Category Archives: electric vehicles

Low crude prices aren’t the only reason big oil should worry

This story was originally published in the Toronto Star.

By Tyler Hamilton

When solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett bumped into Suncor Energy boss Steve Williams at the World Economic Forum in 2014, odds were high that tempers would flare.

The two men were among about 40 dinner guests – a mix of CEOs, pension fund managers, economists and government leaders. They had gathered in Davos, Switzerland, to talk about “short-termism” in the financial and corporate worlds and how it undermines efforts to tackle climate change.

At one point during the dinner, Leggett recalls in his book The Winning of the Carbon War, Williams mentioned the difficulty he had in pushing through a 50-year investment plan for the oil sands.

Leggett, who is also non-executive chairman of London-based financial think tank Carbon Tracker, asked Williams after the dinner if he was concerned the investment would become stranded; that within five decades the world would no longer need what Canada’s largest oil company had to offer.

SteveWilliams“Clean energy can’t do the job oil does… Clean energy can’t be economic,” Williams snapped. To which Leggett replied: “But we are already in the process of doing that… Doesn’t that make you worry just a little about your 50-year plan?”

In Leggett’s book, the exchange ends there. But it continued – and got heated, to the point where a red-in-the-face and clearly insulted Williams stormed off in anger.

THAT WAS THEN…

Back then Williams had less reason to worry. Brent crude was priced at around $107 (U.S.) a barrel and meaningful political action on climate change, both in Canada and internationally, was largely absent.

Two years later the fossil fuel industry is under siege. Brent prices have plunged by two-thirds to below $40 (U.S.) a barrel, and the International Energy Agency says a recovery shouldn’t be expected anytime soon.

At the same time, Alberta now has an ambitious climate plan that includes a carbon tax and hard cap on oil sands emissions. And just last week, 196 countries approved a binding global climate deal in Paris.

The Paris agreement seeks no less than a peaking of greenhouse-gas emissions “as soon as possible” and a de-carbonized global economy within the second half of the century. It is through the lens of this new, irreversible reality that Canada’s oil sands industry must move forward in competition with every other oil-producing nation.

“Most people in the industry have been to some extent surprised at how quickly change has happened over the past 12 months,” said Chad Park, executive director of non-profit sustainability consultancy The Natural Step Canada.

Park is heading up an initiative called the Energy Futures Lab, which has assembled a group of experts from academia, industry, government and civil society to come up with a low-carbon transition plan for Alberta.

Current CO2 emissions from oil sands production sit at around 70 megatonnes, twice as much compared to 10 years ago. Alberta’s new climate plan calls for a ceiling of 100 megatonnes.

Two years ago, when the oil sands were riding high on above-$100 oil, the industry would have hit that emissions ceiling by 2020, according to projections from Environment Canada. But with sub-$40 oil, development has slowed substantially. At today’s rates of production based on current technology, the industry could delay reaching its emissions cap to 2030, possibly later.

“No new projects are being built,” said economist Dave Sawyer, CEO of Ottawa- based EnviroEconomics. “Right away the market has taken care of all that new growth.”

It creates space for Alberta’s economy to diversify, which has never been more crucial. “We can argue about the pace and the strategy, but the idea of transition is now part of government policy,” said Park. “Some are getting the message. Some aren’t.”

Suncor, under Williams’ leadership, seems to get it more than others. He was one of four oil sands CEOs who backed Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s climate plan and, rather than dismissing the events in Paris, he flew there to listen and learn.

These days, he says, Suncor’s goal is to be “the last man standing,” implying that many in his industry will fall. He says he’ll tackle low oil prices and an emissions cap in Alberta by boosting operational efficiencies and using new technologies to reduce costs and emit less GHGs per barrel of oil.

Dan Zilnik, president of Oil & Gas Sustainability, a consultancy in Calgary, said limits on global emissions will, over time, keep more fossil fuels in the ground. But not all fossil fuels, oil producing regions and individual projects will be threatened equally.

He equates it to a game of musical chairs. “For Alberta and for the companies invested in the oil sands, the challenge is to position some portion of their reserves to be consistent with a carbon constrained world, either by being first to find a seat, or by being faster – lower-carbon – that the competition,” said Zilnik.

