Tag Archives: SDTC

55 “clean energy” projects get $82 million in federal funding… Great news, despite the calculated timing

xpkkqThe money that was set aside for clean energy initiatives in the federal Conservative government’s 2011 budget is finally beginning to trickle out, and while it’s a welcome boost for 55 project proponents — including 15 pre-commercial demonstration projects — the timing of this $82-million announcement is suspect. After all, Canada has been criticized for its weak environmental performance as it awaits approval of the Keystone XL pipeline project. “There needs to be more progress,” said David Jacobson, U.S. Ambassador to Canada, after President Obama’s State of the Union address in February. Basically, the U.S. position is that if Canada (and Alberta) doesn’t start pulling its weigh on environmental efforts it will make the decision to approve a pipeline project that much more difficult for the Obama administration. Since then, the Harper Conservatives — and oil sands proponents, including Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver — have been on the defensive, making regular trips to Washington, D.C., to “educate” the Americans about how much Canada is doing on the environmental file. This would include weaning ourselves off coal, which of course is not what’s happening in Alberta or anywhere else in Canada except Ontario. But whatever, that has never stopped this federal government from repackaging the efforts of others to look like their own, or throwing money at something in the 11th hour to rework perceptions and ultimately get their way, despite the reality. Rather than confront the problem of climate change head on, my federal government shamefully responds to criticism by bad-mouthing the likes of NASA scientist James Hansen and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, dismissing both as misinformed on the matter. Uh, yeah… right.

All that said, I’m impressed with the diversity of projects being funded with this $82 million. They include:

  • A commercial demonstration of a system that manages electric-vehicle charging stations in Quebec;
  • Demonstration of a wind-biomass-battery system in the north of Quebec where there’s heavy reliance on diesel;
  • Integration of wind energy in diesel-based generation systems to power remote mining operations;
  • The study of Very Low Head hydro turbines, a promising technology that opens up hydroelectric generation opportunities across Canada;
  • A project to tap low-temperature geothermal energy for power production;
  • Advancing efficiency and reducing the cost of in-stream tidal energy;
  • Development and testing of prototypes of “plug and play” building-integrated solar PV and thermal systems;
  • A project to recover energy from refrigeration waste heat;
  • Advancing a process that takes syngas made from the gasification of municipal solid waste and turns it into drop-in jet and diesel fuel;
  • Researching and developing a super-efficient air-source heat pump that can provide heating in very cold climates and cooling during summers at low cost;
  • An inventory and analysis of recoverable waste heat sources from industrial processes in Alberta;
  • Development of a pre-commercial thermoacoustic engine that is super efficient and can be used for co-generation applications.

In addition to the above-mentioned projects, there is a big emphasis on technologies that help reduce the environmental footprint of the oil sands, as well as coal-fired power production   in provinces that are heavy coal users, such as Alberta and Nova Scotia. Indeed, roughly a quarter of the funds has been earmarked for projects aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of fossil-fuel production and use (or perpetuating the production and use of fossil fuels, depending on how you view it). I have mixed feelings about this. One part of me says, “Great, we really need to reduce emissions and water contamination/consumption related to the oil sands and burning coal.” The other part of me says, “Oh great, more window dressing. This will make it look like the federal government is doing something without actually doing something, as these technologies are unlikely to have an impact anytime soon. We’re screwed.”

Two projects in Nova Scotia that are being funded will focus on scoping out ideal sites for geological sequestration of CO2 and coming up with a monitoring and verification standard to make sure CO2 injected underground isn’t leaking out — i.e. will stay underground. Money is also being given to a Quebec company called CO2 Solutions, which I’ve written about many times over the years. This company, demonstrating biomimicry in action, has developed an enzyme that can extract CO2 from industrial effluent emissions. It will use the new funding to support a pilot-scale facility that can capture 90 per cent of C02 from an oil sands in situ production and upgrading operation. “This is expected to result in cost savings of at least 25 per cent compared to conventional carbon capture technology,” according to the government funding announcement.

