Category Archives: cleantech

After Paris, it’s time for Canada to finally join IRENA

IRENA is the International Renewable Energy Agency, a UN-affiliated organization established in 2009 to promote awareness and growth of renewable energy technologies on the global stage. It’s a kind of counter-balance to existing agencies that have long represented the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. The idea for IRENA goes as far back as 1981, but it took a quarter century to get the political traction it needed.

Today, 145 countries have officially joined IRENA and another 30 are in the process of becoming members. That would bring the total to 175. By comparison, the 42-year-old International Energy Agency has only 29 members, while the 59-year-old International Atomic Energy Agency has 167 members.

Canada is a founding member of the IEA and IAEA, yet Canada is the only G8 countries not part of IRENA. In fact, all other G8 countries were founding members of IRENA. Canada isn’t even in the process of joining, yet China, India, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already members. Even Syria is signing up. The only other large country that sits with Canada outside of this massive international group is Brazil.

The Harper government avoided it like the plague. Not joining made a statement that even like-minded governments in Australia refused to make. But times have changed. Canada has a new government that says it’s serious about taking climate action. Canada played an important role in reaching a binding international climate agreement in Paris last month. Canada’s provinces have set ambitious emission-reduction targets that will require accelerated deployment of renewable energy. The country simply can’t afford to remain on the outside of IRENA.

So what’s the government’s position? Here’s the answer I got back after posing the question:

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.52.53 AM“‎The Government of Canada was recently asked to join the International Renewable Energy Agency. This request is still under review,” said Caitlin Workman, press secretary for Catherine McKenna, Canada’s federal minister of environment and climate change.

It’s safe to say that since IRENA was founded the invitation for Canada to join has been a standing one.

Some might say: Who cares? It’s just another international agency that costs money to join and doesn’t offer much in return. I’d argue it does offer value. It will keep Canadian officials more abreast of global trends in renewable energy, but more important, it will give Canada a seat at a table filled with dozens of countries looking for the skills, knowledge and technology required to transition their economies away from fossil fuels.

The export opportunities for Canada are immense. The World Bank, in a report released in September 2014, estimated that investment in clean technologies in developing countries over the next decade will exceeded $6.4 trillion (U.S.). Of that, $1.9 trillion will be focused on renewable energy technologies, with a significant chunk of that creating an opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses. In my opinion, that number is likely low-balling the opportunity, especially in the wake of the Paris climate summit.

IRENA is an opportunity for Canada to identify the needs of others, and the role it can play in meeting those needs.

Already, representatives from its 145 members are gathering in Abu Dhabi for IRENA’s sixth-annual assembly to discuss the role of renewables just one month after the Paris summit. There will be much to discuss as they tease out the details of the Paris agreement, and much back room dealmaking that Canada will not be a part of.

Canada should be there showing leadership.

 

 

Could proposed B.C. refinery be the future of liquid fuels?

A shorter version of this story appeared originally in the Toronto Star.

By Tyler Hamilton

As oil giants headquartered in Calgary face the reality that the best days for their industry could be behind them, the towns of Chetwynd and Dawson Creek in northwestern British Columbia hold out hope that better times lie ahead.

It is on about 1,000 acres of land straddling both municipalities that a small B.C.-based company called Blue Fuel Energy plans to build an industrial-scale refinery that could create enough low-carbon gasoline to fuel 20 per cent of vehicles in Canada’s third-largest province.

Called the Sundance Fuels project, it’s expected to create about 1,500 construction jobs and another 150 permanent positions. But beyond a boost to the local economy, the project carries broader significance for what it represents to Canada’s petroleum sector: a path to phasing out the “fossil” from its fuels in a world that must dramatically reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions.

Juergen Puetter 100414 for printBlue Fuel chief executive Juergen Puetter, the mastermind behind the $2.5 billion-plus project, has coined the term “liquid electricity” to describe the clean synthetic fuel his venture will produce. Initially, Blue Fuel’s pump-ready gasoline will be made from plentiful B.C. natural gas, not Alberta crude oil, and will have a carbon footprint 10 per cent smaller. It will achieve this by making its refinery more efficient than conventional refineries and using zero-emission hydro and wind power from B.C.’s grid to drive as many steps in the process as possible.

Not bad – enough, in fact, to comply with low-carbon fuel standards in B.C. and California – but nothing to brag about.

It’s just the start, says Puetter, whose ambition seems to have no limit. “By having the refinery in place, we could ultimately make our fuel not just low carbon, but 100 per cent renewable,” he says.

