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Prepare to be disrupted


Developed economies are taking climate change a lot more seriously, which is certainly the case in Canada where a change of government at the federal level combined with provincial efforts are altering the international perception that we are climate change laggards.

Not that this zeal is a good thing in Ontario’s whacky world of policy making and action planning. Take the automotive industry: it can’t catch a break. As it struggles to maintain a viable level of production, and against all odds, attract investment to the province, what does the Wynne government have in mind? A climate change action plan with an electric vehicle-shaped torpedo targeting 12% of all sales by 2025.

So far electrics comprise a meagre 0.16% of vehicles on the province’s roads. Where all these hoped for new vehicles will come from has industry analysts scratching their heads, but never mind. There will be grants, rebates and incentives aplenty, and nine years to work the magic!

The plan, leaked to the Globe and Mail, also takes aim at natural gas. Everyone will retrofit their homes for solar, geothermal or electric heat. Ditto every building. Cover your ears lest you be deafened by the unprecedented economic boom that environment minister Glen Murray predicts will roll across the province.

Begs the question, though: Where is all this electricity going to come from?

The experts predict massive amounts of new generation will be needed to cover the added burden to the power grid, even as Murray dreams of eventually phasing out nuclear (currently covering 58% of our needs) as more diverse sources come to the fore. That’s being a bit euphoric considering costly wind power accounts for just 4% of generation, while solar and bioenergy cover a meagre 1% each.

But there are interesting developments afoot that would enhance the viability of renewables, one in particular courtesy of a young Canadian scientist and the company she co-founded that aims to generate useful energy from compressed air.

Danielle Fong, chief scientist of LightSail Energy, a keynote speaker at Energy Summit 2016 in Niagara Falls, Ont. (presented by the Excellence in Manufacturing Consortium, NRCan and CIPEC) offered some interesting insights.

First some background: she was born in Halifax, went to Dalhousie University at 12, then to Princeton at 17 to conduct nuclear fusion research, but quit when she foresaw commercial application was a long way off (2050). That led her to a simpler solution: energy storage and the founding of LightSail in Berkeley, Calif.

She told attendees the generation of electricity has reached a critical point. For the first time production and lifetime operating costs of renewables are competitive with conventional power production.

That’s where her thermodynamic innovation adds an important new element to the renewable energy challenge. LightSail’s technology creates heat that can be stored and converted to energy – a handy feature for intermittent power sources such as solar and wind. Here’s how it works (see www.lightsail.com): mechanical energy used for compression generates heat that’s captured by water spray; compressed air is stored in a tank; heat captured by the water is stored for later use; and during expansion, the stored heat is sprayed into the air and converted back into mechanical energy.

LightSail is banking on almost $14 billion in infrastructure upgrades over the next 20 years, 30% of which could be served by storage technology. It’s easy to see the possibilities, and several high-profile financial backers (such as Bill Gates) have done so.

It’s a new world out there that’s all about disruption and change, which will be driven by brilliant people like Fong and her associates.

Ontario “officially” unveils its plan for disruption and change this month. Here’s hoping Murray’s gallant efforts to save the planet don’t plunge the energy sector into chaos and mortally wound the automotive industry.



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