Category Archives: peak oil

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.

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.

A century of falling commodity prices undone in eight years, and the next 20 look no better: McKinsey

Just looking at a new article (free registration required) from global consultancy McKinsey about the state of world commodities and the outlook looks bleak, to say the least.

“Our research shows that during the past eight years alone, (commodity prices) have undone the decline of the previous century, rising to levels not seen since the early 1900s,” according to McKinsey. “In addition, volatility is now greater than at any time since the oil-shocked 1970s because commodity prices increasingly move in lockstep. Our analysis suggests that they will remain high and volatile for at least the next 20 years if current trends hold—barring a major macroeconomic shock—as global resource markets oscillate in response to surging global demand and inelastic supplies.”

The report talks of the surging demand for energy, food, metals and water as 3 billion new middle-class citizens emerge over the next two decades. In India calorie intake will rise 20 per cent per person, while in China per-capita meat consumption is expected to rise 60 per cent. While such dramatic growth of consumption isn’t unusual historically, and while we have managed to accommodate that growth in the past, McKinsey says things are very different this time around:

There are three differences today. First, we are now aware of the potential climatic impact of carbon emissions associated with surging resource use. Without major changes, global carbon emissions will remain significantly above the level required to keep increases in the global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius—the threshold identified as potentially catastrophic.

Second, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to expand the supply of commodities, especially in the short run. While there may not be absolute resource shortages—the perceived risk of one has historically spurred efficiency-enhancing innovations—we are at a point where supply is increasingly inelastic. Long-term marginal costs are increasing for many resources as depletion rates accelerate and new investments are made in more complex, less productive locations.

Third, the linkages among resources are becoming increasingly important. Consider, for example, the potential ripple effects of water shortfalls at a time when roughly 70 percent of all water is consumed by agriculture and 12 percent by energy production. In Uganda, water shortages have led to escalating energy prices, which led to the use of more wood fuels, which led to deforestation and soil degradation that threatened the food supply.

So where do we go from here? McKinsey, citing forthcoming research, says better resource productivity can maybe meet more than 20 per cent of the forecast 2030 demand for energy, steel, water and land. Higher prices over the long-term will also create incentives for “breakthrough” innovations that could reduce carbon emissions. But even then, a heck of a lot more needs to be done, the consultancy argues — and it won’t be easy. “Major policy, behavioral, and institutional barriers must be addressed,” it argues. “Yet as we enter a new era for commodities, there’s little choice but to act.”

Action. Now isn’t that a novel concept. Sure beats denial.

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.

Mad Like Tesla, now shipping from Amazon.com

Canadian sites are taking pre-orders for a few more days still, but for my U.S. readers Amazon.com has started shipping my new book Mad Like Tesla: Underdog Inventors and Their Relentless Pursuit of Clean Energy. The book tells the stories of some clean energy entrepreneurs/inventors taking huge risks and thinking outside the box to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues. Each one is at a different level of development but all face similar barriers along their journey. The stories set the stage for discussion about a specific type of clean energy, technology or field of discovery (e.g. fusion, solar, waste-heat recovery, biofuels, energy storage, biomimicry, etc.) supported by some historical context and current-day examples.

Why Mad Like Tesla? That’s explained in the introduction, but in a nutshell Serbian-American engineer Nikola Tesla invented many important technologies in his lifetime. yet he faced constant struggle against naysayers and skeptics who couldn’t, at first, grasp the significance of what he was sharing with the world. Many dismissed Tesla as a mad scientist, and yet his inventions shaped the world largely for the better. So, in my view, if someone today is mad like Tesla, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s quite a good thing, actually — we need more of these people, for the changes necessary in our world will not come from the kind of cautious, incremental steps being taken today.

I have a website for the book in the works, but it won’t be ready until end of August.

Thanks for your support!