Good to see local T.O. company Regen Energy getting traction in the market for its energy management devices, which use “swarm logic” to coordinate when flexible building loads turn on and off. HVAC giant Carrier has agreed to offer Regen’s product through its global distribution network, giving the technology greater exposure to commercial and industrial customers. Tim Angus, president and CEO of Regen, said the deal is proof that the technology is gaining an industry foothold. Fact is, more commercial and industrial customers are looking for inexpensive ways of achieving dynamic load control, including participation in demand-response programs. Regen’s decentralized approach to load management is truly unique. (For more info on Regen’s tech, check here and here and here).
It 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 Amazon.com, 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.
With the sound of crickets haunting the evening and smell of campfire smoke on their hoodies, my daughters carefully scan the darkness in search of fireflies, or in their world fairies with magic dust.
We never grow bored of these amazing little creatures, which through an oxygen-induced chemical reaction that takes place in their lower abdomen can cause their bellies to light up. The process is called bioluminescence, and it has earned these small flying beetles the nickname “lightning bugs.”
Human observation of fireflies throughout history has led to some useful products, such as emergency glow sticks, which offer the benefit of not needing batteries. But researchers have struggled to achieve the kind of efficiencies studied in fireflies.
One answer to the puzzle, it seems, has nothing to do with chemical reactions. Earlier this month, in two research papers published in the journal Optics Express, scientists from Belgium, Canada and France revealed that the design of a firefly’s abdomen plays an important role in enhancing the bug’s trademark glow.
In fact, they were able to replicate the outside structure of the firefly’s “lanterns” — the organs within the insect’s abdomen — to create a coating that, when applied to the surface of a light-emitting diode (LED), boosted light efficiency by roughly 55 per cent.
It’s a classic example of biomimicry in action. “There are many things in nature that can be adapted for many fields,” said nanotechnology specialist Ali Belarouci, a senior research scientist at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec. “With the equipment we have today we’re able to see phenomena (in nature) we couldn’t see before.”
Belarouci said Belgian researchers were studying firefly lanterns with an electron microscope when they noticed a pattern of irregular scales with sharp edges and protruding tips. Using computer simulations, they looked at how these scales might affect the transmission of light out of the abdomen.
What was interesting is that the scales, which they described as having the shape of a factory roof, could be viewed at the micrometer level — that is, each scale tip was positioned about 10 micrometres apart, or about one-tenth the width of a human hair.
Small to us, a micrometre is massive in the world that defines nanotechnology, and this is where previous research on fireflies and other insects had largely focused. But at that level, the structures were observed to have a small impact on efficiency — a few per cent increase at most.
The Belgian team was quite surprised to find much larger efficiency gains at the larger micro-level, and this encouraged them to take their research to the next level.
That’s when Belarouci and his research colleagues in Sherbrooke entered the picture. Their role in the collaboration was to replicate the jagged scale structure of a firefly’s lantern and adapt it to an LED device. They did this using a photolithographic process. It involved coating the top of an LED with a light-sensitive material, in this case a type of polymer, and using a laser to create the factory-roof profile.
“We can do this with most LEDs,” said Belarouci, emphasizing the simplicity of the process. “The advantage is that you can add the coating to an existing LED. You don’t have to redesign the whole thing.”
That they have demonstrated the ability to boost LED efficiency by more than 50 per cent has major implications for a market that’s just finding its stride and a technology already known for being 85 per cent more efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs.
Never mind that LED bulbs last more than 20 times longer and don’t contain mercury, one of the biggest criticisms of compact fluorescent bulbs.
As the New York Times reported this week, prices for LED lights are falling and growth is picking up. It cited the fact that LED technology, despite higher retail prices, accounted for 20 per cent of lighting revenues at Philips last year, and that LEDs are expected to outsell incandescent lights in Canada and the United States in 2014, according to technology research firm IMS Research.
By 2016, IMS predicts shipment of LED bulbs for use in standard residential sockets will hit 370 million units. That’s more than 10 times the shipments reported in 2012.
As for the firefly-inspired coating, the researchers figure that modifying existing LED manufacturing techniques to incorporate the light-boosting layer are achievable and could lead to even better energy savings from LED lights within the next few years.
Has the research caught the attention of industry? “So far we haven’t been contacted,” Belarouci said.
It’s only a matter of time.
And it’s not just LEDs that could benefit from this discovery. “You could use the same kind of concept to improve photovoltaic cells,” he said. In other words, solar cells with the coating could potentially absorb more sunlight and produce more electricity per cell.
It’s something to think about the next time you spot a firefly, or, if you prefer, fairies with magic dust.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.
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.