Category Archives: natural gas

British Columbia hits 1,000 EV’s (and gov’t drops support)

image of Tesla Model S’s at a rally, from Consumer Reports


British Columbians have now purchased more than 1,000 plug-in electric vehicles. Add in low-speed neighbourhood electric vehicles and owner conversions, and the number will be a bit higher.

As of Jan 31, 2014 Polk research (now a division of IHS) had tracked 912 plug-in electric vehicle registrations in BC, representing about 1/6 of all PHEV registrations in Canada to date. British Columbia has about 1/8 of Canada’s population, so the numbers are largely in line with what we’d expect from the demographics.

Polk’s data doesn’t include the Toyota Prius Plug-in, Ford C-Max Energi or Ford Fusion Energi, however. Vehicle registrations for these plug-ins, is lumped in with sales of the regular hybrid versions. And through the end of 2013, these three models enjoyed Canadian sales of 594 units.

Assuming that BC represented 1/6 of these sales (being 99 vehicles) then British Columbia’s plug-in population has hit four figures. At the end of January, sales would have been on the order of 912+99 = 1011. And that doesn’t include any Prius Plug-in, C-Max Energi or Fusion Energi sales in the province in January.

Add probable sales in February to the mix, and we should be comfortably above the 1,000-car mark.

As always, my spreadsheet tracking plug-in sales in Canada and the U.S., and other related data, is at:

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Electron democracy

A long-belated companion to Steven Chu’s “Time to fix the wiring” essay I posted earlier, this is the white paper I co-authored for the same McKinsey & Company series. Given the roughly five-month delay in uploading this, I suppose “Time to post the writing” might be an apt subtitle… :)

Ever the stickler for citing sources (in university, while writing up a chemical engineering lab report, I once cited a colleague’s report I made use of, in my bibliography of sources – yes, I was a wild one) I was pleased McKinsey kept the footnote crediting the work John Robb and Jeff Vail.

Four years on, it’s encouraging to see how wrong the essay has turned out to be — because all the recent developments are for the better. It would be as if an investor bought a bunch of boring utility stocks for the safe, reliable dividends, only to discover at the end of the year that they got a bunch of capital appreciation as well.

Though on that note, I think fossil-fuel burning utilities are already a risky investment now, because renewables are already eroding their business model in some countries… and since renewables will get dramatically cheaper going forward as production scales up, the phenomenon will inevitably repeat itself around the world.  (Speaking of uploading delays, clearly I’ll have to get to part 2 of this series…)

When the essay was written (late 2008), grid energy storage seemed a long, long way from commercialization, so our assumption had been that large-scale hydro plants and smaller-scale fuel cell facilities would complement renewables’ intermittency.  (The EV / PHEV adoption rate is such that these are unlikely to offer any appreciable grid storage by 2030, either…)

With Germany’s announcement of a program to subsidize battery-based residential energy storage systems, enabling companies to ramp up production and get the economies of scale with which to drive aggressive cost reductions, it looks like fuel cells will face a lot of pressure at the residential scale.

As for the resiliency benefits of on-site power generation, that seems to have become a priority for many tech companies, in areas where subsidies for on-site generation are available.  (I could justify mild subsidies, because on-site generation minimizes the need to maintain or expand transmission infrastructure, which can be expensive.)

One wonders if some of these companies are worried that a renewables future will destabilize the grid: this is a “myth”conception, as many utilities point out.  I read somewhere that when Germany began its Energiewende — (renewable) energy transformation — the feeling was that the grid could only handle 5% intermittent renewables (ie. wind + solar). Then it became 10%, and then 20%. Then it became 40%. The latest I’ve seen is 60% with the possibility of 80% for continental Europe. As technology improves, that will only increase. Especially if/when electricity-to-hydrogen or electricity-to-natural gas technology matures, allowing for large-scale storage of excess, intermittent electricity.

