five years ago I wrote an article in this paper detailing a little-discussed feature of the Candu reactor design that allows it to use “waste” from rival light-water reactors (such as those used in the United States) as a fuel. It’s called the DUPIC process – standing for Direct Use of Spent Pressurized Water Reactor Fuel in Candus.

The Canadian government established a joint research program with the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute in 1991 to investigate the approach, and both sides have demonstrated that it’s feasible.

“It’s progressed to the prototype stage,” said Jeremy Whitlock, a scientist at the Chalk River Lab. “We’ve made the fuel and we’ve put it into a reactor and it works fine.”

There are other, more expensive approaches that involve dissolving spent fuel in strong acids, carefully separating fissile material from the waste, turning it back into a solid material, and then processing back into useable fuel. This chemical processing is nasty, resulting in liquid wastes that need to be treated.

DUPIC doesn’t involve chemical separation, making it much simpler. The spent light-water reactor fuel is instead mechanically reshaped into fuel rods that fit into Candu reactors. And because plutonium is not chemically isolated and separated the approach is more proliferation resistant.

Politics aside, imagine co-locating DUPIC-configured Candu reactors at existing light-water nuclear facilities around the world, with their job being to generate additional emission-free electricity from stockpiles of spent fuel in short-term storage.

There are challenges. Handling and mechanically reprocessing spent fuel is tricky. This is hot stuff that’s highly radioactive. Special equipment, procedures and reactor modifications would be required to safely handle the material.

But it can be done, and arguably faster and more easily than trying to build fleets of waste-consuming fast breeder reactors, another technology worthy of pursuit but with longer time horizons. The Koreans, unfortunately, began losing interest in DUPIC a few year ago and have since turned their attention to the more ambitious fast breeder model.

Perhaps Chalk River should double-down on efforts? Perhaps SNC Lavalin, which now has exclusive commercial rights to DUPIC, could turn this into a new business opportunity?

Another opportunity is fusion. General Fusion, the fusion technology start-up in Burnaby, B.C., is urging the federal government to devote part of Chalk River’s mandate to fusion research.

“There is expertise at Chalk River, world leading in some cases, in areas such as tritium handling,” explained Michael Delage, vice-president of business development at General Fusion.

Tritium is a radioactive form of hydrogen, and is a byproduct of Candu reactor operation. It’s also one of two isotopes that can be most easily combined to create a nuclear fusion reaction. General Fusion needs tritium, and could seriously benefit from Chalk River’s tritium handling expertise.

Whitlock pointed out that Canada once had a fusion program at Chalk River. In fact, in 2001 Canada put in a bid to host the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. But we never backed up ambition with money. The federal government cut funding to our fusion program in 1997, and a general lack of financial support led to our withdrawal in 2003 from the ITER consortium.

With Chalk River once again under the spotlight, it’s time to make some choices.

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