Category Archives: fuel cells

Lady Gaga tweets are not enough… movie/rock stars should unite for climate awareness, action

Back in the mid-1980s dozens of high-profile music artists from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada got together in their respective countries to raise awareness and stimulate discussion of famine in Ethiopia.

Bono, David Bowie and Sting helped lead Band Aid, the U.K. supergroup that created the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? This was followed by USA for Africa’s We Are The World, which included Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Canada’s contribution was Northern Lights’ Tears Are Not Enough, featuring heavyweights Bryan Adams, Neil Young, Anne Murray and Geddy Lee.

In all, the three songs resulted in the sale of more than 35 million copies worldwide and shined a bright light on an issue that had received little attention by the mainstream media, politicians and the general public.

I couldn’t help but recall the impact of these songs, and the phenomenon of celebrity influence, while listening earlier this week to Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who spoke at an event at the University of Toronto co-hosted by several community groups, including the Citizen’s Climate Lobby and Post Carbon Toronto.

I’ll make the link between star power and Jacobson later in this column, but first some background on the good professor.

Jacobson is a bit of a rock star himself in academic circles, at least when it comes to another problem that’s putting millions – potentially billions – of lives at risk. He has spent his career trying to understand the global impacts of air pollution and climate change, as well as how to quickly and responsibly transition from our dependence on fossil fuels to a world powered by renewable energy.

“Air pollution alone kills 2.5 to 3 million people at least a year worldwide,” he told those gathered to attend his Toronto lecture. He then rattled off a list of other problems associated with fossil fuels—rising global temperature and sea level, record Arctic ice loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and volatile energy prices, to name a few.

“These are drastic problems that require drastic solutions, and we think they need to be addressed immediately. We can’t wait 20 or 30 years, which is why we’ve really got to focus on technologies that exist today, that can be implemented for the most part right away, and that can be implemented at large scale.”

Jacobson caught people’s attention three years ago with his co-authored article A Plan To Power 100 Percent of the Planet With Renewables, which was the cover story for a 2009 issue of Scientific American.

Many roll their eyes at the suggestion that renewables can do it all for us, but one by one Jacobson’s article dispelled many myths about green power and convincingly argued that wind, water and sun could do the heavy lifting if we had the collective will power to make it happen.

It analyzed the impacts of each type of “clean” energy source independently, including land and water footprint, the materials required to make it, how much pollution would be created during its full lifecycle, and overall contribution to global warming.

Wind turbines, various forms of solar technology, hydropower and geothermal plants, and to a lesser extent wave and tidal energy, got top marks. Nuclear, coal with carbon capture and storage, natural gas and biomass didn’t make the cut.

In the area of transportation, he favoured electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles over those that used compressed natural gas or biofuels such as ethanol.

“Why not natural gas?” he said last week. “Because it releases at least 50 to 70 times more carbon and air pollution than wind energy per kilowatt-hour generated… It’s a bridge fuel to nowhere.”

Jacobson has calculated that a world where all industry and transportation is powered by renewables would require installation of 3.8 million wind turbines, 1.7 billion residential and commercial rooftop solar systems, about 90,000 solar plants each 300 megawatts in size, 5,350 geothermal plants 100 megawatts in size, and about 1.5 million wave and tidal devices.

It seems like a lot, but it’s all relative. Consider the estimated 20 to 30 million abandoned oil and gas wells worldwide, or the many millions of smokestacks that dot our city and urban landscapes. Considers that the planet is wrapped in a mesh of more than two million kilometres of pipeline infrastructure, enough to stretch to the moon and back nearly three times.

His renewables plan, he pointed out, would take up less than 1 per cent of land space on the planet.

Now comes the star power. Jacobson has teamed up with the greenest, most powerful ally one could imagine: the Incredible Hulk. Well, actually actor Mark Ruffalo, who played the Hulk in The Avengers movie.

They’re leading an initiative called The Solutions Project, which is trying to bring together high profile scientists, business people, investors, movie makers and Hollywood stars in an effort to drive home the message that 100-per cent renewable energy is not only doable, but should be done.

Their first effort, to be announced shortly, will be to develop a comprehensive green plan for New York State, followed by other states and eventually other countries.

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson are lending their star power to the cause, along with documentary movie director Josh Fox, celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, and philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller.

Jacobson and Ruffalo, who co-authored an article for Huffington Post that appeared in June, said their goal is to “inspire millions to take part in an energy revolution.”

“Today, with social media and the reach of pop culture, we can educate people and achieve what was unthinkable five years ago,” they wrote. “It is up to us to grab hold of our potential and change our world for the better.”

Individual tweets from Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber are not going to change things. Having celebrities join forces with scientists and policymakers against a global threat like climate change, as they did for African famine in the mid-80s, just might.

For this reason, Jacobson is on the right track.

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

Has the fuel-cell industry reached a tipping point?

There was a shareholder who stood up at Ballard Power’s annual meeting last week to share her experience with the company’s stock price. It pretty much summed up the frustration shared by most investors in the fuel-cell industry.