On the fuel cell side, Bloom Energy seems to have become adept at acquiring subsidies market share in the on-site generation space, despite the fact that their technology is less efficient than combined-cycle gas turbines.  (That said, turbines are generally LOUD and therefore not suitable for on-site location.)  As such, when it comes to larger-scale on-site 24/7 fuel cell power generation, since Ballard isn’t in that game anymore, I root for the folks at ClearEdge Power, whose use of cogeneration makes it possible to achieve overall energy efficiencies of 90%+, even if only a portion of that becomes electricity. :)


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By Matthew Klippenstein and Noordin Nanji

3 March 2009

The way electric power is generated and distributed will change substantially over the next two decades. Power will be democratized, as small-scale production at the individual and community level moves from niche to normal. The resulting “electron-democracy” will still have centralized power plants, but power grid activity will increasingly be dominated by innumerable incremental energy flows between small producers and consumers. This is likely to happen whether or not public policy mandates a shift away from dependence on fossil fuels.

Most centralized plants (hydro excepted) cannot easily adjust to demand fluctuations, leading to steeply discounted off-peak rates and the need to acquire additional plants for high-demand periods. More broadly, an expansive transmission grid dominated by a few central power plants is vulnerable to disruption from both natural phenomena and human malevolence.

In contrast, smaller-scale power generation can respond more nimbly to market demand, in a shorter time frame, with lower capital costs. Filling supplemental power needs with niche supplies rather than primary power facilities creates new generation options that that otherwise would be impractical. Finally, a grid fed by a broad, physically dispersed heterogeneous mixture of power sources would provide robust protection against disruption.1

Putting these strands together and looking forward, the distributed grid might look like this: intermittent wind and solar power generation would be complemented by load-supplementing fuel cell plants, in much the same way that peak power and base load power plants interact today. Electric vehicles (EVs), plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), and batteries would serve as grid energy storage when excess energy is being produced. The latter is analogous to the role of pumped-storage hydroelectric in current utility systems, where water is pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher one for later use in generating hydroelectric power.

Considering the intensifying pace of climate change, governments should play an ambitious role in the transition from today’s grid to tomorrow’s electron democracy. Governments could coordinate with local business to develop centers of excellence for distributed power in targeted industries. Mechanisms such as feed-in tariffs—which grant favorable rates for those generating power from renewables and clean-tech sources—could facilitate the development of these regional technology clusters. They would bring ancillary economic benefits as well.

We are hopeful that by 2030, our energy system will be considerably less dependent on fossil fuels, particularly for electric power generation. Supported by a diverse array of renewables, our energy needs could be met with an overlapping set of complementary clean technologies. In doing so, we would strongly curb our global warming emissions. We would then be poised not only to stabilize the climate, but to transcend the Fossil Fuel Age entirely and open a new “Age of Sustainability” in our human story.

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1 A closer examination of these topics is available from Jeff Vail (A Theory of Power) and John Robb (Brave New War) in their writings on “rhizome” at and “resilient communities” at, respectively.

Our Renewable Future part 1: clearing “myth”conceptions

With Obama talking the talk on climate action in his State of the Union address yesterday, now seems a good time to start compiling a planned set of blog entries about renewable energy. Many many others have done so online already (as evidenced by the fact I’m linking to them!) but I’d like to communicate my cautiously nascent optimism in my own words.

I’m growingly confident that I’ll live to see renewables dominate global electricity production, as dominantly as oil dominates global transport today, with immense and commensurate environmental benefits.

That moment won’t come a moment too soon, either, given the calamities that we’ve “locked in” for our children — the last time CO2 levels were this high (about 396 ppm in Jan 2013), sea levels were 25 metres higher than they are today.  The only reason sea levels remain near pre-industrial levels is that the earth’s systems haven’t had time to equilibrate, yet.  To use a baseball analogy, we’re still in the first inning of seeing the effects of our emissions.

Now, when I talk about renewables, I mainly mean wind and solar, which tower over their cleantech cousins like redwoods over a meadow.  (While hydroelectric is renewable and dwarfs these two for now, it doesn’t get the sexy “cleantech” label, being a mature technology.)

But before explaining my new-found confidence — certainty, even — in “Our Renewable Future”, I wanted to address a few major myths, objections and misconceptions about renewable energy — the blogging equivalent of clearing the underbrush, I suppose.  :)

I’ll do so using a Q & A format based on the way John Cook at Skeptical Science addresses common myths about climate change.

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3D electricity (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 13, 2012.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013…)

As a guy whose birthday falls on the 13th, it always bugged me that my 13th birthday was a Saturday… those darned leap years!



