China coal use falls for second year in a row: IEA boss

Here’s what Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, tweeted this morning:

The key two words here are “if continues.” During the Paris climate summit, researchers from the Tyndall Centre at the U.K.’s University of East Anglia and colleagues in the U.S., Australia and Norway approached 2014 and 2015 coal use and emissions data with cautious optimism. Is it a lasting trend, or an anomaly? It’s still too early to say.

Driven mostly by a need to get local air pollution under control, China has put a 2020 cap on coal emissions. Less economic emphasis is being put on energy-intensive industries such as steel manufacturing and big investment continues in renewables. That, combined with an economic slowdown, has contributed to a shifting to a “new normal,” said Glen Peters from Norway’s Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research. “It’s happening faster than we expected.”

Assuming the latest data from China is more than just an anomaly, what does that mean in the battle to rein in global GHG emissions? Answering that question means knowing what will happening in India, which was described by the researchers as the big wild card. India’s actions over the next 20 years could make or break attempts to keep average global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees C – let alone keeping such temperatures “well below” that threshold, a target specified in the Paris agreement.

There’s been a lot of hope that global GHG emissions and global GDP have permanently “decoupled”, meaning we can achieve economic growth without increasing emissions. Usually the two rise in lock-step, but the researchers, in a paper published last month in the journal Nature Climate Change, reported that global emissions were expected to fall last year during a period of decent economic growth. That’s unusual – and potentially great news – given that emissions growth between 2003 and 2014 averaged 2.4 per cent.

We’ll see. Some believe India won’t pull its weight in the climate fight, while others point to the country’s determination to embrace renewables, particularly solar. During the Paris summit one of the big announcements came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who spearheaded creation of a 120-country solar alliance to help realize the “dream of universal access to clean energy.”

On the other hand, one of the most sobering moments during the Paris conference was when I heard India’s energy-efficiency chief Ajay Mathur talk about one of the country’s biggest challenges: a fast-growing middle class that wants air conditioning. Studies forecast that India’s middle class could double to half a billion people before 2030, and these people will want more of the comforts that North Americans take for granted. India has had its share of heat waves and is expected to experience more as the climate changes, so who could blame them for wanting to keep cool – especially if they have the means?

Mathur’s wish list over the coming years: amazingly energy-efficient air conditioners, “using at least half if not a third as much energy as we use today, and affordable as well,” he said. “How do we make that happen?”

It’s the billion-dollar question for a country that, based on its current energy trajectory, is expected to become the world’s largest importer of coal by 2020.

This isn’t to downplay Birol’s comment today about China. That such changes are taking place in China is tremendous news that should be applauded and encouraged. But we need to see in India what is currently happening in China before intolerable levels of smog begins choking its urban populations. Fortunately, renewable energy technologies are much more mature and affordable compared to when China began its rapid growth phase. Also, India has the benefit of learning from China’s mistakes and it has the backing of developed countries that want to see it make the right choices. Finally, post-Paris, it has added pressure from the international community to get it right.

 

Air Canada backs project to build biofuels supply chain for airports

An earlier version was originally published in the Toronto Star.

Canada’s aviation sector made history in 2012 after a number of test flights showed that renewable jet fuel could be blended with regular fuel without affecting airplane performance.

It started in April, when Porter Airlines used a blend of 50 per cent “biojet” fuel on a Bombardier turboprop, which successfully flew from the Toronto island airport to Ottawa. Two months later, Air Canada flight AC991 carried passengers from Toronto to Mexico City using a similar 50/50 mix. It was the first of two commercial test flights Air Canada conducted that year.

“We took 43 per cent of the carbon out of that flight,” said Teresa Ehman, the airline’s director of environmental affairs. “It was phenomenal. But it raised the next question: Why does this not happen every day?”

Environmental groups want an answer. Airline flight and passenger volumes are expected to double over the next 15 years, and if the aviation sector doesn’t change its behaviour, that also means a doubling of greenhouse-gas emissions — from slightly less than 2 per cent today to a projected 4 or 5 per cent by 2050.

At the Paris climate conference in December, there was pressure from a variety of parties to have the aviation sector included in the final text of the resulting international agreement. It didn’t work. Airlines were once again left to their own devices. Initially included as part of the Kyoto Protocol, oversight of international aviation emissions got punted in the 1990s to the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has sat on the issue for two decades and continues to be the chosen overseer. A plan of action is expected to be hammered out this year, but critics warn not to expect anything mandatory or ambitious.

The entire situation frustrates the European Union, which has tried twice to impose a carbon fee on international flights into and out of Europe. It backed down from its most recent attempt in 2014 after U.S. and Chinese airlines threatened to ignore it, but the EU signalled it would revive the effort if ICAO didn’t have its own plan in place by 2017.