But eventually, by the end of this century, all seats will be taken away and the music will stop for fossil fuels, assuming the political will behind the Paris agreement and the advance of clean, renewable technologies prove lasting.

That means being better and more efficient at producing oil won’t be enough as we approach the second half of this century. Companies, such as Suncor, will need to ask themselves what they want to be when they grow up in the low-carbon economy.

So how might it all play out? Expect the following actions from oil companies over the coming years…

PLAN & DISCLOSE

CarneyBank of England governor Mark Carney, in his role as chair of the international Financial Stability Board, announced in Paris that he was creating a climate disclosure task force to be led by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. The task force will encourage companies to disclose the risks that climate change pose to assets and operations, and will create standardized guidelines for how those risks should be publicly disclosed.

Guidelines will be voluntary, though there will be immense pressure on companies to embrace them. Over time, they could become mandatory through national securities regulators.

Carney said investors deserve to know if climate change and responses to it will affect their investments. Does a company have a strategy to reduce its carbon footprint consistent with each country’s commitment under the Paris agreement?

“It’s a reasonable question to ask,” said Carney, who has stressed previously, “the more we invest with foresight, the less we will regret in hindsight.”

With such disclosure, more capital will flow to companies with a transition plan and projects that carry the least climate risk.

LOWER-CARBON BARRELS

Days after the Paris summit, the CEO of global engineering giant WorleyParsons sent a memo to employees about the “significant business change” that would soon hit the company’s customers, which in the oil sands include Nexen, Devon, Suncor, Statoil, Total and Shell. “These customers will need to adapt to remain relevant,” the memo said. A long-time WorleyParsons employee told the Star: “I’ve never heard this tone before from the brass.”

Making existing operations more energy-efficient will lower costs and per-barrel emissions. Expect more oil sands projects to capture and reuse waste heat and embrace alternative processes that consume less energy. What energy that is used will increasingly come from clean electricity such as hydropower, instead of natural gas. There’s also potential for capturing CO2 emissions and recycling them into high-value industrial chemicals, though purchasing offsets through international carbon markets will be the least-cost option.

“The pace at which the pieces of the carbon pie crumble is going to be based on advancements in low-emission technologies,” said Chad Park of Energy Futures Lab.

UNDERMINE COAL

The Paris agreement, at minimum, aims to keep the rise in average global temperatures “well below” 2 degrees C compared to pre-industrial levels. To stay below that threshold, Citigroup estimates that one-third of oil reserves, half of natural gas reserves, and 80 per cent of coal reserves need to stay in the ground.

Burning coal emits the highest amount of CO2 per unit of energy it delivers, so coal is first on the firing line when it comes to emissions regulation and carbon pricing. This explains why most big oil companies support a carbon tax, which will hurt coal much more than oil. The reality is that every tonne of coal that gets left in the ground leaves more of the global carbon budget to oil. From hereon in, oil majors will be jockeying for a bigger piece of that fixed budget to extend the life of their traditional businesses for as long as possible.

We’ve already seen that in Alberta. Remember, it was four CEOs from the oil industry who happily stood on stage with Premier Rachel Notley when she announced a climate plan that includes phasing out all coal-fired power generation.

FILL UP ON NAT GAS

When burned, natural gas emits about 25 per cent less CO2 than oil and 50 per cent less than coal, so it makes sense for big petroleum companies to lean more heavily on this resource. It helps big energy companies lower their carbon footprints and capture an even larger share of a shrinking global carbon budget. It also makes use of existing expertise in drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and pipeline transmission.

This is why oil giants like ExxonMobil are investing more these days in natural gas, demand for which is expected to grow as electric utilities in Canada, the United States and Europe switch from coal to gas-fired power generation. Within that context, Shell’s recent $70-billion takeover of BG Group, the world’s largest liquefied natural gas supplier, makes a whole lot of sense.

Relying more on natural gas, however, is not a long-term climate solution. What it does do is buy the big oil companies some time. Natural gas will also be needed over the short and medium term to manage the variable nature of wind and solar energy systems, at least until large-scale energy storage becomes more economical.

