Category Archives: nuclear

Solar is booming in Ontario, but you’d never know it from the data

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 12.43.29 PMOntario’s Independent Electricity System Operator released its annual “Electricity Data” report on Tuesday, and it breaks down the supply mix in 2015, 2014 and 2013. On the surface there hasn’t been a big shift over the past three years. We see that nuclear and hydro output has been fairly consistent. Natural gas generation was up slightly in 2015 compared to 2014, but was still lower than 2013 levels. Coal has been completely phased out, but at only 2 per cent of the mix in 2013 it wasn’t a dramatic change.

Wind as a share of the electricity mix has doubled to 6 per cent since 2013. Electricity from biofuels more than doubled, but still represents less than 1 per cent of the mix.

Then there’s solar. Looking at 2013 data, you might be confused to see Ontario didn’t have any solar on the grid. A teeny weeny bit appeared in 2014 and that increased 14-fold in 2015, but still represented a measly .25 terawatt-hours of electricity in a system that generates 154 terawatt-hours a year. In other words, a rounding error.

It’s a misleading figure, and it makes solar look like an insignificant contributor to Ontario’s electricity system, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

So what’s the deal? The above figures are for transmission-connected generation, meaning only the biggest solar projects connected directly to the transmission system are recognized. Those projects total 140 megawatts on a grid with 27,000 megawatts of capacity.

But look under the hood and you see something quite different. When accounting for solar that is connected to the local distribution system, the figure is an impressive 1,766 megawatts.

“So over 90 per cent of solar in Ontario isn’t being included in their annual figures,” points out Keith Stewart from Greenpeace Canada. “If we did include it all, solar would be about 2 per cent of total generation. It’s a clear example of how conventional power-sector thinking is blinded to the role of renewables and the evolution towards a more decentralized grid.”

In other words, this so-called “embedded” solar generation is making a big difference, especially during times of summer peak demand when the sun is shining strong and air conditioning loads put stress on the grid.


General Fusion builds credibility on its ambitious path to demonstrate affordable fusion power for the masses

12-May-general-fusion-reactor-360Corporate website design on its own doesn’t reveal much about a company except how much it’s willing to spend on marketing. However, the timing of website designs and redesigns can tell you quite a bit. For example, if a new company goes live from Day 1 on the Internet with a flashy, slick, clearly expensive corporate site, it’s more than likely smoke and mirrors hiding a lot of nothing. However, when a company has been around for a few years and then suddenly decides to invest in a kick-ass website, it’s often — not always — a sign it has entered a new stage and finally has something concrete to brag about. Serious companies, in my experience, try to keep a low profile until they’ve got something real to say.

A superficial observation, yes, but I’m making this point to explain why I decided to contact nuclear fusion startup General Fusion of Vancouver for an update. As many of you will remember, I wrote a chapter about this Vancouver-based company in Mad Like Tesla — it’s one of my favourite chapters in the book. This week, the company, which counts founder Jeff Bezos as a financial backer, announced that two top-notch directors were joining its board: Jacques Besnainou and Frederick Buckman. Besnainou was former president and CEO of AREVA Group North America, while Buckman, who has a PhD in nuclear engineering from MIT, has pretty deep experience working as an executive with a number of electricity-sector companies, including Shaw Power Group, Brookfield Asset Management, and PowerLink Transmission Co., where he is currently CEO. After seeing this announcement, I decided to check out General Fusion’s website when I noticed the redesign, which is more professionally put together, visually attractive, and through excellent photos has a compelling narrative and offers a peak inside a company doing some very cool work. For this reason, and because it has been more than three years since I last spoke with the company, I decided to give CEO Doug Richardson a call for an update. Below is an edited excerpt of that conversation, though first you may want to read a couple of previous posts for a bit of background on General Fusion.

Clean Break: In Mad Like Tesla, I mentioned that General Fusion’s goal was to demonstrate net gain by 2014 with an eye to generating fusion power for the grid by 2020. When we last spoke, you said the trick relates to how you confine the plasma so you can achieve the right densities and temperature required to achieve net gain. I recall your comparison to a water balloon, and the difficulty of trying to compress it with your hands without letting the balloon squeeze through your fingers. How has your progress been on that front?