One project will look at whether impurities in CO2 have an impact on the capture, transport and underground storage of CO2, while another will study geological sites in the Athabasca area (i.e. where the oil sands are located) that are ideal for underground storage of CO2. Funding will also be used to investigate the use of non-aqueous solvents to extract bitumen, thereby reducing the energy needed to create steam (i.e. reducing water needs and the proliferation of toxic tailing ponds). Efforts to improve the efficiency of steam-assisted gravity drainage processes and reduce the environmental impacts of tailing ponds are also being funded. On the water front, one project will explore the ability to use non-potable, briny water to create steam for oil sands production, while another will demonstrate a technology that can clean up and recycle the waste water used during oil sands production. In total, about $21 million will go toward all of these projects, designed to help “dirty” energy become — or look — much cleaner.

In a separate announcement, the federal government also disclosed plans to support construction of a $19-million facility in Alberta that will use algae to recycle industrial CO2 emissions, in this case emissions from an oil sands facility operated by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. This is great news for Toronto-based Pond Biofuels, a company I have written about extensively and which currently operates a pilot facility at St. Mary’s Cement, where it grows algae from kiln emissions. The end goal of this three-year oil sands project is to use the algae to create commercial biofuels and other bioproducts. All of this innovation is important, and funding of these projects — as well as the recent re-funding of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, an important supporter of cleantech innovation in my country — is encouraging. Yet, it’s not getting us to where we need to be. Nowhere close.

We’ve been down this capture-and-hide carbon path before. A handful of high-profile projects announced several years ago have still led nowhere, and two have already been cancelled. Yet the federal government, and Alberta, is still putting most of its eggs in the CCS basket. Indeed, they’re still heavily promoting this idea of a new pipeline network that will carry CO2 from the oil sands and other heavy emitters to sequestration sites. Alberta Energy Minister Ken Hughes recently touted this proposed pipeline as a “Trans-Canada highway for Carbon.” Here’s a question: If the industry and federal government can support the ambitious idea of building a cross-Canada network of CO2-carrying pipelines, why does it poo-poo the idea of a Trans-Canada power transmission corridor that could carry clean hydroelectric, wind and solar power from where it’s abundant to where it’s needed? The positioning is proof that moving toward a low-carbon world is not about can’t-do, it’s about won’t-do; it’s about protecting established industries and infrastructure and preventing a cleaner, 21st-Century alternative from emerging.

Again, the recent round of innovation funding is good news. But let’s look at the reality: Last week we sadly hit 400 parts per millions (ppm) of CO2 in our fragile atmosphere, a level never before experienced in human history. Many scientists say 350 ppm is where we should be, and certainly we shouldn’t go much past 400 ppm. We’re heading in the wrong direction, and notoriously conservative organizations like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank are now even sounding the alarm. If the federal and Alberta governments really want to prove to the Americans — and Canadians — that they’re serious about climate change, they would complement their innovation spending with a recognition that the oil sands extraction machine can’t continue its current fast pace of growth, and that some day — in 10, 20, 30 years — the oil orgy must come to a complete end. This is true of all “carbon bombs” being developed around the world, not just the oil sands. And if we are to adequately prepare for that day, we need to carefully transition to a low-carbon economy. That means taxing carbon, a policy approach now being encouraged by both the IEA and World Bank and accepted by most credible economists. That means creating a realistic vision for the country and working toward it — and by “realistic” I mean recognizing that perpetuating the growth (or current rate) of oil sands production and coal use is not an option.

This isn’t about educating people so they are “made” to know better about the oil sands’ alleged strong environmental record. This isn’t about clever public relations campaigns and slick and deceptive advertising meant to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers and voters. This isn’t about targeted funding announcements to make a government appear that it cares. This is about facing facts, and preparing for eventualities. Canada isn’t doing that, and soon enough, Mother Nature is going to spank our sorry asses.

Temporal Power brings new spin to flywheel energy storage

A Burlington, Ontario-based startup called Temporal Power is the focus of my Clean Break column in today’s Toronto Star. Temporal has designed a stationary flywheel energy storage system that it claims can dramatically outperform the next-best system on the market, which you might say comes from Mass.-based Beacon Power. The company has filed patents on the system but they have yet to become public — likely in a few months. Until then, the company is keeping quiet about how it achieves its claimed performance, and I don’t blame them given the competitive pressures. The story behind how the company came about, however, is interesting. And if Temporal can convincingly demonstrate what it claims, it could prove a breakthrough for economical grid-scale energy storage.