BUY & SELL

Heading into 2016, the industry is certain to consolidate. Independent policy think tank Chatham House, in a report released in July, says a period of adjustment is expected in the transition to a low-carbon economy in which financially strong companies acquire strong assets currently belonging to weaker companies. “High-cost and high-risk projects will be abandoned or deferred,” it says. “Companies whose existence relies on such projects will be taken over or broken up, and countries that depend on them for future development will have to revise their strategies.”

To a certain extent, low oil prices have already sparked some merger and acquisition activity. Suncor’s hostile bid to acquire Canadian Oil Sands is an example. Deal making is expected to heat up as deep-pocketed players seek lower-carbon assets that keep them in the game longer.

REDIRECT CASH FLOW

After Paris, it’s widely believed that the petroleum industry is entering an “ex growth” phase, meaning demand for oil will level off and eventually begin to decline as national emissions regulations tighten and clean energy alternatives become more affordable.

In this environment more investors will be asking: Why spend billions of dollars exploring for oil in the Arctic that likely won’t be needed? The same question will be posed to any company proposing to break ground on a new oil sands project.

“Now, it will be all about running sunk assets into the ground,” said Dave Sawyer of EnviroEconomics. For existing oil sands projects, “they have all this built capital already producing significant amounts of oil, and they can pretty much sell it at any price.”

Risky, high-cost exploration plans will be avoided, leading to reduced capital spending. Cash flows will be returned to shareholders through dividend increases or share buybacks that prop up stock prices. Alternatively, if a company is determined to stay relevant in a low-carbon world, those cash flows can be used to fund aggressive diversification.

DIVERSIFY OR DIE

If companies choose to fight for a lasting role in the low-carbon economy, they will need to start investing more of their cash flows into non-fossil alternatives. “Many companies are asking themselves, are we a pure play upstream oil and gas company, or do we want to be something bigger and broader than that?” said consultant Dan Zilnik of Oil & Gas Sustainability.

Jumping into renewables is not a slam dunk. The expertise that oil companies have is with massive, highly centralized multibillion-dollar projects with decades-long time horizons. Most renewable power projects, by comparison, run in the hundreds of millions of dollars and are built in a matter of years, not decades.

They also involve the movement of electrons over wires, not molecules through pipelines. Solar development, for example, couldn’t be more different than oil development, which is grounded in geology and mining. It’s like asking an NFL football player to turn tennis pro.

Many already dabble in wind and solar. “Whether or not they are thinking about doing more, we need to recognize that oil and gas companies are already amongst the biggest players in the renewables game,” said Zilnik, pointing to Suncor and Enbridge as domestic leaders.

But holding and bankrolling a renewable asset and letting it operate independently is much easier than transforming core competencies, which is a rare feat for an incumbent with magnetic attraction to the status quo.

An oil company’s drilling and engineering expertise would be better directed to geothermal power development, while refinery and pipelines operations could transition to biofuels, hydrogen or synthetic oils made from recycled CO2. “You could see Suncor also turning its Petro-Canada gas stations into EV charging stations,” said Dave Sawyer of EnviroEconomics.

ELECTRIC CAR WILD CARD

How quickly the world moves to electrify transportation may, in fact, be the biggest determinant of how fast global demand for oil falls.

In a post-Paris economy, that transition will need to accelerate, said Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA). “The IEA has shown that if global warming is to be limited to 2 degrees, at least a fifth of all vehicles on roads by 2030 should be electric.”

The bad news for the oil industry is that batteries costs for EVs continue to fall. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates such costs have dropped by more than 60 per cent since 2009. Research indicates that energy storage is expected to follow the same growth and cost trend as solar power technologies.

General Motors, for example, surprised many in October when it said the battery system in its new Chevy Bolt all-electric car, which hits dealerships this year, costs around $145 per kilowatt-hour.

That’s a huge breakthrough, considering average costs were thought to be between $300 and $400. Citigroup, UBS and consultancy McKinsey predicted the $200 milestone would be hit sometime between 2017 and 2020, so GM’s revelation is eye-opening. Consider also that Citigroup has called $230 the point at which electric cars begin to pose a serious threat to conventional gasoline-fuelled vehicles.