PROVEN TECH

How would that work? It comes down to basic chemistry. Any refinery that makes gasoline is just juggling carbon and hydrogen molecules – hence the word hydrocarbons. The molecules in natural gas are reformulated into something call synthesis gas, which in turn is refined into methanol. In Blue Fuel’s case, it plans to use technology licensed from ExxonMobil to convert that methanol into gasoline.

But natural gas, or any fossil fuel for that matter, doesn’t have to be the original hydrocarbon source. Puetter’s longer-term plan is to install machines called electrolyzers that use clean B.C. electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gases. Carbon would come from the CO2 emissions captured from existing industrial facilities or, as technology evolves, directly from the air. Over time, the idea is that the supply of waste CO2 and renewable hydrogen will grow and the use of natural gas will shrink. Eventually, the fossil in the fuel is squeezed out of the final formula.

“Nobody so far has been able to prove this to be fundamentally wrong,” says Puetter, conceding that it’s been a challenge raising the capital to get the project moving. Still, he’s aiming for gasoline to start flowing out of Sundance by 2020. “If I told you this has been easy I’d be lying.”

Puetter isn’t a mad inventor who hatched the idea in his garage. He has a track record, having founded several successful businesses – including Bionaire, a maker of indoor environmental control products, and Hydroxyl Systems, a water and wastewater treatment company. He developed the first commercial wind farm in B.C. and for five years sat as chairman of federally funded Sustainable Development Technology Canada, where he is still a board member.

The fact that Michael Macdonald, former senior vice-president of global operations at Methanex, the world’s largest methanol maker, joined Blue Fuel as its president lends serious credibility to the venture; as does the decision by RBC Capital Markets to lead the company’s hunt for financing.

Blue Fuel is also not the only company pursuing this idea. The first commercial plant to produce gasoline from natural gas began operation 30 years ago in New Zealand, and in 2011 a company called Carbon Recycling International opened up a small refinery in Iceland that makes methanol out of captured CO2 and hydrogen produced from clean electricity.

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 10.52.45 PMEven German carmaker Audi is testing the waters. It has partnered with a company called Sunfire to make “e-diesel” made from CO2 and renewably produced hydrogen. A portion of its clean fuel has also been made from CO2 captured directly out of the air using technology developed by Zurich-based Climeworks.

Closer to home, a Calgary-based company called Carbon Engineering wants to use CO2 collected from its own air-capture technology to produce gasoline using a different process than the one Blue Fuel has chosen. “Our vision has always been about doing this at large scale,” says company CEO Adrian Corless.

Puetter says he can see Carbon Engineering one day becoming a supplier of CO2 to Blue Fuel. “But first we need to reduce the cost of CO2 capture,” he says. “It’s coming down, but it’s not economical yet on a large scale.”

CARBON NEUTRAL GASOLINE?

Still, the technology exists and it’s easy to see a future where the liquid fuels we use don’t add carbon to our atmosphere. It’s a tall order. But if oil is truly an economic addiction, synthetic fuel made from recycled carbon could be what methadone is to a heroin addict, and would address the reality that not all vehicles – from big trucks to airplanes – can run on battery power alone.

“There’s a market opportunity coming that really is quite extraordinary,” says Puetter, envisioning a day when big oil companies make their products with clean energy, instead of using fossil fuels to extract and produce dirtier fossil fuels.

The oil giants, after all, are already in the business of making liquid hydrocarbons. They have the project management experience, engineering skills and deep pockets needed to gradually transition from fossil to clean synthetic fuels, and the existing infrastructure – such as pipelines – to get their product to market.

“We believe we’ll be the first plant that is truly a gateway to that future,” added Puetter. “Our refinery will hopefully be a poster child for bridging the fossil fuel industry to renewables.”

Leah Lawrence, president and CEO of SDTC and past chair of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, said Blue Fuel Energy is an important piece of the ultimate puzzle: what Canada’s energy sector might look like in a carbon-constrained world.

“For the first time we’re seeing a rapid uptake of technologies where before we couldn’t see how they all fit together,” said Lawrence. “Now we’re seeing it. Now you can see how a transition might happen.”

So is the oil industry paying attention? Does it care?

“It’s astounding how the oil boys club in Calgary is unwilling to change,” says Puetter, admitting that what he’s trying is “outside the box” and without precedent in Canada. The financial community has been an equally tough sell. “All they see is the risk. They don’t see the upside,” he says.

This article was part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, December 2015. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star has full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.

The rise of Cli-Fi says something about our times

Four years ago, having just published a book of non-fiction, I was drawn to the idea of experimenting with fiction writing. Specifically, I wanted to write a dystopian novel that was a cross between Logan’s Run and Blade Runner.

