Category Archives: Environment

Inviting all students: Sustainable Engineers Association Conference @ University of Toronto

This Saturday, Nicolas Morgan (our co-founder and the original author of this blog) will be speaking at the 3rd Annual Sustainable Engineers Association (SEA) Sustainability Conference at U of T’s Hart House.

The conference is designed to bring together students of ALL disciplines who are passionate about sustainable development.

It seems like a good opportunity to refine a final year engineering project, or learn about what’s going on in industry/ government to consider career options. If you’re of the entrepreneurial bent, there’s a panel on that which may be of interest too.

The theme of the conference? Overcoming obstacles in sustainability. Nic will be on a panel discussing the future of energy; other key themes include transportation and public policy.

Here’s a run-down of the pertinent details:

Date: February 2nd, 2013, at 9 AM
Location: Hart House Great Hall. See the Hart House Website for directions.
Registration: $10 deposit via credit card, will be refunded to you in full only after checking in at the conference reception desk.

Breakfast and lunch will be provided.
Dress code: Business Casual

To register and for more conference details visit: http://sustainable-engineers.org/seac/.

2013.01_Sustainable Engineers Association

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Nic’s Thoughts on Environmentalists vs. Solar Farm Developers

On Monday, Emma blogged about the Sierra Club’s lawsuit to block the development of a solar farm on the basis that it presented a threat to the native plant and animal species in the area.  I don’t want to comment on the specific case as I have no special knowledge there, but it does raise an interesting question:

Do renewable energy projects deserve special consideration when considering their environmental impact?  Specifically, should the general, long-term benefit of something like reducing GHG emissions be considered when examining the local environmental impact of the project?

It’s not an easy question, and I’m not sure there’s a one size fits all answer.  It’s tempting to be reductionist and argue that not doing this will lead to more GHG-spewing fossil fuel plants.  I’m not sure I buy that, cancelling one solar project will probably just lead to a different solar project somewhere else.  Assuming that solar needs special exemptions from environmental impact assessments is assuming that there isn’t lots of non-virgin land (farm land where the soil salinity is too high from years of irrigation, farms that are in water starved areas, former industrial sites etc.).  The choice isn’t solar with environmental impact assessment exemptions or no solar at all.  There is a big difference between “Do we build a solar farm?” and “Do we build this solar farm here?”

Experience tells us that, when we have an exception for something, it often becomes a loophole for something else.  If we say that we can build solar projects on virgin desert land, would that include solar thermal plants that heat water to improve the efficiency of a coal fired station?  What would the penalty be if you built that system and ran it on days where there were too many clouds for the solar part of the plant?  What other types of power plants could qualify for the “solar exemption”, and would that list tend to grow or shrink once the lobbyists got to work?

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the EPA cancelled the permit for a major coal mine in Virginia.  I’ve said before that if it were up to me, there would be no exceptions for anyone for these sorts of things.  Either your project passes muster, or it doesn’t.  I want more solar, but I want good environmental management generally.  I want a level playing field with GHG emitting power sources, but I want to level it by taking away their exceptions and incentives, not winning new ones for solar.

Environmentalists: a new challenge to utility-scale solar?

I’d really like to hear what you think of the Sierra Club’s decision to sue the California Energy Commission over its approval of the 663.5 MW Calico solar thermal project in San Bernandino Country, California. One of the largest environmental NGOs coming up against a renewable energy project – seems hard to believe, no?

The lawsuit, filed December 30, 2010, charges that the CEC rushed the environmental review of Calico without fully considering the impacts on rare plant and wildlife species (such as the protected desert tortoise plodding along below), and without identifying adequate mitigation measures.

Photo: Desert tortoise roaming the Calico site.  Photo from BLM biological assessment, courtesy of the Mojave Desert Blog.

I suppose the suit isn’t as big of a shock – outspoken criticism of siting solar projects on undisturbed land emerged well before, and previous projects were blocked for similar reasons.  After BrightSource Energy announced its Ivanpah project, for example, the California Wildlands Conservancy responded by introducing legislation to ban renewable energy development on more than a million acres of the Mojave Desert – incidentally some of the land closest to transmission lines and the huge Southern California market.

(Governor Schwarzenegger then countered “If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it [them].”)

As a card-carrying environmentalist whose also convinced of the need for large-scale, rapid renewable energy deployment, I admit this lawsuit has left me a bit conflicted: if climate change is a real, pressing, and to many, a livelihood-threatening phenomenon, which I believe it is, should there be special consideration of the  environmental impacts of renewable energy developments in the siting process? By special consideration, I mean in this case – allowing projects to be constructed on public BLM land, and giving developers permission to relocate protected species?