This investor has owned Ballard shares for most of 20 years. She sold in early 2000 when the stock hit $140 a share and did quite well. That was when the hype around fuel-cell powered cars was approaching its fever pitch.

Later that year she bought back into the company at about $120 a share, believing the stock was poised for another run. Bad move. The drop continued, to the point where today shares are struggling to stay above $1.

What’s a CEO to say? Ballard chief John Sheridan, who holds 500,000 or so shares himself, said he understood and felt the pain. But he emphasized, as he has in the past, that the market continues to undervalue fuel-cell companies generally and Ballard specifically.

There’s no question the industry has had a history of over-promising and under-delivering, and it continues to pay dearly for miscalculations. German automaker Daimler AG predicted a decade ago that 100,000 fuel-cell car engines would be produced annually by 2005.

Even less ambitious targets—but no less unrealistic—have been missed. Ballard told Time magazine in 1999 that fuel-cell vehicles would be economical by 2010. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted in 2001 that sales of the vehicles would reach one million a year by 2010.

Of course, we know how that turned out. Around mid-2000 the government and auto industry began shifting attention to battery-powered vehicles. The media lost interest, tired of reporting on yet another pilot project or hydrogen-powered bus sale.

Big investors, more importantly, lost their appetite for the technology. Too much had been spent, and it was taking far too long for the promised hydrogen economy to emerge. Time to move on.

Technology analyst Brian Piccioni, most recently of BMO Capital Markets, said governments are in no mood these days to spend, let alone engage in another wave of support for fuel cell projects. And raising capital from the private sector remains a huge challenge.

Despite this tough environment, there was a true sense at Ballard’s annual meeting that the industry is nearing a tipping point.

No, I’m not suggesting that fuel-cell cars will soon be in a showroom near you. That’s still a long-term dream given existing infrastructure challenges. But fuel cells are seriously beginning to gain traction in certain sectors and for specific applications.

Volumes are building to impressive levels, costs are coming down, and some companies – Ballard among them – are flirting with profitability.

Since 2009 Ballard’s average product cost has fallen by 60 per cent. Revenue is expected to surpass $100 million in fiscal 2012, more than double 2009 results. As a result, the company is projecting it will have positive cash flow in the second half of 2012.

It also expects to hit the breakeven mark for “adjusted” earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, which is a sneaky way of measuring operating performance that excludes certain items. It does, however, hint at true profitability within reach.

“It’s a true milestone in our history and our industry as well,” Tony Guglielmin, chief financial officer of Ballard, told shareholders.

In fact, there’s a bit of a race to profitability going on in the industry, with companies such as FuelCell Energy and ClearEdge demonstrating that they’re closing in on that goal.

More telecommunications firms are seeing the benefits of fuel cells for providing clean back-up power. More municipalities are adding fuel cell-powered buses to their fleets, and more warehouses are ditching lead-acid batteries in favour of fuel-cell forklifts. It’s not a tsunami, mind you, but it’s also not a trickle anymore.

This isn’t just because it’s the “greener” option. Products are gaining traction because, in certain applications and geographies, they are cost-competitive and simply better.

Another growth area is the use of fuel cells for distributed power generation, either to more efficiently use natural gas or biogas to produce electricity, or to use surplus or off-peak renewable energy to make and store the hydrogen that powers fuel cells.

As more renewable energy sources are added to the power mix of grids, there will increasingly be a need to store and later retrieve that energy on a large scale. Grid stability will come to depend on it.

For that use, the hydrogen and fuel cell combo might have been too expensive five years ago, but today it fits the bill in many jurisdictions and for many companies. The outlook will only get better.

So is Ballard under-valued? Judging by the direction of its costs, sales and industry trends, there’s a good argument that it is.

We may not see the hydrogen economy that gave shareholders $140 a share 12 years ago, but the fuel-cell market is poised for growth and Ballard – after a long and painful transition – is finally in a good place.

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

Enbridge, Hydrogenics partner for utility-scale energy storage for renewables

UPDATE: My Clean Break column this week has some more detail.

Oil and gas pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. has invested $5 million in Mississauga, Ont.-based Hydrogenics, a leading maker of proton-exchange membrane fuel cells and electrolysis systems for producing hydrogen gas from water.

Gotta say, I wasn’t expecting this announcement. I know Enbridge has invested in fuel-cell technology before, and I know it has purchased hundreds of megawatts of solar capacity, operates wind farms and is dabbling in geopower. And yes, it has invested some money into Toronto-based Morgan Solar. What surprises me about this announcement isn’t so much the investment itself, but how Enbridge plans to strategically collaborate with Hydrogenics to bring utility-scale energy storage to renewables in Ontario. You’d think this was about using renewables to generate hydrogen during off-peak hours, storing it, and then putting it through a fuel cell to generate electricity during peak hours. And perhaps this is the longer-term vision. But the way Enbridge describes this collaboration, it has little interest in fuel cells. Instead, it wants to generate hydrogen and inject it into its natural gas pipeline assets, “proportionally increasing the renewable energy content in natural gas pipelines.” In other words — the way I read it from the press release — it wants to reduce the carbon intensity of the natural gas in its pipelines by mixing it with hydrogen. That cleaner natural gas will then be burned in natural gas-fired plants, people’s home furnaces, etc…

Perhaps I’m missing something. If there’s someone from Enbridge reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.  (I’m right).

