Now that nearly 5 million Ontario homes and small businesses have smart meters, the province has access to a tsunami of energy usage data. The question now is what’s the best use of it? As part of efforts to open up this data store and make it available to third-party developers — part of the “green button” initiative — the Ontario energy ministry issued today a challenge to app developers. Come up with a mobile app that makes the best use of this data and win part of $50,000 in cash that is available for prizes. Developers have until Jan. 7 to submit their app, and the winners will be announced in early 2014. “Awards include Gold, Silver and Bronze, Best Student App, Best App Created Outside of Ontario, and People’s Choice,” according to the ministry.
Will be interesting to see what emerges from this contest.
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Another major milestone for ZooShare Co-op: financial regulator has approved sale of community bond issue
I’ve written about ZooShare before, so I won’t get into too much background, except to say that it’s a local co-operative in Toronto that wants to turn poop from animals at the Toronto Zoo into biogas that will in turn be used to generate electricity. A very cool project. I am a volunteer director on the ZooShare board, and it has been a great learning experience. In July we hit one major milestone when the co-operative was awarded a 20-year contract to sell its electricity to the province as part of the feed-in-tariff program. This week, we hit another milestone: the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, one of the province’s main financial regulators, approved ZooShare’s request to sell its community bonds. As a result, this fall we’ll be having an active campaign to sell the bonds, which will have a five to seven year term and will offer an annual return of up to 7 per cent. To learn more, visit ZooShare’s website. This is all great news, because now we can raise the necessary funds to begin the process of building our anaerobic digestion and power generation facility at the Toronto Zoo. We are tentatively expecting to launch the bond-selling campaign at the zoo on Oct. 10, so these are exciting times for a tiny co-op that’s thinking big.
On another positive note, ZooShare is also one of 10 social ventures that have been selected to be part of the new Social Venture Exchange (SVX), which is a joint venture of the Toronto Stock Exchange and MaRS that will launch on Sept. 19. Our bonds will be listed on this exchange, which is great exposure for us. As ZooShare executive director Daniel Bida says, “The SVX is the first of its kind in North America and it is surely to attract large interest once it is launched.”
Please consider becoming a member of ZooShare. We’re serious when we say we’ve got lots of pootentional. (Cheesy, I know, but had to say it).
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Canada’s geothermal power industry turns to the “crowd” in the absence of government funding for research
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 Indiegogo.com 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.
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General Fusion builds credibility on its ambitious path to demonstrate affordable fusion power for the masses
Corporate 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 Amazon.com 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.
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Tracking the transition to a low-carbon economy: $5.2 trillion invested since 2007, according to report
Ethical 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?
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Has anyone read — or do you plan to read — this new book by John Perlin? I’m thinking of opening up this blog for guest book reviews. Let me know if this book or any other related to green energy is something you’d like to review.
Something to sneeze at: unbleached, 100 per cent recycled tissue latest sign of environmental progress in paper industry
I received a box of tissue in the mail last week, which would seem an odd thing to receive, but as someone who writes about “green” technology and product trends, I get a lot of unsolicited and strange stuff. This particular package came from Cascades, the Quebec paper products manufacturer. It was tissue that is unbleached, 100 per cent recycled, and manufactured with wind power offsets. The tissue looks strange, mind you, but surprisingly it’s pretty soft on the schnoz.
It reminded me how much progress is being made in efforts to reduce our reliance on virgin wood (fibres) for a range of paper products. Railways ties and outdoor decking material are are now being made from recycled plastics. High-value chemicals, fuels and energy are being produced from wood waste. Even some vehicle manufacturers, while niche, are starting to use salvaged wood instead of virgin wood for interior detailing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that a little more than a third of all raw material fibre used by U.S. papermakers comes from recycled sources, and the numbers are growing along with efforts to keep paper waste out of landfills.
In addition to recycling, another way to take pressure off forests is to use different materials, such as recycled plastics, but also alternative plant fibres. Waste wheat straw is one promising option. Fast-growing and abundant, the more paper that can be made from wheat straw using energy-efficient, economical manufacturing methods the more sustainable our forests, which are nature’s carbon-sink workhorses. It’s why Corporate Knights, the magazine I have edited for the past two years, has decided to print its November issue on paper consisting of 60 per cent wheat straw. It’s an experiment — a North American first — one that we hope will prove this paper economical and practical for widespread use, whether for magazines, annual reports, corporate brochures or books. So stay tuned. We’re learning quite a bit as we go through this process, but we’re committed to getting it done with help from our partners. More details to come, but on November 21 be sure to get your copy of Canada’s Magazine of The Year.
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Tom McConnell, host of a morning show at NewsTalk 610 in Toronto, asked me for comment on allegations coming from energy analyst Tom Adams, who appeared on the show today. My comment can be found here.
