Attention all, young and old, who are concerned about Canada’s inaction on climate change

From Oct. 26 to 29, 1,000 youth from across the country will converge at Power Shift 2012 in Ottawa to galvanize a broad movement pushing the federal government to aggressively reduce carbon emissions and tackle the corporations that are fueling climate change. The Power Shift 2012 convergence kicks off on Friday, Oct. 26. It includes a press conference on Saturday morning, and culminates on Monday, Oct. 29 with a massive rally demanding the federal government stop handing out $1.4 billion yearly to the fossil fuel industry and invest instead in renewable energy, green jobs and social programs. “We are coming together to envision a society that prioritizes the health and well-being of all communities, now and into the future, and respects the limits of ecological systems. We are tired of governments and corporations who pit economic growth and the environment against each other. Addressing the climate crisis requires a re-distribution of power, in order to bring about a more equitable society,” said Kathryn Lennon, an Alberta organizer and spokesperson for Power Shift 2012.

The four-day gathering will include keynote lectures from activist Naomi Klein, American Indian activist Winona LaDuke, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, among others. Those attending can also take part in panels and workshops and activist trainings in civil disobedience and lobbying. For more information go to http://www.wearepowershift.ca/

Lady Gaga tweets are not enough… movie/rock stars should unite for climate awareness, action

Back in the mid-1980s dozens of high-profile music artists from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada got together in their respective countries to raise awareness and stimulate discussion of famine in Ethiopia.

Bono, David Bowie and Sting helped lead Band Aid, the U.K. supergroup that created the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? This was followed by USA for Africa’s We Are The World, which included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Canada’s contribution was Northern Lights’ Tears Are Not Enough, featuring heavyweights Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Anne Murray and Geddy Lee.

In all, the three songs resulted in the sale of more than 35 million copies worldwide and shined a bright light on an issue that had received little attention by the mainstream media, politicians and the general public.

I couldn’t help but recall the impact of these songs, and the phenomenon of celebrity influence, while listening earlier this week to Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who spoke at an event at the University of Toronto co-hosted by several community groups, including the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Post Carbon Toronto.

I’ll make the link between star power and Jacobson later in this column, but first some background on the good professor.

Jacobson is a bit of a rock star himself in academic circles, at least when it comes to another problem that’s putting millions – potentially billions – of lives at risk. He has spent his career trying to understand the global impacts of air pollution and climate change, as well as how to quickly and responsibly transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a world powered by renewable energy.

“Air pollution alone kills 2.5 to 3 million people at least a year worldwide,” he told those gathered to attend his Toronto lecture. He then rattled off a list of other problems associated with fossil fuels—rising global temperature and sea level, record Arctic ice loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and volatile energy prices, to name a few.

“These are drastic problems that require drastic solutions, and we think they need to be addressed immediately. We can’t wait 20 or 30 years, which is why we’ve really got to focus on technologies that exist today, that can be implemented for the most part right away, and that can be implemented at large scale.”

Jacobson caught people’s attention three years ago with his co-authored article A Plan To Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables, which was the cover story for a 2009 issue of Scientific American.

Many roll their eyes at the suggestion that renewables can do it all for us, but one by one Jacobson’s article dispelled many myths about green power and convincingly argued that wind, water and sun could do the heavy lifting if we had the collective will power to make it happen.

It analyzed the impacts of each type of “clean” energy source independently, including land and water footprint, the materials required to make it, how much pollution would be created during its full lifecycle, and overall contribution to global warming.

Wind turbines, various forms of solar technology, hydropower and geothermal plants, and to a lesser extent wave and tidal energy, got top marks. Nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage, natural gas and biomass didn’t make the cut.

In the area of transportation, he favoured electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles over those that used compressed natural gas or biofuels such as ethanol.

“Why not natural gas?” he said last week. “Because it releases at least 50 to 70 times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy per kilowatt-hour generated… It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere.”

Jacobson has calculated that a world where all industry and transportation is powered by renewables would require installation of 3.8 million wind turbines, 1.7 billion residential and commercial rooftop solar systems, about 90,000 solar plants each 300 megawatts in size, 5,350 geothermal plants 100 megawatts in size, and about 1.5 million wave and tidal devices.

It seems like a lot, but it’s all relative. Consider the estimated 20 to 30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide, or the many millions of smokestacks that dot our city and urban landscapes. Considers that the planet is wrapped in a mesh of more than two million kilometres of pipeline infrastructure, enough to stretch to the moon and back nearly three times.

His renewables plan, he pointed out, would take up less than 1 per cent of land space on the planet.

Now comes the star power. Jacobson has teamed up with the greenest, most powerful ally one could imagine: the Incredible Hulk. Well, actually actor Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in The Avengers movie.

