Category Archives: Energy-From-Waste (EFW)

“Green” community bonds gather momentum in Ontario

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, funds Ontario man to build prototype for tornado power concept

The Clean Break column below is about an inventor I wrote about in my book Mad Like Tesla. After years of trying to be taken seriously, Louis Michaud, a retired refinery engineer, has finally received some financial backing to build a prototype of his atmospheric vortex engine — i.e. man-made tornado machine — which will create a 40-metre high twister and demonstrate in principle how it would produce electricity from waste heat. The funder in question is a pretty big deal. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a billionaire also known as being the first outside investor in Facebook, has awarded Michaud $300,000 through his Breakout Labs program, part of the Thiel Foundation. Michaud hopes to have an operational model of his vortex engine done by summer 2013.

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By Tyler Hamilton

Louis Michaud couldn’t ask for a better partner. But he had to turn to California to find him.

The retired refinery engineer from Sarnia, whose grand idea of harnessing energy from man-made tornadoes was first profiled in the Toronto Star back in July 2007, has captured the attention of PayPal founder Peter Thiel, the 45-year-old billionaire who is also known as the first outside investor in Facebook.

Thiel’s philanthropic group, the San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation, announced Thursday that it has awarded Michaud $300,000 to build a prototype of a machine that can create mini tornadoes about 40 metres tall.

The money will come from the foundation’s Breakout Labs program, launched in 2012, which was created to support “audacious scientific exploration” by helping early-stage companies advance their most “radical” ideas.

And, by today’s measure, Michaud’s idea is the definition of radical. Through his company AVEtec — the AVE standing for “atmospheric vortex engine” — the long-term plan is to take waste heat from a thermal power plant or industrial facility and use it to create a controllable twister that can generate electricity.

Here’s how it works: Waste heat is blown at an angle into a large circular structure, creating a flow of spinning hot air. We all know heat travels upward and as it does it spins itself into a rising vortex.

The higher the twister grows, the greater the temperature differential between top and bottom, creating stronger and stronger convective forces that act like fuel for the vortex, eventually allowing it to take on a life of its own.

The result is that hot air initially blown into the bottom of the structure starts getting sucked in so forcefully that it spins electricity-generating turbines installed at the base.

“Using the low-temperature waste heat from a 500 megawatt thermal power plant could generate an additional 200 megawatts of power,” said Michaud. “That would increase capacity by 40 per cent and produce perfectly green electricity at less than three cents per kilowatt hour.”

He should have probably said “could” instead of “would.” There are still many hurdles to jump before getting electricity that cheap. That said, it’s still a nice goal.

Lindy Fishburne, executive director of Breakout Labs, said AVEtec is the first of what’s expected to be more non-U.S. grants awarded through the program, which has so far funded 12 projects — most of them in the category of biotechnology.

One of those companies is called Modern Meadow, a tissue engineering company that has come up with a way to make meat and leather products using 3D bioprinting — no animal killing required. Animal cells are instead replicated in a bioreactor and “bioassembled” using a special three-dimensional printer.

“The range of who we fund is wide,” said Fishburne, adding that AVEtec represents the program’s first clean energy grant, which is aimed at helping Michaud develop a large enough prototype to convince future funders — angel investors and venture capitalists — that it’s worth taking to the next stage of development.

The money, she said, is relatively modest compared to the potential of the technology. “The impact of this project could be so significant that it makes it a compelling space for us to play in,” she said.

The prototype will be built in partnership with Sarnia’s Lambton College, which will host the project. The structure that houses the vortex will be about eight metres in diameter. The twister it produces will only be capable of powering a small turbine, but it’s enough to prove the design works.

“Power output increases geometrically with size, so commercialization will become economically viable when we build a 40-metre diameter structure,” said Michaud. A full-scale facility, one capable of generating 200 megawatts, would need to be 100 meters in diameter and stretch many kilometres high.

