February 8, 2011
A recurring theme at the recently held fourth World Future Energy Summit (WFES) was that the transformation to a clean energy future requires a new way of thinking. That new way of thinking was best described by Lord Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics. “In order that climate change targets can be achieved, we face the need for a new industrial revolution. That industrial revolution needs policy change as a driver to reach the scale of change required. With fundamentally strong policy, we can also increase the pace of that change.”
One such policy shift described at the summit is government fuel subsidies. “Government subsidies of energy fuels leads to inefficiencies and waste through artificially high use,” said Dr. Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of International Energy Agency. “Coupled with the current gas glut this poses a real threat to future investment in renewables.”
Another policy shift is to refocus sustainable infrastructure development from established economies to emerging economies. “Developing countries offer a ‘clean sheet’ for renewable technologies as they often do not have the old technologies and infrastructure that developed economies have”, said Rene Umlauft, CEO Renewable Energy, Siemens, Germany. “This means that they can ‘leapfrog’ the problems that developed countries have in replacing old energy systems, making them a key investment market.”
Closer to Home
But policy shifts that drive green energy and sustainability are more than just ideas voiced at environmental summits. Closer to home, the Ontario government’s policies are the drivers of change.
In 2007, the Ontario Power Authority developed a 20-year energy policy that focused on “creating a sustainable energy supply, targeted to improving current natural gas and renewable assets at a sustainable and realistic cost.” That plan included the very successful Feed-in-Tariff program wherein small energy producers using renewable energy sources were paid for surplus power supplied to the grid.
In 2009, the Ontario government introduced its Green Energy and Green Economy Act and its Long-Term Energy Plan (660KB PDF) as an update of the 2007 plan.
During the 1990s, five coal-fired plants, all operated by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), supplied up to 25 per cent of Ontario’s electricity. With the Long-Term Plan, all coal-fired units will be phased out by December 31, 2014. In doing so, Ontario will become the first jurisdiction in North America to eliminate coal-fired generation.
Closing coal plants actually started in 2005 when OPG decommissioned the Lakeshore generating station in Mississauga, Ontario. In 2010, it shut down two units at Nanticoke and two at Lambton generating station. Two more units at Nanticoke are scheduled to be shut down in 2011. Nanticoke was the largest coal-fired generating station in North America and the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases in Canada.
To make up for lost generating capacity, the single unit at the Atikokan plant in northern Ontario is being converted to burn biomass consisting of wood pellets and agricultural by-products. Two of the three units at Thunder Bay will be converted to natural gas. As well, units at Nanticoke and Lambton may be converted to burn gas or biomass.
Ontario expects that nuclear power will continue to provide up to 50 per cent of its electricity. This may call for refurbishment and modernization of units at the Darlington, Pickering and Bruce nuclear generating stations as well as the addition of two to four new reactors at Darlington.
The province will add capacity through upgrades to, and new construction of, hydropower facilities, wind farms and solar parks. Ontario already leads the country in wind and solar capacity.
Existing Feed-in-Tariff programs, which initially included biomass, biogas, landfill gas, wind, solar and small hydro, will be expanded to include small combined heat and power projects.
While policy is driving change in Ontario, it may not be the only driver. The first Industrial Revolution was driven by innovation and technology that allowed mass production. Similarly, recent advances have contributed to the economic viability of renewable resources such as wind power and solar photovoltaic energy and to the more efficient use of conventional fuels in new technologies such as combined cycle gas turbines. Without these advances, implementing policy change might be prohibitively expensive.
|Held in Abu Dhabi and hosted by Masdar, an Abu Dhabi based renewable energy and sustainable technology organization, the WFES is an annual event that promotes innovation and investment opportunities surrounding renewable energy and the environment. This year’s meeting was attended by more than 26,000 visitors from 137 countries. Delegates included political leaders, international policy makers, industry experts, investors,and academics.|
October 8, 2010
When it comes to public transit, Canadians are no strangers to using body heat to keep warm. Hey, it’s a cold climate, our buses don’t always run on time and sharing is just good manners. But if the occasional bus shelter cuddle seems low tech, Parisians are preparing to take the concept into the 21st century with a heating system powered by the bodies of Metro passengers.