John Mitchell, an associate research fellow with policy think tank Chatham House, said mass production of a low-cost battery capable of carrying a vehicle hundreds of kilometres is the biggest threat to oil.

“That will change the transport market profoundly,” he said.

We may not be there yet, but we’re getting pretty damn close.

Continue reading Low crude prices aren’t the only reason big oil should worry

Has North America hit “peak car”? The signs are there…

MEC-EVNavigant Consulting held Wednesday what I thought was a fascinating webinar on whether vehicle sales and use in North America have peaked — or are close to peaking. Dave Hurst, principal research analyst at Navigant, defined “peak cars” as a point of market saturation “characterized by an unprecedented deceleration in the growth of car ownership, total miles driven and annual sales.”

At the outset, he made the following points:

  • Auto sales have been relatively slow to rebound in the United States, whereas in past economic rebounds we’ve seen car sales lead the way;
  • He figures sales of light-duty vehicles peaked in 2005 and those record levels won’t be reached again until about 2020, despite the growth in population between now and then;
  • There has been significant growth in bicycle commuting — 47 per cent growth between 2000 and 2011. In more bike-friendly cities, growth has jumped 80 per cent;
  •  E-bicycle sales are growing strongly, particularly in Europe. While they aren’t necessarily displacing car sales, they are reducing the amount of miles driven in cars;
  • Influencing trends being noticed: urban planning with attention to more transit-oriented designs and streets that accommodate multiple modes of transportation; more people telecommuting; a rise in car-sharing as an alternative way to travel in cities; increased political interest in congestion pricing.

But can we say with certainty that we’ve hit “peak cars” yet? “I would argue in western Europe we’re likely there. Right now it looks like North America is going to be next,” said Hurst. “The jury is still out.”

Phineas Baxandall, senior analyst for transportation policy at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, came across as more certain in his comments. Up until 2004, he said, there has been a steady increase in per-capita miles driven since WWII. But nine years ago it suddenly began to fall, and this happened well before the economic downturn. “What we see in 2004 is truly a break with an almost 60-year trend.” Total miles driven also began to fall in 2007, despite ongoing population growth. So what explains this? Baxandall said a big part of it has to do with younger drivers — at least that’s what the data says between 2001 and 2009. “During this period, driving among younger Americans fell much faster than the rest of the country — a breathtaking 23 per cent per person.” Young people are taking fewer vehicle trips and shorter trips. “This trend was seen with young people both with and without jobs,” he added, pointing out that younger people are embracing alternatives modes of transportation much more aggressively than their parents. “This group’s public transportation trips increased (between 2001 and 2009) by 40 per cent. Bicycle trips increased 24 per cent, and walking trips by 16 per cent. A truly big change.”

And let’s not forget driver’s license statistics. In the mid-1980s more than 80 per cent of young people between 16 and 20 years of age had a driver’s license. Today, that number is in the mid-60s. Another interesting point that Baxandall made has to do with the recent decoupling of GDP from driving miles per person. For decades driving miles per person almost shadowed the movement of GDP, but in recent years they have diverged. This likely has much to do with rising gasoline prices following a long period of relatively cheap fuel.

All of this raises the big question: Is it temporary?

Is it a blip? Will the shift we have seen be enduring? Will it grow more intense to the detriment of the auto industry? I got the sense from the call that Baxandall doesn’t think it’s temporary, which isn’t a bad thing depending on where you sit. “It’s going to mean less pollution and oil consumption, less stress on our existing roadways, and less need for new and wider highways,” he said. But there’s bad news for some. There will be more risk for public-private toll ventures, shrinking North American auto sales, and the amount of federal tax revenue collected through gasoline sales is going to fall significantly — a combination of more efficient vehicles, electric vehicles and reduced driving. “We can no longer continue to believe there will be an increase in driving,” he added. “Policy in our country has yet to catch up to these trends and still reflect old driving assumptions.”

There’s much to think about here, for auto manufacturers, urban planners, political leaders and consumers. Of course, some of the market demand issues will be offset by rising demand from Asia and elsewhere, but in North American and Europe these trends beg a much closer, careful look.