Given the destructive history of naturally formed tornadoes, many people might be freaked out by the thought of having man-made tornadoes intentionally scattered near cities and power plants.

Michaud assured that his twisters are much safer to operate and control than, say, a nuclear plant. And because they’re fuelled by the waste heat that’s initially supplied, all the operator has to do is throttle back or cut off that heat to weaken or stop the vortex.

It’s been a long road for Michaud, who began working on the concept as a hobby in the mid-1970s and pursued it full time after retiring from Imperial Oil in 2006.

His work is inspired by French scientist Edgard Nazare, who during the 1940s and 1950s tried unsuccessfully to pursue the idea of a cyclone generator similar in principle to Michaud’s vortex engine.

The scientific community in France wrote off Nazare as a crackpot, but Michaud began corresponding with him in 1973 and the two bounced ideas off each other for several years.

After Nazare’s death in 1998, Michaud felt compelled to carry the torch, starting with the creation of a bench-top prototype he fired up in his own garage and later a four-metre diameter model used for outdoor testing.

The next prototype will be part of a two-year project, with testing to start at Lambton next summer. Of note is that Michaud, having won the support of the Thiel Foundation, could not convince the Ontario Centres of Excellence that his project was worthy of funding.

So much for homegrown support.

Funds from Breakout Labs do come with some strings attached. Thiel’s foundation is entitled to a 3 per cent royalty until AVEtec has paid back three times the amount of the original grant, which works out to $900,000. Breakout also gets a warrant to purchase 1 per cent of AVEtec equity at 1 cent per share.

Sounds like a fair deal for a company that has struggled to be taken seriously. Clearly, Canada needs more Peter Thiels willing to give radical ideas a chance to prove skeptics wrong.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla (which features a chapter on Michaud’s vortex engine), writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Giving plastic waste, including kids’ markers, the wax treatment

Crayola is one of the most recognizable brands in North America, up there with Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Apple. It’s for this reason the maker of crayons, markers and other art supplies for kids takes its image seriously.

The company boasts that it uses enough emission-free solar power to manufacture one billion crayons and 500 million markers annually. Its markers are made from recycled plastic. Its coloured pencils are made from reforested wood.

But the company was caught off guard earlier this year when a group of 40 elementary school students from San Rafael, Calif., began an online petition criticizing it for not having a recycling program for its old plastic markers.

As a parent, I can relate. Leave a cap off one of those markers – which my girls do all the time—and it’s useless. There’s no option but to toss it in the trash. We probably have a couple hundred currently sitting in an art drawer. About half don’t work.

The students urged Crayola to create a take-back recycling program for the markers. The online campaign, which began in May through the website Change.org, resulted in nearly 85,000 online signatures and thousands of form e-mails sent to Crayola’s executive team.

Crayola’s response was that it lacked the facilities and a process for such a recycling program. Looking to take advantage of a competitor on the ropes, global art-supply firm Dixon Ticonderoga announced out of the blue that they would start recycling their own markers.

But here’s an interesting idea: What if Crayola took back their old plastic markers and turned them into synthetic waxes that can be used to make their crayons?

Talk about a recycling scheme made in heaven. Crayola could then proudly advertise that its crayons are made from its own recycled materials, which offsets the use of non-renewable waxes that come from petroleum. It would also shelter the company from volatile oil prices, and could actually prove to be a money-saver.

Can it be done?

“Potentially we could do that,” said Pushkar Kumar, founder and chief executive of Toronto-based GreenMantra Technologies.

GreenMantra, founded just two years ago, has come up with a relatively low-cost process for creating waxes and lubricants from old plastic bags, butter GreenMantra, founded just two years ago, has come up with a relatively low-cost process for creating waxes and lubricants from old plastic bags, butter tubs, yogurt containers and yes, plastic marker casings. “Even mixed plastics can work with our process.”

It’s not widely known, or thought about, but we use waxes in a wide range of products, including roads, tires, polishes, coatings, particle board, artificial fireplace logs, and many foods.

