When talking power production, we can’t ignore the water factor

It’s often forgotten when talking about energy production that environmental impacts stretch far beyond air pollution and emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Less discussed, particularly in the context of electricity generation, is the dependence and impact on fresh water resources that are vital to other industries and ecosystems. If more frequent and intense droughts are to become the new normal in this era of human-induced climate change, it’s an issue that shouldn’t be overlooked by policy makers.

Don Roberts, who leads the renewable energy and clean technology investment team at CIBC, once put it this way: “If energy is scarce, water is scarcer.”

Synapse Energy Economics, a research consultancy based on Cambridge, Mass., put out a report this week drawing attention to the thirst profile and water impacts of various forms of electricity generation — namely those based on coal, natural gas, nuclear, biomass, solar and wind.

The report — called “The Hidden Costs of Electricity Generation” — also looked at climate change impacts, air pollution, subsidies, land use and development risks. For the purposes of this column the focus will be on water.

So who’s the thirstiest of them all?

It’s not wind or solar photovoltaic. The study found that only 45 to 85 gallons of water are consumed for every megawatt-hour of electricity that’s produced from a wind turbine, and that’s including the water used for manufacturing the turbine, transporting it, and constructing wind farms.

For perspective, a megawatt-hour is how much electricity the average Ontario home consumes in a month.

Solar photovoltaic electricity production doesn’t really need water, aside from negligible amounts required to occasionally clean the panels. But taking into account things like mining of photovoltaic materials and manufacturing, this type of solar generation uses six times the volume of water consumed by wind — anywhere from 225 to 520 gallons per megawatt-hour.

After wind and solar come the real water hogs — power plants that use fuels such as uranium, coal, gas and biomass to create enough heat to produce steam. The steam is then used to spin a turbine that generates electricity.

All thermal power plants need water to for cooling steam, and they need a lot. Natural gas-powered plants consume anywhere from 50 to 180 gallons per megawatt-hour depending on the approach.

Coal and biomass plants gulp 300 to 480 gallons, while nuclear plants consume up to 720 gallons for the same amount of electricity production.

(The word “consume” is used here to mean that water is used up and not returned to where it came from. Nuclear plants in Ontario, for example, withdraw tens of thousands of gallons per megawatt-hour but most goes back to the lake at a slightly higher temperature. What doesn’t is lost to evaporation.)

And remember, all of this is just cooling. The numbers rise dramatically when lifecycle costs are taken into account.

Consider that growing enough biomass — such as corn or switchgrass — to produce a megawatt-hour can consume as much as 100,000 gallons of water. Coal mining and pollution from coal plants result in widespread surface and groundwater contamination. Building and operating massive concrete structures like a nuclear plant can consume up to 6,900 gallons per megawatt-hour.

Now we’re talking big numbers. As we increasingly come to depend on shale gas to fuel our gas-fired power plants, it should be known that between two and 10 million gallons of water are required to drill and hydraulically “frack” a single shale-gas well, and that much of that water becomes contaminated with toxic chemicals.

It all adds up when one considers there are tens of thousands of shale-gas wells in some stage of development across North America.

“Such huge water withdrawals raise serious concerns about the impacts on ecosystems and drinking water supplies, especially in areas under drought conditions, areas with low seasonal flow, locations with already stressed water supplies, or locations with waters that have sensitive aquatic communities,” according to the Synapse Energy study.

The report rightly challenges the notion that low-carbon energy sources should automatically be labelled “clean” energy. It’s not just about carbon, as much as the nuclear and “clean coal” proponents would have us believe.

Water, land use, radioactivity, safety, pollution and impact on biodiversity must all be seriously weighed for their short- and long-term impacts. “What the public requires is an honest account of the true costs of electric generation technologies in as accurate a form as possible,” the study asserts.

Nuclear uses up 90 times more water than wind power. Shouldn’t that be important?

Said Grant Smith, senior energy analyst at the Civil Society Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank that commissioned the Synapse study: “the government and energy industries are literally flying blind.”

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

Maple Leafs and Raptors may be struggling, but they’re tops in the green leagues

Many sports fans attending events at the Air Canada Centre apparently don’t flush after using the washroom urinals.

Let’s hope they at least wash their hands.

The lack of flushing was one unexpected finding after management decided to install automated flushing devices on facility urinals.

The goal was to reduce water consumption. But having the devices flush less frequently on behalf of porcelain patrons actually had the reverse effect: more water was being consumed.

After a bit of head scratching, it became clear that the male sports fan’s lack of arena hygiene was already minimizing water use. Who knew?

The law of unintended consequences does often assert itself when businesses attempt to “green” their operations, but in the case of the Air Canada Centre such outcomes are the exception.

