Energy: New and Improved!

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

The rise of wealth in countries such as China and India will mean millions more people driving automobiles and an april07suv2Red.jpgincrease in the use of electrical power to run air conditioners and refrigerators. This will result in more carbon emission. In North America, there are still people proudly speeding along in their SUVs and Hummers without passengers “All this has to change,” states Rod Bryden, president and chief executive of Plasco Energy, asserting that the new mark of wealth for industrialized nations will be clean energy and a clean environment. There is as much confusion over what distinguishes clean energy from renewable energy as there is discussion of their imperative ascendency over fossil fuels if we are to create global sustainability. It would be best, therefore, to clarify these terms before going any further.

Renewable energy comes from resources that are regenerative and, for all practical purposes, cannot be depleted. Approximately 29% of the energy produced worldwide comes from renewable energy sources. Biofuels, derived from recently deceased organisms or their metabolic byproducts, are a renewable energy. Ethanol, methanol and wood are all examples of biofuels. These fuels are renewable but can generate pollutants. The prime source of renewable energy is solar radiation, i.e. sunlight, which is also a clean energy.

“Clean” or “green energy” describes what is considered to be environmentally friendly, non-polluting sources of power. These include anaerobic digestion, geothermal energy, wind, small-scale hydropower, solar energy, tidal and wave power. By some definitions green energy includes power derived from burning waste. This process, though it can create airborne pollutants, reduces the need for undesirable garbage dumps.

While Canada is still largely dependent on traditional energy resources ─ oil, coal and large-scale hydro ─ a national market for clean energy is rapidly emerging. The feds and provinces are starting to look at clean energy, which, although more costly per kilowatt to generate than traditional energy, doesn’t require the huge initial investment associated with hydro mega-projects and coal-burning power plants.

In the end, however, it’s “people-power,” not governments, that will bring about the shift, notes Peter Fransham, founder of Advanced Biorefinery. He adds that because Canada is a rich nation we have the luxury to forego relatively cheap, traditional fuels in favor of clean energy.

Contrary to recent reports in the local media, Ottawa is not the centre of renewable or clean energy technology in Canada, according to Mac Brown, president and CEO of Magenn Power. That distinction is currently claimed by both Vancouver and Calgary, which are building hydrogen refueling infrastructure for cars and trucks.
Brown is currently trying to raise capital for a clean technology that would generate power from airborne wind turbines. “There’s no money for green technology in Ottawa at this point,” he laments, “but it’s coming.”

Brown believes that the greatest market for clean technology may lie in developing countries such as India, where there is growing awareness of the environmental and economic impact of using diesel generators to produce electricity. Power from diesel generators can cost $0.50 per kilowatt-hour. There are half a billion people in 500,000 villages without electricity in India ─ a potentially huge market for clean energy, if it can be produced cheaply enough.

The move to renewable and clean energy depends less on technology than market forces, stresses Chris Henderson, chairman of The Delphi Group “because the emerging requirements of clean energy are largely tied to the price of oil and gas.” He maintains that we need to see three to six years of high fuel prices before we find the political will to invest in alternative fuels, and for it to make economic sense. “After three years of high fuel prices, breakthrough technologies could start to hit the market,” he says. “The ‘sharp edge’ is commercialization. And unlike other technologies, which can be proven in the lab and then taken to market; clean energy needs to be proven in the field.”

Fransham agrees. “We need to actually do it to prove it,” he says. “And we haven’t had the pressure to do so on a large scale.”

Brown anticipates that 10%-30% of the world’s electrical power in the near future could come from clean energy. Such a change, however, would likely be a piecemeal affair, the result of smaller clean projects that gradually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and ecologically harmful hydro development.

In Canada, as in most industrialized nations, that change is already happening. From the west, where British Columbia’s pulp and paper industry is generating electricity from biomass, to the east, where Nova Scotia has implemented an aggressive strategy to extract methane from landfills, communities across the land are embracing alternative energy sources.

Ottawa, anxious to validate its claim to being Canada’s “capital of clean tech,” is also very much in the game. Mayor Larry O’Brien’s “war on landfills” has been taken up by Plasco Energy, which is tapping gas at the Trail Road Landfill in order to convert it to electricity. The electricity will be purchased by Hydro Ottawa, which is engaged in a number of clean energy initiatives overseen by affiliate Energy Ottawa.

