Skip to main content

On the dusty plain just west of Seville in southern Spain, a monolith has been lately erected, a sun temple, standing almost six full storeys taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. The 20-megawatt solar thermal power plant is one of a cluster of new technologies being test-bedded on Abenoa Solar's Solúcar platform.

Near the German port city of Cuxhaven, meanwhile, a small forest of giant steel tripods, painted an exuberant yellow, rest next to their manufacturing plant. Their colossal prongs tower 24 metres above the tarmac, waiting to be crowned atop gleaming white pillars, far out to sea, where they will surpass the height of the Lighthouse of Alexandria. More importantly, they will be the most powerful wind turbines ever installed.

These are not one-off green initiatives or feel-good demos, but rather the first vigorous wave of a whole new industrial economy. It has emerged primarily in those places where climate change has been acknowledged not just as a fundamental fact of life and the defining crisis of the 21st century but also as an opportunity-the fulcrum for a lever that will launch the second Industrial Revolution. Notwithstanding whatever muddled consensus may emerge from the high-minded climate talks in Copenhagen this December, the nations and companies leading this second wave will continue with installations and innovations at a breakneck pace. And they will do so because building this new generation of infrastructure is a smart business move, based on sound economics.

Story continues below advertisement

In Germany alone, the renewable energy industry has created more than a quarter of a million new jobs in the decade since the Bundestag passed the world's most ambitious green-power legislation in 2000-this without introducing any new taxes and at a total cost to the average German household of about $50 per year. This "feed-in tariff" model, which requires utilities to purchase renewable electricity at above-market prices, has been quickly copied across Western Europe, most of which is at least a generation ahead of Canada in the shift to a sustainable low-emissions economy.

Canada was a global leader in environmental issues-the main broker, for example, of an international ban on ozone-depleting chemicals-up until the 1990s. In recent years, however, the country has fallen from the front ranks to become one of the world's most conspicuous laggards in greenhouse gas reduction and a virtual nonentity in the clean-tech boom. This isn't just bad news for the planet; it's bad business for Canada.

Perhaps recognizing this long-standing oversight, the Ontario government passed an ambitious new Green Energy Act this summer-an overt copy of Germany's pace-setting model. The new policy has vaulted the province to the forefront of North America's green economy, virtually overnight. It might just be a model for a wider Canadian awakening. -Chris Turner





1. MOON POWER

It's just shy of a century since engineers at Acadia University began thinking about harnessing the tides in Minas Basin, the mighty estuary that divides most of Nova Scotia from the mainland (and which the university overlooks). The basin, just off the Bay of Fundy, holds an enormous amount of water, which passes through a bottleneck-water rushes to and fro every day. Its potential as a power supply has always been tantalizing. Now, the tide may be turning for so-called moon power.

A trial project is just getting under way in Minas Basin that will see three experimental turbines-each from a different company-dunked beneath the waves. Unlike unpredictable wind and solar energy, the rhythm of the tide has been banging away on our shores for as long as the moon has been pulling it. By placing an underwater turbine in a tidal estuary, steady electricity could be generated around the clock.

The first technology to be deployed belongs to the privately held utility Nova Scotia Power, but was designed and built by OpenHydro, an Irish firm. The turbine, recently unveiled before a Dartmouth crowd, looks like nothing so much as a rusty jet engine, mounted in an elaborate cradle. It will rest on the seabed, pinned by its own weight. A single turbine should produce about one megawatt of electricity, enough to power up to 400 homes.

Story continues below advertisement

For now, it's just a test. Two other companies-Minas Basin Pulp and Power and British Columbia-based Clean Current-will be installing their technologies, but not likely before 2011. There are still significant unknowns: OpenHydro has never built a turbine as large as the one unveiled at Minas Basin. And there are local challenges-the biggest of which can be summed up in a single word.

"Ice!" says Mark Savory, a vice-president at Nova Scotia Power who is overseeing the turbines' commissioning process. Savory says the three companies will share data to see which design best weathers the Maritime winter.

Then there's the issue of marine life. The OpenHydro turbine is open in the middle, meaning sea creatures can pass through the centre. The turbines' viability, politically and otherwise, may ride on how much fish paste needs to be scraped from the blades. -Ivor Tossell

ECONOMIC POTENTIAL Beyond installation and transmission costs, maintenance of the underwater turbines is not unlike traditional hydroelectric models.