Climate change and the eventual draconian measures to keep it under control – declining country-assigned population caps, for one – would drive the narrative through characters who, in an increasingly carbon-constrained world, suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves among society’s most vulnerable.

Working title: Cap and Cull.

Why venture into fiction? It seemed to me like a better way to educate people about an otherwise complex – and I expect for most – boring topic. I tried to do this in my book Mad Like Tesla. The idea there was to lure people into learning about alternative energy technologies and climate challenges by telling the stories of real-world inventors and entrepreneurs doing some pretty inspiring, and arguably wacky, work.

The book did okay, at least by Canadian standards, selling about 5,000 copies. A far cry from the 600,000 sold as part of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy, or for that matter the 30 million copies of Hunger Games – both books set in a world disrupted and devastated by climate change.

Despite being popular with Tesla and energy nerds like myself, the problem with my book is that it preached largely to the converted. The challenge, and this is where I think good fiction becomes important, is to reach the people not already singing in the choir. That means telling a compelling story. It is through protagonist and antagonist, action, love, suspense, treachery and dare say a dose of hope that historical and scientific facts about climate change, and an informed perspective about its impacts on our future, become more accessible – and palatable – for the masses.

I’m not alone in this thinking. Bernie Bulkin, former chief scientist at oil giant BP, wrote a commentary for Huffington Post in 2013 that spoke to the growing importance of what has come to be known as “cli-fi” – or climate fiction.

“It has seemed to me lately that cli-fi has to be one part of the answer to the problem many of us are trying to solve: How do we engage people more broadly and more deeply on climate change?” he wrote.

The word cli-fi, as far as we know, has been around since climate blogger Dan Bloom coined it. It started to gain traction, however, after writer Scott Thill, reporting for Wired magazine, included it as a keyword in a movie review of The Age of Stupid, a pseudo documentary about of a climate-ravaged world in 2055 and the missteps of humanity that led to it.

Since then, it seems the presence of the cli-fi genre in popular culture has grown, perhaps alongside our collective angst as the real impacts of climate change and the challenges of managing it become clearer. It’s not that eco-apocalypse theme novels are new, but it’s clear those anchored specifically around climate change have been on the rise in recent years.

CarbonDiariesSo much so that B.C.’s Moon Willow Press launched a website in August 2013 called Clifibooks.com (since renamed Eco-fiction.com), which reviews cli-fi novels and maintains a database of such books. Many of those books are aimed at young adults. These include Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis, Floodland by Marcus Sedgewick and Saci Lloyd’s The Carbon Diaries 2015.

And let’s not forget self-publishing, yet another cultural barometer of the public’s climate angst. Diana Rissetto, a New York-based publicity agent for self-published authors, approached me last November about Declan Milling’s Carbon Black, a cli-fi thriller.

At the time, I asked Rissetto if she’d seen a rise in the number of self-published cli-fi books crossing her desk. “Actually, yes!” she replied, as if surprised by her own answer. “We’ve had three in just the past few months.” Prior to that, she hadn’t seen any.

Film, of course, is also playing a big role. Again, we’ve seen movies in the past that can be interpreted as cli-fi, even though they don’t mention the words climate change. George Miller’s 1979 classic Mad Max and its superior sequel, Road Warrior, are among my favorites. Another (lower quality) example is the 1995 film Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner trying to survive in a world flooded by melting ice caps.

But as a dystopian theme, climate catastrophe seems to be a more popular backdrop these days. The South Korean film Snowpiercer, the blockbuster Interstellar by Christopher Nolan, and Young Onesstarring Michael Shannon are recent examples.

To what degree are cli-fi books and movies impacting today’s youth? It’s difficult to say, as one could just as easily ask how much youth are impacting growth of the cli-fi genre.

What’s clear is that today’s teenagers and young adults, as digitally connected as they are, know more than any other generation that the fiction they see in popular culture could well be the reality they inherit.

A perfect marriage of geothermal and mining

Geothermal developers often struggle to make their projects economically viable, while mining companies are finding it increasingly difficult to get social license for new projects.

Given these two market challenges, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is taking a closer look at the idea of recovering minerals from the hot brines that geothermal power plants pump out of the ground. These mineral-rich fluids contain a variety of rare earth elements and other valuable metals, but at conventional geothermal plants the only thing that gets extracted today is the heat.

A wasted opportunity? That’s what the DOE thinks. In summer 2014, the department committed more than $4 million to nine geothermal projects aimed at recovering both heat and minerals from brines. Work on those projects started in October, with results expected by fall 2016 or earlier.

