Category Archives: carbon capture

Library Journal review of Mad Like Tesla: “This book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders”

Hi all, I’m delighted to report that the first review of my upcoming book, Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy, is in and it’s, well, pretty encouraging. Here’s what Library Journal, an important industry trade magazine used as a purchasing guide by library buyer and book wholesalers, had to say:

Hamilton, energy and technology writer for the Toronto Star, examines some of the latest, most far-out green energy innovations and the people behind them. How far-out? Take, for example, a retired engineer’s idea to produce electricity via an artificial tornado, or a plan for a space-based power station that would harvest the sun’s energy, using microwaves to beam it down to earth. Other gizmos and processes seem more amenable to commercial success and social acceptance: Hamilton tells of a secretive company called EEStor that claims to have made a breakthrough in energy storage, and of a team building a low-cost nuclear fusion reactor. He strikes a fine balance between hope and hard realism when considering barriers to energy transition. As the “tornado guy” says, upon considering financial and regulatory obstacles: “Holy crap, that’s a lot to get through.” VERDICT: Mad Like Tesla is easy to get through, even for readers with only a basic knowledge of energy issues. Hamilton makes complex technologies comprehensible, and he clearly enjoys the remarkable human stories behind the science. Many of the risk takers and visionaries portrayed are Canadian (rocker Neil Young makes a cameo appearance!), but this book’s strong appeal should transcend all borders.

Can’t complain with that. The book is scheduled for public release on Sept. 1 and is already available for pre-order on a number of sites, including Amazon.com/Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca. The book won’t break the bank, either. We decided to do paperback release on first run to make the book more accessible to a larger audience. You can likely pick it up for $13 or so. I built a Web site I’m not entirely happy with, so plan to have a newly designed site finished by the end of August. Stay tuned!

Pembina, Suzuki Foundation urge a slowdown on natural gas development, particularly shale gas

Two of Canada’s top environmental NGOs — the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation — issued a jointly prepared study today slamming our rising dependence on natural gas, warning that the fossil fuel, while generally cleaner than coal, could seriously slow down efforts to combat climate change if our increased reliance on it begins to bump renewables such as wind, solar and biomass from the future energy mix.

Natural gas is often called a “transition” fuel because it emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants than coal and is a good dance partner with renewables — that is, when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow a natural gas-fired power plant can kick in quickly to fill the gap. But beyond serving that purpose, the two organizations argue natural gas shouldn’t become the default option, especially if a rising portion of that gas is coming from shale deposits where drilling and extraction processes can affect local drinking water and lead to higher emissions compared to conventional natural gas development.

“Shale gas requires up to 100 times the number of well pads to extract the same amount of gas as conventional sources, and recent shale gas development in the U.S. has had major environmental impacts,” said Dale Marshall, climate change policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation. “Expanded natural gas production in Canada would bring a host of problems — as well as making it harder to fight climate change.”

I’ve written extensively about the environmental risks of shale-gas development, how low natural gas prices resulting from shale development are contributing to increased oil sands development, and how the physical footprint of shale gas developments should give wind NIMBYs pause for thought. I’ve also been sounding the alarm for a couple of years now on the dangers of becoming over-dependent on natural gas and how this “cleaner” fossil fuel would, with the rise of shale gas, eventually become a lightning rod in the climate-change (and water quality) debate. In my view, and to reuse one analogy I’ve used in the past, natural gas might be the “light” fossil fuel, just as you can purchase “light” cigarettes. But in the case of cigarettes, whether light or normal, they still cause cancer and heart disease, and certainly smoking twice as many light cigarettes to wean yourself off regular cigarettes will make matters worse. The point is you have to wean off all cigarettes, period. We need to treat natural gas like we treat nicotine patches and gums — something that’s used temporarily and in moderation to beat an addiction to something we know, from a health and environmental perspective, is bad for us over the long term.

Stephen Colbert gets it. (link only works for Canadians — Americans can see clip here).

