Category Archives: emissions

Worth reminding: study established first “definitive” link to well water contamination from shale ‘fracking

shaleDavid Biello over at Scientific American had a story in 2011 that looked at research establishing a link between methane contamination in well water and nearby hydraulic fracturing of shale rock. The research came out of Duke University and was published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Duke researchers analyzed water samples from 60 wells located within a kilometre of active  shale-gas drilling operations — specifically, the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. They found that “average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well” and were at levels high enough to pose “a potential explosion hazard.”

As Biello pointed out, this “marks the first time that drinking water contamination has been definitely linked to fracking.” His story, which is old but I’ve just come across, is well worth the read. He makes clear that while a small amount of methane isn’t uncommon in most aquifers in the region, the researchers were able to distinguish between “new” methane being produced by the ongoing decay of biological material and “old” methane trapped and released from fossil rock. This was done by measuring the ratio of radioactive carbon present in the methane. Very cool.

 

 

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.”)

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.

Divestment fever spreads to Canada as students, doctors launch campaign against fossil-fuel holdings

FossilFreeCanadaLogoCalls in the United States for universities to divest their fossil-fuel holdings are starting to spread into Canada, where students and doctors are beginning to speak out.

Students from across the country are taking part Wednesday in what’s being called Fossil Fools Day, described as the first national day of action for the Fossil Free Canada campaign, an initiative being led by the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition.

More than a dozen Canadian university campuses are planning marches and rallies in an effort to urge their university administrations to divest their endowments from fossil fuel and pipeline companies. Many already have active campaigns.

“To date four campuses in the United States have divested, and administrations at McGill University and the University of New Brunswick-Fredericton are reviewing divestment,” according to a statement from the youth coalition.

Environmental activist and journalist Bill McKibben, through his organization 350.org, is leading U.S. efforts. They began last November with McKibben’s 21-city “Do The Math” tour, which spread a simple message: avoiding the worst effects of climate change means leaving most of the world’s proven reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.

McKibben argues that society can’t afford to release more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels if we are to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees C. The problem is that fossil-fuel companies have what amounts to 2,795 gigatons in reserve, and they’re expecting all of it to be burned.

Those surplus reserves are being called “unburnable carbon.” The International Energy Agency estimates that on our current path the total allowable global carbon budget could be exhausted by 2017, assuming the world sticks with the 2 degree C scenario.

The reality is beginning to irk financial giants such as HSBC, which recently warned investors that oil and gas giants such as BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Norway’s Statoil are at risk of losing up to 60 per cent of their market value if the carbon on their balance sheets – carbon that they and their shareholders are expecting to see burned – becomes unburnable and therefore unsellable. The Institute of Actuaries, Mercer and KPMG are among others who have raised red flags.

McKibben’s message is beginning to sink in. The student bodies of more than 300 post-secondary campuses in the United States have joined 350.org’s Go Fossil Free campaign, and so far a handful of small colleges have committed to divesting. Many more are studying it, at the strong urgings of their student bodies. McKibben estimates that universities and colleges in the U.S. hold endowments worth well over $400 million, but beyond that even cities and states are taking notice and feeling the pressure of what can be described now as a global movement.

In Canada, where divestment pressure has been slower to emerge, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition launched its own McKibben-style campaign in early February. Cameron Fenton, national director of the coalition, said many universities in Canada are doing great work around sustainability, such as making campuses “greener,” but their investments haven’t followed the same path. “Building a sustainable campus that is bankrolling and profiting from climate change is a Pyrrhic victory at best,” Fenton wrote in a recent commentary in the Toronto Star.

A new study from the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that Canada’s proven reserves of oil, bitumen, gas and coal are equivalent to 91 gigatons of carbon dioxide, or 18 per cent of the global carbon budget, based on an assessment of 114 fossil fuel companies operating in Canada. Add in probable reserves and the number swells to 174 gigatons, while possible reserves sit at 1,192 gigatons, or more than double the world’s carbon budget.

Assuming conservatively that Canada’s share of the global carbon budget is 20 gigatons, this would imply, according to the study, that 78 per cent of proven reserves and 89 per cent of proven and probable reserves must be left in the ground. “Canada is experiencing a carbon bubble that must be strategically deflated in the move to a clean energy economy,” according to the policy alternatives.

“Because public valuation of companies largely ignores big picture climate realities, there is a systemic risk inherent in the fossil fuel extraction and production industry,” it concluded. “Our analysis finds that Canadian financial markets have failed to consider climate risk. The shock associated with coming global efforts to manage carbon could leave key sectors such as pension funds vulnerable.”

Canadian doctors, meanwhile, are reminding citizens that investments aren’t the only risk. The health of Canadians are being dramatically impacted by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, and that alone is reason to divest, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) argued on Wednesday. The association pointed to a study it co-released that day from the Pembina Institute on the health impacts of coal-fired electricity generation in Alberta. Coal power’s contribution to asthma and other respiratory/cardiovascular illnesses in the province costs about $300 million annually because of increased visits to hospitals and emergency rooms, the report found.

CAPE put out a statement Tuesday urging all Canadian healthcare providers and their professional associations, including the Canadian Medical Association, to immediately “freeze” all new investment in oil, gas, coal, and pipeline companies. Within five years, they want these organizations to divest from direct ownership and commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds.

“Similar strategies have been used in the past by medical organizations in the fight to hold the tobacco industry accountable for the health effects of its products,” CAPE said in a statement.

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.