For a good primer and innovation update on flywheel energy storage systems, check out this recent story in the Washington Post. My column also explains the basics of how the systems work and the challenges of making them efficient and economical.

So what does Temporal claim? The company says it has designed a system with zero parasitic losses and extremely low friction using relatively simple and easily available components. It uses permanent magnets, not electromagnets, but the overall integration of components is largely a mystery — for now. It claims its flywheel will lose less than 5 per cent of its energy after up to 10 hours of spinning, making it ideal for storing energy from a wind farm in the evening and dispatching it hours later when the power is needed. This is a departure for flywheel systems, which are typically used for short-term energy backup and services such as grid regulation.

The company plans to standardize on 50-kilowatt-hour units, double the size of the main Beacon model, and these systems could be grouped together to achieve a larger scale of energy storage. It already has a working 20-kilowatt-hour prototype. Its first demonstration is likely to be a 10-flywheel project deployed in Hydro One’s distribution network, where the technology will absorb fluctuations from nearby wind turbines in an area of the grid that has strained capacity. The project is partially funded by a grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada.

I’ve already received a couple of e-mails from skeptics who say flywheels have been researched for years and what Temporal is claiming can’t possibly be done, at least not economically and reliably. I always get a kick out of these knee-jerk, borderline arrogant reactions, usually by engineers who think they’re smarter than everyone else and that anything new can’t be true because, if it was, it would have already been done. I like to keep an open mind. No doubt, others will question the fact Temporal isn’t explaining in detail how it can do what it claims, but really folks, why would it reveal its secret sauce at this point? Why would it risk erasing a competitive edge prematurely?

 Anyway, skepticism is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t degenerate into outright uninformed dismissal.

SDTC: “We want to keep this rolling. It is important we maintain momentum.”

Those of you who frequent this blog know that I mention Sustainable Development Technology Canada quite regularly (picture to the left is of SDTC chief Vicky Sharpe). That’s because the federal agency, which was created nine years ago, has introduced me over the years to so many interesting, innovative and ambitious clean technology companies. SDTC does the screening. It carries out the due diligence. It offers funding for demonstration projects. It forces the hand of private investors that might not otherwise open their doors or pockets. It offers guidance. Introduces partners and customers. Need I say more? This agency has given dozens of promising green technologies and the companies behind them a solid chance of success. For every dollar of public money it has invested, it has tapped into twice as much (actually more) from the private sector. Over the past few years, that has translated into $515 million in public funding being leveraged to attract about $1.2 billion in mostly private funds.

That’s why in my Clean Break column this week I argue clean technology, and specifically the efforts of SDTC, need to be part of the country’s election dialogue. We need to build on the progress SDTC has achieved to date, not abandon the momentum at a time when major world economies — Germany, China, India, Brazil, the United States — are racing to establish a dominant position in the emerging global green economy.

The leaders of the political parties looking to run the next government need to be asked: How are they prepared to support clean technology innovation and green economic development in Canada?

Clean energy highlights of federal budget 2011

Okay, here are budget highlights related to clean energy and technology (in no particular order):

1) $97 million over two years to renew funding for technology and innovations in areas of clean energy and energy efficiency.

2) $8 million over two years to renew funding to promote the deployment of clean energy technologies in Aboriginal and Northern communities.

3) Accelerated capital cost allowance has been expanded to include investment in technologies that generate electricity using waste heat from industrial processes. The CCA allows the cost of eligible assets to be deducted for tax purposes at a rate of 50 per cent per year on a declining balance basis—which is faster than would be implied by the useful life of the assets.

4) Oil sands investments will see some reduced subsidies. The accelerated capital cost allowance will be reduced for “intangible capital expenses in oil sands projects”  to align them with existing rates for the conventional oil and gas setor. Question: Why does the conventional oil and gas sector still get this subsidy?