“This is effectively ‘solution mining by nature’, and minerals dissolved in these fluids represent potential resources,” according to a DOE paper presented in January at a geothermal energy workshop at Stanford University.

For geothermal developers, added revenues from harvested minerals represent a way to move projects forward that might otherwise lack a business case – for example, if the heat resource at a particular site isn’t quite high enough. For mining companies, geothermal mineral recovery represents a sustainable path forward for an industry under pressure to reduce its environmental footprint.

“This is the future of mining,” said Gary Billingsley, a director with Saskatoon-based Star Minerals Group, a partner in one of the DOE-funded projects. “It’s a natural step in the evolution of mining, and certainly something I’m pretty keen on.”

No such research is being funded by the Canadian government, despite the country’s vast mineral resources and efforts by the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA) to raise awareness of the opportunity.

“We are delighted that Star Minerals received DOE support for their innovation, but what can the Canadian, provincial and territorial governments do to create these opportunities at home with our own world class resources?” said CanGEA chair Alison Thompson.

Star is working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL), the University of Oregon, the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, and consultancy Barr Engineering on the testing of advanced sorbent materials that can separate certain minerals from brine flows.

The two-year project will look specifically at ways to extract rare earth elements and precious metals. The sorbents already show promise based on preliminary tests conducted by PNNL, according to the DOE.

The sorbent is, in essence, a designer molecule attached to a substrate. The molecule has an affinity for grabbing specific metals out of the fluid that flows over it. It’s not an entirely new activity – the mining industry has been using a similar approach with what’s called “solution mining” for many years.

The innovation, explained Billingsley, is being able to strip those metals off the molecules at the kind of flow rates, volumes and low mineral concentrations characteristic of a geothermal power plant.

Star Minerals is particularly interested in rare earth elements such as dysprosium, a name derived from a Greek word that means “hard to get.” It’s one of several rare earth metals used to create permanent magnet alloys for use in electric vehicles, wind turbines and other green technologies. China dominates the market, so finding new domestic sources has grown in importance.

“If you’ve been in the industry for as long as we have, which is about 40 years, there are getting to be fewer and fewer places to mine, and fewer places to look for these particular types of metal,” Billingsley said. “To us, it’s a lot better if you can target recovering them from waste streams or geothermal brines or oil-field brines. It makes a lot more sense.”

ADDING VALUE TO GEOTHERMAL

It’s a message that Thompson of CanGEA has been sending to the mining industry over the past year. By working together, geothermal developers and mining companies can help each other out, she said. The association recently released a chemical analysis report showing the best places in western and northern Canada to mine for both heat and minerals. “It’s hard to get companies to take it seriously,” Thompson added.

One seven-year-old company that has taken it seriously is California-based Simbol, often considered the poster child of geothermal mineral recovery. Operating in the state’s Imperial Valley, it has partnered with several geothermal power producers, which after extracting heat from hot brine flow have agreed to let Simbol extract lithium, manganese and zinc compounds from the fluids before they’re injected back into the ground.

Based on the operations of a pilot plant between 2011 and 2014, Simbol knows its process works – at least for producing high-purity lithium carbonate, an essential ingredient of lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars – but efforts to break ground on a large-scale commercial plant this year have reportedly stalled.

Last February, it was reported that Simbol – which was one of the company’s that received DOE research funding last fall – had dismissed most of the employees working at its demonstration plant. It was a sign, some observers said, that the company is having a difficult time raising capital for its commercial plant, which at full production capacity is designed to produce enough lithium for more than a million electric cars.

Simbol co-founder Luka Erceg, who was chief executive before leaving in early 2013, said he has completely severed ties with the company but continues to believe in the larger mission.

“I’ve always been bullish on mineral extraction from brines,” he said. “This is clearly an area with a lot of potential.”

If it can be made to work with geothermal brines, the DOE believes the approach can also be used with fluids that are co-produced with oil and gas operations.

Find Clean Break at Corporate Knights

As many of you know, I stopped posting on this particular blog site for a couple of years. I simply got too busy, and most most of my writing is now done at Corporate Knights, where I am currently editor-in-chief. But the spirit of Clean Break lives on at the Corporate Knights site, where you can find my own collection of stories that — no surprise — I’ve branded with the “Clean Break” label. I may return to this particular blog site at a later date, when I can find the time to significantly re-vamp it. But for now, if you’re looking for the stuff I write, please go here:

http://www.corporateknights.com/voices/tyler-hamilton/

And, of course,  check out all the other great stuff we have going on at Corporate Knights, which has been my labour of love for the past four years.