55 “clean energy” projects get $82 million in federal funding… Great news, despite the calculated timing

xpkkqThe money that was set aside for clean energy initiatives in the federal Conservative government’s 2011 budget is finally beginning to trickle out, and while it’s a welcome boost for 55 project proponents — including 15 pre-commercial demonstration projects — the timing of this $82-million announcement is suspect. After all, Canada has been criticized for its weak environmental performance as it awaits approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. “There needs to be more progress,” said David Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, after President Obama’s State of the Union address in February. Basically, the U.S. position is that if Canada (and Alberta) doesn’t start pulling its weigh on environmental efforts it will make the decision to approve a pipeline project that much more difficult for the Obama administration. Since then, the Harper Conservatives — and oil sands proponents, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — have been on the defensive, making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to “educate” the Americans about how much Canada is doing on the environmental file. This would include weaning ourselves off coal, which of course is not what’s happening in Alberta or anywhere else in Canada except Ontario. But whatever, that has never stopped this federal government from repackaging the efforts of others to look like their own, or throwing money at something in the 11th hour to rework perceptions and ultimately get their way, despite the reality. Rather than confront the problem of climate change head on, my federal government shamefully responds to criticism by bad-mouthing the likes of NASA scientist James Hansen and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, dismissing both as misinformed on the matter. Uh, yeah… right.

All that said, I’m impressed with the diversity of projects being funded with this $82 million. They include:

  • A commercial demonstration of a system that manages electric-vehicle charging stations in Quebec;
  • Demonstration of a wind-biomass-battery system in the north of Quebec where there’s heavy reliance on diesel;
  • Integration of wind energy in diesel-based generation systems to power remote mining operations;
  • The study of Very Low Head hydro turbines, a promising technology that opens up hydroelectric generation opportunities across Canada;
  • A project to tap low-temperature geothermal energy for power production;
  • Advancing efficiency and reducing the cost of in-stream tidal energy;
  • Development and testing of prototypes of “plug and play” building-integrated solar PV and thermal systems;
  • A project to recover energy from refrigeration waste heat;
  • Advancing a process that takes syngas made from the gasification of municipal solid waste and turns it into drop-in jet and diesel fuel;
  • Researching and developing a super-efficient air-source heat pump that can provide heating in very cold climates and cooling during summers at low cost;
  • An inventory and analysis of recoverable waste heat sources from industrial processes in Alberta;
  • Development of a pre-commercial thermoacoustic engine that is super efficient and can be used for co-generation applications.

In addition to the above-mentioned projects, there is a big emphasis on technologies that help reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands, as well as coal-fired power production   in provinces that are heavy coal users, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia. Indeed, roughly a quarter of the funds has been earmarked for projects aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel production and use (or perpetuating the production and use of fossil fuels, depending on how you view it). I have mixed feelings about this. One part of me says, “Great, we really need to reduce emissions and water contamination/consumption related to the oil sands and burning coal.” The other part of me says, “Oh great, more window dressing. This will make it look like the federal government is doing something without actually doing something, as these technologies are unlikely to have an impact anytime soon. We’re screwed.”

Two projects in Nova Scotia that are being funded will focus on scoping out ideal sites for geological sequestration of CO2 and coming up with a monitoring and verification standard to make sure CO2 injected underground isn’t leaking out — i.e. will stay underground. Money is also being given to a Quebec company called CO2 Solutions, which I’ve written about many times over the years. This company, demonstrating biomimicry in action, has developed an enzyme that can extract CO2 from industrial effluent emissions. It will use the new funding to support a pilot-scale facility that can capture 90 per cent of C02 from an oil sands in situ production and upgrading operation. “This is expected to result in cost savings of at least 25 per cent compared to conventional carbon capture technology,” according to the government funding announcement.

One project will look at whether impurities in CO2 have an impact on the capture, transport and underground storage of CO2, while another will study geological sites in the Athabasca area (i.e. where the oil sands are located) that are ideal for underground storage of CO2. Funding will also be used to investigate the use of non-aqueous solvents to extract bitumen, thereby reducing the energy needed to create steam (i.e. reducing water needs and the proliferation of toxic tailing ponds). Efforts to improve the efficiency of steam-assisted gravity drainage processes and reduce the environmental impacts of tailing ponds are also being funded. On the water front, one project will explore the ability to use non-potable, briny water to create steam for oil sands production, while another will demonstrate a technology that can clean up and recycle the waste water used during oil sands production. In total, about $21 million will go toward all of these projects, designed to help “dirty” energy become — or look — much cleaner.