Richardson: We’ve struggled with getting the confinement and we’re probably at half of what we need. So we’re working on that…. The questions are, do we have the right water balloon, and can we improve our fingers so we don’t let any of the water balloon come through? On both those fronts we’ve made great improvements. Have we gotten to net-gain fusion conditions yet? No. Do I still believe we can get there? Yes. Has it taken longer than expected? Yes. Fusion is hard.
Clean Break: Over the past three years, do you feel you’ve gained acceptance in the broader scientific community, specifically in the area of nuclear physics?

Richardson: In the scientific community, we’re much more credible. People realize who we are. There was a guy recently doing an article on fusion in the United States. He phoned up a guy who runs a fusion conference for comment. The guy told him there are three areas he needs to look at : the laser guys, magnetic confinement fusion like ITER, and you have to talk to General Fusion. That’s an endorsement that the science we’re doing is getting noticed in the scientific community.

Clean Break: Have you been getting more attention and support from the Canadian government?

Richardson: I would say Canadian government at high levels, no. I would say associations within Canada, yes. For example, the Canadian Nuclear Society now has a fusion section in their annual meeting, and there have been a few other fusion meetings in Canada. The Canadian government really killed fusion dead. For that to change is a big challenge. It’s not happening.

Clean Break: While traditional nuclear fission approaches to power generation seem to be struggling, we are hearing quite a bit about the potential of fuel recycling, thorium reactors, small modular reactors, and other approaches. Do see yourself in a race against these alternative approaches to nuclear power generation?

Richardson: If we get it right, it completely blows everybody else out of the water. Some of those technologies may be better than heavy-water and light-water reactors, but they have a huge development path ahead. The thing that holds them back is the commercial viability. The real nuclear advances will come from Asia, even in fission. My understanding is that the Chinese have taken a CANDU reactor and loaded it up with thorium. Likewise, other types of fission like reburning spent fuel are being explored. This is going to sound a bit harsh, but it’s a bit like North America has decided to get out of nuclear. To be clear, the Tokamak (ITER) approach for fusion from a scientific point of view is further proven than the magnetized target fusion we’re doing. Tokamaks have gotten near net gain. We haven’t gotten anywhere near net gain. We can prove out the science on a way faster timescale than they did, and with a way smaller budget, but they are well ahead on the science. So until we demonstrate the science is valid, there’s is the way to go. If we demonstrate the science, Vancouver will be the global centre for fusion. If we prove out the science that fusion can work at inexpensive scale, it will enable fusion around the world and in all sorts of surprising ways that weren’t anticipated.

Clean Break: If you demonstrate the validity of the science behind General Fusion’s approach, do you really think a project like ITER will be discontinued with the billions of dollars already put into it?

Richardson: I actually believe that people are looking for a reason to scrap ITER, but they haven’t found a way to do so. I think the Chinese will have a version beyond ITER, perhaps built before ITER is built.

Clean Break: Jeff Bezos, through Bezos Expeditions, has put some money behind General Fusion. Has Bezos toured your facility?

Richardson: (pause)… I had a very fun lunch with Bezos.

Clean Break: And what was your impression?

Richardson: He’s an exceptionally smart, curious, practical, interesting guy with a zest for life.

Tracking the transition to a low-carbon economy: $5.2 trillion invested since 2007, according to report

gts_1.13_web_mediumEthical Media Markets calls itself an independent publisher of research reports and other information related to the emerging green economy, and every six months it comes out with an annual and mid-year update to its Green Transition Scoreboard. The scoreboard has been tracking private investments in the green economy globally since 2007. In its August 2013 report, it highlighted what it is calling a “dramatic mid-year surge” in cumulative global investment since 2007, rising to $5.2 trillion by August from $4.1 trillion in February. And remember, this is private investment — i.e. it excludes investment in government projects.

The jump, according to the report, is partially driven by the following trends: “…the write-down of fossil fuel assets; the inevitable wave of nuclear plants due to be retired; the exposing of hypothetical forecasts of 100 years of shale gas; and the decline of large, centralized electricity generation.”

Nearly $2.4 trillion has gone into renewable energy investments, making it the largest investment theme out of the $5.2 trillion total. Energy efficiency investments represent $1.33 trillion, followed by green construction at $880 billion, corporate R&D at $378 billion and remaining “cleantech” at $235 billion. Ethical Markets Media says it comes up with these numbers by scanning reports from Cleantech Group, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, Reuters and many UN and other international studies and individual company reports.

