Is guilt the path to serious climate action? New labelling campaign wants to test theory that guilt works

label-low_1You drive up to the gas pump, grab the nozzle and start filling up your car or SUV. Captive for a good two minutes, you look down and see a label on the handle of the nozzle showing a little boy staring out a window, his sad face reflecting in the glass.

“Use of this fuel product contributes to climate change which may cause anxiety and depression in children.”

Ouch. That hurts.

It’s just one of several messages that Toronto resident Robert Shirkey wants featured on gas-pump nozzles across the city, or any municipality tired of waiting for federal action on climate change.

Shirkey, a municipal lawyer, has done his research. Turns out that municipalities have the legal authority to make gas stations put the warning labels – similar to the kind now found on cigarette packages—on pump nozzles.

He’s now pitching the concept to those Toronto councillors most likely to champion the effort within city hall. The big question, of course, is whether warning labels that make us feel guilty for filling up is an effective strategy?

Will pictures of an oil-soaked duck, malnourished children roaming an African desert, or at-risk Arctic caribou convince us to ditch the car? By warning us that filling up “may harm wildlife and damage ecosystems”, “cause drought and famine” or “put up to 30 per cent of species at likely risk of extinction”, are we more likely to take transit, ride a bicycle, or purchase an electric vehicle?

Or, are they just going to make people angry? Desensitized?

Shirkey has been thinking about these questions since 2011, when the idea first popped into his head. He decided then to run for city council so he could effect change from the inside.

That plan got interrupted, however, when he opened up his own legal practice. Life got busy and his political ambitions were put on the backburner. Then one day, while on the phone with his sick grandfather, the conversation turned to self-reflection.

“He sensed that I wasn’t very happy,” recalls Shirkey. “His last words on the phone to me were ‘Do what you love.’ ”

It wasn’t long after that his grandfather passed away and an inheritance cheque arrived in the mail. “As soon as I opened up the envelope, his final words echoed with me,” Shirkey says.

That same day Shirkey went to Osgoode Hall Law School on a research mission: find out if municipalities had the power to mandate warning labels at gas stations, and that it didn’t conflict with provincial or federal legislation.

Turns out it was completely doable, and Shirkey now had the financial resources – thanks to grandpa – to spend six months of his life focused on making it happen. He founded a not-for-profit organization called Our Horizon ( ), hired a graphics designer to create his warning labels, and began putting together an exhibit of mocked-up gas pump nozzles.

The campaign was formally launched last month and Shirkey has already gained near-unanimous support from the City Youth Council of Toronto. His idea now gets consideration at the council committee level on March 4. In the meantime, Shirkey is building awareness one councilor at a time.

“The first step is to honestly face the problem of climate change and acknowledge it. I don’t think we’ve actually done that collectively as a society,” he says. “The value of this idea is that it’s low cost, globally unprecedented, and could potentially have a high impact.”

I asked a number of folks in the Toronto environmental and clean technology community what they thought about the idea. “Can’t see how this would convince people to drive less,” was one comment.

It may anger people, said another, “but to be honest, I’m long past the point of thinking there is much upside in coddling the public on this issue any longer.”

Councillor Mike Layton said he liked the idea. “It speaks to people precisely at the point in time when they need this message,” he said. “How that message is framed is equally as important as when they receive it.”

Cherise Burda, director of transportation policy at the Pembina Institute, said the messages might be more effective if, in addition to making the climate change connection, they offered options. “Like switching to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or electric vehicle, or getting out of the car a couple days a week.”

My own thoughts, which I expressed to Shirkey, is that the comparison to tobacco products is somewhat flawed. The cancer and heart disease that can result from smoking hits very close to home, while climate change is generally perceived as a more distant and gradual threat, likely to be felt most by those other than us.

For Shirkey, the warning labels – and the guilt likely to result from them – are about mentally preparing us for the difficult decisions that we’ll eventually have to make.