Here’s how the two companies describe their “Power-to-Gas” strategy in their press release:

With ‘Power-to-Gas’, the hydrogen produced during periods of excess renewable generation will be injected into the existing natural gas pipeline network, proportionally increasing the renewable energy content in natural gas pipelines for essentially the operating cost of the electrolyzer. Small quantities of hydrogen can be manageable in existing natural gas pipeline networks. With the significant scale of the natural gas pipeline network, these same quantities of hydrogen have a very meaningful impact on electricity energy storage potential.  The natural gas pipeline network represents a vast energy storage system which already exists. The utility scale energy storage leverages existing natural gas pipeline and storage assets to enable improved operability for the electrical system. Furthermore, the economics are further improved by leveraging existing gas generators to bring this renewable energy back to the electrical grid where, and when, it is needed most.

The companies said they will initially focus on Ontario. And Hydrogenics will have the opportunity to participate in up to 50 per cent ownership in a build-own-operate model for energy storage services. I have no clue how the economics will work. I mean, if the hydrogen is being blended with natural gas how can Enbridge capture that value when it sells that gas? How will this work with Ontario’s feed-in-tariff program, which doesn’t have any rules or tiered (peak, off-peak) FIT rates to encourage energy storage services? I’m very curious to learn more about this (and will over the coming days).

What’s clear is that there is momentum building for energy storage solutions in Ontario. Hydro One is testing out Temporal Power flywheels to relieve congestion on its transmission lines. Toronto Hydro is piloting bulk lithium-ion battery storage and testing underwater compressed-air storage in Lake Ontario. Annette Verschuren, former chief executive of Home Depot Canada, is heading up a new venture called NRStor that wants to bring an energy storage park to Ontario. And word has it that the Ontario Ministry of Energy — or the Ontario Power Authority — is sitting on a large draft policy paper related to energy storage that will be released later this year. Perhaps we’ll get some clarity around energy storage after all. There seems to be enough activity in the province to suggest that something is going on behind the scenes to stimulate strong interest in energy storage.

We’ll see.

NOTE: Just got my hands on a backgrounder Q&A from Hydrogenics that explains the above in more detail. A few interesting points, according to this backgrounder:

Injecting only small amounts of hydrogen into the gas grid (less than 5% by volume) offers significant potential. In large markets, like Ontario, the energy storage potential could provide power for over 160,000 homes. This is the equivalent of the new Niagara Tunnel hydro power project in Niagara Falls.

and…

Every GJ of hydrogen produced by a Power-to-Gas application converting surplus renewable generation will displace one GJ of natural gas consumption with a commensurate reduction of 56kg of CO2 equivalent. The estimated annual GHG reduction from a 100MW Power-to-Gas project would be 25 CO2 equivalent kilotonnes.

and…

The first stage will be to develop a 1 MW Power-to-Gas pilot project in Ontario to test the integrated system, develop gas network interconnections and work with the IESO and Canadian Gas Association to design the operating standards and market protocols to run a Power-to-Gas application. After developing commercial scale electrolyzer capability, Hydrogenics will have the opportunity to participate in up to 50% ownership in a build own operate model for energy storage projects with Enbridge.

Evergreen Brick Works: a panel and presentation on technology and sustainability

FYI: This is a presentation and panel that I participated in in late September at the Evergreen Brick Works Forum on Leadership, Innovation and Sustainability. We were confined to a PechaKucha presentation format, meaning you have to go through 20 slides and spend no more than 20 seconds on each one — i.e. total presentation of just six minutes and 40 seconds. Needless to say, we all felt rushed, but it allowed more time for discussion. You can find the other panels here, as well as video of the keynote presentation from Jeremy Rifkin.

Celebrate clean energy innovation: spread the word about Mad Like Tesla

It’s shameless self promotion, I know, but this is how you create awareness of books, and the point of writing Mad Like Tesla was to create awareness of the innovation going on around clean energy and the immense barriers inventors and entrepreneurs face. I also wanted to celebrate those much-needed risk takers in society, without whom we will never have the kind of breakthroughs necessary to tackle our energy demons. It’s part of the reason I write and have maintained this Clean Break blog for the past six years, without financial gain. It’s a labour of love, as time consuming as it often can be.

Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy was launched this month and has been well-received. The reviews so far have been positive, and awareness of the book is slowly building. But not fast enough. I want to take this moment to ask my readers, many of whom have already purchased the book (thank you!), to help spread the word. Share this link or the Mad Like Tesla website (www.madliketesla.com) on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Refer to it when commenting on the various blogs you might follow. And for my media friends out there — whether in the mainstream press or the blogosphere — please consider a review, or alternatively, I’m happy to chat about the many odd and inspiring stories in this book. Please see press release here.

Thank you all for your ongoing interest and support. BTW: Many have asked, so I’m happy to report that the e-book version of Mad Like Tesla is now available at Amazon.com.