Category Archives: education

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.

Tracking the transition to a low-carbon economy: $5.2 trillion invested since 2007, according to report

gts_1.13_web_mediumEthical Media Markets calls itself an independent publisher of research reports and other information related to the emerging green economy, and every six months it comes out with an annual and mid-year update to its Green Transition Scoreboard. The scoreboard has been tracking private investments in the green economy globally since 2007. In its August 2013 report, it highlighted what it is calling a “dramatic mid-year surge” in cumulative global investment since 2007, rising to $5.2 trillion by August from $4.1 trillion in February. And remember, this is private investment — i.e. it excludes investment in government projects.

The jump, according to the report, is partially driven by the following trends: “…the write-down of fossil fuel assets; the inevitable wave of nuclear plants due to be retired; the exposing of hypothetical forecasts of 100 years of shale gas; and the decline of large, centralized electricity generation.”

Nearly $2.4 trillion has gone into renewable energy investments, making it the largest investment theme out of the $5.2 trillion total. Energy efficiency investments represent $1.33 trillion, followed by green construction at $880 billion, corporate R&D at $378 billion and remaining “cleantech” at $235 billion. Ethical Markets Media says it comes up with these numbers by scanning reports from Cleantech Group, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, Reuters and many UN and other international studies and individual company reports.

The report has a narrow definition of “green” investment. It excludes funds invested in nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and biofuels, with some limited exceptions. Even so, it projects the $10 trillion investment mark will easily be reached by 2020 and, alongside this increase, we will see a transition away from fossil fuels.

Says the report: “Increasingly, worldwide regulations are leaving fossil fuel investments as stranded assets with pension funds heeding the call to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green technologies. Dutch Rabobank will now refuse loans to companies involved in tar sands and shale gas, citing the long-term financial and environmental risks are too large. In July 2013, Storebrand, a major Norwegian pension fund advisor, excluded from its Energy Sector all 13 coal producers and the 6 oil companies with the highest exposure to tar sands ‘to reduce Storebrand’s exposure to fossil fuels and to secure long term, stable returns for our clients…'”

I don’t entirely agree with some of the conclusions this report reaches, but it adds another interesting perspective to the energy transition that is clearly taking place globally. Big dollars are being spent on cleaner forms of energy. That a transition is happening there is little doubt. The question now is: how fast, and can we accelerate it?

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 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.

“Green” community bonds gather momentum in Ontario

There is plenty of good news happening around community bonds in my home province. SolarShare, for example, announced on Dec. 6 that it had been approved by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario to sell bonds (which offer a 5 per cent annual return) beyond a cap of $1,000. It is now selling up to $25,000, and can go even higher if requests are approved on an individual basis by their board of directors. This has opened up the possibility off pursuing projects more aggressively. The co-op is now going through a process to make its bonds RRSP-eligible. “Once an independent evaluation of SolarShare mortgages that secure your bonds is complete and we have received a legal opinion based on that evaluation, a self-directed RRSP account can be opened through Concentra Credit Union via the Canadian Workers Co-op Federation (CWCF),” the co-op reported in a recent newsletter. “You are also welcome to take that legal opinion to your own wealth management representative and request an account through other channels” —  i.e. you can take it to your own bank and make a case for carrying the bonds in your existing self-directed RRSP.

These bonds are a safe investment, so if you’re tired of getting pummeled by the market and want a safe 5 per cent return, you might want to learn more at www.solarbonds.ca

SolarShare also announced this week that it has partnered with green energy retailer Bullfrog Power, which is helping to finance future co-op solar projects. As an investor, Bullfrog will also market SolarShare’s “solar bonds” to its existing network of green-minded electricity customers. It’s a great partnership.

Meanwhile, ZooShare Biogas Co-operative — of which I am on the board of directors — is making some solid progress with its plans to take animal poo from the Toronto Zoo and turn it into biogas that will be used  for electricity generation. Ontario’s feed-in-tariff (FIT) program finally opened up again just today for small FIT projects, meaning projects like the one ZooShare is pursuing can now apply for a 20-year power purchase agreement with the province. ZooShare has plenty of members now, including the  required number of Toronto property owners, so now we just apply to the FIT program and sit tight for a contract offer. As soon as that comes, it’s full steam ahead…

I’m really hyped about the ZooShare project. If we can show how it’s done, we can replicate the approach in zoos across North America. The pootential is huge, if you’ll excuse the pun. Like SolarShare, community bonds will also be offered for this project, promising a generous 7 per cent annual return based on current calculations. The fact that SolarShare has blazed the trail to get approval from the Financial Services Commission bodes well as we prepare to file our bond offer prospectus. That precedent, as well as the precedent being set for RRSP-eligibility, will also prove beneficial.