One of my concerns in the past several years has been the fact that “energy-return-on-energy-invested” (EROEI) for fossil fuels has been decreasing.  This is most evident in the petroleum sector: in the good old days, all you needed to do was stick a steel straw in the ground, and you’d get oil.  (As an Algerian colleague once told me, “back home, we drill wells looking for water, but all we get is oil.  It’s like, what the hell?  Oil again??”)

In the days of yore (and lost Lenores) for each unit of energy you “invested” to get the oil, you might have gotten 50x or 100x units of energy back.  Alas, this happens “nevermore”.

EROEI has been dropping because, while we’ve become more efficient at extracting oil, difficulty-of-extraction has gone up even faster.  The oil sands are the most extreme case: for each unit of energy you invest to turn the bitumen into oil, you might get… 5x units of energy back.  So if you want to extract 100 units of oil energy, your cost is no longer 1-2 units of energy… but 20 units of energy, plus a bunch up-front!  (This is why it takes many months and mammoth money to increase oil sands production.)

And while recent developments such as North Dakota’s “tight oil” probably have a better EROEI, they won’t reverse the drainward trend.  Coal is in much the same boat, though natural gas is a different story — we only started to tap the world’s largest natural gas field in the past few years, so its EROEI will probably stay high for awhile.*  Since the hydrogen for most fuel cells comes from natural gas, that’s good news.  (Plus, it’s easier to obtain natural gas equivalents from renewable resources, than liquid fuels…)

Declining EROEI is kind of depressing from a societal perspective, because it suggests that we’ll have to work harder and harder to acquire the energy we’ve accustomed ourselves to — as anyone who’s bought gasoline recently can attest.  ;)  (As if environmental damage, converging debt crises and aging populations weren’t enough!)

EROEI for renewables

Fortunately, EROEI is increasing rapidly in the renewables sector, helping it continue its exponential growth — and that is a cause for optimism.  At the end of 2011, there was enough installed solar and wind capacity to provide 3% of the world’s electricity.  (That number already factors in the fact that it’s sometimes nighttime, and windless.)  And the growth rate is high enough that it could hit 20% by 2020.  That’s a lot of coal plant closures!  Much beyond that, though, and you start to run into realistic limits for wind power**, though solar would still have a lot of “blue sky potential”, in the business parlance.  I hope to ramble about the physical laws governing whales and wind turbines sometime soon…

In terms of solar, the main energy input in making a solar panel comes from creating ingots of 99.999 999 9% pure silicon.  These parts-per-billion impurity levels are so low, you have a better chance of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket, than randomly picking a non-silicon atom out of an ingot!  Companies slice thin wafers off using the industrial equivalent of a deli-meat slicer, and the wafers undergo post-treatment to become the solar panels US Republicans love to hate.***

About ten years ago, solar companies would use wafers about 0.33 mm thick (330 microns), and EROEI estimates for solar panels in reasonably-sunny areas were in oil-sands range, roughly 5:1.  Today’s photovoltaics are a bit more efficient, and based on wafers about half as thick (180 microns), meaning that for roughly the same starting energy input you can get two solar panels, and thus, twice the electricity.  So in the time since George Bush won election 5 votes to 4 in the Supreme Court, solar’s EROEI has doubled to about 10:1.  The physical limit is apparently about 20 microns, which two Silicon Valley startups already claim to be able to achieve… if given enough investor money.  :)  While most startups shut down, solar panels are almost certainly going to get thinner, meaning their EROEI will get better.

On the financial side, the panels aren’t even the cost-prohibitive component of solar arrays anymore: installing rooftop solar in the US will cost you roughly $6/Watt up-front, of which the panel only represents $1.  (The rest is associated electronics, and labour.)  That’s about double the cost in Germany, whose feed-in tariffs allow for project financing of the rest.  This means there’s a big incentive to figure out how to capture more solar energy from a given square metre of rooftop — people with a choice of $6 per Watt or $7 per 2 Watts, are inevitably going to choose the latter, eh?

Into… the third dimension!

Part of the solution will probably be to extend solar panels into the third dimension, in the manner these MIT guys did.  It’s a bit like the moment 400 million years ago when the first Cooksonia pertoni told a friend, “I’m tired of competing with lichens and mosses for sunlight in the x-y plane; imma grow me in the z-direction!”