A report this week from the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has named the home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors one of the 16 most progressive sports venues when it comes to reducing environmental impacts.

“Certainly much work remains to be done, but it is heartening to note that teams and leagues across North America are implementing meaningful changes and educating tens of millions of fans about environmental stewardship,” according to the report, pointing out that much of this work is being done behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.

The council notes that “going green is savvy business, enabling teams and venues to cut operating costs, strengthen corporate branding, attract sponsors and enhance the fan experience.”

It wasn’t until 2007 that the Air Canada Centre really turned its attention to the opportunity. That’s when management hired Bryan Leslie, who had previous experience “greening” a military base, as its new director of building operations.

His mission had high-level support from within Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, owner of the arena, the Leafs and the Raptors. Both board directors and senior management were engaged and interested from the beginning, and Leslie was given a $5 million budget to execute on an ambitious environmental plan.

The Star’s Chris Zelkovich noted some of these initiatives back in 2009, including the use of deep-lake water cooling, heat recovery systems, room occupancy sensors and lighting controls, and the implementation of a comprehensive recycling plan, which didn’t exist prior to 2007.

But with the five-year initiative near complete, the NRDC highlights some impressive accomplishments:

Between 2007 and 2011 the arena has reduced its carbon emissions by 30 per cent;

Upgrading of lighting to more efficient LED and T8 technology has reduced annual energy use by 1.34 million kilowatt-hours, roughly the same amount of electricity consumed each year by 120 average-sized homes in the GTA;

Waste destined for landfill has been reduced by 74 per cent compared to 2007 by recycling, composting and reducing the inputs that can lead to waste. The goal is to divert 95 per cent away from landfills by the end of next year;

Chemicals are no longer used in ice-making or painting the ice on the rink. This has been replaced by a reverse-osmosis water purification system and non-toxic water-based paints.

Leslie, in the NRDC report, makes clear that what the Air Canada Centre is doing is becoming increasingly common in the sports world.

Note that the Bell Centre, home to the Montreal Canadiens, was also highlighted in the report as one of the 16 leading “green” professional sports venues. And even though the Rogers Centre wasn’t included in the group, improvements there may very well have inspired MLSE management.

Back in 2007, for example, I wrote about how the Rogers Centre was in the middle of a three-year energy efficiency retrofit project that aimed to cut electricity use by 33 per cent, using a combination of automated and sensor-based lighting technologies and other conservation measures.

The leagues, with support from the non-profit Green Sports Alliance – a group founded and funded by billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and himself an owner of two professional sports teams—are also pushing it.

“We have discussions monthly with the NHL, and all the arenas come to the table with their ideas,” Leslie said. “Amazing stuff is coming out now, and as much as I’m proud of what we’ve done, I see that there are so many new ideas out there.”

One criticism of the NRDC report is that it doesn’t tell us the size of professional sports’ environmental footprint. Individual stadium or arena efforts, while impressive on their own, may just be scratching the surface of wastefulness and excess that has existed industry-wide.

But the true value of league, team and venue initiatives may be educational in nature. What they have is a captive audience of tens of millions, and through their own actions they can help influence the personal actions of sports fans.

And, as the report points out, “Perhaps no other industry is better suited to confirm that environmental stewardship has become a mainstream, non-partisan issue.”

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

ZooShare searching for 33 new Toronto-area members to qualify for FIT contract… please consider joining!

As previously mentioned, I recently was elected a board member of the ZooShare Biogas Co-Operative in Toronto. It’s a social venture that’s trying to build an anaerobic digestion system at the Toronto Zoo that will turn animal poo, local kitchen grease and grocery store waste into biogas, which will be used to generate green electricity. The electricity produced from this 500 kilowatt plant will be sold to the province over the next 20 years under the feed-in-tariff program.

Funding for this project will come partly through the issuance of community bonds, which will pay a 6 to 7 per cent annual return over five years (and can be renewed). The hope is that the co-op can begin issuing these bonds to the public later this year. But to get to that stage we need a FIT contract, and to get a FIT contact we need a certain number of co-op members who are landowners in Toronto. Don’t ask me why you must be a landowner, or why you must be from Toronto, but that’s the rule.

So with this post I hope to attract some new Toronto-based members to the co-operative, hopefully before the end of September. The membership fee is $100 (one-time charge), and once the project is up and running and community bonds go on sale you can apply that $100 against your first bond purchase. For more info about the project check this story I wrote last year.

You can find out more information about membership by going to www.zooshare.ca or click here for Membership Form v.1.3.

I hope you can support this initiative. It’s a great local project with huge potential to be replicated around the world.