“What it will hopefully do is shift our collective consciousness so that when a politician comes in and says I want to put in bike lanes, put in public transit in a big way, or implement a carbon tax, people would be less opposed to these ideas.”

They would be less opposed because such initiatives will ease our collective guilt. “I almost think of this messaging as a first and necessary step,” he adds.

Will it get traction in a city whose mayor is intent on ending the war on the car?

Mayor Ford is just one vote, says Shirkey. “You need 23 out of 45 people to vote for this, and I think there are a lot of people on council really concerned about climate change who might be willing to do something a little more bold.”

And if Toronto doesn’t bite, he’s convinced that some other progressive municipality – in Ontario, Canada, or somewhere else in the world – will take the lead and cause the kind of ripples that made smoking, pesticide and shark fin soup bans more commonplace.

Shirkey is committed to making it happen. He has wound down his law practice. His grandfather’s money has been used up, so he’s now tapping into savings.

“I’m going for broke on this, literally,” he says. “It’s something I believe in.”

The biggest climate rally in U.S. history took place this week. Perhaps the timing is right—somewhere.

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

Enbridge makes another clean tech investment — this time in flywheel storage

temporalEnbridge Inc. is emerging as major corporate venturing partners in the Canadian cleantech scene. It has already acquired more than $3 billion in renewable energy assets — a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and run-of-river hydro. It has invested in concentrated solar PV manufacturer Morgan Solar and hydrogen tech firm Hydrogenics. It has pursued innovative waste-heat capture at its compressor stations in combination with fuel cell technology. Now, it is throwing its financial support behind flywheel storage innovator Temporal Power.

Temporal, based in Mississauga, Ontario, announced this week it has completed a $10 million Series B equity financing, with Enbridge Emerging Technology Inc. one of the lead investors along with Northwater Intellectual Property Fund (which was also lead investor in the company’s Series A financing in July 2011). Northwater Capital, it should be noted, is the money behind NRStor, a company with plans to develop Canada’s first energy storage park. NRStor, using Temporal Power flywheels, has already won a contract with Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which will see the flywheels being used to provide regulation services on the provincial grid. Annette Verschuren, former CEO of Home Depot Canada, is heading up the NRStor initiative.

Temporal Power describes its flywheel technology as a  “quantum leap forward” because of its capability of storing 50 times more energy than most flywheels and enabling a power output that is five times higher per unit than its nearest grid-scale competitor. “Using its proprietary flywheel energy storage technology, Temporal Power’s scalable power storage plants offer utilities and power generation companies the ability to deliver efficient and cost-effective fast response capabilities for balancing energy and improving power quality on the electrical grid,” the company said in a statement.

Globe and Mail today has a nice summary of the various energy storage initiatives going on in Ontario — from conventional pumped storage to Temporal’s flywheels and advanced compressed-air energy storage.

Big data is the key to unlocking big gains in energy productivity

BigDataBigBuildingsU.S. President Barack Obama set a new goal for America during his State of the Union address this week. He challenged states and municipalities, homeowners and businesses, to do more with less when it comes to energy consumption.

“Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years,” said Obama, adding that states that stepped forward with the best ideas would get financial support from the federal government to make it happen.

Obama’s words echoed recommendations that came out just a week earlier by the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy, a coalition of U.S. energy utilities, academics, industry and environmental groups.

It urged an effort to double energy productivity by 2020, a move that would create an estimated 1.3 million jobs, slash $1,000 a year from household energy bills, give a boost to GDP, decrease energy imports by $100 billion a year, and save U.S. industry a whopping $169 billion a year.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called it a “huge and largely untapped opportunity.”

It may seem a daunting task, but whether you’re talking about the United States or Canada, doubling productivity can be done, should be done, and elsewhere around the world, it has been done.

The U.S. and Canada rank 8th and 12th respectively out of G20 countries when measured by energy productivity. You could call that middle-of-the-road, but when compared to leaders like Germany and Japan, we’re closer to the ditch.

America consumed the equivalent of 83,561 kilowatt-hours per capita in 2011. Canada was a bit higher, at 86,101 kilowatt-hours. Both are among the bottom of the global pack.

