Practical cleantech

Cleaner technologies make us feel good about ourselves, but in the real world they succeed only when the marketplace adopts them. Canadian innovators seem to understand that

By Lisa Manfield
May 14, 2010

In a year marked by the warmest and driest winter on Environment Canada’s records, it’s not difficult to see why Canada’s cleantech sector is churning out innovative solutions to today’s environmental crises. While the sector is known mainly for its more obvious aspects—solar panels, compact fluorescent light bulbs and hybrid cars—Canada’s cleantech industry is a highly complex sector that encompasses energy generation, storage and infrastructure, water management, land use, transportation, construction, and clean products and production.

And while most people would be forgiven for not knowing a fuel cell from a biofuel, even cleantech experts have a tough time agreeing on what exactly constitutes a clean technology. “Some people don’t consider it clean unless it’s completely sustainable,” said Kirk Washington, a partner with Yaletown Venture Partners in Vancouver who invests in the clean diesel sector, among others. Washington doesn’t consider himself a purist when it comes to cleantech, and diesel fuel is a prime example. Although diesel isn’t exactly sustainable, he said, “if I can make it better—and cleaner than gasoline—then I will.”

More commonly associated with cleantech are innovations like wind turbines and solar panels, even though they are only now starting to emerge as viable contenders in the renewable energy space. But it’s that viability that is key to cleantech. If it can’t succeed in the marketplace, it won’t be produced and adopted on a large scale. And without large-scale dissemination, cleantech can’t have the intended effect: to benefit both the environment and the bottom line.

That’s why Troy Angrignon, an emerging technologies entrepreneur currently working with the BC Innovation Council, feels it’s critical to take a broad approach to clean technology. “I tend to define it as any technology that can be made more sustainable,” he said. “Most people think of renewable power as cleantech, but I think we need to green everything. We need to think bigger.”

Not that the cleantech sector isn’t big. According to Rick Whittaker, vice-president of investment and CTO at Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), a non-profit foundation that finances the development and demonstration of clean technologies, it’s a $4 trillion global industry. But that’s because Whittaker said it’s not a separate sector. “It started as environmental technology, but cleantech has come to mean ‘good for business.’ It’s been branded as a separate sector, but essentially we’re bringing an efficiency component to existing sectors. It really is embedded in good business.”

Good, clean business

There’s no question it has become good for business to offer greener alternatives—particularly with high-emissions products like automotives. Cleantech hit the big time in the transportation sector years ago when hybrid vehicles first took to the streets. “In this part of the world we have a history in alternative vehicle propulsion, and there is a quiet revolution going on in personal transportation,” Washington said. “We have hybrid electric vehicles and fuel cell-based vehicles and advanced alternative energies.”

The problem is none of these alternatives have found critical mass in terms of uptake. But according to Whittaker, that’s about to change. “The next two years are going to be big transition years,” he said. “Canada has companies doing advanced powertrain design for hybrid-electric vehicles and we’ll see low-volume experimental innovations go mainstream—hitting model-year designs on a large scale by 2013.”

Renewable fuel sources like ethanol, biodiesel, synthetic fuels and natural gas are another area of focus for cleantech in transportation—particularly when it comes to trucks, which “put out half of all vehicle emissions,” Whittaker said. “Alternative power trains are being scaled up, along with alternative technologies that don’t require any diesel.”

Whittaker said biodiesel alternatives are also emerging, but they are still about three to five years down the line.

Outside the transportation sector, other renewable energy sources like solar and wind power are also coming to the fore. “Renewables have now become competitive,” Washington said. “Solar power has emerged in the last 10 years to become a $30 billion industry. In fact, the production of solar panels now consumes more silicon annually than the entire microprocessor industry. Renewables will grow to about 20 per cent of the energy mix and in the U.S. there will be a renaissance of nuclear power and some people will embrace nuclear as clean burning.”

Despite the growth, renewable energy sources still constitute only seven per cent of the North American power mix, with oil, natural gas, coal and hydroelectric making up the bulk of our energy production, consumption and export. “Solar is only one per cent of that, or 0.07 per cent of the North American energy mix, so there is a lot of room to scale up,” Angrignon said.

And Canada is scaling up across the board when it comes to cleantech, Whittaker said. SDTC has funded 183 projects since 2001, allocating $464 million to the sector. “Canada has very specific areas of specialization. For example, we’ve taken our longstanding metallurgical experience and put it to use creating solar materials, as opposed to solar panels. We also do inductive design for wind turbines, creating breakthrough efficiencies.”

Innovations in storage and dissemination of energy are also set to create efficiencies. “Currently the grid generates a fixed amount of energy, no matter what,” Angrignon said. “We need to fix that so we can add in bursty energy sources like wind and solar.”

To that end, smart technologies are being developed to more intelligently measure and monitor energy flow according to demand. “There’s no question that rising energy prices, climate action policy and stimulus funding are causing communities to start taking a leadership role,” said Victoria Smith, manager, aboriginal and sustainable communities sector in the customer care group at BC Hydro.

Plans are now underway to develop electric vehicle infrastructure. “As we start to see the adoption of electric vehicles, and the City of Vancouver has been hugely progressive in this area, we are looking at the deployment of smart grids and meters,” Smith said.

