Cleantech is Alive and Well

Last month, CBS ran a piece on 60 Minutes called “The Cleantech Crash” about the wasteful decline of companies coined as Cleantech industries (a generic term for industries in alternative energy). In 2011, President Barack Obama funded approximately $100 billion into developing Cleantech industries hoping such an investment would spark innovation, development, and ultimately, jobs. According to 60 Minutes, this expensive project turned out to be a large mistake funded by taxpayer dollars. Several companies like Abound Power, Beacon Power, Range Fuels, ECOtality and a host of others went under, which begs the question whether clean, renewable technologies will ever become a viable alternative given what was seemingly a massive failure.

After CBS aired that segment, they received quite a lot of harsh criticism from many experts within the green industry, even the US Department of Energy called it “flat wrong”. Although there were a number of Cleantech companies that went under, the segment failed to mention the resounding success stories that emerged from Cleantech funding. The American solar industry (which had benefited from the $100 billion US government funding) has grown dramatically since 2008. According to Slate Magazine, there were more solar power installations in 2013 alone than in the previous 20 years combined. Employment in the solar industry grew 10 times faster than the US average; it now employs more people than the natural gas and coal industries combined.

Solar generation plant

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in California, the word’s largest solar thermal facility is now operational.

Clearly, such growth is not an indication of decline and decay, but rather, a sign of strength and stability, and it isn’t stopping there. According to Mercom Capital Group, an Austin based clean energy firm, US solar energy generation is projected to increase by another 6,000 MW in 2014 alone!

It isn’t just the solar industry that has benefited from Cleantech funding; wind power has also grown substantially in recent years. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the cost of generating wind power has decreased by more than 40% in only 4 years, and at the end of 2013, there was an additional 12,000 MW of planned generation under construction. Furthermore, the vast majority of the additional wind power capacity will be coming from onshore wind turbines; the US has barely tapped the potential from offshore wind generation, where wind speeds are greater and more consistent.

Flat wind farm

Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in Oregon, the second largest of its kind in the US began operations in 2012.

During the 60 Minutes segment, reporter Leslie Stahl lists a whole group of companies that failed even though they received funding from the federal government. It is understandable that some would oppose the US government’s handling of Cleantech given that so many government subsidies were wasted on projects that never left the ground, but if that’s all it takes for collective outrage, the fossil fuel industries should never hear the end of it.

According to Businessweek, when it comes to government subsidies worldwide, coal, oil and gas have received more than $400 billion in 2010 alone. That same year, renewable energy industries received a comparatively small $60 billion. Additionally, every year, the US government subsidises coal, oil and gas by as much as $50 billion if the cost of securing oil reserves in the politically volatile Middle East are included and for what? A 2009 study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences reported that burning fossil fuels costs the US around $120 billion a year in health related costs and thousands of premature deaths. In essence, the American taxpayer is giving $50 billion to some of the wealthiest corporations only to have them contaminate the environment making them sick and slowly killing them. Additionally, the costs resulting from the effects of global warming have yet to be fully quantified with no realistic estimate available. Even so, I can’t imagine that it would be a small figure.

Coal Generation Plant

Fossil fuel industries receive far more in government subsidies than Cleantech.

It seems rather blind and contradictory to condemn the US government for subsidising Cleantech while remaining silent over the subsidies given to oil, coal and natural gas. In the worst case scenario, subsidising a renewable energy project could result in wasted money; subsidising oil, coal or natural gas could result in an environmental disaster and wasted money. Since there is a fixed amount of things we can burn, it seems rather obvious that some kind of an investment into Cleantech industries will be necessary now and in the future.

It is very clear then that calling Cleantech a failure is far too premature, and from the projections and potential for growth, it seems as though Cleantech has a great future ahead. Although there were some bumps along the way, the journey is far from over, and the experiment continues. Just because the first attempt wasn’t a resounding success, it doesn’t mean that any future attempt is doomed to fail. Like many industries, those behind Cleantech are still learning and adapting with the best yet to come. The present has already proven Leslie Stahl a little premature in her judgments, I’m certain time will prove her completely wrong.

Smart Meters: Why should I care?

Picture this, an electrical grid perfectly balancing generation, demand and distribution. A grid that is capable of accommodating abundant wind, solar and other renewable sources of energy into its system without issue or complication. On the rare occasion that problems occur, they are quick to be resolved. Such a technological wonder is not only possible but is already under way and it has started with the mass deployment of smart meters, so why then is there so much opposition towards them?

Smart Meter

Smart meters like this one are being deployed across North America

For those that don’t know, a smart meter is a device that collects a building’s energy use along with the time it was used which is then sent to the utility companies via Wi-Fi network at set intervals per day. Utilities will then use this data to get a more accurate, up-to-date picture of demand and consumption, which will make the grid easier to manage.