They’re leading an initiative called The Solutions Project, which is trying to bring together high profile scientists, business people, investors, movie makers and Hollywood stars in an effort to drive home the message that 100-per cent renewable energy is not only doable, but should be done.

Their first effort, to be announced shortly, will be to develop a comprehensive green plan for New York State, followed by other states and eventually other countries.

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson are lending their star power to the cause, along with documentary movie director Josh Fox, celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, and philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller.

Jacobson and Ruffalo, who co-authored an article for Huffington Post that appeared in June, said their goal is to “inspire millions to take part in an energy revolution.”

“Today, with social media and the reach of pop culture, we can educate people and achieve what was unthinkable five years ago,” they wrote. “It is up to us to grab hold of our potential and change our world for the better.”

Individual tweets from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are not going to change things. Having celebrities join forces with scientists and policymakers against a global threat like climate change, as they did for African famine in the mid-80s, just might.

For this reason, Jacobson is on the right track.

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

Searching for the perfect LED light bulb, 50 years after its invention

It didn’t get much attention, but last week marked the 50th anniversary of the invention of the first visible light-emitting diode, or LED, a technology that is well on its way to transforming the lighting industry.

It was on Oct. 9, 1962, when Nick Holonyak Jr., a young scientist at General Electric, showed colleagues in a lab how he could cause a piece of semiconductor material made of gallium arsenide and gallium phosphide to emit visible light — in this case a red glow — when an electric current passed through it.

Four month later, Holonyak boldly predicted in an issue of Reader’s Digest that in time his invention would replace the incandescent light bulb. Through the 1970s orange, green and yellow LEDs appeared, and these proved useful in electronics devices.

Blue LEDs followed in the 1980s, and this development set the stage for white — the holy grail of lighting applications.

Over the years, white LEDs have grown bright and inexpensive enough to start making good on Holonyak’s decades-old prediction. Indeed, Swedish furniture giant IKEA announced earlier this month that by 2016 it will sell only LED light bulbs and fixtures in its stores.

Early next year, GE Lighting plans to release its first LED product designed to replace a 100-watt incandescent bulb, a product first commercialized by GE founder Thomas Edison more than 100 years ago.

The technology is rapidly progressing. It’s gotten to the point where, by some estimates, there are more than 2,000 companies manufacturing LED products for commercial and residential lighting, says Ottawa entrepreneur Stephen Naor, a former executive at Nortel Networks and Newbridge Networks who these days is making it his business to know.

Earlier this year he co-founded a new company called Leapfrog Lighting, which is positioning itself as the industry’s most trusted authority on commercial and industrial LED products.

In Naor’s view, the LED options have become so plentiful that organizations looking to purchase them don’t know where to start. They know, generally, that LED lights use up to 75 per cent less energy than incandescent bulbs and can last up to 25 times longer — three times longer in the case of compact fluorescent lights (CFLs).

They know that LED lights don’t contain mercury like CFLs, are more robust, can be dimmed, and offer a much higher quality of light. Sure, the bulbs are more expensive — a typical 60-watt-equivalent bulb goes for between $25 and $30 — but the price continues to fall.

And for organizations more interested in long-term savings than upfront cost, the payback can be quite attractive. With the right product, a payback of as low as three months is realistic in areas where lighting is required 24-hours a day, such as in a hospital.

But LED lighting products are not created equally, says Naor. Lighting quality and efficiency can vary from product to product, and even batch to batch. Some last longer than others. There are a range of prices.

There’s no shortage of confusion in the market. “A lot of buyers of LED lighting often find the performance they expected just isn’t there, and they’re disappointed,” he says.

Naor knows what he’s talking about. As co-founder and chief executive of Ottawa-based start-up Group IV Semiconductor, he spent the last decade trying to commercialize a long-lasting, highly efficient type of LED made out of silicon, which costs less and is more abundant than the expensive and exotic materials that make up existing LEDs.

Unfortunately, Group IV’s grand plan of making an even better, cheaper light bulb didn’t quite unfold as expected. The goal proved more challenging to reach than expected, and by 2010 disagreement among shareholders — the largest of which was high-profile Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla — led to a decision to suspend operations and put development on hold.

Left behind was highly-advanced lab equipment that could be used to test and validate the performance of existing LED lights on the market. “We decided to investigate what’s out there, and we investigated heavily,” says Naor.

They looked closely at several hundred LED manufacturers, and narrowed down the list to about 100. Of those, they got product samples and put each of them through a vigorous lab test. From there, they chose six products with the best balance of performance and cost, then travelled to the factories that made them — all in China, by the way — and negotiated supply agreements.

Of the bulbs Leapfrog Lighting carries, it tests each and every one of them before shipping them off to customers. “We want to certify every lamp we sell,” says Naor, adding that the company’s commitment is to constantly monitor the global marketplace, looking for new or improved products that raise the bar on performance and return on investment.