Supplemented by existing heating, and fuelled by the heat generated by the trains’ movements, the system would pump body heat from the underground station platforms into an apartment building above. And though the system is currently only designed to heat 17 apartments, and while it’s only been installed because there was already a connecting stairway that could be used to install the event, it’s certainly not taking place in isolation.
Other urban energy projects have been designed to take advantage of the energy we already expend, like plates that absorb the kinetic energy of cars driving through a fast food drive-through, or a hydro generator that draws its power from falling wastewater. And when it comes to energy use, heating is no small matter for a country with its northern half dangling into the Arctic Circle: upwards of 40 per cent of all power consumed in the country goes to our heating needs.
Besides, anyone who’s ever packed themselves into a station in the Montreal Metro has already encountered the powerful combination of body heat and train exhaust. Why shouldn’t we keep our Canuck parts warm with the energy we’ve already got? It definitely beats huddling together for warmth in a bus shelter.
Or does it…?
September 27, 2010
Image: Decker Yeadon LLC
Solar panels are becoming common sights in our daily lives: from our backpacks to the tops of our neighbourhoods. But one thing that nobody’s accused solar panels of being, thus far, is pretty. But that’s going to change if one project has its way.
The Light Sanctuary would be a solar plant with style. Using 80,000 square km of incredibly thin solar panels, the installation would look like a giant, deep brown maze placed in the middle of desert, producing up to 4,592 MW-hours annually.
Designed by the American firm Decker Yeagan, the sculpture is an entry into the Land Art Generator Initiative, a contest sponsored by none other than Masdar, the body responsible for the United Arab Emirates’ energy showcase. The contest is designed to reward installations that also happen to provide large scale clean energy generation. According to the initiative’s website: “The works will serve to inspire and educate while they provide renewable power to thousands of homes around the world.”
The UAE also recently announced a similarly ambitious project: the Shams 1 solar power plant. At 100 MW, the Shams 1 has a far a higher capacity than its more artistic brother. At this stage, it’s just not practical to sacrifice functionality for attractiveness, leaving the Light Sanctuary as more of a visual demonstration than a bona fide power plant.
And while the Light Sanctuary and the Shams 1 are baking in the sun, researchers in the UK are finding ways of cooling power down.
Researchers at the University of Leeds in the U.K. and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have proposed using excess electricity to chill nitrogen and oxygen. The idea is that the stored gases could be reheated by waste heat, and their gaseous forms could drive turbines. Like a smart grid, this system would directly address one of the most fundamental problems with the way we currently use electricity: peak demand. In those periods where we have more energy than we know what to do with, we’d simply cool it down.
So whether we’re trying to put a pretty face on our solar power, or using our excess power to keep things cool, one thing’s clear: If the future’s certainly going to look different, it’s nice to know that it might look prettier too.
August 3, 2010
The researchers who discovered it say it’s ”the most condensed form of energy storage outside of nuclear energy.” That’s big talk for something so small: a “battery” capable of storing a million atmospheres worth of pressure in a white crystal called xenon difluoride (XeF2).
By squeezing the xenon difluoride in a tiny diamond anvil (yes, that is exactly what it sounds like), researchers at Washington State were able to compress the xenon difluoride into a two-dimensional superconductor. When compressed even further, the substance formed 3D metallic “network structures” that stored the mechanical energy of the compression in chemical bonds.
The end result was an incredibly small “battery” (though based on a much simpler chemical reaction than the ones we’re used to) capable of storing an incredibly large amount of power. And storing power cuts to the heart of everything we’re interested in when it comes to new sources of energy.
Since renewable sources like solar and wind are intermittent, for example, they need energy storage to bridge the gap between periods of low sun or wind. In addition to conventional batteries, a host of solutions have been put forward, including water storage and even salt storage. But since there’s no telling how large a facility these far-out solutions could need, and since there’s a limit on how small and efficient conventional batteries can be, the idea of a battery so small and powerful that it could fit inside a two-inch by three-inch anvil is terribly interesting.
In the end, all energy research is ultimately about releasing or transforming energy: even fossil fuels are essentially storing sunlight that was converted into chemical energy by the organisms that have since decomposed. And, when it comes to storage, smaller really is better.