The bottom line: airlines need to step up their emissions-reduction game,  and biofuels are expected to play a major role.

Will biojet fuel take off?

In many ways, making biojet fuel is the easiest part of the mission to decarbonize aviation. Many companies are already producing it in limited quantities, using ingredients that range from canola and camelina to animal fats and algae.

The bigger challenge, said Ehman, is coming up with an efficient and economical way of safely getting fuel from a production facility all the way to an airplane’s wing. Biofuels are an important component, but without a supporting infrastructure and supply chain that allows it to be consumed on a large scale across all Canadian airports, the market for this fuel will never grow large enough to matter.

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 5.03.32 PMTo tackle this barrier, Air Canada has teamed with experts from industry and academia on a project that will blend 400,000 litres of biojet fuel with an existing fuel-delivery system at a soon-to-be-chosen airport. The current approach — driving a truck directly to the airplane — creates a parallel system that is too expensive and impractical in commercial volumes.

“It’s not just knowing if these fuels can work in the planes, because that is known already,” said Warren Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, which is part of the initiative. “What we are trying to do is be among the first to put together a supply chain so we can see what it takes to start delivering these fuels into a hub in a way that allows them to be more widely used.”

Fred Ghatala, who as partner with Vancouver-based consultancy Waterfall Group is leading the research effort, said it comes down to lower costs in an industry where fuel purchasing and delivery represents a substantial part of an airline’s operational budget. “Reducing costs where possible when using low-carbon fuels is fundamental to the future of those fuels.”

The University of Toronto, McGill University and the International Air Transport Association are also part of the project as members of the BioFuelNet Aviation Task Force. Funding is coming from the Green Aviation Research and Development Network, which gets its support from the federal government and Canada’s aerospace sector.

Crucial to get it right

Ehman said Air Canada has been working to solve this carbon dilemma for nearly five years. After its biofuel test flights, the airline worked with Airbus and the BioFuelNet team to study Canada’s ability to supply biojet fuel, asking how much the country could produce and how much the fuel would cost. It then passed that research along to Transport Canada, which did its own Canadian feasibility study.

The industry has to get it right. For its part, Air Canada has done a good job of finding efficiencies in its operations, with measures to reduce aircraft weight, improve fleet maintenance and streamline routes. Out of 20 transatlantic airlines measured for operational efficiency, Canada’s biggest airline tied for fourth place behind only KLM, Aer Lingus, Airberlin and Norwegian Air, according to a November report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.

In Europe, airports themselves are committing to be carbon-neutral by 2030 through an increase in efficiency and use of solar power. But on-the-ground or in-the-air efficiency can only go so far, said Ehman, pointing out that fuel consumption represents more than 95 per cent of any airline’s emissions.

As a global industry, airlines have made a voluntary commitment to increase the fuel efficiency of their fleets by 1.5 per cent annually and achieve carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020. By 2050, the industry says it will cut its absolute GHG emissions in half compared to 2005 levels.

The only way to get there is with biofuels, and if that’s going to happen, Air Canada wants to make sure a vibrant market is developed domestically to keep jobs and money in the country. “There’s a paradigm shift happening,” said Ehman. “It’s important for Canada to take a lead in this.”

Mabee echoed that view. “This is the way the world is moving. We have to deal with emissions in every sector, somehow. So let’s figure this out.”

Canada’s advantage

Canada is in an ideal position to lead development of aviation biofuels.

For one, it has all the resources it needs to sustainably produce vast quantities of biofuel, whether from agricultural and forest residues or specially grown oilseed crops such as canola or camelina. Second, the country has the domestic expertise to refine those materials into a certifiable product that the industry can trust.

Homegrown companies such as Hamilton-based Biox and Enerkem of Montreal could be ideal producers of the fuel down the road. “They have the building blocks to start assembling those types of molecules,” said Mabee, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University. “But the key part of this, what is missing, is a policy driver for it. We don’t have a government mandate to make these fuels.”

A renewable fuel standard, like the federal requirement that gasoline contain at least 5 per cent ethanol, is one policy option. Another is a B.C.-style low-carbon fuel standard, which requires a 10 per cent reduction in the carbon intensity of gasoline by 2020. Putting the aviation sector under the umbrella of a carbon tax might also be considered.

But it makes no sense to knock on the government’s door if a barrier such as fuel distribution makes it overly difficult for the industry to comply. And while some might ask why batteries or hydrogen or solar technology isn’t being considered as an alternative, Mabee offers a reality check. “Solar planes and battery-powered planes are nice research efforts, but practically biofuels are the only way to go.”

This article was part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Tides Canada supported the partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star had full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.

Canada’s clean electricity exports to triple under U.S. Clean Power Plan

Originally published in the Toronto Star tablet edition, Star Touch.