The answer from certain environmentalists has been a clear No – developers should exhaust the widely available rooftops and already-disturbed land before they move on to pristine desert. Some point to the fact that transmitting electricity from solar farms in the desert is inefficient – 10 to 15% of the electricity generated can be lost en route to urban markets. Desert ecosystems in SoCal are unique, irreplaceable, and highly fragile – no place for ‘industrialized solar farms’, it’s argued.

On the other side, Michael Kanellos, editor-in-chief of the popular cleantech news site Greentech Media, was vocal in his disagreement with the Sierra Club, titling his recent editorial on the decision, “Dear Environmental Community: Please Shut Up.” In Michael’s defense, he thinks the risks have been duly analyzed, and emphasizes that renewable energy generation has a zero sum relationship with fossil fuel generation – “Circumscribing solar and wind farms leads to only one thing: more natural gas, coal and nuclear plants”.

So, where do I stand? I think the best available technologies should be deployed at a scale that will meaningfully reduce GHGs. In doing this, some landscape changes are inevitable. But projects shouldn’t be developed in a way that will cause significant and irrevocable harm to the land or to species. For this reason, I actually think the Sierra’s lawsuit could be a good thing – in the best case, it would allow a closer look at the environmental impacts of all proposed solar projects in the SoCal deserts (from my count of the CEC’s website, there are over 3,500 MW proposed), and it would allow careful weighing of what changes are permissible.  As the NYT’s Green Blog notes, casinos, strip malls and subdivisions have permanently changed the SoCal deserts. There are better and worse reasons to alter these desert ecosystems.

Efforts such as Ivanpah’s tortoise monitoring program, and NREL’s study on how to restore habitat shaded by solar panels seem promising of mitigating harmful changes. There’s room for lots more.

Relatedly: I had said I’d earlier to post slides from an SPI presentation made by Jimmy Nelson, a University of California Berkeley PhD candidate, on the environmental benefits of CPV (the type of solar panel that will be deployed at many of the utility-scale projects discussed above). Here they are:

Quantifying the Environmental Impact of CPV

Nelson’s work, which relies on a sophisticated model called the SWITCH model (what that stands for is in the pres.), calculates that CPV’s higher efficiencies mean less water is used and less land is disturbed to generate the same amount of power.  CPV’s energy and GHG payback times are also under half those of conventional solar panels.

An Update:

On February 9, 2011, more than a dozen U.S. environmental NGOs wrote a letter to President Obama urging for a comprehensive, upfront process for siting, planning, and monitoring the environmental impact of renewable energy projects. The letter followed Obama’s State of the Union Address, made on January 25, 2011, during which he announced a target of producing 80% of U.S. electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.

Report: Canada and U.S. Renewable Energy Spending Compared

An interesting report just released by Environmental Defence (a Canadian non-profit) and the United Steelworkers (one of the largest private sector unions in Canada) draws attention to Canada’s lag on renewable energy spending as compared to the U.S.

The report argues that job creation, economic recovery, and environmental health in Canada will trail behind other countries if the federal government does not throw its weight behind this new economic sector.  According to the report, in 2008, Canada ranked 31st out of 42 countries for clean energy sales relative to GDP, barely ahead of Tunisia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Egypt.

Of course, the renewable energy sector does have seemingly unstoppable momentum at the moment, a number of sound green energy policies are popping up in the country (see British Colombia’s recently announced Clean Energy Act, or the federal  government’s Sustainable Development Technology Program), and progressive policies in some countries can’t help but bring up the industry globally.

Ontario’s Green Energy Act, passed on May 14, 2009, put the province on the world map as a lucrative, supportive renewable energy market, so it might have been easier to lose sight of the big picture.  But it’s worth taking a step back.  The Canadian Solar Industry Association has a lead on this.  Recognizing the lack of a coherent national strategy for solar energy, they’ve realigned their priorities to develop one.  We look forward to reading CANSia Solar Vision 2025 which, according to their Spring/ Summer 2010 newsletter, they will present at their December conference in Toronto.

Relatedly – Happy Canada Day everyone!

Happy Canada Day!

Book Release: Tom Rand’s “Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit”

Tom Rand, Cleantech lead at the MaRS Discovery District – also engineer, entrepreneur, philosopher, and venture capitalist – has just released a new book detailing 10 (already existing) clean technologies that can enable a 100% shift to renewable energy by 2050.  The first chapter of his book? Dedicated to solar.

10 Clean Technologies to Save our World

Several Morgan Solar employees will be going to see Tom, who’s been a big support to us, speak at the book launch, held at the MaRS auditorium on April 15th, from 6 – 7:30 PM.

Tom has also made a video promoting the book.  It shows his clear and approachable style, sums up some key points about the clean technologies he focuses on in the book, and it’s pretty funny too.