July 21, 2010
Lithium batteries are so yesterday. A solar-powered backpack? Pfft, you’ll have to do better than that. If you really want portable power, and you want to look cool doing it, it’s the bat hook or nothing.
Sure, a device designed to be thrown over your head and into overhead power lines might not offer any new ways of generating electricity, but it sure is… dangerous. (Not really, according to the US Department of Defence, provided of course that you’re already a trained soldier.) And, given that it conducts power from the line by slicing into it with a small blade, it might not exactly be the most popular option among cities that don’t want their infrastructure being constantly cut.
Just the same: who wouldn’t want to power their laptop with something called a bat hook? If there’s anything comics have taught us, it’s that anything becomes at least 50 per cent cooler with the prefix “bat”.
As it happens, over 60 per cent of Canada’s electricity is produced using hydro, with fossil fuels coming in second at about 23 per cent. Once generated, that electricity is transmitted throughout the country on over 160,000 kilometres of high voltage lines. How you get that electricity out of the grid, though, is entirely up to you.
Image Warner Brothers
July 19, 2010
Canada is still wrangling with its own nuclear future. For example, while Alberta has said that it will evaluate all private nuclear projects on a case-by-case basis, British Columbia has a standing policy of no nuclear power plants in the province. Federally regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, there hasn’t actually been a new nuclear plant built in Canada in decades, and Bruce Power recently folded its own plans for a pair of new reactors in Ontario. At present, Ontario, New Brunswick and Quebec are the only three provinces to produce electricity from nuclear power.
But imagine if it didn’t take millions of dollars to create a nuclear reactor. Imagine if they could be built right in our own backyards. That’s exactly what a group of 37 hobbyists in the United States have done — creating fusion reactors the size of air conditioners — with the most recent being built in Manhattan.
Fuelled by deuterium gas, the reactor itself actually contains no fissile materials (so there’s no danger of a Three Mile Island-style meltdown). But more important to the future of electricity generation, the reactor still isn’t at the break-even point, requiring more energy to run than it ends up producing. Still, its creator, Mark Suppes, is optimistic that one day he’ll be able to create a prototype that will at least break even. After that, who knows?
Decentralized power is definitely one of the most talked-about changes that we’re likely to see in our energy systems. One day, all our homes will be capable of generating their own electricity and selling it back to the grid. But it tends to be a lot easier to sell that concept to consumers when we’re talking about wind and solar. There’s always been something about nuclear power in our backyards that makes people a little more cautious.
June 29, 2010
The Drake Landing Solar Community in Okotoks, Alberta met an important milestone last month, keeping its residents toasty almost exclusively with the aid of the sun. After three years, the project has successfully reached its goal of providing 80 per cent of the homes’ heating from an array of 800 solar panels on garage roofs around the community.
With new homes being increasingly built to take advantage of solar heating, either through active sources like solar panels or passive sources like strategically placed windows, successes like Okotoks’s go to show that it’s possible to take charge of our energy use beginning where we live.
Started on June 21, 2007 — the day of the summer solstice — The Drake Landing Solar Community certainly experienced hiccups along the way. In the project’s first two years, it missed its annual targets by 10 to 15 per cent. But now, according to the community’s website, it’s currently on track to reach 90 per cent of its users’ heating needs by the project’s fifth year.
Southern Alberta is in a particularly well located to take advantage of solar energy, with between 1,200 and 1,300 potential kilowatt hours available . In fact, a band of high potential runs throughout southern Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, providing a natural fit for residential and large scale solar projects.
And it’s not just Alberta that’s showing the country how much potential lies in solar energy. Ontario Solar Thermal Heating Incentive Program (OSTHI) provides funding to encourage the installation of solar heating, just as Saskatchewan’s Solar Heating Initiative for Today (SHIFT) encourages a variety of consumers, from residential to municipal, to do the same.
With successes like Okotoks paving the way, solar heating definitely has a bright future.
June 14, 2010
In Canada, transportation accounts for a full 36 per cent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. Cars, trucks, airplanes and freight trains — they all take Canadians and Canadian goods where they need to go, and almost all consume some form of refined petroleum, which is responsible for 49 per cent of Canada’s emissions.
But there are unconventional ideas on the horizon that could change the way we move around, from natural gas-powered vehicles to jet engines powered by garbage. But some of the future’s vehicles are bound to be weirder than others.