Currently, many utility companies across North America are installing smart meters at peoples’ homes and businesses as part of a greater vision to build a smart grid. There has been, however, a significant amount of resistance to them in many areas. In British Columbia, many groups have sprung up vehemently opposing smart meters. In a more extreme example, some families in Texas have been threatening utility workers at gun point to prevent smart meter installations. Such resistance to a seemingly benign piece of hardware has raised concerns over privacy invasion and health risks. However, are these legitimate concerns? Are these groups just buying into their own paranoia? Looking into this subject, it seems like logic and science are being ignored at the expense of innovation and progress.

BC Residents Protest smart meters

British Columbia has become a hot bed of smart meter opposition

Much opposition towards smart meters is that fact that they monitor a building’s energy usage throughout the day. Some are concerned that this is an invasion of privacy and is akin to a form of surveillance. Although smart meters will give utilities a more accurate picture of how much energy you’re consuming throughout the day, utilities will not know how you’re using that energy. This is similar to how we already deal with our internet service providers (ISP). Most ISPs will know how much bandwidth you’ve used, but they won’t know whether your bandwidth was used for downloading, uploading, streaming, etc. Privacy hasn’t been violated; the ISP is merely collecting your bandwidth usage so that they can bill you for the services they provide. Utilities will work in the exact same manner (as they do now), the only real change brought about by smart meters is that utilities will now gather your energy data via Wi-Fi signals, which is the other main area of concern for smart meter opponents.

The radio frequency (RF) radiation emitted by a smart meter’s Wi-Fi component is often cited as a major health risk by smart meter opponents. However, given the common sources of RF radiation, it seems short-sighted to villainize smart meters. Any wireless device will emit RF radiation; this includes cell phones, wireless routers, radios, garage door openers, etc. According to the American Cancer Society, cell phones will emit significantly more RF radiation than a smart meter and at a closer distance as cell phones are often pressed against a person’s ear whereas a smart meter is usually located outside of a building. Furthermore, a smart meter doesn’t emit RF radiation continuously like a cell phone; it will only emit when sending data to the utility. This is all making the assumption that the amount of RF radiation emitted by cell phones even poses a health risk in the first place, which modern science has flatly refuted. Frankly, the Sun is a far more dangerous emitter of radiation (and a proven cause of cancer) than any cell phone or smart meter, but that doesn’t seem to stop smart meter opponents from stepping outside to protest.


Beware, it could actually kill you… unlike a smart meter

The proven benefits of smart meters outweigh any inconclusive (or downright false) claims surrounding them. As more and more buildings have them installed, the grid will become far more interconnected in terms of its ability to share energy data information with utilities. It will make our grid more efficient, more responsive, and could potentially save us billions of dollars in the long run. But all this could be delayed or even prevented if smart meters continue to be opposed for illogical reasons. Now is not the time to let stupidity impede progress.

The Simplicity and Effectiveness of Energy Conservation

As any business owner or head of household will know, the simplest way to save money is to spend less on what you don’t need. In the same vein, the simplest way to save on energy expenditures is to use less. Now it may sound like a simple solution to our vast and complex list of energy problems, but then again, the simplest solutions are often the most effective.

In these hot summer months, power grids across North America will feel the strain of millions upon millions of people turning on their air conditioners while using all the other electronic devices modern lives and employment require. In order to meet demand, power generators need to increase their output significantly, which often means burning more coal and natural gas. Although building new power plants running on clean, renewable energy is good for the grid, good for the environment, and necessary in future years, such projects cost millions, possibly billions depending on size and scale, and may take several years to complete. Energy conservation, on the other hand, may prove to be the cheapest and cleanest energy resource as it requires little to no additional infrastructure, and it is readily available.

According to Jack Gibbons, head of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, Ontario spends $36 on new generation for every $1 invested in conservation, despite the fact that conservation is much cheaper than building any other type of generation. Such imbalance has likely contributed to a review in Ontario’s energy policy with Minister of Energy, Bob Chiarelli, recently speaking out in favour of conservation in this past Tuesday’s Toronto Star.


Grids struggle to meet demand during the hot summer months

Ontario isn’t the only jurisdiction looking to conservation to solve their energy issues. Over the past few years, British Columbia has been at the forefront of energy conservation in Canada. In 2007, BC Hydro identified a massive 22,000 GWh of electricity that can be accessed by 2026 simply through conservation. So if all savings are realized as predicted, in a little more than a decade, BC Hydro can “create” 50% of their current generation capacity simply by using what energy they already have more efficiently. Since 2008, BC has saved about 3,400 GWh/year. That’s enough to power more than 300,000 homes.


BC Hydro could potentially increase their demand capacity by 50% through conservation

California has also reaped the benefit of energy conservation. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, since the 1970s, California’s energy conservation policies have negated the need for 30 power plants, and prevented the same amount of carbon emissions generated by some 5 millions cars annually. In total, these energy policies have saved California residents more than $65 billion dollars and helped lower their energy bills by 25% below the US average.