In a separate announcement, the federal government also disclosed plans to support construction of a $19-million facility in Alberta that will use algae to recycle industrial CO2 emissions, in this case emissions from an oil sands facility operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. This is great news for Toronto-based Pond Biofuels, a company I have written about extensively and which currently operates a pilot facility at St. Mary’s Cement, where it grows algae from kiln emissions. The end goal of this three-year oil sands project is to use the algae to create commercial biofuels and other bioproducts. All of this innovation is important, and funding of these projects — as well as the recent re-funding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an important supporter of cleantech innovation in my country — is encouraging. Yet, it’s not getting us to where we need to be. Nowhere close.

We’ve been down this capture-and-hide carbon path before. A handful of high-profile projects announced several years ago have still led nowhere, and two have already been cancelled. Yet the federal government, and Alberta, is still putting most of its eggs in the CCS basket. Indeed, they’re still heavily promoting this idea of a new pipeline network that will carry CO2 from the oil sands and other heavy emitters to sequestration sites. Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes recently touted this proposed pipeline as a “Trans-Canada highway for Carbon.” Here’s a question: If the industry and federal government can support the ambitious idea of building a cross-Canada network of CO2-carrying pipelines, why does it poo-poo the idea of a Trans-Canada power transmission corridor that could carry clean hydroelectric, wind and solar power from where it’s abundant to where it’s needed? The positioning is proof that moving toward a low-carbon world is not about can’t-do, it’s about won’t-do; it’s about protecting established industries and infrastructure and preventing a cleaner, 21st-Century alternative from emerging.

Again, the recent round of innovation funding is good news. But let’s look at the reality: Last week we sadly hit 400 parts per millions (ppm) of CO2 in our fragile atmosphere, a level never before experienced in human history. Many scientists say 350 ppm is where we should be, and certainly we shouldn’t go much past 400 ppm. We’re heading in the wrong direction, and notoriously conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank are now even sounding the alarm. If the federal and Alberta governments really want to prove to the Americans — and Canadians — that they’re serious about climate change, they would complement their innovation spending with a recognition that the oil sands extraction machine can’t continue its current fast pace of growth, and that some day — in 10, 20, 30 years — the oil orgy must come to a complete end. This is true of all “carbon bombs” being developed around the world, not just the oil sands. And if we are to adequately prepare for that day, we need to carefully transition to a low-carbon economy. That means taxing carbon, a policy approach now being encouraged by both the IEA and World Bank and accepted by most credible economists. That means creating a realistic vision for the country and working toward it — and by “realistic” I mean recognizing that perpetuating the growth (or current rate) of oil sands production and coal use is not an option.

This isn’t about educating people so they are “made” to know better about the oil sands’ alleged strong environmental record. This isn’t about clever public relations campaigns and slick and deceptive advertising meant to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers and voters. This isn’t about targeted funding announcements to make a government appear that it cares. This is about facing facts, and preparing for eventualities. Canada isn’t doing that, and soon enough, Mother Nature is going to spank our sorry asses.

Catalyst breakthrough *could* change economics of hydrogen energy storage

icon_hydrogenI was in New York City doing a photo shoot for Corporate Knights when news broke that a duo of University of Calgary researchers had come up with a new, very inexpensive catalyst — i.e. rust — for generating hydrogen gas from water. Can’t believe I missed it, actually, because it received wide coverage — from MIT Technology Review to Canada’s Globe and Mail and CBC Online. Still, for those like me who missed it, here’s a quick rundown of why this is potentially important and what it means for the so-called hydrogen economy. I have no doubt that this has caught the attention of many big-name players in the hydrogen and broader energy sector since the research was published online in the journal Science.