On Monday I learned that my name was mentioned as part of an e-mail exchange between Alicia Johnston, who was director of communications for then-Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid, and Ben Chin, who at the time was vice-president of communications at the Ontario Power Authority. The 2010 e-mail exchange, which I wasn’t aware of, was part of documents released as part of an Ontario legislative committee probe into the former McGuinty government’s so-called gas plant scandal.
Some bloggers and Tweeters who have disagreed with my writing in the past, including my passionate support of clean energy and other climate change solutions, have taken it upon themselves to read into the limited content within this e-mail exchange to, in effect, defame me. For example, one blog post by an outspoken Ontario energy analyst shows up on a Google search with the title “Corrupt Reporting by the Toronto Star’s Tyler Hamilton.” One Tweet by a veteran Canadian right-wing journalist was titled: “Corrupt Electricity Reporting at the Toronto Star.” These mischaracterizations are not only irresponsible and malicious, they are baseless and untrue.
This blog post aims to set the record straight by providing as much context as I can. First, let’s look at the November 23, 2010 e-mail exchange itself:
Alicia Johnston writes at 11:54 p.m that: “Just got off the phone with Tyler H who had a few qs. We’ve got to get him out as an ‘expert’ commentator.”
About six minutes later, Ben Chin comments on other aspects of Johnston’s e-mail, and at the end replies: “And make Tyler feel special. We need to throw him some work. He doesn’t need it, but everyone likes feeling wanted. I really want to engage him for central. It would be a good score.”
At the time of this exchange, I was not a staff reporter for the Toronto Star. After 10 years of reporting — first on technology and telecom, later on energy issues – I decided I wanted to write a book on clean energy innovation based on all the interesting entrepreneurs, academics and business leaders I had interviewed over the years. The newspaper was into its second round of downsizing since I had been hired (it’s now on round four) so I decided in early 2010 to take a voluntary package from the newspaper. Come April 2010 I was on my own, had secured a book deal with a local publisher in the Beaches, and spent the next six months researching and writing. Throughout this time, and up until early March of this year, I was still writing a weekly column on clean energy technologies as a freelance writer. I also became an adjunct professor of environmental studies at York University.
Now, back to the timing of the e-mail exchange in question. I have gone through my own e-mails and tracked down one back-and-forth I had with Johnston on November 24, 2010, a day after the exchange. Johnston was acknowledging a telephone chat I had with her on the 23rd, telling me it was good to talk and basically saying stay in touch. That chat was the first I had ever had with her, and possibly the last. The e-mail was one of the first as well. I believe I called her to get background comment on the government’s revised Long-Term Energy Plan, as this is what I wrote about in my Star column and Clean Break blog immediately after.
Why would Johnston later tell Chin that they should get me out as an “expert” commentator? Well, as someone who created a column in Canada’s largest newspaper for the specific purpose of writing about the benefits of and progress around clean energy and energy conservation, I am in principle supportive of the province’s Green Energy Act and its general direction. Why wouldn’t they think this way? I like solar. I like wind. I believe in energy conservation. I’m a big believer in the potential of the smart grid. I love to highlight solutions and be constructive. I consider long-term planning that addresses climate and environmental concerns as just — if not more — important than day-to-day economic concerns, like the price of gas falling by 2 cents on a long weekend. This is my bias — hell, I’m an adjunct professor of environmental studies! — and I have always worn it on my sleeve. The Toronto Star knew this. So did readers. As a columnist, I tried as best I could to back my personal opinions or stories with good, balanced research. The bottom line: you were, and still are, unlikely to see me encourage the province to open up more inefficient coal plants so we can make electricity cheaper but make people sicker.
Now, on to the strange e-mail reply that came from Ben Chin. I will admit at this point that I consider Chin a friend, both at the time he wrote the e-mail and even now. I didn’t know him personally when he started at the power authority, but I did know and respect him from a distance when he was a young TV reporter covering the Paul Bernardo murder trial in Toronto. We had a coyote/sheepdog relationship, able to separate personal from professional. After he left the power authority and I left my staff position at the Star, we stayed in touch. We lived in the same neighbourhood and would occasionally go for a beer. In September 2011, in fact, I invited Chin (who had left the power authority and moved to B.C.) to my book launch to say a few words.
That’s why it angered me to learn of Chin’s e-mail. It’s patronizing. It’s offensive. It confirms the stereotype of communications professionals — that they manipulate journalists and the public. I confronted Chin with his e-mail earlier this week, and this was his reply: “I can’t regret that enough. Sorry. The way I made you sound. Just stupid on my part. Whatever I meant by that, and I honestly can’t remember, it wasn’t that.”