Take, for example, a flying fish being developed by Swiss scientists. Built to mimic the contraction of muscle tissue, this floating, fish-like dirigible would be capable of moving through the air without the aid of a propeller, or the heavy mechanical components of an engine. Quiet and manoeuvrable, it uses electrodes installed along the polymer that makes up the fish’s “skin” to attract one side to the other. The result: a gentle, swimming motion.
At the moment, the 8-metre prototype is only able to move at a slow walking speed, and there are serious real-world considerations of to be taken into account, like sudden winds or other inclement weather. But there’s definite potential in any design that can reduce air and noise pollution at the same time.
The trout-like airship also isn’t the only prototype to suggest an entirely different approach to motion in the vehicles we’re already used to seeing. Kinetic road plates are already being used to capture the impact of passing cars to generate electricity, and vehicles like smart bikes and so-called EcoCabs are adding human locomotion to the power of an electric engine.
While the world waits for its skies to fill with enormous airborne fish to carry us away, though, Canadians already have a broad selection of fuel efficient cars to improve the way they get around. But now that you know that the future has flying fish in it, it might be a little harder to get excited about excellent fuel mileage.
Would a trout have a higher km/l ratio than a salmon? Only the future will tell.
May 10, 2010
Generally, when we talk about generating power from water, we’re talking about hydroelectricity, a source of energy that uses the force of water’s movement to turn massive turbines. But what if we could actually derive energy from the water itself?
It’s already the way that plants and some microorganisms feed themselves, through photosynthesis. Sunlight is used as a catalyst to split water into its constituent molecules, with oxygen being released as waste and the remaining CO2 being converted into usable organic compounds. As a result, the fossil fuels that we use every day still ultimately depend on photosynthesis, given that the decaying organisms originally storing that sunlight have since been converted into hydrocarbons.
And all that brings us back to water.
A recent innovation by a team of MIT researchers allowed them to split a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The result: a ready source of hydrogen that could be used in the production of fuel cells and even liquid fuel.
It’s not the first time that MIT researchers have been able to split water molecules, but it is the first time that they’ve been able to initiate the process without electricity. In this new process, a virus is used to construct a biological “scaffold” that can assemble the nanocomponents necessary to split the water molecule.
Like so many new and exotic energy technologies, MIT’s water-splitting virus is a long way from being able to do its work at an industrial level. Even though the photosynthesizing organisms we’re used to using in our gas tanks are millions of years old, it would be many more years before this particular technology could replace them. We don’t have the technology to create water-powered cars yet, unfortunately.
Still, with more than 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface covered in water, it’s hard not to be tantalized by the promise that, one day, we might also be able to use it to power our homes and vehicles.
March 29, 2010
It’s not a new question, but it’s one we’re still constantly trying to answer. And when it comes to energy, it’s a question that seems to have a few contradictory answers.
On one hand, we already know that Canada’s future is going to be different than its present: with the advent of alternative energy technologies and an increasing emphasis on energy efficiency, Canadians are demanding a bigger say in the energy they use. A national Canadian Centre for Energy Information survey conducted this year found that a full 59 per cent of respondents felt disconnected from decision-making on energy policies. But on the other hand, there are strong economic incentives to continue using the same profitable sources we’ve always used, especially when demand for those sources is growing globally. So, what’s a Canadian to do?
Flow doesn’t have a crystal ball (just a pic), but we’re always doing our best to keep an eye out to the future. So, here are a few thoughts on Canada’s energy future: the new, the old and the green.
At the moment, Canada’s primary energy production is dominated by crude oil and natural gas. Together, these two sources make up almost 75 per cent of our total energy exports, exports that totalled $126 billion in 2008. Given the current patterns of global energy consumption, those exports isn’t likely to become any less important to the country.
Global demand for both oil and natural gas is continuing to rise, driven by demand in Asia and the Middle East, particularly China. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), demand in the transportation sector alone is expected to climb 41 per cent by 2030. And with most of that demand occurring in the developing world, Canada’s strength as an exporter is likely to continue, especially with oil reserves actually continuing to grow.