It’s an interesting approach that may prove quite useful in what are still early days in the LED lighting market, and it’s a great way to leverage equipment from a technology venture that couldn’t deliver fast enough on its promise.

Naor says there’s still some technology development going on in the background related to Group IV, and he sees great potential in using that technology to enhance the performance of existing LEDs on the market, possibly as early as next year.

But for now, Leapfrog Lighting’s focus will be on simplifying and bringing confidence to a market that has been 50 years in the making.

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

District energy still a big, but dwindling, opportunity for fast-growing Toronto

When Toronto City Council made the decision three years ago to let boutique hotelier Henry Kallan develop a hotel on the grounds of Exhibition Place, the idea was to make the Allstream Centre and Direct Energy Centre more attractive convention venues.

With Exhibition Place now representing the heart of the 2015 Pan American Games, having a hotel on site is even more crucial.

But the hotel represents more to the grounds than just convenient accommodations. For Exhibition Place, it offers an opportunity to expand its reach as an energy service provider.

Years ago, it installed what’s called a tri-generation system. Basically, the system is a natural gas-fired generator that supplies electricity to the Direct Energy Centre. What’s unique, however, is that waste heat recovered from the generator is used to warm the building and run a chiller that’s driven by hot water.

On top of that high-efficiency system, Exhibition Place gets some of its energy needs from wind, geothermal and solar power systems, and it has plenty of room to add more — as well as energy storage — as growth demands.

That’s where the hotel comes into play. Staff from the city’s energy efficiency office realized there was no need for the new building to install its own boilers and chillers. Instead, Exhibition Place could simply pipe surplus heat from the Direct Energy Centre to the hotel.

Kallan was sold. It meant no noisy equipment on the hotel roof, no hassles, and fewer hurdles for a project working under a tight schedule.

But the implications were much broader. It demonstrated that the city-owned grounds had huge potential of becoming the core of an expansive district energy system, one that could supply efficient heating and cooling services to all sorts of new buildings expected to be developed in the surrounding area over the coming years.

“All of that is fair game. We have big plans for that area,” says Fernando Carou, a senior engineer from the city’s energy-efficiency office who specializes in district-energy development. “It’s the approach we should have taken 50 years ago in this city, which is to integrate energy into the way the city grows and develops itself.”

Jose Etcheverry, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University, echoes that observation. “We have a situation here where municipalities expand without any thought whatsoever about energy.”

This contrasts with northern Europe, where district energy systems make a major contribution to national power and heat production. In Denmark, about 60 per cent of buildings are supplied by district energy. Narrow that to Copenhagen and it rises to 98 per cent.

There are some visible exceptions in Ontario. Toronto has Enwave, which supplies heating and cooling to 140 buildings in the downtown core. North of the city, Markham District Energy began supplying energy services to the surrounding community in 2000. It now has three combined heat and power plants serving the area’s buildings, with a fourth plant under construction.

“Markham has shown the great advantage that a little bit of energy planning can put on the table,” says Etcheverry, adding that Guelph and Hamilton are also showing leadership. “Enwave, in many ways, opened people’s minds about the potential.”

Carou says Toronto has missed a big opportunity by not embracing district energy earlier. He points, for example, to the Humber Bay Shores cluster of high-rise condominium buildings that sprung up along the lake west of the downtown core, or development around the intersection of Leslie St. and Shepherd Ave.

These areas could have been perfect for building district energy into planning. “But they have nothing,” he says.

Still, missed opportunity doesn’t mean zero opportunity. The city has about 200 new high-rise buildings planned for construction over the next several years, part of the megatrend of diversification and urbanization.

“There’s incredibly explosive growth happening,” says Carou. “We just have to act quickly.”

To help focus the city’s efforts, his office commissioned a report that prioritizes energy “action zones” or “nodes” where district energy (including renewables and targeted energy storage) would make most sense — low-hanging fruit ready for the taking.

He presented a map of 27 action zones while speaking at a seminar last week organized by York’s Sustainable Energy Initiative. Exhibition Place was on the map. So was York University, which is rich in surplus land that private developers are drooling over.

Carou says going the district energy route appears a “win-win” for York. The university can make money leasing the land, earn additional revenues selling energy services from their own bulked up systems, and improve their own energy security in the process. A covenant on land leases could make it a condition of development.

For a university traditionally strong in environmental science and engineering curriculum, the facility could also potentially be a valuable training ground for students.

“We don’t have definitive plans yet,” said Brad Cochrane, director of energy management at York, who also spoke at last week’s seminar.

The option is currently being studied, he said, while also acknowledging that time is of the essence. “We have to make a decision soon if we’re going to go that way or not, otherwise it’s going to be more difficult to do later.”

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