Nathan Benson, chief communications officer, Hydro Ottawa Group, says that long-term, guaranteed purchase agreements with government are key to driving new technologies. He points to Environment Canada’s agreement with energy providers for 2,000 MW hours of green electricity for Alberta, and Natural Resources Canada’s similar agreement with Maritime Electric in PEI – a 10-year deal to provide Prince Edward Islanders with 13,000 megawatt hours of wind power annually. These long-term agreements are necessary to provide the incentive to install new infrastructure and develop new technologies.

With various government departments promoting and using green energy, including Sustainable Development Technology Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, and Parks Canada, how should governments ultimately be involved? Should they provide a market, with purchasing agreements, or should they allow the industry to develop organically, without the stimulation of tax dollars? One way or another it is clear that governments must help to develop a viable clean tech industry.

The federal government has already made a commitment to biofuels. In 2004, total ethanol production in Canada amounted to approximately 250 million litres, a mere 0.7% of Canada’s total gasoline consumption. The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association is lobbying for 5% renewable fuel content in gasoline, tax credits for ethanol and biodiesel production, and programs to support emerging technologies. There was some progress in December 2006, when the feds announced that petroleum producers would be required to add 5% renewable fuel to gasoline by 2010. The recent budget promised to create a $500 million fund for the commercialization of next-generation renewable fuels technology such as that being developed by Ottawa’s Iogen for cellulose ethanol production.

While market demand and long-term support will be instrumental in furthering new technologies, significant advances, says Benson, are just as likely to come from R&D and the migration of technologies from one field to another. Always alert to the latest developments in solar and wind power technologies, he has seen recent breakthroughs in nanotechnology that could lead to house paint that has solar energy collection capability.
In the end, Benson emphasizes, it will be proven technology and a sound business case that wins the day for clean tech, rather than an appeal to the environmentalist in us all.

Regardless, the measure of a modern city in the 21st century will be its clean energy and green environment.
James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Management.

Plug in, fill up

Canada, perhaps more than any other country, has the natural resources to produce vast amounts of clean and renewable energy. But those resources have remained largely unexploited. The following are some facts and figures on our renewable and clean energy use and potential.
By 2012 it is estimated Canada will have a total capacity of 5,600 MW of wind energy. It takes 1,000 MW to power 200,000 homes.
In 2002, solar power accounted for only 512 MW of electricity worldwide. Waterloo, Ontario, is home to the first (2002) solar-powered neighborhood in Canada.
Energy production from biomass currently meets approximately 6% of the national demand for primary energy. Canada’s forest industry in 1993 generated more than 26 billion dry tons of biomass – the energy equivalent of 82 million barrels of oil. If it was all converted to fuel, it would be enough to meet Canada’s oil needs for 151 years (at 1993 consumption rates). Per capita, Canada has access to far more biomass resources than any other country in the world.
An experimental plant on the Bay of Fundy, in operation since 1984, is one of the first, and the largest, constructed to capture tidal energy. It has a production capacity of 20 MW.
Small hydro
There are just over 300 small hydroelectric plants in Canada, accounting for approximately 3% (2,000 MW) of the country’s total 69,000 MW of hydroelectric output.
We have more than 30,000 geothermal heat pumps installed across the country, many of them in Vancouver, where Canada’s first electricity generating geothermal plant is scheduled to open in 2007. Each year approximately a thousand heat pumps are installed across the country.

New dog, old trick
In 2006, the Ontario government announced plans to close coal-fired electrical power generating plants and go nuclear, but reality checks along the way have caused successive delays.
Realistically, there are currently few alternatives to using coal as our prime energy source for generating electricity.
The United States has the largest coal reserves in the world, and the US Department of Energy is pursuing coal gasification on a major scale. Other countries with an abundance of coal are doing the same. In Canada, New Brunswick is our champion coal producer and it is currently considering using this process. Worldwide, coal gasification is expected to produce 25,000 MW by 2010.
Gasification is a 100-year old, environmentally friendly process that converts carbon-based materials like coal into methane using high-temperatures. Methane has the same chemical composition as natural gas and can be used to drive gas turbines that in turn drive electrical generators. The process is about twice as efficient as generating steam to drive steam turbines, using roughly half the coal to produce the same electrical energy.
Modern low-temperature gasification processes leave sulfur and nitric oxides as well as mercury and other toxins in the slag. The immediate benefit is the lower carbon dioxide emission and a reduction of our carbon debt.

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