A depressing commentary on coal…

My friend and colleague Eric Reguly, perhaps the best example of an environmental capitalist worried about his children’s future, wrote this column in the Globe and Mail about how, despite all our talk of renewables, conservation, and even nuclear, the demand and money is flowing to coal — a bad sign all around. A three-word summary of his article: we are screwed.

Hmmm… maybe we can all feel good about ourselves by applying for a new MBNA Canada credit card (MasterCard) that, instead of offering air miles on purchases, now offers carbon offset credits, “offering a simple way for consumers to reduce their environmental footprint.”

Simple, maybe… but reduce?!?! There is just something wrong about this. How can it be considered “reducing” by encouraging consumption under the illusion that we’re helping save the planet?

I have to say, these days I’m seeing less and less value in the concept of offsets, and worry that they may be making things worse, not better. To top it all off, the Ontario Power Authority is investigating how to measure and extract value from the CO2 emissions resulting from the province’s policies on renewables, conservation and perhaps even nuclear. It’s looking at carbon credits, among other options. But can we truly consider our policies and actions in Ontario green if we sell the green benefits to another jurisdiction? As others have pointed out to me, this smells of double accounting and would rob Ontarians of their green bragging rights.

Let’s hope the power authority is doing this purely as an intellectual exercise.

Okay, rant ends here…

Toronto tests “solar utility” service

I have a story today in the Toronto Star about a pilot project that would see the city equip up to 20 municipal buildings with solar thermal systems that would provide hot water and space heating. But instead of owning and operating the systems itself, the city would sign a 10-year contract with a “solar utility” — a company that would pay for, install and manage the equipment and then sell the heat that’s produced to the city at a fixed price. The solar heat would offset the use of natural gas or electricity that would have otherwise provided the heat for everything from community swimming pools to hot water in schools. It’s similar to the model adopted by SunEdison for the provision of solar electricity, but instead of power the city would be purchasing heat energy. Toronto city council is expected to approve the pilot project on Monday, and if successful it will likely be deployed across dozens more buildings across the city.

I’m only aware of one company in Toronto that would provide a solar utility service — that would be Mondial Energy Inc., which has already installed systems in a local hospital and two housing projects. But given the potential demand from the city, and the fact this could easily catch on in the private sector and in other cities across Canada, I fully expect a utility — hydro or natural gas company — to give the idea a serious look. Even SunEdison might get into the thermal game and bid for the Toronto business…

Toronto tests “solar utility” service

I have a story today in the Toronto Star about a pilot project that would see the city equip up to 20 municipal buildings with solar thermal systems that would provide hot water and space heating. But instead of owning and operating the systems itself, the city would sign a 10-year contract with a “solar utility” — a company that would pay for, install and manage the equipment and then sell the heat that’s produced to the city at a fixed price. The solar heat would offset the use of natural gas or electricity that would have otherwise provided the heat for everything from community swimming pools to hot water in schools. It’s similar to the model adopted by SunEdison for the provision of solar electricity, but instead of power the city would be purchasing heat energy. Toronto city council is expected to approve the pilot project on Monday, and if successful it will likely be deployed across dozens more buildings across the city.

I’m only aware of one company in Toronto that would provide a solar utility service — that would be Mondial Energy Inc., which has already installed systems in a local hospital and two housing projects. But given the potential demand from the city, and the fact this could easily catch on in the private sector and in other cities across Canada, I fully expect a utility — hydro or natural gas company — to give the idea a serious look. Even SunEdison might get into the thermal game and bid for the Toronto business…

The challenges of tire recycling

I had a story in the Toronto Star this week that, while researching it, really got me a bit angry. The piece is about an Ontario-based company called Recovery Technologies that recycles vehicle tires by processing them into tiny bits that can be used as fake dirt on sports fields, mixed with asphalt or blended with other materials to make car parts. Recovery has for years used a proprietary process based on liquid nitrogen, which is used to freeze the rubber so it can be hammered and literally shattered into pieces. Pretty cool, if you’ll excuse the pun.

So what got me angry? I learned that Recovery is having a difficult time getting enough tires because, well, used tire collectors are shipping them to New York State and Michigan where they can be burned as fuel. Turns out that Recovery’s business model understandably depends on getting a tipping fee for taking the tires, but as more and more jurisdictions permit the idea of so-called tire derived fuels, the tipping fee is rapidly shrinking to zero. No surprises there — a cement company would be more than happy to take the tires for free rather than pay for a conventional fuel, such as coal or oil.

Now, there’s an argument that tires are cleaner to burn than coal and oil and provide more energy content than coal, so what’s the harm in burning tires if they replaced fossil fuels that would otherwise be burned? It’s a valid argument, but it doesn’t send a good signal to industries that are encouraged to embrace recycling but at the same time are undermined by the market they aim to be helping. Recovery wants the Ontario government to move forward on promises to establish tire recycling legislation that would make it mandatory for recycling and forbid both the burning of tires as fuel in Ontario and the exporting of tires so they can be used as fuel in other jurisdictions.

It’s a reasonable request, and one that will help companies like Recovery collect a fair tipping fee for the service they’re providing. Ontario in particular, a province that has mandated the phase-out of coal fired generation, should be sensitive to this issue. If we’re going to go down the path of burning tires, then we might as well abandon our plastic recycling programs and burn empty yogurt containers and water bottles as fuel. It’s hard to see how we can justify one but strive to support the other.