According to the press release out of FireWater Fuel, the company spun out of this research, what has been discovered is a “breakthrough method of fabricating electrocatalysts made of inexpensive, non-toxic, and abundant resources, that facilitate the production of clean hydrogen from water.” An electrocatalyst, I should say, is simply a material that causes a chemical reaction to take place when an electrical current is introduced. Conventional catalysts used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen come from rare and expensive metals such as platinum, which costs more than $1,700 an ounce and is highly volatile price-wise. Pre-2008, it had reached over $2,000 per ounce. I remember a conversation I had with Ballard Power president John Sheridan back then. When the recession hit and platinum prices plunged to $800, Sheridan said Ballard locked in a large order knowing full well the price would rise again — and it has. Platinum prices matter to fuel cell developers. When they’re high, they can represent up to one-third of the total cost of a proton-exchange membrane fuel cell. Water electrolysis units used to produce hydrogen are basically fuel cells that operate in reverse, meaning they also rely greatly on platinum.

(It should be said that platinum also plays a big role with internal combustion engine vehicles, as every catalytic converter in a vehicle (required by law) contains platinum. However, ICE vehicles generally contain less than one-tenth the amount of platinum as a fuel cell-powered vehicle.)

The need to eliminate our dependency on expensive platinum and other rare-earth metals is why the U of C breakthrough is potentially game-changing. If you can eliminate the need for platinum and replace it with a less exotic, more abundant and — most importantly — dramatically cheaper catalyst, then the dream of using hydrogen as an energy storage medium becomes that much more real. Indeed, FireWater Fuel claims it can make a competitive catalyst from “Earth-adundant” materials such as iron oxide — i.e. rust. We certainly have a lot of rust, so that’s promising. Cobalt and nickel are other plentiful compound metals that are used. Essentially, the researchers use light at low temperatures to produce mixed metal-oxide films for the electrodes that are used in the electrolysis process.  FireWater says its second-generation prototype “already outperforms the industry benchmark despite costing only a fraction of the price and consisting of environmentally benign materials.” By “fraction” they mean nearly 1,000 times cheaper. So far, the approach is more than 85 per cent efficient and the company is working to have its first commercial electrolyzer on the market by 2014, with a small home-scale unit possible by 2015.

The commercial units could, for example, be used to economically produce hydrogen from surplus, low-cost electricity (such as overnight wind energy production). That hydrogen could then be stored and used later to generate electricity (via fuel cell or combustion turbine) when the power is most needed, thereby smoothing out the variability of wind. It could also be paired with an off-grid wind farm in a remote area that wants to wean itself from diesel back-up generators. At home, a smaller unit could be used to produce hydrogen on demand from rooftop solar panels. If this becomes economical, it may remove a major barrier that has prevented fuel-cell vehicles from entering the market.

Perhaps. May. Could. Potentially. This would all be VERY cool if it came to fruition, but having reported on past announcements like this I will wait for more evidence of progress. This has to be proven at a scaled-up level, and there will certainly be many speed bumps and funding challenges along the way to commercialization. It’s also worth noting that this research isn’t entirely unique. There are many start-ups and research teams out there making breakthroughs in alternative catalysts for hydrogen production. Just type in “cheap + catalyst + hydrogen” in Google and you’ll see what I mean. One particular company, Georgia-based GridShift, claims it has developed a catalyst that uses no rare-earth materials and reduces catalyst costs by 97 per cent — i.e. catalysts at $60 an ounce versus $1,700 for platinum.

Back in 2010, when it emerged out of stealth mode, GridShift said it could produce hydrogen at a cost of $2.51 per kilogram, “effectively making hydrogen a more affordable alternative than gasoline at an equivalent cost of $2.70 per gallon of gasoline.” According to the company, “GridShift’s new method for hydrogen generation produces four times more hydrogen per electrode surface area than what is currently reported for commercial units today. This means that an electrolysis unit using the GridShift method would produce at least four times more fuel in the same-sized machine, or require a unit four times smaller than normal to make the same amount of hydrogen.” Three years later, there’s not much word from GridShift, even though it is backed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Still, founder Robert Dopp keeps putting out studies.

So in a nutshell, I’m very excited about this University of Calgary research and hope FireWater Fuels can get to a finish line that others have so far failed to reach. It would truly put hydrogen back in the running as an energy storage medium for renewables and fuel-cell vehicles, with the added irony that it would originate from Calgary — the financial heartland of Canada’s oil sands industry.

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.