Wisdom of the Crowd

Believe it or not, “cap and trade” was being debated as an economic policy option way back in my university days. It has only taken a lifetime to implement it in a handful of jurisdictions and the debate still continues.

The real question is what happens with the money, and how effective will it be in addressing the critical climate change issue? (Climate Change Is About to Accelerate Past the Point of No Return, Dec 2016) The opposition party agues for a rebate of a carbon tax directly to households. The current government has taken a different approach.

Now that Ontario has ‘captured’ the revenue from the first auctions of carbon credits the government announced this month that it “will use the proceeds of its cap-and-trade program to establish a fund — called the Green Ontario Fund — through a provincial agency. The program will offer up to a $7,200 rebate for new insulation, up to $5,000 for new windows, and up to $20,000 for new ground source heat pumps.”

Is there a difference to these two approaches? Either way, with cap and trade or a carbon tax, whether or not we see any real change in carbon emissions is still very much up to us. We have to make thousands of individual decisions to do something meaningful in a timely manner.

At least the Green Ontario website presents a menu of funded options for both households and businesses. You’ll notice that some of these programs were previously-existing conservation programs offered by gas distributors and electric utilities (Save on Energy) while others are new provincial programs. Now all conservation programs are grouped together in specific categories: home; small business; organization. But you, the consumer, have to educate yourself about the different opportunities, weigh the relative value of different options (net cost and estimated savings), be motivated to complete an application for your chosen program(s) and select a pre-approved contractor. Hence, I’m giving a little nudge with this free plug for the Green Ontario web site – the government is waving a fist full of dollars your way. They’ve got my attention and maybe yours.

Ontario isn’t the first to tackle carbon emissions. In the UK, a decision was made some years ago to ‘just do it’. An insulation upgrade program simply went street by street, house by house, in a systematic approach that was said to be 90% more efficient than a random installation based on scattered applications. It gave an immediate boost to employment but this approach requires deciding priorities – who’s first and who comes last.

The New Year promises to be a decisive time with a likely tumultuous election in the mix. Will Ontarian homes and businesses be motivated enough by the carbon trade incentives? Will contractors be up to the challenge? Will the total upgrades be good enough and numerous enough to make a meaningful difference in carbon emissions and your payback savings? It’s entirely up to you and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’.

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Power of the Wind

RidgeBlade

Regular readers may recall that I have written a couple of times about a new wind energy turbine technology designed for roof-top installation. Originally developed in the UK, the RidgeBlade® system is suitable for use on domestic and commercial buildings. Although the system won an international award and funding for commercial development, little more has been heard about it until now.

Remarkably, RidgeBlade® is now a Canadian-owned technology. The company, Power Collective Inc., has set up shop at Innovation Park in Kingston, Ontario. More information is available from their web site (https://ridgeblade.ca).

“In January 2017, early testing began at Western University’s WindEEE Research Institute. The WindEEE facilities allowed the RidgeBlade to be tested in various wind conditions confirming that the roof-mounted wind turbine can effectively harness the wind that is gathered by a sloped roof.

By simulating additional turbulence, we also proved that the RidgeBlade is an ideal system to use in urban environments, where the wind conditions can be unpredictable and inconsistent.” (RidgeBlade Completes Early Testing Phase In London, Ontario, Power Collective, Jan 16, 2017)

Since then the company was invited to exhibit at the Smart Energy Week in Tokyo, Japan, one of several hundred exhibitors of Small Wind and Hybrid technologies.

To advance it’s commercial ambitions, the company is currently interested in hearing from potential qualified system installers to bring the technology to the urban home and business market. According to the web site, they have representatives in Toronto and Montreal.

This is an exciting development considering that the Seimens wind turbine blade factory in Tillsonburg is winding down, and several conventional wind turbine tower projects have been loudly opposed by residents and environmentalists. The RidgeBlade® technology presents an opportunity to use wind power where solar may not be ideal, or an opportunity to optimize renewable energy generation by combining both. Local power generation is a trend that is only gathering momentum. Combined with micro-grids and battery storage, our energy landscape will experience a complete make-over.

Passive Design, Active Results

We are slowly learning that we have the knowledge and technology to eliminate a lot of today’s conventional home energy use. The latest example is a passive solar home built in Innisfil. The outstanding feature is that it is built without the need for a conventional furnace. The south facing home is very highly insulated, sealed and uses passive solar gain. It’s no surprise that the builder and owner formerly worked with the Kortwright Centre for Conservation.

I first wrote about passive solar and net-zero energy construction a few years ago so it’s encouraging to know that the concept is finally attracting wider practical application and real world experience under our local conditions. Importantly, municipal authorities are learning to recognize this certification standard.