Germany, at 46,702 kilowatt-hours, and Japan, at 45,477 kilowatt-hours, are among the top. Both seem to be doing just fine but without the kind of waste that Obama is intent on targeting.

Tighter building codes, stricter vehicle emission standards, serious attempts to recycle waste heat at industrial facilities, and better tax breaks for companies that install more energy-efficient equipment are just some of the options that should be on the table.

Screwing in energy-efficient light bulbs, while great, can only take us so far.

Buildings are particularly ripe for the picking, accounting for well more than 40 per cent of all energy consumed in North America.

Yes, “new” construction is getting more efficient, including all the LEED-certified silver, gold and platinum buildings sprouting up across cities like Toronto and Calgary.

But we’re barely scratching the surface, and to a large extent we’re neglecting the big, deep savings that can come from retrofitting or optimizing the operation of our existing building stock.

Part of the problem, explains Dan Seto, founder and president of Toronto-based CircuitMeter, is that there is a lack of information about how buildings function on a day-to-day, even minute-by-minute basis. He calls commercial buildings “black boxes” – difficult to see inside without the use of expensive energy-monitoring technologies.

“Once you get granularity of information, it opens up the door,” says Seto.

CircuitMeter is part of Seto’s attempt to stick a foot in the door, pry it open, and liberate that data – what amounts to the pulse and other vital signs of a “living” building. “We thought there has got to be a better way to do this.”

The company has designed a low-cost and relatively easy-to-install device called WebMeter, which can monitor the electricity flowing through up to 36 individual circuits in a building’s circuit board. Readings from these meters are stored on outside computer servers – “the cloud” – and can be accessed and analysed any time through the Internet.

“It puts a living, breathing building at your fingertips so you can start figuring out how that building is operating per square foot or employee,” says Seto, explaining that the device can detect problems with equipment and lighting and send alerts. “We can tell if a 2-watt LED light bulb has stopped working if we have to.”

Now, to be clear, there is no shortage of energy monitoring devices and gizmos in the marketplace. What CircuitMeter is offering is a way to overcome the cost barrier. Seto says WebMeter costs less than $30 per circuit, versus $200 and up to $700 per circuit for other monitoring technologies. “In general, we’re about one-tenth the cost.”

CircuitMeter also doesn’t make claims that it will reduce a building owner’s energy bills. What WebMeter does it liberate data – lots of it—by getting deep inside the black box. Once that data tsunami is released, a near-infinite numbers of applications can surf on top.

It will also be a useful way to verify savings from big energy retrofit projects, which is increasingly a condition of financing. “We’re only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the applications,” says Seto, who last week snagged early-stage financing from the MaRS Cleantech Fund and Robert Macintosh, co-founder of the Pembina Institute in Calgary.

Seto is encouraged by Obama’s big commitment to increase energy productivity. Canada, at some point, will be forced to get with the program.

“There’s big momentum out there to get focused on conservation,” he says. “I think the timing for us is very good.”

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

GDP doesn’t accurately reflect the true impact — positive and negative — that mining has on our collective wellbeing

miningpollutionThese days, the “North” is talked about more as a bank account full of easy money than as a beautiful and biologically diverse part of Canadian geography that should be cherished and protected.

The challenge is to make it both.

No question, the riches are there. A recent report from the Conference Board of Canada touts how mining in the North is expected to nearly double by 2020, both in terms of the value of minerals and metals we retrieve and the number of jobs created.

Mining in the North is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 per cent, compared to an average of just 2.2 per cent annually for the Canadian economy as a whole.

But Scott Vaughan, federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, is worried about what will be sacrificed in the rush to make withdrawals. Environmental oversight is sorely lacking, he concluded in a report tabled this week to Parliament. There are also big information and infrastructure gaps.

“We know that there’s a boom in natural resources,” he said. “I think what we need now, given the gaps, given the problems we found, is a boom in environmental protection.”

