Toronto is a hub of innovation in renewable energy that the provincial government is helping to promote through partnerships with local universities and businesses.
By Francesca Rheannon
Part two of a three part series on renewable energy in Ontario, Canada
To those of us for whom the transition to a renewable energy future can’t happen soon enough, the scale of change seems achingly slow. The problem is not innovation. The world has enough innovative projects afoot to solve our energy dilemmas – and, as Jonathan Koomey has pointed out, we don’t need perfection to start scaling them up. All we need are investment and the willingness to put new technologies into action.
It’s a perspective the government of Ontario, Canada seems to have adopted with enthusiasm, as I found during a September press junket to the area.
In the first post for this miniseries about the trip, I reported on the transformation of the Atikokan coal power plant into a 100% renewable energy generating facility using sustainably harvested biomass. That plant was way up in the wilds of northwest Ontario.
Toronto’s Innovation Hub
But most of the press tour centered in and around Toronto, a city of five million that is clearly in the midst of a major building boom. Toronto is host to a hive of innovation in renewable energy that the government is helping to promote through partnerships with local universities, technology and social entrepreneurs, and established companies looking to make their operations more sustainable.
On a whirlwind tour, our little group of journalists talked with representatives from some 10 companies, from tiny startups to a massive 100-year old major steel producer, that are striving to change the world to be a cleaner, greener place. In this post, I’ll share some of what I learned about efforts to advance energy efficiency.
Innovation in Energy Efficiency
Efficiency is often called the “low-hanging fruit” of green energy – as such, it brings to mind sealing up drafts in old houses and packing in the insulation behind walls. But energy efficiency – or, as they call it in Canada, “conservation” – is much more than that. It’s a principle that applies to all processes where energy is being produced, transmitted and consumed. And it’s a major front in Ontario’s campaign to bring down carbon emissions.
InMotive: Making a More Efficient Engine
Nestled into the innovation hub at the MaRS Centre is the office of InMotive, a company that claims it has created the world’s most efficient engine through the application of its “mechatronic variable speed drive.” (There’s a video demo on the company’s website.)
Company president and partner Paul Bottero told us the idea for the drive began with a ride on a streetcar, when inventor Anthony Wang – like Bottero, an avid bicyclist – was thinking about how to make bicycles more efficient. He came up with an idea that could make not only bicycles shift gears more easily but that could actually make industrial motors, HVAC fans, wind turbines and even cars – any kind of engine that operates at different speeds – produce more with less energy.
After creating a prototype in 2008, which “worked better than we expected,” Bottero said, the partners were able to land more than $1 million in government grants through collaboration with the University of Toronto. The drive is “a game-changing solution for industrial motors,” according to Bottero, continuing:
"Forty percent of the world’s power is consumed by industrial motors. Seventy five percent of motors in industrial facilities operate at less than 60% of capacity. The mechatronic variable speed drive will halve the horsepower for the same or better output."
Bottero says the technology can be applied to retrofits, but is intended mostly for the new motor market.
Lumentra: Using Nanotechnology for Better, More Efficient Lighting
Lighting accounts for 8% of entire energy use and 22% of electricity use, so making illumination as efficient as possible could take a big bite out of carbon emissions. LEDs are becoming more widely available to the mass market as they become more affordable, but lighting innovators are looking to nanotechnology to improve efficiency, lower costs further and create a more natural hue.
One Toronto-based company working on LED (or SSL, for “solid state lighting”) technology is Lumentra, which is advancing something called “quantum dot phosphors.” Founder and CTO Venkat Venkataramanan explained to our press group that SSL had the potential of slashing lighting energy 48% by 2030 with the developing technology.
A physicist by training, Venkataramanan told us “the future of light” is LEDs, not only in advanced countries, but also off the grid in developing countries when paired with solar energy. However, LEDs as currently employed have a color problem – they don’t have enough green, which can make the light harsher. It’s not just an aesthetic problem, he explained:
“We evolved under sunlight; our biorhythms are controlled by sunlight. Core sunlighting is the organic alternative, but we are searching for the ‘fast food of light’.”
That’s the promise of SSL using the quantum dot phosphor technology, Venkataramanan claims. It can provide light across the entire visible spectrum, using a simple, clean chemistry manufacturing process at low cost. Moreover, he said that current technology uses rare earths that are toxic and getting in shorter supply. But Lumentra’s products could be an alternative to rare earths for LED manufacturers.
Venkataramanan says the technology is “nontoxic,” but the field of nanotechnology has generated some qualms among environmentalists concerned that materials that are nontoxic on the macro level can disrupt biological processes when absorbed at the quantum level. I’m no expert, so I won’t weigh in, but if Lumentra can improve lighting efficiency safely, we’ll all be healthier.
ArcelorMittal: Old Industry Pioneers New Tech
ArcelorMittal Dofasco is a sprawling steel plant complex in Hamilton, Ontario that was built in 1912. Known as Dominion Steel before being acquired by French steel maker Arcelor, the company is the largest steel producer in the world, dominating 10% of global steel production.
So when the firm decided to pioneer efficiency measures across the board in its steel making operations, it was a little like Wal-Mart deciding to green up its supply chain—the impact could be far-reaching.
The tour of the plant’s rolling steel mill was awe-inspiring. Suited up in hard hat, safety glasses and heat-blocking jacket, I walked the fiery mile-long (at least, it seemed like a mile) track as huge slabs of cold gray steel were loaded onto the conveyor belt, run through a furnace to a glowing yellow-red temperature and then stretched like taffy into thin, impossibly long, flat-rolled metal sheets to be spun into giant rolls.
It’s an enormously energy-intensive process—with huge amounts of waste heat that the company is now beginning to capture for re-use. Through the implementation of a variety of conservation and efficiency measures, the company expects to reduce its power consumption by a whopping 60%. According to the company spokesman, 18,000 tons annually of the steel the plant manufactures will be able to be produced at no net energy cost, due to the savings.
The innovations have been made possible by Ontario Power Authority’s Industrial Accelerator program, which it’s website describes as:
…designed to assist eligible transmission-connected companies to fast track capital investment in major energy-efficiency projects. The five-year program will provide attractive financial incentives to encourage investment in innovative process changes and equipment retrofits so that the rate of return is competitive with other capital projects. In exchange, participants will contractually commit to delivering specific conservation targets within a set period of time and to maintaining them over the expected life of the project.
The Industrial Accelerator is just one of the big-picture programs the Ontario government is pursuing in its quest for efficiency and renewable energy. Our next post will look at what’s happening to develop the smart grid and tackle the problem of energy storage and demand as the province transitions to a larger role for renewables.