We’re able to learn about some of the technical details from a recent news article at Simcoe.com (Home builder lives without furnace in passive house, July 13, 2017). The home’s ‘raft’ foundation has a styrofoam base below concrete and the walls are “double stud” allowing for an R65 insulation factor. Notably, the owner says they have “come up with a wall [insulation] system just as efficient without adding significant cost.” Certainly the budgeted cost of ducting and furnace could be applied instead to this use.

An energy recovery ventilation (EVR) unit runs continuously to ensure a proper air circulation and stable temperature within the airtight building envelope. Surprisingly, energy-efficient windows came from Ireland. The article didn’t indicate what distinguished them from so many possible local window suppliers. Solar panels are being added to the home as well.

This type of approach continues to be a ‘pay now or pay later’ proposition. The builder suggests it could be offered as a “luxury option” in subdivisions with a pay-back over 20 years. Otherwise, potential home-buyers could just opt for conventional construction and take a chance with future energy prices or ‘move up’ later when energy efficient techniques become more widely adopted. Passive solar design and ‘net zero’ energy technology makes even more sense for multi-unit construction where the benefits are likely to be more easily achieved.

There is another option. Builders could consider a better trade-off between home size and efficiency. I walked through a builder’s ‘luxury’ model home recently out of curiosity. My wife remarked, “I could be happy with half of this house!” to which another couple immediately responded, “Great! I’ll buy the other half!” Maybe an enterprising builder can recognize an opportunity to make ‘less’ equal ‘more’.

Councillor Seeks InnPower Sale

UPDATE: One councillor, Richard Simpson, supported Mr. Daurio’s motion (below). Deputy Mayor Dollin suggested he was making the motion for ‘his friends’ at Alectra – an accusation Mr. Daurio attributes to the fact that he relied on financial figures provided by Alectra. Dollin also suggested that a $25 million charge was made to Barrie when joining Alectra – something Mr. Daurio describes as “an opportunity for Barrie to invest in the purchase of Brampton hydro and earn an additional $5m annually in interest and dividends forever!”. Daurio contends that “Alectra had promised a 14% rate reduction, and interest and dividends and other savings of $4m annually, while InnPower promised a rate increase and little/no dividends for  the next 6 years — a loss to Innisfil of $8m annually, and $48m over the next 6 years.” Under existing procedural rules, the subject will not be revisited at Council for a year.

This Wednesday, June 7, Councillor Stan Daurio is moving a motion at Innisfil Council “that the Board of InnPower be requested to explore options to sell or partner with Alectra and/or other utilities…”.

The saga of missteps at InnPower is already well known: an ill-fated attempt at joint ownership with Edmonton-owned Epcor Utilities Inc.; an overly ambitious investment in new facilities based on the assumption of leasing space to Epcor; an urgent need for alternative InnPower financing when the deal collapsed; a six year suspension of dividend payments to Innisfil; loans from the Town and Simcoe County plus an application for a rate increase to cover the cost of mandated expansion of service to newly designated urban areas.

In light of the current popular uproar over electricity rates, Councillor Daurio argues it would be more beneficial to sell our local utility to Alectra, which was formed from the merger of municipally-owned Enersource, Horizon Utilities and Powerstream plus the acquisition of Hydro One Brampton as of February of this year. Headquartered in Mississauga, Alectra’s service area encompasses 1,800 square kilometres and serves nearly a million customers in 15 communities from Alliston to St. Catharines and Hamilton to Vaughan. Alectra is now “the second largest municipally-owned electric utility by customer base in North America”.

Councillor Daurio puts the minimum value of InnPower at $40 million (2015 estimate) and expects a dividend return of 4.4 to 4.5% or $1.8 million annually. Additionally, the former Powerstream told Council in 2015 that a merger would lower electric bills in Innisfil by $23/month. This would be equivalent to savings of $4.4 million annually for 16,000 Innisfil households.  Continue reading

The Price of Power

Bruce Laurie caused a stir with his article, “No one can make electricity cheap again”. I tend to agree with him, if only for his observation that the Darlington nuclear plant was built:

“10 years late and almost $12 billion over budget. No one could afford to pay the real cost of Darlington, so Ontarians carried that debt for the next three decades.”

With billions more committed by the Ontario government to refurbishment of our nuclear plants, there is no likely escape from this scenario in the near future.

Some critics blame Mr. Laurie for his role in higher prices as a “former director of the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) and Ontario’s Independent Electricity Systems Operator (IESO). He served as a member of the Electricity Transition Committee under the Harris government.”

So how high is ‘high’ for electricity prices? Hydro Quebec and Financial Post published comparative figures for 1,000 kWh of electricity from suppliers across North America (U.S.  figures were converted to Canadian dollars). InnPower came in at $182.09, which is not that different from Toronto Hydro at $181.95. ‘Low density’ rural Ontario had an average bill of $229. In Ontario our power relies on nuclear (60%) and hydro (24%).