5) And, while the government continues to figure out how to sell of AECL’s commercial reactor division, Canadian taxpayers will pay another $405 million on a cash basis in 2011–12 to cover the crown corporation’s anticipated commercial losses and support the corporation’s operations, including to ensure a secure supply of medical isotopes and maintain safe and reliable operations at the Chalk River Laboratories.

6) $870 million over two years to support the government’s Clean Air Agenda, including $400 million in 2011 and 2012 to temporarily revive the EcoEnergy retrofits program and $252 million to support “regulatory activities to address climate change and air quality,” whatever that means. Also included in this larger figure is $86 million to support clean energy regulatory actions that focus on energy efficiency; $48 million to develop transportation sector regulations and next-generation clean transportation initiatives; $58 million for projects that improve our understanding of climate change impacts; and $25 million to advance Canada’s engagement in international negotiations and support the Canada-U.S. Clean Energy Dialogue.

7) Finally, $40 million over two years will go to Sustainable Development Technology Canada. It’s not a lot of money compared to the more than $50 million it has issued annually in previous years, but it keeps the agency alive and supporting new energy innovations.

I’ll comment on these more later…

The Canadian connection: a roundup of Canuckish cleantech news

My friends over at Earth2Tech are reporting that Toronto-based Morgan Solar, a promising concentrated solar PV startup, is heading into its round B of financing and hopes to raise between $20 and $25 million. Up until now the company has raised about $20 million, slightly less than half from private investors and the rest through government grants. Morgan Solar, in my talks with them, is serious about keeping its R&D and some manufacturing in Toronto, but it sees the first major volume happening at a new facility it plans to build in California. I don’t think Morgan will have trouble raising the money. I’ve seen the technology, know the founders well, and have talked to their early investors. There is solid commitment there and a sense that what the company is working on is truly ground-breaking. 

Montreal-based 5N Plus, meanwhile, is diversifying its business through acquisition. The company is the main supplier of cadmium telluride to First Solar and others, such as Abound Solar. But analysts were concerned 5N wasn’t diversified enough and was too dependent on its business with First Solar. So 5N decided this week to acquire Belgian-based MCP Group, which is a producer of specialty metals such as bismuth, gallium, indium and selenium. This allows 5N to tap into the market for CIGS solar cells (that is, copper indium gallium selenide cells), but also a whole range of other products: LEDs, flat-panel displays, fuel cells and other forms of energy storage.

Heading to the West Coast, biomass gasification expert Nexterra has raised $15 million in equity financing from Tandem Expansion Funds and ARC Financial. Nexterra makes small-scale biomass CHP systems based on the gasification of biomass. The systems are ideal for distributed generation in a hospital, university, industrial or municipal setting, and because it is ultra low emission it is a good fit for urban environments. The company has a solid partnership with General Electric and just snagged some government funding for a large biomass-based CHP system at the University of British Columbia, which says the 2-megawatt system when it’s up and running in 2012 will reduce its demand for natural gas by 12 per cent.

In Florida, algae-to-ethanol startup Algenol has acquired its German partner Cyano Biofuels GmbH. Okay, the company isn’t based in Canada, but Algenol’s founder Paul Woods is a Canadian who grew up in the Toronto area and kickstarted the natural gas retail market in Ontario before moving south. And some of Algenol’s core innovation comes out of the University of Toronto, so I consider the company an honourary Canadian corporate citizen. Cyano Biofuels is an expert in producing hybrid algae that can produce ethanol, and Algenol was already a minority shareholder in the company. Algenol saw the all-out acquisition as a way to accelerate the commercialization of its Direct-to-Ethanol process using genetically enhanced cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. I’m a fan of Algenol, which is the focus of a chapter in my upcoming book Mad Like Tesla.

Finally, Sustainable Development Technology Canada issued another round of grants to 17 companies doing cleantechie stuff. I’ll go through some of these in more detail later, either as part of a Clean Break column or a quick post. But check out the list — there are some interesting projects there. As I’ve always said, SDTC funding rounds are like Christmas time for cleantech news junkies like myself.