In the North, real mining gross domestic product (2002 dollars) was $4.4 billion in 2011, and is expected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2020, according to the conference board.

It’s an impressive figure, but like all values attached to GDP, it’s also misleading. It accounts only for the one-way flow of minerals out of the ground and into marketplace. It ignores any of the health or environmental costs incurred over the next seven years, or the long-term economic implications of emptying yet another resource-filled bank account.

As Natural Capitalism author Paul Hawken said during a speech this week in Toronto, “Our current economic system steals from the future, sells it in the present, and calls it GDP.”

Many of Canada’s major mining companies are, to be fair, making an effort to reduce their environmental footprints. They’ve seen the writing on the wall for more than a decade. With social media acting as a kind of global watchdog, ducking responsibility is becoming riskier business.

Organizations and programs have sprouted up to support efforts, including the Mining Association of Canada’s Toward Sustainable Mining initiative, which established principles for environmental performance, and the Green Mining Initiative, which has a similar mandate but is led by Natural Resources Canada.

Then there’s the relatively new Clean Mining Alliance, which was founded to promote and share information about new clean technologies that can help mining companies operate more efficiently, make less of a mess, and more effectively clean up the messes they do make.

“Notoriously conservative mining companies and their shareholders are starting to realize that the capital expenses of new clean technologies can be offset by reduced operating costs and the potential for new revenues,” according to Dallas Kachan, managing partner of Kachan & Co. and executive director of the alliance.

In his start-of-year outlook for 2013, Kachan predicted there would be a much higher adoption of clean technologies in the mining sector, particularly in areas such as water purification, remediation of tailings, advanced mineral separation and products that reduce the use of water and power.

Of course, simply using renewable energy such as geothermal or storage-backed wind can help lower pollution and carbon emissions at mining sites, which are often so remote that renewables become a more cost-effective option than, say, running dirty diesel generators. It helps, and we need much more of it, but it’s not nearly enough.

What’s also needed, Hawken said during his talk, is a “whole different pallet” of technologies that don’t just reduce the impacts of industrial operations, but fundamentally change how industries operate.

He pointed to the amazing advancements taking place in a new discipline known as biological mining. The idea here is that there are molecules and bacteria found in nature – including the human body – that are designed to selectively grab specific minerals, heavy metals and other toxins.

Hawken described a time when we’ll use these molecules and bacteria to “mine” and concentrate the residual but highly demanded minerals from, for example, the tailing ponds of old mining sites. Instead of digging up new stuff, we can find it in the pollution we’ve already left behind.

The approach offers remediation and revenue-generation at the same time. Toronto-based BacTech Environmental is an example of a company playing in this emerging space.

“We can now run the industrial age backwards by doing what nature does,” said Hawken, adding later, “The breakthroughs are ubiquitous and they’re coming at us fast.”

Can they reach us fast enough, and at a cost low enough to motivate? Will the federal government and mining sector – which prefers to stay clear of risk – wake up and realize that leadership on this front is becoming an issue of long-term survival?

We may be on the path to doubling mining GDP in the North. But we’re also emptying the bank account, and incurring charges we don’t yet recognize but, sooner or later, will have to pay.

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

Another chapter in a very long EEStory

eestor2An eye-glazing technical press release was put out this week by Texas-based EEStor, a company that has spent more than a decade trying to bring low-cost, high-capacity and super safe energy storage to market.

The next morning, Toronto-based ZENN Motor – a minority strategic shareholder in EEStor—saw its stock price shoot up 150 per cent. It was as if a defibrillator had brought a corpse back to life.

So what’s going on here? As someone who has followed this company closely for eight years, it’s still difficult to say. What’s clear is that EEStor is the story that refuses to die, and given the company’s ambitious goals, that’s could be viewed as a good thing.

My first Clean Break column about EEStor – and the first to appear in a major newspaper—appeared in 2006. Back then, the company was promising an energy storage device (a type of super-duper capacitor) that pound for pound could pack 10 times more energy than a lead-acid battery. More impressive is that it would cost half as much, charge in minutes, and was made of abundant, non-toxic materials.

