Category Archives: energy storage

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.

Enbridge makes another clean tech investment — this time in flywheel storage

temporalEnbridge Inc. is emerging as major corporate venturing partners in the Canadian cleantech scene. It has already acquired more than $3 billion in renewable energy assets — a combination of solar, wind, geothermal and run-of-river hydro. It has invested in concentrated solar PV manufacturer Morgan Solar and hydrogen tech firm Hydrogenics. It has pursued innovative waste-heat capture at its compressor stations in combination with fuel cell technology. Now, it is throwing its financial support behind flywheel storage innovator Temporal Power.

Temporal, based in Mississauga, Ontario, announced this week it has completed a $10 million Series B equity financing, with Enbridge Emerging Technology Inc. one of the lead investors along with Northwater Intellectual Property Fund (which was also lead investor in the company’s Series A financing in July 2011). Northwater Capital, it should be noted, is the money behind NRStor, a company with plans to develop Canada’s first energy storage park. NRStor, using Temporal Power flywheels, has already won a contract with Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which will see the flywheels being used to provide regulation services on the provincial grid. Annette Verschuren, former CEO of Home Depot Canada, is heading up the NRStor initiative.

Temporal Power describes its flywheel technology as a  “quantum leap forward” because of its capability of storing 50 times more energy than most flywheels and enabling a power output that is five times higher per unit than its nearest grid-scale competitor. “Using its proprietary flywheel energy storage technology, Temporal Power’s scalable power storage plants offer utilities and power generation companies the ability to deliver efficient and cost-effective fast response capabilities for balancing energy and improving power quality on the electrical grid,” the company said in a statement.

Globe and Mail today has a nice summary of the various energy storage initiatives going on in Ontario — from conventional pumped storage to Temporal’s flywheels and advanced compressed-air energy storage.

Another chapter in a very long EEStory

eestor2An eye-glazing technical press release was put out this week by Texas-based EEStor, a company that has spent more than a decade trying to bring low-cost, high-capacity and super safe energy storage to market.

The next morning, Toronto-based ZENN Motor – a minority strategic shareholder in EEStor—saw its stock price shoot up 150 per cent. It was as if a defibrillator had brought a corpse back to life.

So what’s going on here? As someone who has followed this company closely for eight years, it’s still difficult to say. What’s clear is that EEStor is the story that refuses to die, and given the company’s ambitious goals, that’s could be viewed as a good thing.

My first Clean Break column about EEStor – and the first to appear in a major newspaper—appeared in 2006. Back then, the company was promising an energy storage device (a type of super-duper capacitor) that pound for pound could pack 10 times more energy than a lead-acid battery. More impressive is that it would cost half as much, charge in minutes, and was made of abundant, non-toxic materials.

Think about that: With such a technology, the price of electric cars would plummet and fears over “range anxiety” would disappear. Your iPhone or BlackBerry could last a week or two on a single charge, and when it did run out, it would recharge faster than boiling water for a cup of tea. Energy from wind turbines and solar panels could be stored and dispatched on demand, and affordably.

EEStor founder and chief executive Dick Weir, a former fighter jet pilot, was in my experience an abrupt, somewhat cantankerous individual who didn’t make many public announcements, but when he did he ratcheted up expectations of what and when the company would deliver.

So, too, did management at ZENN, which through its investment and technology rights agreement with EEStor was betting the farm that Weir would deliver. As a publicly traded company, ZENN was a proxy for EEStor – a way for retail investors to back what was an extremely speculative opportunity.

It didn’t hurt that venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, known for its successful bets on Google and Amazon.com, were early investors, or that former Dell Computer vice-chairman Mort Topfer sat on EEStor’s board, or that the tiny company had a strategic development agreement with military contractor Lockheed Martin.

Unfortunately, the past seven years has been marked by a series of missed milestones and disappointments. There is still a loyal group of EEStor followers – called “EEStorians” – who track the company’s every move, but for the most part those who were optimistic in the early days, even if skeptical, have tuned out.

Part of the reason is that ZENN, which is hibernating pretty much as a shell company to save cash, and EEStor, which continues to work away in the background, have both stopped talking. They learned their lesson that talking didn’t help; it only created problems and undermined their credibility.

They also learned that their own expectations were unrealistic and didn’t reflect the many barriers that stand in the way of product development, regardless of the breakthrough nature of their technology. They needed to walk where they wanted to run.