Another key area of focus for resource management is water. “It’s the next oil,” Whittaker said.

Raul Pacheco-Vega, an environmental politics and policy instructor at the University of British Columbia agreed, but said it’s also an area mired in government policy. “In 2010, the government is starting to wake up to the notion that we don’t have as much water as we think. But the adoption of cleantech often depends on the policy side—the government regulations.”

Pacheco-Vega said two areas where technology is having an impact on water conservation and management are metering and consumption reduction. “One of the biggest problems is water metering. We don’t actually know how much water we have in aquifers, but now we are starting to see more accurate methods of metering water.”

On the other end of the spectrum, he said, are the multitudes of water-saving devices that are helping consumers reduce water consumption. “We’re seeing water-saving devices at the industrial and household levels,” Pacheco-Vega said. “In green building, people have started to take a more integrated approach.”

Building green

Considering how much time we spend indoors, there’s no question building green efficiencies make good business sense. “North America is one of the most wasteful places in the world when it comes to buildings,” Washington said.

According to Helen Goodland, executive director of the Lighthouse Sustainable Building Centre in Vancouver, buildings contribute 54 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in B.C.—and it’s a similar percentage for most urban areas. In addition, 12 per cent of the world’s water goes into buildings and 35 to 40 per cent of all the waste that goes into landfills is from building construction.

“Green buildings are making sustainability visible for so many policy makers,” she said. “Solar panels, green roofs, micro-hydro and micro-wind are at the sexy end of the tech spectrum.”

But it’s the less visible aspects of buildings where Goodland said a lot of the innovation is actually taking place. “The building system—the structure, fabric and envelope of a building—has been around for thousands of years. But now we’re seeing innovative advances in how windows perform, how walls are insulated and how designers interact in order to optimize the benefits of the technological advances.”

One example of a much-needed innovation, she said, is a window system that optimizes thermal value. “3M has developed window films that calibrate heat and reflect daylight,” she said. “There has been tremendous innovation in the window sector.”

Retrofits are also the order of the day because buildings need to be efficient before you can add alternate energy sources like solar panels, Goodland said. To that end, there is a “wealth of rethinking going on in the industry, and designers are finding new ways to work together using sophisticated modelling software systems.”

BC Hydro has been active in promoting and incenting retrofits. “We’re looking at end-use technology,” Smith said. “Once energy is delivered, how is it used in houses? We’re looking at energy modelling and providing technical support.”

Goodland believes this is the single biggest step forward in construction in recent history. “Software is allowing us to understand the impact of buildings,” she said.

New buildings, such as those developed for the Winter Olympics’ athletes’ village in Vancouver, are being equipped with energy-monitoring systems to provide real-time information on building performance.

But Smith said it’s not just the monitoring but also the use of on-site renewable energies that make the athletes’ village an excellent showcase for the kind of efficiencies achievable through green building technologies. “Seventy per cent of the heat requirements were met through capturing waste heat through the sewer system.”

Passive buildings also gained exposure during the Games. Passive design emphasizes the performance of the building envelope, maximizing free energy from the sun, wind and shade. “There are passive houses in Germany that do not need any active technology to heat them,” Goodland said.

And North America’s first passive house is now in B.C., thanks to the Olympics. Acting as the Austrian pavilion in Whistler during the Games, the house uses a combination of insulation and high-efficiency heating to make use of natural heat sources. “It requires an investment in the fabric of the house, which is much more long-lasting than, say, a furnace, which lasts a maximum of 25 years,” Goodland said.

While passive houses many not be practical for everyone, BC Hydro is working with the City of Vancouver to pilot the development of a smart neighbourhood to demonstrate the integration of smart-grid infrastructure with distributed energy, smart metering, sustainable transportation such as electric vehicle and transit infrastructure, and prioritized deployment of conservation measures. “With all the new technology coming to market, you need an intelligent system to manage that,” Smith said. “We’re currently still using very old technology.”

How clean can we be?

Whether any of these cleantech innovations ultimately see mainstream success, one thing is certain: there needs to be an accompanying sea change not only in business, but throughout society. “My students always tell me, if people would just change their behaviour, we would have a more sustainable world,” Pacheco-Vega said. “A lot of what’s happening in Canada is reactive. We’ve been working under the premise that we don’t have to deal with this.”

For Washington, incentives are the best means to ensure uptake of breakthrough clean technologies. “Incentives are the biggest thing driving this industry. The government’s role should be about creating incentives, in a sound and well-informed way. So far we’re doing pretty well, but it’s early days.”

Corporations don’t want to locate their headquarters in cities that aren’t great to live in, he added. And many cities have become unappealing because of neglect.

But Canada, and particularly the West Coast, is poised to lead the cleantech sector, Washington said. “We’ve been doing cleantech here since before there was cleantech. We’ve built up a class of tech people here, with a couple of generations of experienced engineers, managers and investors, and we’re thriving. What’s remarkable is that public awareness of these topics came to the fore [because of the Winter Olympic Games],” Washington said. “The government has learned that by leading, you benefit.”

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