Unfortunately, when Canada’s energy ministers meet next week in Alberta, I’m sure any talk of a national energy strategy will put the economy first. After all, we know asbestos causes cancer yet Quebec is permitted to continue selling the dangerous stuff to third-world countries. So will the Pembina-Suzuki report have any impact on outcomes? I doubt it. There will be welcome talk on the need to develop shale gas resources more responsibly, but the focus will be simple: let’s develop as much as possible as quickly as possible, sell it to the world, create jobs, and make a few hundred people really rich. There will be no talk of moderation, either for natural gas development or the oil sands.

That seems, these days, to be the Canadian way. Drill baby drill. Extract baby extract. Sell baby sell.

Video tour: Pond Biofuels turns cement plant emissions into algae

I had the opportunity this week to visit a St. Marys Cement plant in the small and scenic town of St. Marys, Ontario. A subsidiary of Brazilian cement giant Votorantim Cimentos, the company is working with Toronto-based Pond Biofuels on a project that turns smokestack emissions from the plant into algae. The algae, based on a strain taken from the local Thames River, gobble up CO2, SOx, NOx and other pollutants that are piped into special algae photobioreactors, two of which are housed in a pilot facility located beside the plant. The algae are harvested and can be dried using low-grade waste heat from the cement plant’s kilns. The dried algae can then be burned in the plant’s kilns instead of petroleum coke, helping to reduce the plant’s CO2 emissions. Alternatively — and if the economics justify it — the algae can be processed into biodiesel and other green fuels/chemicals.

I decided, for the first time, to take a video camera with me and film a walkthrough of the pilot facility to give my readers a better sense of how this all works. I’m new to this whole video and movie editing game, but I did manage to put something decent together, which I post here as a YouTube upload. It’s nearly 10 minutes long, but if you’re interested in the process you may find it worth watching. Like I said, it’s my first time doing this — I would appreciate any constructive feedback.

SDTC: “We want to keep this rolling. It is important we maintain momentum.”

Those of you who frequent this blog know that I mention Sustainable Development Technology Canada quite regularly (picture to the left is of SDTC chief Vicky Sharpe). That’s because the federal agency, which was created nine years ago, has introduced me over the years to so many interesting, innovative and ambitious clean technology companies. SDTC does the screening. It carries out the due diligence. It offers funding for demonstration projects. It forces the hand of private investors that might not otherwise open their doors or pockets. It offers guidance. Introduces partners and customers. Need I say more? This agency has given dozens of promising green technologies and the companies behind them a solid chance of success. For every dollar of public money it has invested, it has tapped into twice as much (actually more) from the private sector. Over the past few years, that has translated into $515 million in public funding being leveraged to attract about $1.2 billion in mostly private funds.

That’s why in my Clean Break column this week I argue clean technology, and specifically the efforts of SDTC, need to be part of the country’s election dialogue. We need to build on the progress SDTC has achieved to date, not abandon the momentum at a time when major world economies — Germany, China, India, Brazil, the United States — are racing to establish a dominant position in the emerging global green economy.

The leaders of the political parties looking to run the next government need to be asked: How are they prepared to support clean technology innovation and green economic development in Canada?

Will feds give SDTC a new lease on life? We find out today at 4:30… stay tuned.

You’ll recall that last year the Canadian federal government refused to inject more funding into Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an agency that has proven crucial to helping Canadian energy and environmental innovations cross the “Valley of Death.” SDTC has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to clean technology demonstration projects and leveraged twice as much from the private sector. It has enough money to fund probably one more round of projects, after which it will exist simply to manage its existing portfolio of projects (it also manages and issues grants from a separate biofuels fund). To stop funding new clean technology innovation now would be a huge mistake, and SDTC officials have made this clear to the federal government. We’ll find out at 4:30 pm today, after details of the federal budget go public, if the Harper government will continue to fund the agency’s activities. If it doesn’t, this will be a sad day for cleantech in Canada…. stay tuned.