For business, a significant obstacle to energy conservation strategies is that any ensuing renovations are very expensive, time consuming, and may interfere with operations. However, some companies are only making the simplest of changes, barely affecting operations as a whole. Unilever, for example, has merely encouraged its employees to turn lights off that aren’t in use. This very simple request alone saved the company €99 million (approximately $135 million). Likewise, since 2007, the Fairmont Winnipeg has saved 882,000 kWh per year in electricity by merely replacing all 60-100-watt light bulbs with more energy efficient ones. This resulted in no interruptions to service, and has saved the hotel approximately $44,000 per year.

Energy Savings

The Fairmont Winnipeg saves $44,000 annually because of a change in lighting

Other low cost, high savings options for business include installing an energy management system to track and monitor energy consumption. One example where savings can be easily realized is through shifting high intensity energy activities to later at night or early in the morning (load shifting) to take advantage of cheaper energy prices where time-of-use pricing is in effect. Energy management systems that can identify these areas for savings can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of large scale renovation projects.

Over the long term, power grids across North America will have to upgrade their current generation capacity and accompanying infrastructure, which will likely take decades at the cost of billions. As well, businesses that want to make their operations more efficient will have to take more complicated steps than turning the lights off. At the same time, however, solutions based primarily on conserving energy can and should be taken beforehand because energy conservation requires no additional infrastructure, it can be done immediately, it is simple. Although simple may be easy, and simple may be cheap, simple is also effective.

Energy Managers make all the difference

Recently, Natural Resources Canada released a report highlighting the success that embedded Energy Managers had on the Resource Sector (Mining and Gas).  These Energy Managers were able to make a significant impact on the businesses they were part of in a short period of time.

Below is a summary of the article and the successes that have been realized through the hiring of energy managers across British Columbia.

A study conducted a few years ago by BC Hydro – the Conservation Potential Review – found that the mining sector could achieve energy savings of up to 400 gigawatt hours annually. Steve Quon, Mining, Oil & Gas Sector Manager at BC Hydro’s Power Smart, says that as a result of the study, Power Smart partnered with the Mining Association of British Columbia (MABC) to look for key areas to target for energy savings. The subsequent hiring of energy managers at seven mine sites across the province was a major step in realizing those energy savings.

“Energy managers are a good story for everyone,” says Quon, noting that by having an energy manager on staff, continuous improvement is possible, and sustainability and energy efficiency become part of normal business practices. This increases operational efficiency, which is essential to the mining sector because it is British Columbia’s second largest electrical customer.

Quon explains that BC Hydro, in conjunction with the MABC, also conducted an all-fuels baseline audit, which was piloted at Walter Energy™-Western Coal’s Wolverine mine and Thompson Creek Metals Company Inc.’s Endako mines. The all-fuels baseline audit provides a detailed snapshot of energy use and waste at a mine site. It can be used yearly to compare trends in energy consumption and efficiency over time; and it can be used to compare mine sites. The audit is also a natural complement to the Mining Association of Canada’s Towards Sustainable Mining strategy.

“All of these initiatives align very well, but in order to fully implement them, a dedicated person – an energy manager – is needed,” notes Quon. Several mining companies had the information needed to move ahead but lacked the champion to make projects happen. Consequently, Power Smart offered to provide significant funding for hiring industrial energy managers to remove any financial and human resource barriers.

This allowed the following mines to hire energy managers: Highland Valley Copper mine, Thompson Creek Endako mine, Copper Mountain Mining Corporation mines, Agfa’s New Gold mine, Teck’s coal mine and Walter Energy-Western Coal’s Wolverine mine.

Most of the energy managers were hired in 2011, and although it is difficult to attribute energy savings directly to their presence, Quon says that the link is surely there. “What is equally important is that energy managers can make the business case for energy efficiency projects and ensure that energy efficiency is built into every project,” concludes Quon.

Visit BC Hydro Power Smart’s Web site for energy efficiency programs for the mining sector, including its offer for energy managers.

Thanks for reading.

Celebrating Earth Hour

Energent is excited to support the 2012 Earth Hour on March 31.  For one hour, between 8:30pm and 9:30pm, millions of Canadians will come together and turn off their lights.  We will be turning our lights off at the office and at home to support this important event, and encourage everyone to do the same.

We will be monitoring the collective effect of our client’s Earth Hour response.  We encourage you to check our website after Earth Hour to see the positive impact our clients have made.   Also, we want to know what your organizations or personal energy saving tips and tricks are.  Each one of our clients will receive a special report highlighting the success of their Earth Hour response.  This will give each of our clients an opportunity  to show their stakeholders the value of initiating Energy Conservation Measures (ECMs) that in many cases cost the organization no money.

We look forward to watching our clients make this significant contribution to Earth Hour, and sharing this response to the world.  Click on the link below to participate in our poll.

Thanks for reading!