For past articles explaining the concept of community bonds and describing the  above projects, click here and here.

Sub-metering in condos, apartment units can lead to big reductions in electricity consumption

My Clean Break column this week highlights a commissioned study by Navigant Consulting, which looked at the impact that sub-metering has on electricity consumption in apartment units and condos versus those units on a bulk metering/billing system. The reductions appear to be quite large, as you’ll read, but there’s one caveat before you read on: lower electricity use doesn’t necessarily translate into lower bills. Given the additional fees charged by sub-metering service providers, the financial benefits of sub-metering are more murky. At the same time, while it might not lead to dollar savings today, it can certainly empower residents to shield themselves from dollar increases tomorrow. Another caveat: the research, while conducted by Navigant, was commissioned by EnerCare, a sub-metering provider in Ontario.

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Tyler Hamilton

There are nearly 410,000 apartment and condominium units in Ontario that could be—but aren’t—individually monitored for their electricity consumption.

Instead, the buildings in which they’re located engage in “bulk” billing, meaning a single bill is issued for an entire building. The amount on that bill is equally divided by the number of individual residential units in that building.

It’s a simple formula, sure, but it’s one that encourages waste. It means residents who make an effort to conserve and use relatively less electricity end up subsidizing those who always keep the lights on and load their homes with energy-hogging devices and appliances. There’s no incentive for them to conserve.

But what if 410,000 residential units in Ontario currently on bulk metering were suddenly put on individual sub-meters – i.e. smart meters for building units? What would be the impact on electricity conservation?

The short answer, according to a study this week from research firm Navigant Consulting, is that the average reduction in electricity use would be “significant.”

Navigant found that in buildings heated by electricity average consumption would fall by 27 per cent, or 106 kilowatt-hours a month, while those building units that don’t use electricity for heating would see average power use reduced by 34 per cent, or 112 kilowatt-hours a month.

“If sub-metering were deployed in all currently bulk-metered, multi-residential buildings the annual potential electricity savings following complete deployment over five years could be 3.3 terawatt-hours annually – more than all of the electricity produced from Ontario’s wind power facilities in 2010,” according to the study.

During peak times, it would equate to eliminating the need for 383 megawatts of generating capacity, equivalent taking a medium-sized gas-fired power plant out of the province’s fleet of generators.

It should be noted that Navigant didn’t do this study out of the kindness of heart. It was hired by EnerCare Connections (formerly Stratacon), one of the largest suppliers of sub-metering devices in Ontario. EnerCare’s interests are obvious. At the same time, Navigant is a respected international research and consulting firm not known to customize conclusions to satisfy its clients.

As for how Navigant came to such conclusions, it relied on data from Natural Resources Canada, Statistics Canada’s 2007 Census data, and hundreds of samples of monthly electricity consumption data from customers of EnerCare that had already switched from bulk billing to sub-metered billing.

So if the conservation benefits are so obvious, why isn’t there a mass rush to embrace sub-metering?

Sub-metering in buildings is for some a hot-button issue. Clearly, individuals in buildings who use relatively more electricity than their neighbours are going to end up paying a higher monthly bill. It’s hard to sympathize – either they should pay for what they use or use less.

It’s a bit trickier with renters. Switching to more efficient light bulbs can only go so far. Apartment tenants are often stuck using old and inefficient appliances that gobble electricity. They can reduce use of these appliances, but they’re still at the mercy of landlords not keen on upgrading to more efficient models.

Chris Jaglowitz, a “condo” lawyer at Gardiner Miller Arnold LLP and publisher of the Ontario Condo Law Blog, says a big sticking point with all building residents relates to the extra charges they must pay to get their bills separately.

“That’s what gets people’s ires up,” says Jaglowitz. “Even people using very little electricity are getting dinged with fairly significant charges. Anecdotally, I’m hearing people are paying more.”

Then again, they’re paying more because electricity prices have been going up – and will continue to go up. With sub-metering, at least condo owners and tenants can take some actions to shield themselves from the impacts of rising electricity rates.

“That’s the argument everybody forgets,” says Jaglowitz.

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