Category Archives: biofuels

Clean Break column in Toronto Star ends a 10-year run…

photoIt was a trip to Iceland in June 2003, just months after the birth of my first daughter, that the immense need for and potential of clean energy first landed on my radar. The Toronto Star agreed to send me there so I could write about Iceland’s efforts to transition to a hydrogen economy. I toured several of the country’s geothermal and hydroelectric facilities. I rode on hydrogen fuel cell buses. I swam in the Blue Lagoon. I spoke with some of the leading academics and engineers in the world working on the hydrogen puzzle. I came back inspired, hungry to learn more — not just about fuel cells and hydrogen, but about this whole emerging area of clean technology, or “cleantech.” It helped that Canadian fuel cell pioneers Ballard Power and Hydrogenics had already captured my interest, but once I looked beyond the “hype about hydrogen” I saw a great diversity of clean technologies at various stages of development. Further boosting my enthusiasm was Nick Parker, founder of the Cleantech Group and the man who coined the term “cleantech.” It was about that time that I first met Nick at a venture capital conference in Toronto. I had covered the technology and telecom scene for five years and was getting bored. The market had tanked. No longer was it interesting to write about faster routers and fatter broadband services. I was more drawn to the optical engineers who left telecom behind and decided to use their skills to boost the potential of solar PV technology and LEDs. Nick and the handful of companies he brought to the venture capital conference only had a small piece of the floor, but they were the most fascinating to cover. I was hooked.

Within just a couple of months after my trip to Iceland, I decided to transition my weekly high-tech column at the Toronto Star into a clean technology column. It began as a bi-weekly effort, but by the following year my transition was complete — Clean Break was a weekly column devoted to cleantech, and a first of its kind in North American for a major daily newspaper. This blog soon followed, one of the first cleantech blogs to hit the blogosphere. Parker’s Cleantech Group recognized this in 2005 by selecting me for the Cleantech Pioneer award. What Nick liked about the Clean Break column is that it was in the business section of the newspaper, which conveyed the idea that most of the technologies I was writing about weren’t destined to be money-losing propositions but were either competitive today or had the potential to be competitive; that tackling climate and other environmental issues through efficiency and using carbon-free technologies was a way to boost productivity and global competitiveness. Readers also liked the emphasis on solutions, as opposed to dwelling on environmental problems. I didn’t see myself as an environmental reporter, at least not of the traditional sort — that is, only investigating and exposing bad apples, and only telling readers how much things sucked. That was just too depressing. I liked highlighting innovation that was going to help get us out of the environmental mess we had created, and even better, help boost revenues and lower costs for companies and governments. I wanted to put less emphasis on environmental compliance (a pure cost) and more emphasis on the embrace of “clean” technologies because it was simply good for business. I thank the Toronto Star for letting me go in this direction, or at least not preventing me from doing so.

Much has changed in the 10 years that have followed. That whole hydrogen thing didn’t turn out as planned. Plug-in vehicles, hardly talked about a decade ago, have taken over and remarkably all of the top auto manufacturers now have pure electric or hybrid-electric models on the market. Sales haven’t been a strong as predicted, but the fact there are tens of thousands of plug-in vehicles on the roads and thousands of high-speed charging stations installed is a dramatic accomplishment in my view. Same goes for solar and wind technologies. Less than 600 megawatts of solar capacity were installed in 2003. That figure has surpassed 30,000 megawatts, meaning the market has grown 50-fold over the past decade, and we’ll see another 10-fold expansion by 2020. Currently there are about 96,000 megawatts of total solar capacity installed worldwide, a figure that’s expected to reach 330,000 megawatts in seven years. In other words, since starting my Clean Break column solar has gone mainstream — a combination of plunging prices and progressive government policies. The wind industry, which had an installed capacity of about 39,000 megawatts in 2003, has grown to have a total capacity that now stands at 283,000 megawatts. These are huge numbers. Last year, an astonishing $269 billion was invested in clean energy infrastructure. In 2010, investments in renewable energy exceeded investments in fossil fuelled power plants for the first time, a major global milestone. Venture capital in cleantech, depending on how you define it, jumped from about $1 billion to over $8 billion from 2005 to 2011 (it’s now around $6 billion). The market for cleantech is, generally speaking, a trillion-dollar global opportunity.

Media coverage of the industry — new and traditional — has also changed. In 2005 my blog was among a handful of blogs consistently covering the cleantech space, and my column was unique in North American, at least for a mainstream daily newspaper. Now, as I wrote in my book Mad Like Tesla, “I am but one small voice in a sea of dedicated news sites, columns, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitterers all covering different angles of this clean energy revolution and advocating for a faster transition away from fossil fuels. We may complain that the transition is going too slowly — it can never move fast enough — but looking back it’s amazing we have come this far so quickly.” As coverage of the sector increased, my own writings became increasingly regional and local. Most of my Clean Break columns for the past few years have focused on my home province of Ontario or home city of Toronto. I’ve most enjoyed writing about Canadian or Ontario-based clean technology startups or innovators trying to raise the bar on efficiency and lower environmental footprints. My columns have covered LEDs, solar power, wind power, demand-response, green chemistry, smart grid innovation, water technologies, geothermal, biofuels (with a big focus on algae), electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, wave and tidal power, biogas, waste reduction, energy storage, advanced materials… you name it. I have learned so much, met so many wonderful and smart people, made new friends and played my own little part in helping Canadian companies get attention locally and globally. It has been tremendously satisfying.