Crowdfunding meets Tesla, clean energy… Can the crowd fill a gap left by government and business?

Nikola Tesla, the inventor of much that we take for granted, is finally getting his due.

I’m a huge fan of Tesla. Even wrote a book last year in his name. His life and mind are fascinating subjects. So it was delightful to hear last week that efforts to build a museum in his memory had passed an important milestone.

At last count, roughly $1.2 million (U.S.) has been raised to buy back Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe laboratory, located on Long Island about 100 kilometres from New York City.

It was there, roughly 110 years ago, that the Serbian-American engineer began conducting wireless communications and long-distance power transmission experiments. He predicted a world without wires that only in the last two decades we have come to realize.

Telsa’s vision was so compelling that he convinced financier J.P. Morgan to invest in construction of the 57-metre tall tower that was to be the heart of a global communications and free energy transfer system.

Like many of Tesla’s grand projects, however, the money ran dry. The whole operation got shuttered after about 15 years and the property was sold off.

Now, Tesla followers are determined to buy it back. But what’s fascinating about this story is how they’re doing it.

The Tesla Science Center, a not-for-profit group trying to take possession of Wardenclyffe, approached humour cartoonist and long-time Tesla fan Matthew Inman, who operates the popular and highly clever website theoatmeal.com. They explained that if they could raise $850,000 they could get a matching grant from the state, giving them enough to make the purchase.

Inman decided to help. A crowdfunding campaign was set up on the website IndieGoGo.com and the cartoonist used his wide online reach to draw attention to the museum project. With 29 days still left in the campaign, Inman has already blown well past his $850,000 goal. (Find project at http://igg.me/p/204900)

About 28,000 people have donated, myself included. The final tally could very well top $2 million.

This story illustrates the power of the crowd and how more organizations and entrepreneurs — too often turned down by government and banks — are going straight to the masses to get financial support for their projects. Clean energy initiatives are no exception.

Take the PlanetStove project, spearheaded by Dylan Maxwell and Olivier Kolmel, the founders of Montreal-based firm Novotera. The company has developed a new type of wood-fuelled cooking stove that addresses many problems associated with traditional indoors wood fires, which is the common way of cooking in many developing countries.

Indoor cooking fires and the smoke inhalation that results cause thousands of premature deaths a day, according to the World Health Organization. The carbon dioxide and soot that’s release also contribute to global warming. The mere presence of smoke means such fires are an inefficient way to make heat.

Several years ago Maxwell and Kolmel began working on a new type of portable indoor stove based on the TLUD or “top lit, updraft” design, which is basically a metal cylinder with another metal tube inside that gets packed with wood and kindling.

As the name suggests, the kindling at the top of stove is lit on fire. This begins to heat up — but not burn — the wood below, releasing hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those gases travel up through the air gap between the cylinder and inner tube and are ejected out small holes at the top of the stove into the burning kindling, where the gas itself begins to burn.

In effect, the wood is “gasified” and the stove burns like any gas-burning stove. The result is very little smoke, making it much safer for indoor use. The approach also produces the same amount of energy using a third less wood.

But just as important is what the stove leaves behind when the cooking is done. After the wood is gasified it is essentially charcoal, which still contains 50 per cent or more of the carbon that was in the original wood.

That charcoal — or “biochar” — has amazing properties. It is a known soil enhancer for its ability to help land retain water and valuable nutrients. And when it’s added to the soil, the carbon inside the biochar is essentially sequestered.

Maxwell and Kolmel discovered that in some countries that char can be sold for just as much as what was paid for the original wood. So not only does the stove improve health, reduce impacts on climate, and reduce the rate of deforestation, it can enhance agriculture and is also a potential source of income for villagers.

Having tested the stoves for two years now in China, Maxwell and Kolmel now want to distribute 1,000 of them across parts of Asia for free, which is where crowdfunding comes into play.

Like the Tesla museum initiative, Novotera — with the help of greentech investor and consultant Lee Schnaiberg — has launched a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo.com.

The company has found a manufacturer in China that can make the stoves for $25. The two entrepreneurs are hoping to raise $25,000 by mid-October so they can purchase the stoves and begin handing them out later in the fall.

“If you pay $25 you’re basically giving a stove to a family,” said Maxwell.

Last time I checked, they had raised $1,200 with 43 days left to go in the campaign. Their big challenge is in spreading the word.

Schnaiberg said the success of the Tesla museum initiative boosted their confidence. “Our goals are much more modest, but that campaign really confirmed to us that using IndieGoGo was the right choice.”

Come Oct. 12, they’ll know for sure. The bigger question, however, is how many of these efforts the crowd will be willing to fund as the calls for help begin to grow.