POLITICAL POTENTIAL The Fed's $1.05-billion Sustainable Development Technology Canada fund is contributing to the trials

ENERGY POTENTIAL With 200 turbines swirling in the Bay of Fundy, a tidal generation plant could produce about 6% of the output of a large nuclear station

Story continues below advertisement



2. BIOFUEL

"We look at our plants as cows," says Ryan Little, co-founder of Stormfisher, a Toronto-based biogas company. Bacteria within a cow's stomach breaks down grass and other plant matter into waste and, as it happens, methane. Stormfisher plans to do exactly that: turn organic waste into fertilizer and methane, and eventually electricity.

Stormfisher's plants-the first of which is on the brink of construction-employs a similar anaerobic digestion process to old Bessy's. Manure and food-processing leftovers (everything from potato peels to baby carrot bits) go in, and fertilizer and methane come out; the carbon-rich gas is burned to generate electricity, while the heat from its combustion is used to dry out the fertilizer.

If it sounds far out, it's not. The technology is imported from Germany, where thousands of similar plants are already in operation thanks to stringent European Union regulations that have limited the dumping of organic waste. As such, Stormfisher's challenge is more an economic one than a technical one, because it must first prove that giant artificial stomachs can be profitable. "It's a well-developed technology," says Little, "but there's a view that if you can't show me one down the street, it's not."

A few factors are working in Little's favour. For a start, the Ontario government's new feed-in tariff guarantees a fixed price for Stormfisher's electricity over the next 20 years. As well, food processors and farmers are running out of cheap places to dump organics. By locating operations near food-processing plants and industrial farming operations, Stormfisher will be able to cart away their leftovers-for a price, of course-and then sell the electricity and fertilizer it produces at the other end. So far, Stormfisher has raised $350 million in financing from Boston-based Denham Capital. The 20-person firm has five projects in development across North America, the first of which is a 2.8-megawatt plant in London, Ontario. Construction is slated to begin as early as this month, which could bring it on line within a year. Now there's something for the food producers of Southern Ontario to chew on. -Ivor Tossell

ECONOMIC POTENTIAL The biogas technology is expensive, but revenues from food producers and fertilizer sales could offset the costs

POLITICAL POTENTIAL Ontario recently enacted legislation that guarantees an elevated purchase price for renewable electricity

ENERGY POTENTIAL A single biogas plant could power up to 2,800 homes

3. DEEP GEOTHERMAL

A green twist on the old prospecting storyline: Veteran geological engineer Brian Fairbank went panning for gold in Nevada in the late 1990s and ended up pumping enough hot water out of the mountains to operate a $220-million (U.S.), 50 MW geothermal power facility that went online

earlier this fall. Now, Fairbank's company, Nevada Geothermal Power Inc., has a 20-year purchase agreement with the state power utility, and is looking to develop other geothermal plants in the U.S.

"There's enough energy in the world's crust to create all the electricity the world needs," says Fairbank, president and CEO of the Vancouver-based firm. South of the border, there's been something of a geothermal boom going on for about five years. The U.S. already has 3,000 MW

of geothermal power online, much of it in the West. The state of Nevada has gone to some lengths to encourage geothermal power, which, Fairbank claims, is one of the least-expensive renewables available. And since Barack Obama came to power, Washington has further stoked the sector by promising 30% cash grants to plants that are up and running by 2013-a nice rebate against upfront exploration and drilling costs.

Nevada and large competitors such as Ormat and Enel operate so-called hydrothermal plants, which extract hot water from the Earth's crust in order to turn hydroelectric turbines. But the real future of geothermal may lie in the dry heat that is trapped in rock, which, unlike trapped pockets of hot water, can be found under any point on the Earth's surface. At a depth of 3,000 to 4,500 metres, the rock temperature is about 150 C to 250 C, which is the economic sweet spot for geothermal projects (any deeper and the costs become extortionate). Engineers can force water through natural or engineered fractures so that it gathers up heat before it's pumped back as steam to drive turbines. There are still formidable obstacles: Drilling even a few thousand metres is costly, and techniques

for creating lateral fractures between bore holes (which allow the water to circulate) have yet to be perfected. Worse still, there is a growing concern that such activity may trigger earthquakes. There's a lot of next-gen geothermal R&D taking place, but "zero in Canada," Fairbank says. At this point, "there's not much incentive to develop the resource here." -John Lorinc

ECONOMIC POTENTIAL Exploration and drilling is costly, but geothermal plants are inexpensive to maintain

POLITICAL POTENTIAL Canada no longer maps geothermal hot spots, so there is little incentive for development

ENERGY POTENTIAL Proponents say geothermal could one day supply 20% of our power

4. SOLAR THERMAL

It's strange that no one thought about the deserts sooner. In July, 2009, a German-Middle Eastern consortium calling itself Desertec launched a scheme to develop a vast network of solar thermal plants around the northwest Sahara. Capable of harnessing the blazing desert sun, these plants would be tethered to Europe and the Middle East through a web of ultrahigh-capacity transmission lines. It's a power-sharing arrangement that could transform North Africa into the Saudi Arabia of the post-peak-oil world.

