Chris Wood April 23 2001


Chris Wood April 23 2001


Chris Wood

Retired nurse Cecily Smith lives alone, now that her sister has died, in a drafty old house in Lethbridge, Alta. Her evenings are particularly quiet since Smith cancelled her cable TV service two years ago—so she could pay more than she needs to for electricity. No, she insists, she is not batty. She says she willingly spends the extra $30 to $32 a month to receive electricity generated from the wind, instead of from fossil fuels like coal or gas. “I always cared about the environment,” Smith explains. “I don’t have any skill to offer to make a difference, but I know that money pushes things along.” The last time wind power was sexy, idealists like Smith were the backbone of the renewable energy movement. In the wake of the 1970s oil crisis, earnest legions of ex-hippies in flannel shirts tinkered in backyards to pull energy from eco-friendly sources. Woodstove sales boomed and advocates forecast that sun, wind and wave power would soon revolutionize world energy use. But then petroleum prices fell back to earth.

Now, oil and natural gas prices are soaring again, and with

Rising fuel prices are making wind, wave and sun power sexy again

them prospects for alternative energy. But gone are the flannel shirts and, for the most part, the idealism. Todays salesman for eco-power wears a tie and wields a return-on-investment statement. “We’re not counting on the soft value of environmental impact to validate a business case,” asserts Andrew Kingston, CEO of Vancouver’s DynaMo five Technologies Corp., which makes a burnable liquid from sawmill waste. “We’re looking to compete on an equal basis with fossil fuels.”

That is increasingly possible. World energy consumption is expected to rise 60 per cent by 2020. This winters spike in heating bills brought home a North America-wide lag in developing new supplies to meet that growth. Natural gas is limited. Coal is plentiful, but burning it contributes to global warming and often faces local resistance. Despite rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming last month, the Bush administration is still expected to limit new sources of climatedamaging emissions. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair has set a goal of 10 per cent of the country’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2010 versus less than three per cent now—which is still more than Canada, not counting hydro.

Cecily Smith’s premium-price power comes from a fleet of towering machines that march like white Spielbergian insects across the foothills 80 km west of Lethbridge. No creaking Don Quixote targets these: they stand tall as a 12-storey building, have powerful onboard computers and cost a million dollars apiece. The towers are also rugged, says Jason Edworthy, marketing director of Vision Quest Windelectric Inc., allowing the company to promise price stability as well as a cost competitive with natural gas. “We could write a 99-year contract with confidence,” Edworthy says, “because it’s all capital cost. The price of wind hasn’t gone up in several hundred years.” In February, Calgary decided it would buy the power to run the city’s light rail transit system from Vision Quest.

Another technology enjoying a new day in the sun relies on just that. In some parts of California, solar panels produce electricity more cheaply than the state’s overloaded utilities, and San Francisco is considering an outlay of $ 100 million to put them on public buildings. Houston oil and gas analyst Greg Hass predicts that North American use of solar energy will grow by more than 28 per cent a year for the next four years.

Not much of that will be north of the border, apart from powering some remote or seasonal homes and work sites. Short winter days bite too deeply into solar output, just when Canadians rely most on energy. But one Montreal company has found a way to profit. ICP Global Technologies Inc. targets consumers’ mobile power needs with small devices: an accessory that runs the boom box at the beach off the sun instead of D cells, other units to keep the battery on a boat or RVcharged up over the winter. “Once you buy it, there’s nothing else to buy,” says president Sass Peress. “The sun’s free.”

Whether the tide is rising for ocean power is another question. The idea has been around for more For

than a century. But Canada’s only ocean-power plant was a disaster. Built in the 1980s on Nova Scotia’s Annapolis River estuary, which is rinsed twice daily by the famous Bay of Fundy tides, it minced fish, silted up the river and never produced power reliably. Undaunted, Vancouverbased Blue Energy Canada Inc. wants to install a radically different turbine design in the narrows between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The company argues that tidal power is a safer alternative to B.C. Hydro’s intention to build a natural gas pipeline across the Strait of Georgia. “In light of the earthquake here,” argues Blue Energy spokesman Michael

Maser, “we think that is a perilous plan.” The company is also trying to sell its concept in Britain and the Philippines.

Solar, wind and tidal power are the glamorous faces of green energy, but the real money may lie in something humbler. Its lumpy name is “biomass,” a category that includes any organic scraps from farming or forestry, from straw left when wheat is threshed to bark stripped from logs at the sawmill. Much of it is simply burned, smudging rural skylines. Renewable energy companies are racing to sell a better alternative.

In Ottawa, logen Corp. has found investors to put $30 million into a plant now being completed near the city’s airport. At full throttle, it is supposed to turn 40 tons a day of wheat, oat and barley straw into ethanol, the burnable alcohol that is mixed with gasoline to produce so-called green blends sold at pumps in Western Canada and the United States. Until now, technology has only permitted ethanol to be made from the


Canada’s electricity sources, 1999

Wind, tidal and other fuels 0.4%

Biomass 1% Diesel and oil 2% Natural gas 4%

more valuable—and expensive— grains themselves; logen uses enzymes to release energy locked in the stalks. The five-storey plant is just a scale model of the commercial versions logen wants to build. With those, says vice-president Jeff Passmore, “we hope to have ethanol that is competitive with rack gasoline, that is, gasoline that is not taxed.”

British Columbia’s DynaMotive and partner Canfor, a $2.7-billion forest-products giant, are working on a system capable of turning 10 tons a day of sawmill scraps into a syrupy liquid that will fire industrial boilers and run diesel engines. Canfor hopes to demonstrate the partners’ technology at one of its B.C. mills within the next two years. ,inks Eventually, the stuff could also run trains and ships

or be processed into plastics.

DynaMotive calculates that Canadian companies waste enough forest biomass in a year to make 20 million barrels of bio-oil. Around the world, sugar cane and other farm waste could produce 800 million barrels, the company says. Big numbers. But still only a drop in the bucket of world consumption: about enough bio-oil to replace fossil fuels for 10 days. And before any bio-oil is sold, Kingston must first sell his technology. “If you don’t get to market,” he admits, “your technology goes nowhere.” As Cecily Smith knows, before you can make a difference, you have to make money.