The report has a narrow definition of “green” investment. It excludes funds invested in nuclear power, carbon capture and sequestration, and biofuels, with some limited exceptions. Even so, it projects the $10 trillion investment mark will easily be reached by 2020 and, alongside this increase, we will see a transition away from fossil fuels.

Says the report: “Increasingly, worldwide regulations are leaving fossil fuel investments as stranded assets with pension funds heeding the call to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green technologies. Dutch Rabobank will now refuse loans to companies involved in tar sands and shale gas, citing the long-term financial and environmental risks are too large. In July 2013, Storebrand, a major Norwegian pension fund advisor, excluded from its Energy Sector all 13 coal producers and the 6 oil companies with the highest exposure to tar sands ‘to reduce Storebrand’s exposure to fossil fuels and to secure long term, stable returns for our clients…'”

I don’t entirely agree with some of the conclusions this report reaches, but it adds another interesting perspective to the energy transition that is clearly taking place globally. Big dollars are being spent on cleaner forms of energy. That a transition is happening there is little doubt. The question now is: how fast, and can we accelerate it?

In major policy shift, government lets Ontario Power Generation bid for large renewable projects

lakeviewIt’s been eight days since Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli directed the province’s power authority to eliminate large renewable-energy projects from the feed-in-tariff program and design a competitive procurement process that will get the best deal for ratepayers. We knew this was coming, as Chiarelli said as much in a speech a couple weeks earlier. What we didn’t know is that the energy minister would direct the power authority to let Ontario Power Generation bid for these large projects (see page 3, third paragraph of directive).

This is a major policy shift, and I’m surprised it hasn’t received any coverage in the mainstream Ontario media. OPG is a crown corporation. Under its 2005 agreement with the Ontario government, “OPG will not pursue investment in non-hydroelectric renewable generation projects unless specifically directed to do so by the Shareholder.” Instead, OPG’s mandate has been to maintain its fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric fleet of generation, and pursue new large hydroelectric projects. The reason for this restriction was to limit OPG’s clout in the marketplace and give independent power producers a chance to establish a foothold in the generation mix. The decision to let OPG bid for all large renewables — including wind and solar — is significant for a number of reasons:

  • This is getting close to what the Ontario NDP said it will do if elected. According to the NDP’s energy policy, “We will maintain the feed-in-tariff for small and community-based projects” and “for new larger projects we will move towards public ownership” through OPG. The Liberal government isn’t proposing complete public ownership of large renewables, but it is letting OPG bid for some ownership in a competitive process. Could this be part of a compromise that won it NDP support for the provincial budget?
  • Independent power producers, I would imagine, aren’t very happy about this. They will assert that they can’t compete against a giant like OPG that just happens to have the government in its corner. Is it a fair fight? Maybe not. But will it get the best deal for ratepayers? Presumably, yes.
  • Having OPG compete for renewables will create more opportunities to develop renewable resources in remote areas, and to partner with aboriginal communities. OPG has experience in this area, and many private developers are too risk-averse to go into these markets. They prefer to go after the low-hanging fruit, even if the orchard isn’t located in the best area.
  • Letting OPG compete in renewables could turn the Power Workers’ Union into an ally over time. Right now, renewables mean competition with union jobs. The PWU doesn’t like that — the fact that jobs at coal-fired power plants are being phased out and there is a significant threat to nuclear jobs as well. Renewables could be a path to save OPG jobs.
  • On that note, could letting OPG get into large renewables also be a signal that the province under this government is going to abandon efforts at building new nuclear reactors?
  • Finally, as a crown corporation, OPG can be directed to do things that other private developers would never take on — such as experimenting on a large scale with energy storage technologies, and being a test bed for energy innovation coming out of the province. Indeed, it would be interesting if OPG was directed to set aside a certain percentage of profits for R&D and to support pilot projects.

So that’s why I think this latest government directive is significant and should get more attention. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but my gut tells me no. I’ve long argued that OPG should be able to compete for large renewable energy projects. It’s something the Society of Energy Professionals, a shareholder in the nuclear business of Bruce Power, has called for since at least 2007. Many will complain, and for good reason. If a giant like OPG is to compete for these projects, how do we make sure it’s a fair competition? Will the process be transparent? Reasonable questions, but not a reason to not do it.

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, 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.