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Poop power production poised to pick up

Following a study that was recently released from the University of Texas at Austin, which said livestock manure could be used to satisfy up to 3 per cent of U.S. electricity demand, I decided to zero in on the potential for Canada, and specifically Ontario. I learned that the potential was even higher in Ontario, but also learned — sadly — that the province produces less than half a megawatt from livestock manure using gas from anaerobic digester systems. This, despite the existence of a program that for the past two years has offered a premium of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour for biogas-based power production. Apparently it’s not enough.

I’ve got a feature on this issue in today’s Toronto Star if you’d like to explore more fully.

Compare that to Germany, where more than 3,700 anaerobic digester systems produce about 800 megawatts, and the situation in Ontario stinks, to say the least. Some say by 2015 Germany will have 20,000 digesters producing 4,000 megawatts. So what’s the holdup in Ontario? Red tape. Insufficient incentives. Lack of awareness or appreciation of the benefits of digester technology, which not only creates renewable power but also kills pathogens in manure that can foul up water systems. It also replaces methane emissions with carbon emissions — a 21-to1 reduction in the carbon-trading world.

Now, the rules will be under review later this year, but the Ontario Power Authority is making no guarantee that incentives will increase. That said, there’s a general sense that the red tape needs to come down. Whether Ontario — or Canada, or the United States for that matter — can realize the full potential of animal poop in power production, we’ll likely have to wait a few years to see.

Canadian geothermal heat pumps sales “phenomenal”

I’ve got a story in this morning’s Toronto Star about low-temperature geothermal — a.k.a “earth energy systems” or “ground-source heat pumps” or “geoexchange systems” — and rapid sales of the systems in Canada, particularly Ontario. I’ll gloss over the details here, but essentially sales growth of the systems in Canada is in the range of 45 to 55 per cent and far outpaces growth in the United States. Ontario over the past 15 months has outpaced the next closest province, Quebec, by a margin of more than 4 to 1 in terms of residential retrofits. The growth has been so fast that the association representing the industry, the Canadian GeoExchange Coalition, is warning consumers about fly-by-night contractors who aren’t qualified to install the systems but want to ride on the wave of demand.

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from Bruce Ritchey, president and CEO of Indiana-based Waterfurnace Renewable Energy Inc., one of the top sellers of geothermal systems in North America. While overall revenue growth in the company’s last quarter is in the range of 20 per cent, sales to Canada were up about 120 per cent compared to the previous year. In Ontario growth was 200 per cent. Ritchey said sales to Canada have been “phenomenal,” and attributes it to strong government incentives, increased awareness of the technology, and an economy that has been impacted less by the U.S. housing crisis. Of course, rising fuel and electricity prices is also driving sales across the board in all jurisdictions.

Clean Break a “Top 10” Web site for ethical investors

Excuse me for a moment while I toot my own horn. Just wanted to point out that Canadian Business magazine has included this blog in its list of “Top 10” best Web sites for ethical investors. According to the article, by columnist Larry MacDonald, Clean Break is “the exhaustive blog of Toronto Star energy columnist Tyler Hamilton on ‘trends, happenings, and innovation in the clean technology market’ and it comes with plenty of links to clean technology companies, sources and blogs.”

It’s an honour…

Synfuels turns “stranded” natural gas into gasoline

A Texas company, Synfuels International, has come up with a way to turn natural gas into gasoline and other liquid fuels that is much cheaper and cleaner than established processes, namely the Fischer-Tropsch approached used since Nazi Germany converted coal and coal-bed methane into diesel fuel back during the Second World War.

Now why would anyone convert natural gas into gasoline? It’s not that all natural gas would undergo this process. The target is natural gas that results as a byproduct of oil extraction in remote locations. Oil companies, more focused on getting at the oil, usually flare or vent natural gas that comes to the surface because it’s too expensive to build a dedicated pipeline that would collect it and send it to market. A lot of this gas is wasted this way. The World Bank estimates about 150 billion cubic meters every year is flared — the combined total gas consumption of France and Germany. The associated greenhouse gas emissions are enormous.

Some, such as BP and Shell, have counted on Fischer-Tropsch plants as a less expensive alternative to building a dedicated natural gas pipeline. The plants would convert the natural gas into gasoline, diesel or jet fuel and transport it by truck/ship, or send it to market inside existing oil pipelines. Unfortunately the cost of Fischer-Tropsch still remains too high. Synfuels hope to change the game, offering plants that have a third the footprint of a Fischer-Tropsch plant but with the same output. “Why use a sledgehammer when you only need a hammer?” said Synfuels president Tom Rolfe. Scientists behind the company figure they can produce, on small scale, a barrel of gasoline from natural gas for about $25, compared to $35 for a Fischer-Tropsch plant benefiting from economies of scale. They also say their plant is cleaner, producing none of the hard waxes, toxic byproducts and other “crud” associated with Fischer-Tropsch.

For a full story on the Synfuels technology check out this article in MIT Technology Review. I don’t typically write about better ways to use fossil fuels, but in this case if we can put more natural gas to use rather than flare/vent it, and at the same time displace the use of oil, then it’s something that should be pursued.

OptiSolar outshines SunPower in PG&E deal

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced a deal today that will see it purchase 550 megawatts of solar power capacity from Topaz Solar Farms LLC, a subsidiary of low-key thin-film startup OptiSolar Inc. of California. Another deal, this one with SunPower Corp., involves the purchase of 250 megawatts of solar capacity. Together, the two solar farms are expected to deliver 1.65 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy annually to California electricity customers.

“These landmark agreements signal the arrival of utility-scale PV solar power that may be cost-competitive with solar thermal and wind energy,” said PG&E chief operating officer Jack Keenan.

This is a huge boost for OptiSolar, which also plans to build more than 200 megawatts of solar PV in Ontario to take advantage of the province’s 42-cent per kilowatt-hour feed-in tariff. A 500 MW manufacturing plant is being built in Sacramento to supply the modules, and product from OptiSolar’s first but smaller plant in Hayward is already being shipped to projects in Sarnia, Ontario.

OptiSolar executive vice-president Phil Rettger, who is also a company co-founder, said in an interview this afternoon that the deal with PG&E is a clear sign that solar PV has become an economic option at utility scale. “Based on the fact we won these contracts through a competitive bidding process, the market seems to indicate this,” he said. He wouldn’t say how large OptiSolar’s project pipeline has grown, but said the company is in active negotiations.

One interesting point made in the PG&E press release should be highlighted, however: “Both projects are contingent upon the extension of the federal investment tax credit for renewable energy and processes to expedite transmission needs.”

Yet another wake-up call for U.S. federal politicians asleep at the switch.