Think about that: With such a technology, the price of electric cars would plummet and fears over “range anxiety” would disappear. Your iPhone or BlackBerry could last a week or two on a single charge, and when it did run out, it would recharge faster than boiling water for a cup of tea. Energy from wind turbines and solar panels could be stored and dispatched on demand, and affordably.

EEStor founder and chief executive Dick Weir, a former fighter jet pilot, was in my experience an abrupt, somewhat cantankerous individual who didn’t make many public announcements, but when he did he ratcheted up expectations of what and when the company would deliver.

So, too, did management at ZENN, which through its investment and technology rights agreement with EEStor was betting the farm that Weir would deliver. As a publicly traded company, ZENN was a proxy for EEStor – a way for retail investors to back what was an extremely speculative opportunity.

It didn’t hurt that venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, known for its successful bets on Google and, were early investors, or that former Dell Computer vice-chairman Mort Topfer sat on EEStor’s board, or that the tiny company had a strategic development agreement with military contractor Lockheed Martin.

Unfortunately, the past seven years has been marked by a series of missed milestones and disappointments. There is still a loyal group of EEStor followers – called “EEStorians” – who track the company’s every move, but for the most part those who were optimistic in the early days, even if skeptical, have tuned out.

Part of the reason is that ZENN, which is hibernating pretty much as a shell company to save cash, and EEStor, which continues to work away in the background, have both stopped talking. They learned their lesson that talking didn’t help; it only created problems and undermined their credibility.

They also learned that their own expectations were unrealistic and didn’t reflect the many barriers that stand in the way of product development, regardless of the breakthrough nature of their technology. They needed to walk where they wanted to run.

This week’s announcement was another small step along the grueling path, but judging by the market reaction, it’s a positive one. Just how positive is open to interpretation.

The company disclosed that energy storage “layers” built on its pilot product line, and which are the building blocks of its final device, were independently lab tested and reviewed by expert Rick Ulrich, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas.

Ulrich called the samples a “significant advance” and an “important breakthrough.” The measurements taken still don’t come close to what EEStor is aiming for, but one observer who accompanied Ulrich during his visit said it’s enough to prove that the approach works, the production line is doing its job, and improvements can be made with some final tuning.

“There are only 80 people in the world that Weir needs the attention of at this point, and to get those 80 people to care you have to put out this information,” he said. “This is a tease, for sure, but enough is there to get those peoples’ full attention.”

EEStor’s next step is to independently certify its pre-production layers. At that point, the big automakers and industrial giants will be invited to obtain test samples. If they like what they see, the story gets really interesting – the building of the layers into a full device that can be lab tested in power tools, mobile gadgets, and even vehicles.

One could argue that EEStor, through its delays, has lost its window of opportunity and that the rest of the technology world has caught up. The batteries used in the higher-end version of the Tesla Model S, for example, boasts 240 watt-hours per kilogram, not far from the original EEStor goal of 286 watt-hours per kilogram.

Newark, Calif.-based Envia Systems, which counts General Motors as a strategic investor, claims it has reached 400 watt-hours per kilogram with its lithium-ion technology and could hit the market with a commercial product by 2015.

But EEStor has since upped its game by claiming it can double, even triple its original target, even achieving energy densities of more than 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram at a cost that few could – at this point – compete with. Plus, unlike batteries, its device can charge instantly and would have unmatched environmental attributes.

Of course, this is all still highly speculative and incredible claims require incredible evidence. Fool me once…

But the fact that this little company, tucked away in a small suburb of Austin, Texas, has managed to stick around for 12 years is evidence that this is no fly-by-night operation.

It may ultimately fail, though we should all hope it doesn’t. But as my high-school gym teacher used to tell the scrawny kid that was me, “Hey, at least you get an A for effort.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. (Mad Like Tesla includes a chapter on the EEStor saga for those looking for more background on this company and its story)