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Canada’s geothermal power industry turns to the “crowd” in the absence of government funding for research

Geothermal power is a real, but untapped opportunity in Canada.

In a 2008 story about Canada being a laggard when it comes geothermal power production, I wrote that Canada is the only nation along the Pacific Ring of Fire to not have a commercial geothermal power plant up and running. “We’re one of the few countries with significant geothermal potential that’s not doing anything about it,” was a quote I used from Gary Thompson, an industry executive based in Canada who has had no choice but to pursue geothermal opportunities in other countries.

The “not doing anything about it” part pretty much remains true today, as there are still no commercial plants in operation. Not that some folks haven’t been trying, particularly the Canadian Geothermal Energy Association (CanGEA), whose members represent about 20 per cent of installed geothermal power capacity globally. Problem is, that capacity isn’t in Canada, despite estimates that 5,000 megawatts — initially — could be commercially developed here.

For a few years now, CanGEA has been trying to build an industry roadmap and implementation plan that would give geothermal power development in Canada a much-needed kickstart. This “roadmap” requires market reports, maps that identify the resource opportunity, and databases that track those opportunities over time. It would support the argument for public policy that supports early efforts to establish a geothermal power market in Canada — the same policies that have supported Canada’s oil, gas and mining industries over the decades. Unfortunately the roadmap is incomplete, and that’s because the industry has been unable to convince the federal and provincial governments (in geopower hotspot zones, namely Alberta, NWT and B.C.) to financially support this early, crucial research.

This has left the opportunity in limbo, so much so that CanGEA — in what appears to be a first for crowdsourcing crowdfunding — is getting ready to launch a campaign on to help bridge the financial gap. At this point, it looks to raise $300,000 as part of a two-month campaign. “The topic of turning to public funds to shore up what the government has given or won’t give is a daily topic at CanGEA and is a circular argument,” says Alison Thompson, founder and chair of CanGEA and a former project manager/engineer at oil companies Suncor and Nexen. “The government won’t give more until industry gives more matching dollars. But the industry can’t start until the government provides geothermal energy with the same platform as it has for wind, solar, biomass, run of river, not to mention what it has  historically given and still gives to the carbon-based fuel industry and nuclear industry.”

So the association is turning to the crowd. And what will the funds it hopes to raise go toward? CanGEA wants to complete its industry roadmap, and also hire a policy team that can lobby the federal government to put geothermal energy on a level playing field with other renewables and conventional fossil and nuclear energy sources.

It’s an interesting experiment, one that will shine a light on the industry and the Canadian government’s apparent disinterest in the geothermal power opportunity. Will it work? The association may very well not meet its fundraising goal. But even if it doesn’t, it will have made a strong point and raised attention to this opportunity to a level more deserved.

Stay tuned. I’ll let you know if and when the campaign formally launches.

Coincidentally, I wrote this blog post at the same time as I received this e-mail comment from Toby Heaps, CEO and publisher of Corporate Knights, who is currently on vacation in Iceland. “The geothermal swimming pool here is amazing,” he wrote, referring to the hot water “lagoons” that have become tourist attractions at some of the country’s geothermal plants. I recently had a similar tourist experience in Costa Rica, which also has some geothermal power capacity.

The same tourism opportunity exists in Canada, if we get geothermal power into this country’s energy mix.

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?

Clean Break posts to continue in September… taking the summer off


Apologies for not posting here lately. As you’ve probably noticed, activity on this site has slowed down. There are a number of reasons. One is the cancellation of my Toronto Star clean technology and energy column in March. This column was the source for much of my original blog content. I’m not a big fan of reposting stuff that hundreds of other sites also repost (simply retweeting on Twitter does that job just fine), so I like to keep things original, local, or both. Doing so takes up considerable time, which brings me to my other reason: It’s been crazy busy. My job at Corporate Knights takes up a considerable amount of my time, as we have many cool projects on the go that I am leading. The fact that we were named Magazine of the Year in June is an indication that we’re heading in the right direction. It’s good, fun work, which is why I haven’t felt the need to use this blog as a tool of procrastination. In spare time, I’m focusing on my family during these summer months. Which brings me to my final reason: It’s summer. Life’s too short to be sitting behind a computing writing blog posts when the sun is shining, the air is warm, and there is so much to do with family and friends: go to beach, camp, go strawberry/apple/peach picking, play softball, enjoy a few beers on a patio with some friends, cosy up with the wife to watch a movie, etc…

All that said, I will be back. This fall I’m hoping to revive my Clean Break column somewhere else, at which point the content will start flowing again. I’m also looking to redesign the look and feel of this site, which is tired.

So with that, I hope everyone out there reading this enjoys their own summer and will come back to visit this site in September/October.