By Tyler Hamilton

As Canada’s petroleum sector struggles with the reality that sub-$30 (U.S.) oil could be here for some time, the country’s power sector is prepping for a dramatic increase in U.S. demand for clean electricity.

Call it a shift from pipelines to power lines.

Action on climate change is the reason — more specifically, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to slash carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by a third by 2030.

The plan is expected to triple the flow of Canadian electricity into Midwestern and northeastern border states, part of a broader U.S. effort to comply with the international climate obligations that 196 countries agreed to in Paris.

Stakeholders from the Canadian power sector are calling it a breakthrough. “We are very pleased with the outcome,” said Patrick Brown, director of U.S. affairs with the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA).

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 11.04.21 AMClean electricity imports from Canada are a multibillion-dollar opportunity, but have typically not counted toward state-level renewable energy mandates. After being heavily lobbied, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognized imported power, including hydroelectricity, as an important way for states to comply with the new federal emission rules.

Brown said 80 per cent of electricity generated in Canada is emission-free, versus about 20 per cent south of the border. “That’s a real competitive advantage that we believe the Canadian government and provinces need to leverage,” said Brown, adding that an education effort is underway to make state officials more aware of the import option.

The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which monitors and regulates grid stability in Canada and the U.S., estimated in a report last April that net Canadian electricity exports under the Clean Power Plan could grow three-fold between 2020 and 2030 as demand for renewable power grows in states such as Ohio, Michigan, New York and jurisdictions in New England.

In 2014, such exports represented $3 billion in cross-border trade, meaning the market could be worth $9 billion annually within the next 15 years. The projections are consistent with the preliminary findings of a new high-level report prepared by Boston-based consultancy London Economics International.

“States could decide they don’t want Canadian power, as there’s nothing in the plan that says they should use it. But it does encourage states to look in that direction,” said Andrew Finn, an associate of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Finn has spent the past few years pointing to Canada as something more than just the oil sands and pipeline projects, both of which have overshadowed the hydro import option.

“Frankly, the Keystone XL pipeline project took so much oxygen out of the room, but with that out of the way this idea has more room to breath,” he added.

Longer term, some observers say the size of the export market has potential to reach $40 billion a year. Jatin Nathwani, a professor of engineering and environment at the University of Waterloo, estimates that clean electricity trade to the U.S. could soar 10- to 20-fold over the next few decades as part of a continental-wide effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

“Such an epochal change is conceivable over a 30- to 50-year timeframe consistent with the timelines for achieving a low-carbon economy,” Nathwani argued in a 2014 analysis that was featured in a report from the Canadian Academy of Engineering.

But the transition from pipelines to power lines comes with its own set of challenges, not unlike those experienced by Keystone XL proponents. Long distances and sometimes rough geography make for high upfront infrastructure costs and considerable risk, especially in the face of any political or public opposition to transmission infrastructure routes.

The fact that the constitution gives the provinces authority over electricity generation and transmission has historically been a sticking point.

“Support for expansion of electricity generation and transmission facilities — on a vastly increased scale — as part of a deliberate national ‘export driven’ strategy is either limited or all too often met with derision or outright hostility,” Nathwani wrote.

Still, the opportunity could prove irresistible. As more sub-national jurisdictions move to price carbon, and as more vehicles and industrial activities switch to running on electricity, power consumption is expected to rise in the United States faster than domestic developers can keep up.

The International Energy Agency, meanwhile, has warned in one scenario that the accelerated retirement of aging U.S. nuclear reactors could see nuclear power supply drop by as much as 70 per cent by 2040.

“The demand for electricity is going to keep going up,” said Dan Woynillowicz, policy director at Clean Energy Canada. He added that in a post-Paris world it will need to be low-carbon electricity, which bodes well for Canada.

“We need to get that message out in the same way we’ve had that full offensive championing the oil sands,” Woynillowicz said. “Imagine if we took that same level of effort to promote clean electricity exports?”

That’s exactly what some observers expect Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will do when he visits the White House for a state dinner with Obama. The two leaders have already indicated that closer co-operation on climate action and energy policy will be part of their discussion.

As for what Trudeau should do to stimulate investment on the Canadian side, Woynillowicz said it comes down to reducing risk and creating market certainty. That means creating political and financial supports, such as federal loan guarantees, and rallying the Canadian public behind the idea.

“Hopefully the Canadian government has learned some lessons in light of its experience on the pipeline side,” he said.

This article was part of a series produced in partnership by the Toronto Star and Tides Canada to address a range of pressing climate issues in Canada leading up to and following the UN Paris climate summit. Tides Canada is supporting this partnership to increase public awareness and dialogue around the impacts of climate change on Canada’s economy and communities. The Toronto Star had full editorial control and responsibility to ensure stories are rigorously edited in order to meet its editorial standards.