With respect to the most contentious part of Chin’s e-mail — The “We need to throw him some work” comment — some online commentators have recklessly used that comment to accuse me of somehow being in the pocket of the Liberal government, hence subject lines like “Corrupt Electricity Reporting…” I’ll let my past reporting and column writing speak for itself. While generally supportive of the direction of the government’s energy plan, and a believer of the clean technologies behind it, I have also been critical of its implementation and specific aspects of the government’s plan. I have vocally disagreed with plans to build new nuclear plants, I have been highly critical of the government’s politically motivated decision to put a moratorium on offshore wind, I have written about past conflicts-of-interest on the power authority’s board of directors, I have blamed the government and power authority for foot-dragging, I have questioned the structure and pricing around the feed-in tariff program, and many times I’ve criticized the government for neglecting energy conservation. I’ll add that I did this while at the same time trying to be constructive. Indeed, even the Ontario PC Party has used my columns to support their attack on Liberal policy, as recently as October 2012. (NR-FITDelays Oct5)
But has the Ontario Power Authority or the Ministry of Energy ever “thrown” me work? I have never received payment, whether for writing services or anything else, from the power authority or the ministry. Duguid told me once, at a press event long after he left the energy portfolio, that he once considered approaching me as his communications director. I can tell you now: not interested.
Post-Toronto Star and after finishing my book, I was pretty much a full-time freelance writer who was open to taking on research writing assignments, and even as editor at Corporate Knights magazine, I do the occasional research writing as part of Corporate Knights Inc. when I have a moment and if I have a personal interest in the work. For those who are asking, here is full disclosure on that front for work I did for a different agency of government:
On Oct. 27, 2010, I was invited by the Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand on the provincial grid, to bid on a writing/research project related to its Smart Grid Forum. A combination of my knowledge of the subject area, my experience writing, and my relatively low per-hour rate helped me win the assignment. Basically, it would take the form of an annual update of all smart grid-related activities in the province, and make recommendations on how the province should move ahead. I’d sit in on meetings with utility, government, academic and private-sector representatives participating in the forum, take notes, and basically convert a whole lot of information into a readable, 35-page document for public release. The whole process took about five months. Here it is here. I alerted readers of my blog of the availability of this document on May 3, 2011, and fully disclosed that I was the one who prepared it. I did not write about the document in my weekly Toronto Star column, and I made it clear to the IESO that I would not do so. I have, of course, written columns about the smart grid in general — something I have consistently championed in my writing for several years.
I estimated in total I would need about 105 hours to attend meetings, research, write, edit, and proof the report. My fee was $150 an hour, working out to a little less than $16,000 for the five-month project. I ended up working more hours because of several rounds of requested edits and some delays on the part of the forum, so my final bill was $19,800. On a per-word basis, which is how writers usually charge for their work, it worked out to $1.40 a word. That’s cheap in the world of professional report writing, and on par with what some of the top magazine writers make.
Looking at the e-mail exchange between Chin and Johnston, I can see why it has drawn attention. I was approached by the IESO before this e-mail exchange took place, but I was awarded the contract a few weeks after. I’m a journalist, so I’m skeptical by nature. Did officials from the ministry and OPA put pressure on the IESO, which is supposed to be an “independent” agency, to hire me for something the agency had asked me to bid for in the first place? I guess it’s possible. But it seems a stretch. And the fact is, since then I have been hired back once by the IESO to write another smart grid-related report — this one similar in size but for $15,000 and to be used, initially I’m told, for internal purposes.
All of this is a long and boring way of saying that I have been completely above-board about what I do, and while I can’t control what people say (or e-mail) behind my back, I can control my own actions.
So let’s be clear: there has been absolutely no corrupt energy reporting, either outside of or inside the Toronto Star. Those who say as much are defaming me and Canada’s largest daily newspaper, and if necessary I will consider my legal options to protect my reputation. Those who know me know that financial gain is not why I do what I do. Sure, I need to pay the bills like anyone else. I’ve edited newsletters for venture capital firms. I’ve written the occasional report for philanthropic organizations. I’ve organized an energy innovation exhibition. I’ve done a bit of public speaking when asked, sometimes for free and other times for an honorarium and/or having my expenses covered. I have also volunteered my time, such as being a director for the ZooShare Biogas Co-operative, which plans to turn manure from animals at the Toronto Zoo into clean electricity for Ontario’s grid.
But my mission as a journalist — and for the past two years as editor of Canada’s magazine of the year — has been and I hope always will be to shine a light on economical solutions to our environmental problems; to be a catalyst for positive change and constructive discussion on how to make our world a more livable place. Period.
I hope this will be the last time I need to comment on this issue. I have a family health crisis that needs my attention. It angers me that this non-controversy has become a distraction from what really matters.
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