With the exception of natural waxes, such as the expensive kind that come from bees, most waxes are currently created as a by-product of petroleum refining. It may be a $12 billion market, but refiners view wax as a sideshow to their main bread and butter: fuels and lubricants.

“Lately these refiners have decided to get out of production of unrefined waxes,” said Kumar, explaining that more petroleum companies are taking their by-product waxes and further refining them into lubricating oil.

This is creating an opportunity for makers of synthetic waxes. “A $12 billion market is big enough for me,” Kumar said with a laugh. “We are the only synthetic wax manufacturer now operating in Canada.”

There are others in the global market, such as multibillion-dollar petrochemical manufacturer Sasol, but Kumar said GreenMantra’s process – which he invented with his father in the early 2000s—is more flexible, energy efficient, and significantly less costly, making its wax products comparatively attractive.

But it’s still early days. All GreenMantra has right now is a pre-commercial plant operating in Brantford that can produce between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of wax annually. To make it a full commercial plant it would have to produce at least 10,000 tonnes, and ideally 50,000 tonnes or higher to drive costs to where they need to be.

A deal with one big customer could lead to such a plant. “One large maker of roof shingles could use the entire output from a facility, so we could partner with them to build and operate a plant that’s dedicated to supplying their business,” said Kumar.

Artificial fire logs, which strangely enough contain 50 per cent wax, are another ideal fit. A market-leading manufacturing of such logs would typically require 100,000 tonnes of wax a year.

And then, of course, there’s Crayola. Kumar wouldn’t confirm if the two companies have had talks. If not, they probably should.

That the crayon my child uses was made from the marker she used to use? That a Toronto-based cleantech start-up helped make it happen?

Now that’s something to wax poetic about.

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

ZooShare searching for 33 new Toronto-area members to qualify for FIT contract… please consider joining!

As previously mentioned, I recently was elected a board member of the ZooShare Biogas Co-Operative in Toronto. It’s a social venture that’s trying to build an anaerobic digestion system at the Toronto Zoo that will turn animal poo, local kitchen grease and grocery store waste into biogas, which will be used to generate green electricity. The electricity produced from this 500 kilowatt plant will be sold to the province over the next 20 years under the feed-in-tariff program.

Funding for this project will come partly through the issuance of community bonds, which will pay a 6 to 7 per cent annual return over five years (and can be renewed). The hope is that the co-op can begin issuing these bonds to the public later this year. But to get to that stage we need a FIT contract, and to get a FIT contact we need a certain number of co-op members who are landowners in Toronto. Don’t ask me why you must be a landowner, or why you must be from Toronto, but that’s the rule.

So with this post I hope to attract some new Toronto-based members to the co-operative, hopefully before the end of September. The membership fee is $100 (one-time charge), and once the project is up and running and community bonds go on sale you can apply that $100 against your first bond purchase. For more info about the project check this story I wrote last year.

You can find out more information about membership by going to www.zooshare.ca or click here for Membership Form v.1.3.

I hope you can support this initiative. It’s a great local project with huge potential to be replicated around the world.

Crowdfunding meets Tesla, clean energy… Can the crowd fill a gap left by government and business?

Nikola Tesla, the inventor of much that we take for granted, is finally getting his due.

I’m a huge fan of Tesla. Even wrote a book last year in his name. His life and mind are fascinating subjects. So it was delightful to hear last week that efforts to build a museum in his memory had passed an important milestone.

At last count, roughly $1.2 million (U.S.) has been raised to buy back Tesla’s famous Wardenclyffe laboratory, located on Long Island about 100 kilometres from New York City.

It was there, roughly 110 years ago, that the Serbian-American engineer began conducting wireless communications and long-distance power transmission experiments. He predicted a world without wires that only in the last two decades we have come to realize.

Telsa’s vision was so compelling that he convinced financier J.P. Morgan to invest in construction of the 57-metre tall tower that was to be the heart of a global communications and free energy transfer system.