This week’s announcement was another small step along the grueling path, but judging by the market reaction, it’s a positive one. Just how positive is open to interpretation.

The company disclosed that energy storage “layers” built on its pilot product line, and which are the building blocks of its final device, were independently lab tested and reviewed by expert Rick Ulrich, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas.

Ulrich called the samples a “significant advance” and an “important breakthrough.” The measurements taken still don’t come close to what EEStor is aiming for, but one observer who accompanied Ulrich during his visit said it’s enough to prove that the approach works, the production line is doing its job, and improvements can be made with some final tuning.

“There are only 80 people in the world that Weir needs the attention of at this point, and to get those 80 people to care you have to put out this information,” he said. “This is a tease, for sure, but enough is there to get those peoples’ full attention.”

EEStor’s next step is to independently certify its pre-production layers. At that point, the big automakers and industrial giants will be invited to obtain test samples. If they like what they see, the story gets really interesting – the building of the layers into a full device that can be lab tested in power tools, mobile gadgets, and even vehicles.

One could argue that EEStor, through its delays, has lost its window of opportunity and that the rest of the technology world has caught up. The batteries used in the higher-end version of the Tesla Model S, for example, boasts 240 watt-hours per kilogram, not far from the original EEStor goal of 286 watt-hours per kilogram.

Newark, Calif.-based Envia Systems, which counts General Motors as a strategic investor, claims it has reached 400 watt-hours per kilogram with its lithium-ion technology and could hit the market with a commercial product by 2015.

But EEStor has since upped its game by claiming it can double, even triple its original target, even achieving energy densities of more than 1,000 watt-hours per kilogram at a cost that few could – at this point – compete with. Plus, unlike batteries, its device can charge instantly and would have unmatched environmental attributes.

Of course, this is all still highly speculative and incredible claims require incredible evidence. Fool me once…

But the fact that this little company, tucked away in a small suburb of Austin, Texas, has managed to stick around for 12 years is evidence that this is no fly-by-night operation.

It may ultimately fail, though we should all hope it doesn’t. But as my high-school gym teacher used to tell the scrawny kid that was me, “Hey, at least you get an A for effort.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies. (Mad Like Tesla includes a chapter on the EEStor saga for those looking for more background on this company and its story)

Provincial first: Ontario’s independent electricity operator embraces new storage methods as effective grid balancer

Calling it an “important milestone” in the evolution of Ontario’s electricity system, Paul Murphy, the president and chief executive of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, announced Thursday that energy and process storage technologies would be added to the mix of options available to provide regulation services to the province’s grid — that is, keeping supply and demand on the grid in constant balance, second-by-second. To start, the IESO has contracted to add 10 megawatts of regulation services to the mix via a combination of flywheel energy storage, battery storage and “process storage” — the latter being the by-the-second control of many industrial loads as a way to rapidly reduce and ramp up grid demand. It’s sometimes called aggregated demand-response.

It’s a first for Ontario, which until now has relied largely on electricity generation assets, such as natural gas-fired power plants, to provide grid-balancing services. The gradual integration of fast-reacting storage technologies will help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel generation. According to the IESO, “This quick response is becoming increasingly important to facilitate more renewable resources like wind and solar, whose output is variable in nature.”

Through competitive tender, three firms have been contracted to supply this first round of alternative regulation services. Toronto-based Enbala Power Networks will provide 4 megawatts of process storage, which will come from water plants, cold storage facilities, universities, hospitals, and any other industrial, commercial or institutional facilities that have large power loads that can be flexibly used and easily controlled — such as pumps, fans and refrigeration units. For more than a year, Enbala has been supplying its service to PJM Interconnection, which is the regional system operator for 13 U.S. states and one district in the U.S. northeast.

Another 2 megawatts will come through NRStor, which through a partnership with flywheel developer Temporal Power and Ontario Power Generation will integrated flywheel technology into the Ontario grid for the first time. The balance will come from RES Canada, part of renewable energy developer RES Group, which will construct a battery-based storage system in southwestern Ontario (home to many wind farms).

While the numbers are small — 10 megawatts is just a pimple on a elephant’s butt — it finally puts non-hydro storage on the map in Ontario, opening the door for more technologies and approaches, and ultimately many more megawatts and fewer emissions.

