Car2Go: great idea, but some major problems to work out

As I’ve written here before, I am a member of Zipcar, AutoShare, and Car2Go. Lately, I’ve found myself using Car2Go the most because of the nature of my travels. I work from home two or three days a week, but the rest of the time head downtown to the office. I’ve found that taking a Car2Go to work after rush hour, then taking it back home, has been a great way to commute now that the weather is getting colder (I usually bike in the spring, summer and early fall). It works out to less than half the price of taking a cab.

Now, the beauty of Car2Go is the one way nature of the trips — I pick up a car at one lot and can drop it off at another. It makes the drives short (average trip is 15 minutes) and I don’t have to pay for parking when I’m downtown. But there are some major problems with the service:

1) Parking isn’t always guaranteed. A number of lots downtown are often full, meaning you can’t drop off the car at your desired location. Car2Go users are supposed to keep driving around looking for a lot that isn’t full, but that’s not practical and doing so comes at a cost, as you’re charged for every minute you drive. Many people, including myself, resort to double parking — because the Smart Cars are so short, you can usually park one behind the other and it doesn’t affect the flow of the lot. Unfortunately, city officials don’t like this and will ticket the car. Car2Go passes that $30 ticket on to you, and adds a $25 processing fee on top. Not nice.

2) The wireless entry system for the cars is unreliable. Three times now I have had a car unable to connect with the main system. The first time I couldn’t properly return a car because it wouldn’t connect to tell the system that my ride was over. I had to call customer service and spent 20 minutes trying to figure it out. In the end, I had to leave the car unlocked in the lot and just walk away hoping someone didn’t steal it. Other times, I have walked to lots and tried to sign out a car, only to find out it won’t connect. Just today, this happened to me. I walked 20 minutes to the nearest available car, swiped my card, only to find out there was “No Connection.” I called customer service and they couldn’t figure it out. I was told, “Yeah, this sometimes happens.” Great. I ended up having to spend $30 to take a cab (a premium compared to the $9 the Car2Go would have cost me) and was 15 minutes late for an important meeting. Did I mention it was friggin’ cold outside? I was told I might get a credit for the inconvenience — the request would be made. Might?

3) Another issue has to do with picking up a car in a large, multi-level Green P city parking lot. Based on the iPhone app, you know there’s a car there somewhere, but you don’t know exactly where it is. You end up having to walk through each level looking for this little car. One lot on the Esplanade in Toronto has five or six levels. Took me 15 minutes of walking around to figure out where it was. In these situations, the company should really look to have dedicated spots, like Zipcar or AutoShare have.

4) This isn’t the biggest issue, but it’s still a problem. The iPhone apps that help you find available cars don’t do a good enough job of telling you where some lots are. Zipcar and AutoShare, by comparison, go into a great amount of detail to tell you exactly how to get to the car.

So there you go. I love the concept of Car2Go, but so far I’m getting really frustrated by the experience. The company better sort them out, otherwise I’m going to ditch this service and go for something more reliable.

Ontario municipalities now empowered to offer PAPER, PACE programs to boost energy, water conservation

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe it’s clever politicking, but Kathleen Wynne made a smart move last month.

Two weeks before resigning her cabinet post and announcing her intentions to run for leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party, the MPP for Don Valley West signed amendments to two pieces of legislation that could potentially fill a gaping hole in the province’s troubled energy policy.

Exercising her authority as minister of municipal affairs and housing, Wynne approved changes to the Municipal Act and City of Toronto Act that empower all municipalities in Ontario to take the lead on energy and water conservation programs.

Specifically, municipalities such as Toronto can now use a financing tool called a local improvement charge (LIC) to help property owners finance changes to their homes that are aimed at reducing energy or water consumption.

This is important, as the McGuinty government has neglected to follow through on the conservation promises of its own Green Energy Act, despite the fact that improving energy efficiency is the lowest cost and fastest way to save energy and reduce the environmental impacts of electricity generation.