The group's technical point of departure is that the solar radiation striking the Earth's 36 million square kilometres of desert in a six-hour period is approximately equivalent to the world's annual fossil fuel energy production. "Any conceivable global demand of energy, today or in the future, could be produced from solar energy in deserts," according to a technical report produced for Desertec. Not bad for a morning's work.

Desertec's backers are proposing a series of concentrated solar thermal plants, with banks of reflectors directing the sunlight onto liquid-filled tubes. The superheated fluid is used to drive turbines and generate electricity. There are already a number of such facilities in California and Spain, and one UBS Wealth Management analyst's report recently predicted breakout growth for the Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) sector, which is still largely in private hands and remains stuck in the, well, shadow of seemingly less-costly photovoltaic options.

UBS noted that multinationals like Siemens, ABB and Deutsche Bank are all eyeing the Saharan sun, as well as the potential for large wind farms along North Africa's gusty Atlantic coast.

There is a catch: According to Desertec's vision, a network of 20 to 40 transmission corridors, each with a capacity of 2,500 to 5,000 MW, will need to be built in order to send all that power up to Europe, where it could supply almost a sixth of the EU's needs. The capital costs are astronomical-€45 billion, estimates Desertec-and the volatile geopolitics of the region could easily rear up to scotch these plans. Perhaps it's worth filing under S, for sunny optimism. -John Lorinc

ECONOMIC POTENTIAL The costs to build a solar thermal plant of this size, and connect it to the grid, could top $70 billion

POLITICAL POTENTIAL Connecting plants to a European grid would be tricky, requiring participation from many jurisdictions

ENERGY POTENTIAL Electricity generated in the Sahara has the potential to supply millions of homes



5. WIND

The conventional open-field wind farm has always suffered from two key weaknesses. First, the world's best wind resources are offshore-the moment sea breezes hit dry land, they begin to weaken by the metre. Second, many people don't like the look of the mammoth, multi-megawatt modern turbines that are required to make wind farming cost-effective. The most promising fix for both problems has emerged from a most unlikely source: Big Oil.

In September, Norway-based Statoil ASA, the world's largest offshore fossil-fuel producer, added a strange new device to its vast array of North Sea energy installations: the world's first floating industrial-scale wind turbine. Dubbed "Hywind," the new project is an unlikely hybrid of a standard wind turbine and the mooring system used to stabilize oil rigs in the high seas.

The technology is off-the-shelf and deceptively straightforward: Take an oil platform's "Spar-buoy"-a 100-metre-tall ballast tank tethered to the seafloor, up to 700 metres below, by three thick cables-and crown it with a 2.3 MW Siemens wind turbine. Install enough turbines in one spot to justify the cost of the submarine transmission cable, and then figure out how to keep them humming as they rock and sway in the pounding waves. If you can manage all that, you might just capture a new segment of the booming wind-power market-with economic potential exponentially larger than any wind sources yet uncovered. "The problem with most renewables is that they don't add up," says Statoil's Brage Waarheim Johansen. "This can add up."

The price tag-about $80 million to keep a single test turbine moored and spinning out juice from 10 kilometres off Norway's coast for two years-is still far too steep for the mass market. But Statoil is confi-dent the technology and the economics are sound, and Johansen and his colleagues are already envisioning enough floating windmills to power all of Norway-and perhaps, one day, enough installed up and down the long, heavily populated coasts of North America to fundamentally alter the continent's energy market. -Chris Turner

ECONOMIC POTENTIAL The costs of stabilizing and connecting the turbines to the grid remain prohibitive

POLITICAL POTENTIAL In Canada, the provinces have committed to install more than 12,000 MW of wind energy capacity by 2016

ENERGY POTENTIAL Onshore wind projects suffer great fluctuations in output. Steady sea breezes equal reliable energy

Report an error
About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.