* If you pick up a copy of the book, which is big, square and has stunning photographs of clean tech examples from around the world – clearly marketed as a coffee table book, you’ll see us mentioned on page 24: “Morgan Solar uses an injection-molded Plexiglas optic, instead of a lens, to guide sunlight onto the cell.  Morgan’s power could be far cheaper than coal.”

At last, scientifically-grounded skepticism of the climate change skeptics

One of the best debates I’ve seen in a while was the Munk Debate on Climate Change, a debate sponsored by the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies, held days before the United Nation’s Copenhagen summit. The proposition:

It was a spectacle, the kind that would have taken place in ancient Rome, where all moral codes were broken and where the audience was as much involved in the theatre as the actors themselves.

On the pro side was Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, and George Monbiot, environmental activist, Guardian journalist, and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. On the contre side: Bjorn Lomborg, adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, along with Lord Nigel Lawson, British politico, since crossed over into the investment world, and author of An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.

Personally, I thought May was the real winner of the debate, for her attention to historical trends and deference to ‘the real experts’ – the IPCC, academics, and policy experts around the world.  More importantly, I came away profoundly disturbed that the skeptics had been given such equal footing.  It wasn’t that I necessarily agree that climate change is “mankind’s defining crisis”, or that there aren’t other top priorities, as Lomborg identified, such as extreme poverty, hunger, access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and easily-curable infectious diseases.

What was so disturbing were the highly rhetorical arguments against climate change science evoked by Lomborg and Lawson.

Finally, today I feel some respite from my anger.  After reading The New York Times’ dot earth blog post highlighting the Skeptical Scientist blog, I checked out the 101 skeptical arguments that John Cook, an Australian Physicist, has systematically debunked.  To do this, Cook drew on a broad-level analysis of peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Here are Cooks top three ‘Skeptic Arguments’ and ‘What the Science Says’:

I highly recommend taking the time to watch the Munk climate debate (runs just under 2 hours), and browsing through Cook’s well-researched counter-points to climate change skeptics.

The Ontario-Samsung Deal: Good or bad?

On January 21, the Ontario Government announced a $CDN 437 million economic incentive for Samsung C & T and Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) to manufacture and install up to 2.5 GW of wind and solar farms in Ontario.

Many people have asked us if we had a personal opinion, and there seems to be some expectation that we’d be opposed to the deal.

There have been many who’ve expressed anger at the preferential treatment given to Samsung, ranging from the Canadian Wind Energy Association, to the Association of Power Producers of Ontario, to conservative and even liberal Ontario cabinet members (the government is currently liberal). There’ve also been many commentators who’ve lauded the government’s ability to attract almost $7 billion in investment from the South Korean consortium, who approached George Smitherman, then Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, with the proposal about 18 months ago.

The big question seems to be: will this deal be good for Ontario?  Steve Paiken asked this on The Agenda last week to his four guests, who seemed divided two-for-two on their answers: Tom Rand, Cleantech Advisor at the MaRS Innovation Centre, and Kristopher Stevens, Director of the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association (OSEA), were generally positive about the future economic returns of the deal, and the precedent it set for green energy development in Ontario.

Some disclosure: we recently became members of OSEA.

Taking the opposite view, Randall Denley, business journalist with the conservative-leaning newspaper The Ottawa Citizen, and Norm Rubin, Director of Nuclear Research at the independent think-tank Energy Probe, painted the deal as simply bad business: driving up higher energy prices for Ontarians over the long term; decreasing the total number of jobs in Ontario (when accounting for jobs lost in the rest of the economy that would allegedly subsidize these ‘green jobs’); setting the foundation for a ‘branch plant economy’ (Randall’s evocation of that 1980s scare word); undercutting local renewable energy producers; and not, directly at least, even reducing the province’s GHG emissions (Norm).  In short, they had an arsenal of criticisms, some less valid than others.

It’s fair to say that handing over an initial 500 MW of grid capacity to Samsung does take away from the available capacity for Ontario-based wind and solar manufacturers and developers; “it’s a chunk” as Brad Duguid, current Minister of Energy and Infrastructure, said to Paiken.  And it may be more worrisome if similar deals are made in the future.  But whether the deal is good or bad for the Ontario economy remains to be seen, and really depends on how it’s carried through by the Ontario Government.

If the deal means that Samsung is taking a big chunk of a finite pie, then the result may be another Spanish solar market collapse: large companies, supported by heavy government subsidies, using on-hand technologies for immediate financial gain.  This formula didn’t lead to sustained job creation or much innovation.

But if the policy is to carefully increase Ontario’s capacity for renewables, and to support these with dispatchable, cleaner back-up sources – like natural gas (more on this later) – then the chances are better that we’ll create a sustained domestic industry that leads in cost and efficiency.  Personally, I think that it’s a good deal, and I can say that as an employee of a solar company that isn’t taking a cut.