Looking further afield, Montreal was $100, Winnipeg was $117, Ottawa $224, Halifax $220 and Vancouver $148. If we look across the US border, 1000 kWh averaged $409 in New York, $383 in Boston, $161 in Miami, $156 in Houston, $118 in Indiana.

How can we account for these variations?  Continue reading

Green Affordable Energy

I occasionally still see a comment or letter suggesting that abolishing the Green Energy Act would somehow remedy concerns about high electricity prices. When I read about advances in renewable energy that idea seems to be the least sensible approach.

Here are some of the things I’ve noticed lately:

  • Solar cells are becoming more efficient. Solar panels typically capture 23% of energy. A special reflective dish arrangement claims to boost this to 34% (EcoWatch, “5 solar innovations revolutionizing the world”)
  • “Battery technology is advancing and becoming more affordable. Tesla’s sister company, Solar city is offering Tesla batteries at a price point that’s more than 60% less than previous solar power storage products …” (EcoWatch, “5 solar innovations revolutionizing the world”)
  • “A subsidiary of Bouygues SA has designed rugged solar panels, capable of withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler truck, that they’re now building into road surfaces. After nearly five years of research and laboratory tests, they’re constructing 100 outdoor test sites and plan to commercialize the technology in early 2018… To resist the weight of traffic, Wattway layers several types of plastics to create a clear and durable casing. The solar panel underneath is an ordinary model, similar to panels on rooftops. The electrical wiring is embedded in the road and the contraption is topped by an anti-slip surface made from crushed glass.” (National Post, “Solar panel roads to be built on four continents…”)
  • “… Green Sun Rising earns its bread and butter building solar plants in isolated Canadian communities, many in the far North, that have generated all their power with diesel generators … People are often surprised Dohring can make a living selling solar power plants, like his latest on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic, which has 10 weeks a year of constant darkness. However, if the sun never sets in summer, I have a nearly infinite amount of energy supply,” says Dohring (CBC News, “Green tech ready to step in when oil prices rise”)
  • “A U of T Engineering innovation could make printing solar cells as easy and inexpensive as printing a newspaper. Dr. Hairen Tan and his team have cleared a critical manufacturing hurdle in the development of a relatively new class of solar devices called perovskite solar cells. This alternative solar technology could lead to low-cost, printable solar panels capable of turning nearly any surface into a power generator.” (Journal News of the World, “Printable solar panels on the horizon says new research”)
  • “Scientists from Skoltech’s Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics, and Moscow State University have come up with inorganic perovskite solar batteries with tremendous efficiency, said Skoltech’s press service. The new devices exhibit very high efficiency in light conversion (10.5%) comparable with those of perovskite batteries based on classical hybrid materials (about 12%).” (Tass Russian News, “Russian scientists create highly- efficient, inorganic perovskite solar batteries”)
  • “… as of the 1st of January, 2017, all electric train rides in the Netherlands have become even greener. They are now entirely powered by clean, renewable, wind energy. Dutch railway companies, of which NS is by far the largest, teamed up with energy company Eneco in 2015 to cut train ride emissions drastically. Originally, 2018 was set as the target for changing to 100% renewable power sources. After having reached 75% in 2016, though, the 100% transition was completed one year ahead of schedule.” (Clean Technica, “All Dutch Trains Now Run 100% onWind Power”)
  • “Wind turbines in Scotland provided enough electricity to supply the average needs of almost all Scotland’s homes last month, according to a report. Data from Weather Energy showed turbines generated 792,717MWh of electricity to the National Grid in October, up more than a quarter on the same month last year. The amount is enough to supply the average needs of 87% of Scottish households, WWF Scotland said.” (Independent, “Scotland generates enough wind energy to power almost every household …”)
  • According to a US report, “There was a record amount of gas burned for power generation last year … But there was also a record amount of photovoltaics and the second highest amount of renewables that we have seen added in a year… The research shows that both gas and renewable energy are expanding at the expense of coal, says Zindler. The falling price of technology plus greater efficiency mean that solar panels and wind often remain cheaper than gas.” (CBC News, “Green tech ready to step in when oil prices rise”)
  • Four teenage girls figured out a way to use a liter of urine as fuel to get six hours of electricity from their generator. Fourteen-year-olds Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, and Faleke Oluwatoyin, and 15-year-old Bello Eniola displayed their invention this week at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, an annual event meant to showcase ingenuity.” (Forbes, “Teens Create A Way To Use Urine As Fuel”)
  • Researchers at the University of Bath have developed an innovative miniature fuel cell that can generate electricity from urine, creating an affordable, renew‐ able and carbon-neutral way of generating power. In the near future this device could provide a means of generating much needed electricity to remote areas at very little cost, each device costs just £1-£2. (Science Daily, “Urine turned into sustainable power source for electronic devices”)