In fact, despite the fact that oil is a non-renewable resource, developments in areas like Alberta’s oil sands — the second largest oil reserve in the world — have hiked the planet’s total proved reserves to 1,258 billion barrels. If demand continues to increase, there will continue to be reserves to meet this demand into the near future.
One of the places where industry will be discussing that near future will be the CERI 2010 Oil Conference, a three-day event running between April 18 and 20. With session titles like “Conventional Oil: Last Rights or New Breath?” it’s clear that the industry recognizes that changes are coming, but with demand continuing, there’s strong reason to believe that the future won’t necessarily be unrecognizable.
Still, while oil and natural gas have long been mainstays of the Canadian energy mix, an increasing emphasis on the environmental impact of their use has fuelled the development of alternative energy sources. The field of alternative energy includes sources as varied as biomass and waste products, but two of the leading areas in the field of alternative energy continue to be solar and wind.
Solar and wind energy are two of the most common examples of energy technologies that are changing the Canadian energy mix, and are likely to continue to change it into our future. Solar power is already becoming increasingly common in Canadian homes and once-distant wind turbine might end up finding their way into our cities.
For now, solar energy is primarily used in two ways in Canadian homes, either passively and actively. Examples of active use include photovoltaic (PV) cells that generate electricity or through solar heating panels that transmit the sun’s heat through a heat-transfer liquid. Passive uses of solar energy include architectural changes that allow homes to absorb ambient heat and redirect it in much the same way that a heating duct redirects a furnace’s.
At a federal level, solar development is supported through Natural Resource Canada’s CanmetENERGY, whose solar projects include research into low energy solar homes and developing codes, certification, and installation standards for PV systems and components. The agency has even developed a useful map of PV potential across the country demonstrating Canada’s solar potential.
Given that potential, it’s not surprising that organizations like The Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) are trying to get professionals networking. In May, CanSIA will host its first-ever regional conference. Running for two days, May 25 and 26, the conference’s topics include “The economics of solar – can it make sense?”, “Sharing the Western Landscape…where do renewables and solar fit in?” and a “Solar Showcase” featuring private and public industry figures.
Wind, meanwhile, continues to be largely a commercial, rather than a residential sector. Though there are wind turbines small enough to be used residentially, they aren’t nearly as common as their larger, commercial brothers.
For now, wind represents only 0.3 per cent of the country’s total electricity mix, but given global trends it’s not difficult to imagine that number growing. In fact, in the last 10 years, wind power use globally has increased annually by 30 per cent. The applications for Canada, where rural communities sometimes require their own power, are considerable. Operations adding diesel or hydro to intermittent wind, for example, could provide the same amount of energy with fewer emissions and other negative environmental impacts. Expect issues like these to be discussed at The Canadian Wind Energy Association’s upcoming Wind Energy Forum, running from April 13 to 14 in Toronto.
Whether they’re fossil fuels or renewable energy sources, one of our strongest motivations for changing the way we use energy continues to be our concern over greenhouse gas emissions. Even if our mix continues to include fuels that produce these emissions, the way we use our energy is becoming just as important as the types of energy sources we use. Canada’s energy future, then, is likely to include changes in that use, both by consumers and businesses.
For those industries already producing fossil fuels, the emphasis will now be on “cleaner” versions. From carbon capture and storage technology that will trap much of the carbon dioxide ultimately released into the atmosphere, to fundamental changes in the way that oil and natural gas are extracted. At least one of the many public acknowledgements of this move toward cleaner fossil fuels can be seen in the U.S.- Canada Clean Energy Dialogue, a resolution between the two countries aimed at reducing the intensity of the energy industry’s emissions.
Consumers, meanwhile, in addition to being able to purchase home-based energy systems that can sell power back to the grid, as Ontarians can do under the province’s Feed-In Tariff program, are using less energy. And provincial governments are doing what they can to ensure that this conservation becomes a large part of the country’s energy future.
Provincial governments have already nodded to the importance of reducing their citizens’ energy use, creating agencies like Quebec’s Agence de l’efficacité énergétique and Prince Edward Island’s Office of Energy Efficiency to centrally manage provincial energy efficiency initiatives. Together with more rigorous building codes and incentive programs that encourage everything from low flow toilets to more efficient appliances, the hope is that future energy use will not only be defined by resources like oil and natural gas, wind and solar, but by the consumers who ultimately use them.