Previously, local improvement charges could only be used to finance neighbourhood infrastructure projects. If a town or city replaced a sewer pipe or repaved a road, it could spread part of the cost among those property owners that stand to benefit. This would be visible as a special charge added to property tax bills.

The amendments, first proposed back in May, now make it possible for municipalities to apply the LIC model to energy or water efficiency projects taken on by individual property owners.

So what’s the big deal? As I wrote back in June, the amendments mean that municipalities can leverage their ability to raise cheap capital through bond issues.

They can then turn around and offer low-interest financing to property owners looking to insulate their homes, add energy-efficient windows, install smart thermostats, and upgrade to high-efficiency furnaces, air conditioners and water heaters.

Property owners could then pay back the loan over 10 or more years through their property taxes, with the idea being that annual payments would be less than annual energy or water savings. Another bonus is that existing municipal billing systems can be leveraged.

There are many names for this kind of program. When focused on energy conservation, programs are often called Property Assessed Payments for Energy Retrofits, or PAPER. When designed to encourage installation of renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, it’s called Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE. The legislative changes in Ontario allow for both types of programs to be created.

“I would say that over 50 municipalities are so far interested in this model,” said Sonja Persram, president of Toronto-based Sustainable Alternatives Consulting Inc., who has been a major champion of the proposed legislative changes. “Of those, a fairly large number — both large and small — are keen to move forward.”

Ontario is now the third jurisdiction in Canada — behind Yukon and Nova Scotia — to embrace LICs as a method for stimulating efficiency investments by easing the upfront capital burden that often make such investments unpalatable for property owners.

Brian Kelly, manager of sustainability for the Region of Durham, said what amounts to a minor regulatory change on Wynne’s part opens the door for municipalities to stimulate major residential retrofit activity, create local jobs, and at the same time help consumers do what they need to do to lower energy and water costs.

There’s little, if any, political or financial risk to the province. But the impact is potentially huge, in terms of lowering emissions, reducing pressure on utility infrastructure, and spurring economic activity.

Toronto councillor Mike Layton, who is pushing the city to launch a pilot project as soon as possible, called the approved amendments an “exciting” development. “Staff will be bringing a pilot project in coming months and I hope we can find money to fund it,” said Layton. “It would be great if we can start getting some real pickup on this.”

The Toronto Real Estate Board, the Toronto Board of Trade, as well as several labour organizations, NGOs and business leaders, have so far backed Layton’s efforts.

As far as seeing the model expanded country-wide, Natural Resources Canada considers the approach a complement or alternative to incentive-based programs that overcomes two barriers: Upfront access to capital and a practical way to pay back loans — i.e. through municipal or local utility billing infrastructure.

“These mechanisms are key to market transformation, helping homeowners move away from reliance on government subsidies to a more market-based arrangement,” according to the ministry.

The federal EcoEnergy home retrofit program, underpinned by nearly $200 million in subsidies, only tapped into 6 per cent of Canada’s housing stock.

“This is potentially a huge spur for the Ontario economy,” said Persram, who expects to see plenty of municipal collaboration on program development. “This allows municipalities to take control of their own destiny.”

If the approach is successful, the Liberal government — perhaps one day Wynne — can take credit for the heavy lifting it has essentially offloaded.

All it took was a signature.

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

Giving plastic waste, including kids’ markers, the wax treatment

Crayola is one of the most recognizable brands in North America, up there with Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Apple. It’s for this reason the maker of crayons, markers and other art supplies for kids takes its image seriously.

The company boasts that it uses enough emission-free solar power to manufacture one billion crayons and 500 million markers annually. Its markers are made from recycled plastic. Its coloured pencils are made from reforested wood.

But the company was caught off guard earlier this year when a group of 40 elementary school students from San Rafael, Calif., began an online petition criticizing it for not having a recycling program for its old plastic markers.