Like many of Tesla’s grand projects, however, the money ran dry. The whole operation got shuttered after about 15 years and the property was sold off.

Now, Tesla followers are determined to buy it back. But what’s fascinating about this story is how they’re doing it.

The Tesla Science Center, a not-for-profit group trying to take possession of Wardenclyffe, approached humour cartoonist and long-time Tesla fan Matthew Inman, who operates the popular and highly clever website theoatmeal.com. They explained that if they could raise $850,000 they could get a matching grant from the state, giving them enough to make the purchase.

Inman decided to help. A crowdfunding campaign was set up on the website IndieGoGo.com and the cartoonist used his wide online reach to draw attention to the museum project. With 29 days still left in the campaign, Inman has already blown well past his $850,000 goal. (Find project at http://igg.me/p/204900)

About 28,000 people have donated, myself included. The final tally could very well top $2 million.

This story illustrates the power of the crowd and how more organizations and entrepreneurs — too often turned down by government and banks — are going straight to the masses to get financial support for their projects. Clean energy initiatives are no exception.

Take the PlanetStove project, spearheaded by Dylan Maxwell and Olivier Kolmel, the founders of Montreal-based firm Novotera. The company has developed a new type of wood-fuelled cooking stove that addresses many problems associated with traditional indoors wood fires, which is the common way of cooking in many developing countries.

Indoor cooking fires and the smoke inhalation that results cause thousands of premature deaths a day, according to the World Health Organization. The carbon dioxide and soot that’s release also contribute to global warming. The mere presence of smoke means such fires are an inefficient way to make heat.

Several years ago Maxwell and Kolmel began working on a new type of portable indoor stove based on the TLUD or “top lit, updraft” design, which is basically a metal cylinder with another metal tube inside that gets packed with wood and kindling.

As the name suggests, the kindling at the top of stove is lit on fire. This begins to heat up — but not burn — the wood below, releasing hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those gases travel up through the air gap between the cylinder and inner tube and are ejected out small holes at the top of the stove into the burning kindling, where the gas itself begins to burn.

In effect, the wood is “gasified” and the stove burns like any gas-burning stove. The result is very little smoke, making it much safer for indoor use. The approach also produces the same amount of energy using a third less wood.

But just as important is what the stove leaves behind when the cooking is done. After the wood is gasified it is essentially charcoal, which still contains 50 per cent or more of the carbon that was in the original wood.

That charcoal — or “biochar” — has amazing properties. It is a known soil enhancer for its ability to help land retain water and valuable nutrients. And when it’s added to the soil, the carbon inside the biochar is essentially sequestered.

Maxwell and Kolmel discovered that in some countries that char can be sold for just as much as what was paid for the original wood. So not only does the stove improve health, reduce impacts on climate, and reduce the rate of deforestation, it can enhance agriculture and is also a potential source of income for villagers.

Having tested the stoves for two years now in China, Maxwell and Kolmel now want to distribute 1,000 of them across parts of Asia for free, which is where crowdfunding comes into play.

Like the Tesla museum initiative, Novotera — with the help of greentech investor and consultant Lee Schnaiberg — has launched a fundraising campaign on IndieGoGo.com.

The company has found a manufacturer in China that can make the stoves for $25. The two entrepreneurs are hoping to raise $25,000 by mid-October so they can purchase the stoves and begin handing them out later in the fall.

“If you pay $25 you’re basically giving a stove to a family,” said Maxwell.

Last time I checked, they had raised $1,200 with 43 days left to go in the campaign. Their big challenge is in spreading the word.

Schnaiberg said the success of the Tesla museum initiative boosted their confidence. “Our goals are much more modest, but that campaign really confirmed to us that using IndieGoGo was the right choice.”

Come Oct. 12, they’ll know for sure. The bigger question, however, is how many of these efforts the crowd will be willing to fund as the calls for help begin to grow.

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