As such, it’s possible that instead of flat slabs, solar-panelled houses of the future will have bristly, antenna-esque solar panels protruding from their roofs — kind of like the branches of trees.  The “treeing” of photovoltaic arrays makes sense, since trees have had a zillion generations to figure out how to maximize sunlight collection.  Of course you’d figure with all that time, some of them would’ve realized the evolutionary advantage of, oh, being able to move by now…  :)

And while such a future would be aesthetically great for those of us who enjoy the look of Gothic churches or Thai wats (Buddhist temples), for minimalists like Steve Jobs on the other hand…  ;)

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* that is, unless something destabilizes Qatar or Iran, but c’mon, how likely is that?  ;)

** alpha nerds can peruse this link; the rest of you can shake your heads in despair…  :)

*** technically speaking, Solyndra was a thin-film solar company using glass substrates, not silicon.  But such subtleties are not the stuff of Fox News…

The US once was, but will never again be, the Saudi Arabia of oil

[Update: slight revisions to the “…join us next time” paragraphs at the very end.  :)  ]

The idea that the US might one day produce more oil than Saudi Arabia, popularized by an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, has gone viral in recent weeks.  It’s like the “Call Me Maybe” phenomenon, but for Very Serious People!  :)

Alas, the idea that the US will out-produce Saudi Arabia is a vaporous mirage.  Well, unless Saudi Arabian production falls off a cliff, that is.  The projections are built on the kind of verbal trickery that transformed “47% of Americans don’t actually earn enough money to pay federal income taxes” into the “47% of Americans are lazy takers” meme that sank Mitt Romney’s campaign.  Did those World War II veterans think they could just beat Hitler and rely on handouts in retirement?  ;)

It’s said that where there’s smoke, there’s mirrors, so let’s find that disco ball, shall we?

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Green byelection blues

Alas, the Green Party didn’t pick any seats up in the Nov 26 Canadian federal by-elections.  While their strong showings probably count as a real moral victory, I imagine at this stage they’d prefer amoral, real victories.  ;)  As it turns out, Parliament’s composition is unchanged, “while my green heart gently weeps”.  Despite donating to the Official Opposition (whomever it’s been) since 2008, I have a soft spot for the plucky upstarts.

Chris Turner got 25% of the vote in the Calgary Centre riding; which, according to a Globe & Mail commentary from Canadian polling blog threehundredeight, could mean that he pulled a lot of the “Red Tory” voters.  Since probably only 1-2% of Canadians are dues-paying members of political parties (see p16 of this report), some of this blog’s other readers might not be up to speed, so I’ll attempt to summarize for their sake.  :)

After years in the political wilderness first as an Opposition member and then as a lobbyist, current PM Stephen Harper succeeded in uniting far-right-wing (by Canadian standards) Alliance party with right-wing (by Canadian standards) Progressive Conservative party.  And promptly positioned the new Conservative Party considerably to the right of the old Progressive Conservatives.

In the recent provincial elections in Alberta, the federal Conservatives openly supported the far-right (by Canadian standards) Wildrose Party, infuriating many Albertans who vote Conservative federally, but vote Progressive Conservative, provincially.  These folks are called “Red Tories” because they’re on the progressive side of the conservative spectrum, and globally, red tends to be the colour of progressive parties, and blue is the colour of conservative parties.

The main exception is the US, where the red party — the Republicans — are the conservatives.  (And wow, are they ever!)  This is because they actually used to be the progressives, and the Democrats used to be the conservatives, with a hammerlock on the white vote in the southern US.  This all changed in the 1960’s when the Democratic Party embraced the Civil Rights movement.  The Republicans went after the white southerner vote, which is why the US has a progressive (by American standards) “Blue” Party and a conservative (by any standard) “Red” Party.

But back to Alberta, these so-called “Red Tories” appear to have defected en masse to the Green Party in this byelection, in displeasure at the Conservatives’ “as-right-wing-as-the-Wildrose-Party” candidate.


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Newsflash: Canadian PM’s American Idol supports Stephane Dion-esque carbon tax shift

Note: for non-Canadian readers (or, indeed for Canadian readers who don’t follow politics) Stephane Dion was the milquetoast who led the Liberal Party of Canada to its then-worst-ever federal election result in 2008.  He ran on a campaign of a carbon tax shift (“The Green Shift“), for which the Conservative Party mocked and savaged him.

