Category Archives: efficiency

Ocean thermal energy conversion gets one step closer to commercial reality

otecUPDATE: An interesting announcement from Lockheed Martin this morning. The military contractor says it has signed a “memorandum agreement” with real-estate developer Reignwood Group, founded and run by Thai-Chinese businessman Yan Bin, the second-richest man in Beijing. What have they agreed to do? Lockheed says it will design a 10-megawatt ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant, which will supply 100 per cent of the power needs of a planned “net-zero” green resort being built by Reignwood. “The agreement could lay the foundation for the development of several additional OTEC power plants ranging in size from 10 to 100 megawatts, for a potential multi-billion dollar value,” according to Lockheed in a press release.

This is exciting for two reasons. One, it’s very cool technology, and being an energy geek I love hearing this kind of news. Two, there’s huge potential here for the ocean to supply emission-free electricity around the world. Lockheed has been working on this technology since the 1970s. An OTEC power plant basically uses heat exchangers to extract heat out of the warmer upper ocean layers and create steam from a working fluid with a low boiling temperature, such as ammonia. As I wrote in my book Mad Like Tesla, “The steam would drive a turbine that generates electricity. Cold water from deeper layers would then be used to condense the ammonia back into fluid, at which point the cycle would be repeated.” In my book, I quoted Ted Johnson, director of alternative energy development at Lockheed, who is clearly optimistic about what the technology could offer. “I dream of thousands of floating OTEC ships roaming the seas of the world, providing an inexhaustible supply of clean energy and fuel and water for all people of the world.”

While Lockheed has been working on this for four decades, one of the first in-depth discussions of the concept came from Nikola Tesla, who at the age of 75 outlined how such a plant might be built in the December 1931 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics journal. Tesla spent considerable time trying devising a way to improve the efficiencies of such a power plant, but he determined that it was too great an engineering challenge at the time. “I have studied this plan of power production from all angles and have devised apparatus for bringing down all losses to what I might call the irreducible minimum and still I find the performance too small to enable successful competition with the present methods,” he wrote, though still expressing hope that new methods would eventually make it possible to economically tap the thermal energy in oceans.

Lockheed is trying to demonstrate that the day has come. “Constructing a sea-based, multi-megawatt pilot OTEC power plant for Reignwood Group is the final step in making it an economic option to meet growing needs for clean, reliable energy,” said Dan Heller, vice-president of new ventures for Lockheed’s mission systems and training group. Lockheed said the technology is “well-suited” to island and coastal communities where — because of transportation logistics — energy prices tend to be high and there is great dependency on oil for power generation. “Unlike other renewable energy technologies, this power is also base load, meaning it can be produced consistently 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said Lockheed. “A commercial-scale OTEC plant will have the capability to power a small city. The energy can also be used for the cultivation of other crucial resources such as clean drinking water and hydrogen for applications such as electric vehicles.”

Continues Lockheed: “Once the proposed plant is developed and operational, the two companies plan to use the knowledge gained to improve the design of the additional commercial-scale plants, to be built over the next 10 years. Each 100-megawatt OTEC facility could produce the same amount of energy in a year as 1.3 million barrels of oil, decrease carbon emissions by half a million tons and provide a domestic energy source that is sustainable, reliable and secure. With oil trading near $100 a barrel, the fuel-savings from one plant could top $130 million per year.”

There is one point of confusion, however. Lockheed says this planned OTEC project — at 10 megawatts — will be the largest ever built, but I was under the impression it had designed or was in the process of designing a 10MW plant off the coast of Hawaii. I’ve e-mailed Lockheed asking for clarification on this and will update my post when I get an answer. For more background on this concept check out this story from a few months back by the folks at Greentech Media.

(UPDATE: I received a response from Lockheed spokesman Scott Lusk on the company’s work in Hawaii. Here’s what he had to say: “While Hawaii is one of the main places where Lockheed Martin has conducted research and evaluation around the OTEC technology, to date there have been no contracts awarded for commercial-scale OTEC development in the state. Lockheed Martin has tested the heat exchanger technology, a critical component in the OTEC plant design, at the NELHA research facility in Hawaii. In addition, Hawaii is one of several locations where Lockheed Martin has conducted feasibility studies. Other locations include Guam and Japan.”)

Regen Energy partners with Carrier on its swarm energy management technology

L'affaire abeilleGood 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).

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.