As a parent, I can relate. Leave a cap off one of those markers – which my girls do all the time—and it’s useless. There’s no option but to toss it in the trash. We probably have a couple hundred currently sitting in an art drawer. About half don’t work.

The students urged Crayola to create a take-back recycling program for the markers. The online campaign, which began in May through the website, resulted in nearly 85,000 online signatures and thousands of form e-mails sent to Crayola’s executive team.

Crayola’s response was that it lacked the facilities and a process for such a recycling program. Looking to take advantage of a competitor on the ropes, global art-supply firm Dixon Ticonderoga announced out of the blue that they would start recycling their own markers.

But here’s an interesting idea: What if Crayola took back their old plastic markers and turned them into synthetic waxes that can be used to make their crayons?

Talk about a recycling scheme made in heaven. Crayola could then proudly advertise that its crayons are made from its own recycled materials, which offsets the use of non-renewable waxes that come from petroleum. It would also shelter the company from volatile oil prices, and could actually prove to be a money-saver.

Can it be done?

“Potentially we could do that,” said Pushkar Kumar, founder and chief executive of Toronto-based GreenMantra Technologies.

GreenMantra, founded just two years ago, has come up with a relatively low-cost process for creating waxes and lubricants from old plastic bags, butter GreenMantra, founded just two years ago, has come up with a relatively low-cost process for creating waxes and lubricants from old plastic bags, butter tubs, yogurt containers and yes, plastic marker casings. “Even mixed plastics can work with our process.”

It’s not widely known, or thought about, but we use waxes in a wide range of products, including roads, tires, polishes, coatings, particle board, artificial fireplace logs, and many foods.

With the exception of natural waxes, such as the expensive kind that come from bees, most waxes are currently created as a by-product of petroleum refining. It may be a $12 billion market, but refiners view wax as a sideshow to their main bread and butter: fuels and lubricants.

“Lately these refiners have decided to get out of production of unrefined waxes,” said Kumar, explaining that more petroleum companies are taking their by-product waxes and further refining them into lubricating oil.

This is creating an opportunity for makers of synthetic waxes. “A $12 billion market is big enough for me,” Kumar said with a laugh. “We are the only synthetic wax manufacturer now operating in Canada.”

There are others in the global market, such as multibillion-dollar petrochemical manufacturer Sasol, but Kumar said GreenMantra’s process – which he invented with his father in the early 2000s—is more flexible, energy efficient, and significantly less costly, making its wax products comparatively attractive.

But it’s still early days. All GreenMantra has right now is a pre-commercial plant operating in Brantford that can produce between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of wax annually. To make it a full commercial plant it would have to produce at least 10,000 tonnes, and ideally 50,000 tonnes or higher to drive costs to where they need to be.

A deal with one big customer could lead to such a plant. “One large maker of roof shingles could use the entire output from a facility, so we could partner with them to build and operate a plant that’s dedicated to supplying their business,” said Kumar.

Artificial fire logs, which strangely enough contain 50 per cent wax, are another ideal fit. A market-leading manufacturing of such logs would typically require 100,000 tonnes of wax a year.

And then, of course, there’s Crayola. Kumar wouldn’t confirm if the two companies have had talks. If not, they probably should.

That the crayon my child uses was made from the marker she used to use? That a Toronto-based cleantech start-up helped make it happen?

Now that’s something to wax poetic about.

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

Wheaty Harrelson? Doesn’t sound as nice, but it’s a better fit for this Oscar nominee

Sixteen years ago actor Woody Harrelson decided to climb the Golden Gate Bridge with a bunch of environmental activists to protest the logging of redwood forests in Northern California.

The two-time Academy Award nominee thought it was pure craziness that, as a society, we’re fine with cutting down trees just so we can make products—namely paper—that are used once and then just tossed away as trash.

Since then, it has been Harrelson’s dream to find an economical, efficient and eco-friendly way to make paper that doesn’t rely on wood pulp.

“Maybe my name should have tipped me off to what my future would be,” the actor joked earlier this month during a phone interview from Atlanta, where he’s currently shooting the sequel to The Hunger Games.