Why am I writing all of this now? Well, because this July would have been the 10-year anniversary for my Clean Break column in the Toronto Star. Also, just before I went to Costa Rica earlier this month for vacation, I got a call telling me that my column had been cancelled. I can’t say it was entirely unexpected. When I left my full-time staff writing gig at the Star in 2010 to write Mad Like Tesla, the paper’s business editor at the time agreed on a handshake to let me keep writing the column. Three editors have come and gone from the business section since then and during each transition the axe was expected to come. It didn’t, and frankly, I’m amazed I made it this far. It’s been a great run. The fact is, the newspaper industry is going through a painful transition and there’s no indication this is temporary. In fact, the pain indicates something that may be terminal. The Star recently announced it was outsourcing its pagination and copy editing functions to save costs and that 55 jobs would be cut. Sections across the paper have been asked to slash budgets, and the axe falls easily on freelance columns. This is an unfortunate sign of the times. That my column was discontinued is also a sign of the times. Clean energy may be the future and climate change is the biggest threat to our existence, but that didn’t stop the New York Times from recently dismantling its own environmental reporting team and cancelling its popular green blog. This is both the knee-jerk reaction of an industry that’s suffering, and the reason why this industry is suffering — in my humble opinion.

To be fair to the Star, it did recently hire a global environmental reporter and global science and technology reporter. This is great news. Change is good, and people will get fresh coverage and viewpoints. Let’s hope they stay committed to these beats and give the stories that come out of them the priority and placement they deserve. Me, I’m having a blast as editor of Corporate Knights magazine, where I have been for nearly two years, and I hope to spend the next few years building this publication. We’re doing great things and insightful research — not just in cleantech, but around a number of issues where business and sustainability intersect. I encourage all my readers to sign up for Corporate Knights’ digital subscription, which you can get through iTunes by downloading our app in the App Store (We’re also available on Kindle through, and soon coming to the Android marketplace). Besides, I needed a break from the column and had been considering new directions for it for some time. Its Canada/Ontario/Toronto focus was appropriate for a paper like the Toronto Star, but I want to broaden the message and the audience. Over the coming months I will be looking at a national or North American media platform through which to revive the column, in partnership likely with Corporate Knights. In the meantime, I’ll continue to use this blog to highlight new technologies, emerging issues, breaking news, and whatever else tickles my fancy. The Clean Break brand is here to stay.

Finally, if you were a regular reader of my Clean Break column in the Star, thank you very much for tuning in. Many hundreds, possibly thousands, have reached out to me over the years to convey their appreciation or dislike of the column — fortunately it’s been more of the former. Sometimes people just wanted to exchange ideas. I can’t tell you how heart-warming it is to get an e-mail from a teacher who’s using my column as material for the classroom, or a call from a student who wants to interview me for a class project, or getting Tim Horton’s gift certificates in the mail from an anonymous person thanking me for doing what I’m doing, or getting a call from the founder of a startup who got venture capital funding because of an article I wrote, or having a politician tell me that my coverage of an issue had an impact on policy or legislation. Without readers — even the ones who call you an idiot, and there have been many — there’s no point in writing.

Unfortunately, the Toronto Star would not allow me to do a final farewell column to notify my readers that this is the end of the line, for now. Some of you might have noticed it was no longer being published. But most won’t notice, and I expect this will hold true for many of my colleagues still word-tapping at the Star. Columns come and go, and mine is no different. It would have been nice, however, to thank my Star readers more directly, rather than through the more limited audience that this blog attracts.

Plans for green jet fuel plant in Ontario north flame out

BurningFuelsComparisonNearly two years ago, an LA-based company called Rentech Inc. announced plans to build a biofuels plant four hours north of Sault St. Marie, Ontario. It would use forest waste and “unmerchantable” tree species for making renewable jet fuel and naphtha, a chemical feedstock used to make all sorts of products. That plant was supposed to be operational in 2015. It was supposed to employ up to 1,000 people during peak construction, and keep 83 people directly employed full time in a region of the province that could really use those jobs.

Ain’t gonna happen, it seems.

The company put out a press release last night announcing that it is ceasing operations, reducing staff, and eliminating all R&D related to new technology development. And yes folks, I’m told that would includes its Ontario “Olympiad” project, which was to use a Fischer-Tropsch process to turn biomass into 85 million litres of green fuel annually. It means the deal Rentech signed with the Ontario government that gave it access to up to 1.1 million cubic metres of Crown timber is effectively dead wood. The question is whether those access rights will be transferred to one of the competing projects from local companies that bid against Rentech and lost.

It’s funny (or not so funny) how many grand announcements from government never actually come to fruition. This, in my view, could have been a good project. It’s a shame for the people living in that region. They could have used the economic boost.

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.

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.

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.