Big data is the key to unlocking big gains in energy productivity

BigDataBigBuildingsU.S. President Barack Obama set a new goal for America during his State of the Union address this week. He challenged states and municipalities, homeowners and businesses, to do more with less when it comes to energy consumption.

“Let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next 20 years,” said Obama, adding that states that stepped forward with the best ideas would get financial support from the federal government to make it happen.

Obama’s words echoed recommendations that came out just a week earlier by the Alliance Commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy, a coalition of U.S. energy utilities, academics, industry and environmental groups.

It urged an effort to double energy productivity by 2020, a move that would create an estimated 1.3 million jobs, slash $1,000 a year from household energy bills, give a boost to GDP, decrease energy imports by $100 billion a year, and save U.S. industry a whopping $169 billion a year.

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called it a “huge and largely untapped opportunity.”

It may seem a daunting task, but whether you’re talking about the United States or Canada, doubling productivity can be done, should be done, and elsewhere around the world, it has been done.

The U.S. and Canada rank 8th and 12th respectively out of G20 countries when measured by energy productivity. You could call that middle-of-the-road, but when compared to leaders like Germany and Japan, we’re closer to the ditch.

America consumed the equivalent of 83,561 kilowatt-hours per capita in 2011. Canada was a bit higher, at 86,101 kilowatt-hours. Both are among the bottom of the global pack.

Germany, at 46,702 kilowatt-hours, and Japan, at 45,477 kilowatt-hours, are among the top. Both seem to be doing just fine but without the kind of waste that Obama is intent on targeting.

Tighter building codes, stricter vehicle emission standards, serious attempts to recycle waste heat at industrial facilities, and better tax breaks for companies that install more energy-efficient equipment are just some of the options that should be on the table.

Screwing in energy-efficient light bulbs, while great, can only take us so far.

Buildings are particularly ripe for the picking, accounting for well more than 40 per cent of all energy consumed in North America.

Yes, “new” construction is getting more efficient, including all the LEED-certified silver, gold and platinum buildings sprouting up across cities like Toronto and Calgary.

But we’re barely scratching the surface, and to a large extent we’re neglecting the big, deep savings that can come from retrofitting or optimizing the operation of our existing building stock.

Part of the problem, explains Dan Seto, founder and president of Toronto-based CircuitMeter, is that there is a lack of information about how buildings function on a day-to-day, even minute-by-minute basis. He calls commercial buildings “black boxes” – difficult to see inside without the use of expensive energy-monitoring technologies.

“Once you get granularity of information, it opens up the door,” says Seto.

CircuitMeter is part of Seto’s attempt to stick a foot in the door, pry it open, and liberate that data – what amounts to the pulse and other vital signs of a “living” building. “We thought there has got to be a better way to do this.”

The company has designed a low-cost and relatively easy-to-install device called WebMeter, which can monitor the electricity flowing through up to 36 individual circuits in a building’s circuit board. Readings from these meters are stored on outside computer servers – “the cloud” – and can be accessed and analysed any time through the Internet.

“It puts a living, breathing building at your fingertips so you can start figuring out how that building is operating per square foot or employee,” says Seto, explaining that the device can detect problems with equipment and lighting and send alerts. “We can tell if a 2-watt LED light bulb has stopped working if we have to.”

Now, to be clear, there is no shortage of energy monitoring devices and gizmos in the marketplace. What CircuitMeter is offering is a way to overcome the cost barrier. Seto says WebMeter costs less than $30 per circuit, versus $200 and up to $700 per circuit for other monitoring technologies. “In general, we’re about one-tenth the cost.”

CircuitMeter also doesn’t make claims that it will reduce a building owner’s energy bills. What WebMeter does it liberate data – lots of it—by getting deep inside the black box. Once that data tsunami is released, a near-infinite numbers of applications can surf on top.

It will also be a useful way to verify savings from big energy retrofit projects, which is increasingly a condition of financing. “We’re only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding the applications,” says Seto, who last week snagged early-stage financing from the MaRS Cleantech Fund and Robert Macintosh, co-founder of the Pembina Institute in Calgary.

Seto is encouraged by Obama’s big commitment to increase energy productivity. Canada, at some point, will be forced to get with the program.

“There’s big momentum out there to get focused on conservation,” he says. “I think the timing for us is very good.”

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

Firefly belly inspires way to enhance LED brightness by 55 per cent

firefly_LED-1024x671A fond memory of my family’s annual camping weekend at Sandbanks Provincial Park is the late-night walk to the comfort station just before hitting the tents.

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.