After Paris, it’s time for Canada to finally join IRENA

IRENA is the International Renewable Energy Agency, a UN-affiliated organization established in 2009 to promote awareness and growth of renewable energy technologies on the global stage. It’s a kind of counter-balance to existing agencies that have long represented the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. The idea for IRENA goes as far back as 1981, but it took a quarter century to get the political traction it needed.

Today, 145 countries have officially joined IRENA and another 30 are in the process of becoming members. That would bring the total to 175. By comparison, the 42-year-old International Energy Agency has only 29 members, while the 59-year-old International Atomic Energy Agency has 167 members.

Canada is a founding member of the IEA and IAEA, yet Canada is the only G8 countries not part of IRENA. In fact, all other G8 countries were founding members of IRENA. Canada isn’t even in the process of joining, yet China, India, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iran are already members. Even Syria is signing up. The only other large country that sits with Canada outside of this massive international group is Brazil.

The Harper government avoided it like the plague. Not joining made a statement that even like-minded governments in Australia refused to make. But times have changed. Canada has a new government that says it’s serious about taking climate action. Canada played an important role in reaching a binding international climate agreement in Paris last month. Canada’s provinces have set ambitious emission-reduction targets that will require accelerated deployment of renewable energy. The country simply can’t afford to remain on the outside of IRENA.

So what’s the government’s position? Here’s the answer I got back after posing the question:

Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 10.52.53 AM“‎The Government of Canada was recently asked to join the International Renewable Energy Agency. This request is still under review,” said Caitlin Workman, press secretary for Catherine McKenna, Canada’s federal minister of environment and climate change.

It’s safe to say that since IRENA was founded the invitation for Canada to join has been a standing one.

Some might say: Who cares? It’s just another international agency that costs money to join and doesn’t offer much in return. I’d argue it does offer value. It will keep Canadian officials more abreast of global trends in renewable energy, but more important, it will give Canada a seat at a table filled with dozens of countries looking for the skills, knowledge and technology required to transition their economies away from fossil fuels.

The export opportunities for Canada are immense. The World Bank, in a report released in September 2014, estimated that investment in clean technologies in developing countries over the next decade will exceeded $6.4 trillion (U.S.). Of that, $1.9 trillion will be focused on renewable energy technologies, with a significant chunk of that creating an opportunity for small- and medium-sized businesses. In my opinion, that number is likely low-balling the opportunity, especially in the wake of the Paris climate summit.

IRENA is an opportunity for Canada to identify the needs of others, and the role it can play in meeting those needs.

Already, representatives from its 145 members are gathering in Abu Dhabi for IRENA’s sixth-annual assembly to discuss the role of renewables just one month after the Paris summit. There will be much to discuss as they tease out the details of the Paris agreement, and much back room dealmaking that Canada will not be a part of.

Canada should be there showing leadership.

 

 

Solar is booming in Ontario, but you’d never know it from the data

Screen Shot 2016-01-13 at 12.43.29 PMOntario’s Independent Electricity System Operator released its annual “Electricity Data” report on Tuesday, and it breaks down the supply mix in 2015, 2014 and 2013. On the surface there hasn’t been a big shift over the past three years. We see that nuclear and hydro output has been fairly consistent. Natural gas generation was up slightly in 2015 compared to 2014, but was still lower than 2013 levels. Coal has been completely phased out, but at only 2 per cent of the mix in 2013 it wasn’t a dramatic change.

Wind as a share of the electricity mix has doubled to 6 per cent since 2013. Electricity from biofuels more than doubled, but still represents less than 1 per cent of the mix.

Then there’s solar. Looking at 2013 data, you might be confused to see Ontario didn’t have any solar on the grid. A teeny weeny bit appeared in 2014 and that increased 14-fold in 2015, but still represented a measly .25 terawatt-hours of electricity in a system that generates 154 terawatt-hours a year. In other words, a rounding error.

It’s a misleading figure, and it makes solar look like an insignificant contributor to Ontario’s electricity system, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

So what’s the deal? The above figures are for transmission-connected generation, meaning only the biggest solar projects connected directly to the transmission system are recognized. Those projects total 140 megawatts on a grid with 27,000 megawatts of capacity.

But look under the hood and you see something quite different. When accounting for solar that is connected to the local distribution system, the figure is an impressive 1,766 megawatts.

“So over 90 per cent of solar in Ontario isn’t being included in their annual figures,” points out Keith Stewart from Greenpeace Canada. “If we did include it all, solar would be about 2 per cent of total generation. It’s a clear example of how conventional power-sector thinking is blinded to the role of renewables and the evolution towards a more decentralized grid.”

In other words, this so-called “embedded” solar generation is making a big difference, especially during times of summer peak demand when the sun is shining strong and air conditioning loads put stress on the grid.

 

The how, what and why of transitioning to a post-Paris world