“If you think about it, over half of all paper used is just used temporarily,” he explained, adding that much of it comes from ancient and threatened forests, including Canada’s boreal forest. “I’d like to see that changed.”

Harrelson, in fact, is more than just seeing that change. As co-founder of Canadian cleantech venture Prairie Pulp & Paper, he’s helping to lead it. The Winnipeg-based company has developed a cost-competitive approach to making paper out of wheat straw – the stuff that farmers often burn as left-behind field waste.

To Harrelson’s delight, Prairie P&P is starting to get some serious commercial traction after 14 years of working to perfect its patented recipe and process. In August, for example, the company’s “Step Forward Paper” – a mix of 80 per cent wheat straw and 20 per cent Forest Stewardship Council-certified sustainable wood – hit the shelves in Staples Canada stores as part of a partnership with environmental group Canopy.

Its next challenge was to show the broader marketplace the degree to which its paper is more sustainable. Earlier this year, the company commissioned a lifecycle environmental impact study from carbon management firm Offsetters.

The final report, publicly released today, found that the process of making Prairie P&P’s straw paper consumes on average half the energy as paper made from 100 per cent virgin wood. At the same time, it emits at least 40 per cent less greenhouse-gas emissions.

On most metrics – energy use, wastewater production, and emissions – it also beat paper made of 30 per cent recycled materials by a significant margin. Only 100 per cent recycled paper came close to matching the straw paper’s environmental footprint.

“In and of itself this product sets a new eco-standard for paper,” Jeff Golfman, co-founder and president of Prairie P&P, said in a recent interview.

So how did a famous Hollywood actor with the name Woody end up becoming the co-founder of a Manitoba company trying to reduce our use of wood? The seed of the venture was planted in 1998 when Harrelson began researching the market.

“I had a meeting with this engineer who is very knowledgeable about the making of non-wood pulp and paper mills,” Harrelson recounted. “I asked him who was the closest to making this happen in North America. He turned me on to Jeff.”

The engineer, it turned out, was working for Golfman, who had been travelling the world assembling a team of technical folks capable of making good on his own straw paper vision.

Golfman, an honours graduate in business administration from the Richard Ivey School of Business, is a self-described environmentalist and eco-entrepreneur who 20 years ago developed the Blue Box recycling program for the City of Winnipeg. After that, he started a company that manufactures “sweat shop free” furniture before moving on to tree-free paper.

“Woody heard about what I was up to,” recalled Golfman. “And literally 24 hours later I was on the phone with him chatting about it.” Two weeks later he was on a plane to Boston to meet Harrelson in person, and 48 hours after that they shook on a deal.

Harrelson became one of the company’s main investors. “We’ve been business partners ever since,” said Golfman, adding that funds have also been received through the federal and Manitoba governments, as well as Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

Harrelson, who in 2009 received an honorary degree from York University for his contributions to environmental education, described their first meeting as a “great talk” that convinced him of Golfman’s commitment to the project. “I could just tell with his energy and positivity that he was the guy who could move this paper forward.”

And move it forward he has. The company is working exclusively with a pulp and paper mill in India that has so far produced 40 million sheets of Step Forward Paper, which looks and feels just like any other printer-quality paper on the market.

Golfman’s plan over the next five years is to build a production facility in Manitoba capable of making paper that is 95 per cent wheat straw and 5 per cent flax, both of which would be sourced locally from the Canadian prairies.

At the same time, the company aims to build awareness of the product throughout Canada and the United States over the next two years, eventually moving into Central and South America. The Canadian facility will serve those regions, while the mill in India will continue to supply Asian, African and European customers.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Golfman.

Harrelson is hyped about the prospect of seeing paper come from farmers, not forests. “To me this is a big one,” he said. “This one has been a long-term dream and I’m excited about where it’s at right now.”

And he gives due props to his Canadian partner. “It’s incredible how far Jeff has come with this.”

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