We’ll get to Stephen Harper and his erstwhile idol after the jump, but a bit of background discussion is necessary to provide a proper context…

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The to-may-to, to-mah-to of economic statistics

(written June 28, uploaded July 16)

There was an alarming report out a couple weeks ago alleging that China was vastly underreporting its emissions, because the coal consumption reported by the Chinese national government was smaller than the sum of consumption totals reported by various Chinese provinces. Purportedly, the Communist Party didn’t want to reveal to the outside world just how much pollution it’s emitting, trying to raise the country’s standard of living.

This was followed the other day by a report that coal inventories in Chinese ports are at record highs (in other words, it’s not being burnt as fast as it’s being imported). The theory is that Chinese provinces have been overreporting electricity production to meet national targets for economic growth. If this is the case, then the national government is correct to apply a “fudge factor” and report lower production totals than the sum total of the numbers they’re given!

In light of the high coal inventories, I’d side with the national government on this one, and assume China is slowing down. And since China consumes so much of everything (urbanizing thirty million people per year takes a lot of material!) a slowdown there would drag down prices of most of the resources Canada is so good at exporting raw and unfinished — lumber, metal ores, bitumen, and so forth. Sigh — it’s as if we suffer from a lingering “economic colony complex”…


A Chinese slowdown would exacerbate the problems our Albertan friends are facing: the price of oil is already sagging to levels which threaten the economic viability of (some) new tar sands projects. This Globe article lists a consultant study saying $80 per barrel is needed for a variety of projects to break even. As I write this, the price of the West Texas Intermediate Crude (“WTIC”) benchmark is $79. And as the Globe article notes, our countrymen aren’t even getting this much, since oil from North Dakota is clogging south-flowing pipelines in the US, forcing Albertans (who are upstream) to sell at a discount. Selling unrefined bitumen would incur a further discount.

And it just gets worse for our Calgarian cousins/rivals: US oil consumption peaked six years ago, and is set to keep falling. Not only are fewer teens getting licenses, and fewer total miles being driven per year, but those miles are being driven in more fuel-efficient vehicles, as the gas guzzlers of the cheap-oil-era early 2000’s get traded in for more fuel efficient ones. And while electric cars won’t displace much oil demand in the near term, some truck fleets are beginning to switch to natural gas — and trucking represents a huge 12% of US oil consumption! Not all of them will switch, and natural gas will get more expensive again, but the net effect will be that US oil consumption is likely to keep… on… falling, like a Japanese stock market index. (Incidentally, kudos to our friends at Westport for persisting in that natural-gas-vehicle market long enough to get to this tipping point; it’s a good lesson for us fuel-cell folks to learn from.)

Without a path to Asia, Alberta would be stuck selling its oil into a declining market — and that would make it impossible for them to shift the heart of Canadian power westwards, as has been their dream for decades. It’s a 180-degree turn from the message everyone has told our neighbours for the past several years, namely that they faced unprecedented wealth. With stagnant US and European demand, the only way for the oil patch to keep those dreams alive is to force pipelines through BC. Which is what the Prime Minister is agitating for, with the determination you’d expect from the son of an Exxon accountant. (Harper’s dad worked for Exxon’s Canadian arm, Imperial Oil / Esso.)

If we assume those coal mountains in China mean the country is slowing down, the oil price is likely to drift lower in 2013 (commodity trader group-think suggests a bounce up in the near term; not sure what Nostradamus’ take is). A lower oil price would probably mean further gnashing of teeth and scapegoating of “BC radicals” in Calgary* though the root cause would of course be that the market is a fickle god: it giveth, and it taketh away. Not infrequently taking its cues from those godless communists. ;)


* Misplaced anger also applies to the 1970s’ National Energy Policy. While Trudeau reduced the oilpatch boom, he didn’t actually cause the bust; in fact, when oil prices dropped in the early 80’s, Alberta got more-than-market-rates for its oil. The guys who caused the real pain in Calgary were the Saudis, who turned the spigots on enough to drive the price of oil so low, they were basically the only ones making money. (They were punishing other OPEC members for exceeding their production quotas. Every other oil producer in the world, became collateral damage.) More recently, Alberta’s Wildrose Party seems convinced that over-regulation is what caused a slowdown in bitumen development in the past few years, neatly overlooking the Massive Financial Crisis of 2008/09 that caused the oil to drop to about $40 per barrel, before gradually floating back to the low $100’s, from which it has resumed sagging.