Should EV charging ports at shopping malls double as premium parking spaces for gas-guzzlers?

Proponents of electric vehicles struggle with the same chicken-and-egg dilemma that has held back many promising technologies over the years.

It’s easy enough selling the virtues of vehicles that plug into a wall socket and run on low-emission electricity. They’re generally clean, quiet, cheap to maintain, inexpensive fuel-wise and quick off the mark when it comes to performance.

But range anxiety continues to be a deal breaker for many. Battery technologies are getting better, charging times are getting faster, but the fact is there aren’t many places to charge an electric vehicle when it’s not parked in your own driveway.

In other words, we need more charging stations — namely, the 240-volt “Level 2” variety, which can cut charging times in half — but there are too few electric vehicles driving the roads to justify the very investment that will boost confidence in and sales of electric vehicles.

This conundrum explains why the Ontario government announced this week the creation of a rebate program for homeowners and businesses looking to purchase Level 2 charging equipment, on top of the $5,000 to $8,500 rebate already offered on electric vehicle purchases.

Starting Jan. 1, a buyer of a charging station can get a rebate of up to 50 per cent of the total purchase and installation cost, capped at $1,000. It could help spur installation of the equipment at gas stations, shopping malls and in company parking lots.

Shopping malls alone are a tremendous opportunity, as most people who go to them stick around for two or three hours — enough time to recharge a good portion of an electric vehicle’s battery system. And landlords of major shopping malls, I’m told, are keen to go “green” while offering an enhanced experience to visitors.

Still, they have a legitimate concern: What if they build it and nobody comes? What if spots dedicated to EV charging are left empty much of the time, while drivers of gas-powered vehicles — the vast majority of shoppers — have to cruise around for an open spot elsewhere?

One innovative answer has been proposed by Toronto-based CleanPark Investments, a minority-owned spin-off of solar project developer Carbonfree Technology. Joel Donen, chief executive of CleanPark, told me that one compromise is to create a premium parking area for EV charging that can also be used for drivers of gas-fuelled cars.

CleanPark’s idea is to build parking canopies near the main entrances of major retail shopping malls, with each canopy housing six parking spaces that would double as solar-assisted charging stations for electric vehicles.

Plug-in vehicles could park and charge there for a modest fee of, say, $2 every hour. Part of this fee would cover the cost of the solar panels and grid-sourced electricity, likely from a green energy retailer like Bullfrog Power, which would supplement the system when the sun isn’t shining.

A bonus is that the spots, based on where they’re located, offer greater convenience for the shopper. The nine kilowatts of solar panels that create the canopy would also keep snow and rain off the cars.

But here’s the kicker: gas-powered cars would also be permitted to use the spots, as long as drivers still paid the per-hour fee. Donen said a part of that fee would go toward either a carbon offset or an environmental charity.

“The challenge is shifting the model away from reserving parking spaces just for EVs,” explained Donen. “By allowing all cars to park in the spaces, we can likely generate sufficient revenue to make the economics work. And an ‘all cars welcome’ policy avoids problems such as empty parking spaces due to a (current) lack of EVs on the road.”

CleanPark is designing this to be economical without relying on incentives such as Ontario’s feed-in-tariff program, which pays a premium to generators of solar power. Revenues would instead come from a portion of the hourly parking fees, third-party advertising on the car ports, and net-metering that would offset the mall’s own electricity use when the sun is shining but no vehicles are plugged in.

With those three sources, “we can likely achieve returns that will satisfy investors without the need for government subsidies,” said Donen. “This would allow us to roll out the program across the country.”

Major shopping mall landlords — those who each have more than 100 malls in their national portfolio — so far appear to be cautiously keen on the idea. CleanPark is eyeing Ontario and B.C. properties initially, but after proving the concept through a few pilot sites, it envisions a network of these car-charging ports emerging across Canada and into the United States.

The mall landlords themselves don’t stand to make much money, if any, by going this route. For them it’s more about better customer experience and service, and that means providing more choice and anticipating the future needs of consumers.

For Donen, it’s about addressing the range anxiety that keeps some car buyers away from plug-in models. “If we’re going to get adoption of more plug-in vehicles, we need that chicken and egg dilemma to start unwinding itself.”

And that’s not going to happen with technological innovation alone. Creative business models, such as this one, are more often needed to turn promising technologies into commercial successes.

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