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

Ontario startup aims to boost energy literacy through mobile apps

Tim Johnson is a self-described energy geek, the kind of guy who has the website of Ontario’s electricity system operator set as his home page.

While the rest of us are busy on Twitter reading about Avril Lavigne’s engagement to Nickelback front man Chad Kroeger, Johnson is combing through hourly data on the operation of the province’s grid.

How much electricity are we using? What types of generation are meeting demand? Is there enough supply? How much are we importing and exporting?

People who are passionate about the industry — myself included — live and breathe this stuff. We tend, however, to assume that the general public has the same level of interest or knowledge.

“But the complexity has outpaced the level of communication that industry is providing to consumers,” said Johnson. “It’s a shame, because we really have an interesting story here in Ontario.”

We are all “gridizens” in one way or another, he said, and we’re all connected to a provincial electricity system going through a major transition. The power mix is changing. Electricity is being delivered in different ways. Electric cars are coming. Houses and buildings are getting smarter.

This modernization of the grid is going to be costly, and we are all going to pay for it. For this reason, it’s in our interest to understand what we’re getting, how it operates, and the impacts of our individual actions.

After years in the energy-industry trenches, Johnson decided to tackle the challenge of energy illiteracy head on. Last June, the Ottawa resident founded a company called EnergyMobile Studios, which is “devoted to building smart, functional, beautiful apps that simplify and save energy.”

I first learned of EnergyMobile last week after searching Apple’s App Store for energy-related iPhone applications. A free app called Gridwatch, which the company had just released, quickly caught my eye. What it offers is a clear and simple snapshot of how Ontario’s power system is performing on an hourly basis.

It tells you how many megawatts of power are being generated (it also defines a megawatt for you) and whether this is considered low, high or average for the time of day and day of the year. It then breaks down the different electricity sources that are contributing to the mix.

At 6 a.m. on Thursday, for example, it told me power generation was at 14,550 megawatts and that nuclear power represented 70.8 per cent of the mix. Hydro was at 16.1 per cent, natural gas at 9.7 per cent, wind at 1.7 per cent and coal just 0.5 per cent. Click on each source and you get even more detail: a list of each power plant in the fleet, what they’re capable of generating and how much they actually are generating during that hour.

“You can see all this information online already,” explained Johnson, pointing to the various reports and charts available on the website of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator. But it’s not easy to find and mostly geared to energy geeks like him.

Gridwatch is designed to be anti-geek in this respect. It also goes a step further, offering information that even the government or the system operator has neglected to make publicly available, despite calls to do so from the province’s environmental commissioner.

The app tells you how many tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) emissions are being produced from the electricity system on an hourly basis, and compares this to the numbers of cars on the road or how many trees it would take to absorb these emissions.

To do this, EnergyMobile partnered up with Niagara College and carbon management software firm e3 Solutions, which spent 18 months working on a formula to accurately calculate power generation emissions in Ontario.

They basically analyzed the carbon intensity of every single power plant in the province. “It’s going further than anybody we’ve seen so far in the marketplace,” said Johnson, who feels that giving the public this information could spur meaningful behavioural changes.

“Let’s face it, people don’t have to change,” he said. “Electricity is still relatively cheap compared to other markets worldwide, and it’s reliable. Right now, you’re likely paying more for your cellphone than your power. So people have to want to change.

“But if you do want to change, you need to be dissatisfied with the way things are, and understand that if you make personal changes what the impact will be. That’s why energy literacy is so important.”

Gridwatch isn’t the company’s first app. In April, it launched a tool called Powercents (currently free, but has been priced at $1.99) that helps electricity users keep track of different time-of-use rates and when they kick in. The app can even been set to alert you when, for example, off-peak prices are in effect.

On top of that, the app offers a variety of energy saving tips and will tell you how much you can save by using certain appliances during off-peak hours instead of on-peak or mid-peak. It’s a tremendously handy tool that I can see teachers embracing as a way to educate students about energy conservation. Likewise for Gridwatch.

Johnson called both apps “passion projects” that aren’t currently money-makers for his five-person company. His hope is that the energy minister, system operator, power authority or some of the province’s utilities see the value of the tools and offer to partner up.

“We’re working right now to galvanize some deals with utilities,” he said. “We think it’s a good fit, and we’d love to be offering this on their behalf.”

EnergyMobile is working on its next two apps: Heatcents, focused on energy conservation around home heating, and Watercents, focused on water conservation. Over time, and if deals start flowing in Ontario, Johnson plans to enter new geographic markets. Some U.S. jurisdictions are already showing interest, as well as a utility in Helsinki.

“We believe Ontario is a complicated market,” he said. “If we can cut our teeth here, it really positions us to do well in other deregulated markets.”

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