How Metro Vancouver is changing the game for clean energy solutions

The region's technology companies are pioneering alternatives to carbon-based fuels

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      Last year, British Columbia experienced the worst forest-fire season on record. Ravaging an area equivalent to 2.3 million football fields, the flames forced more than 65,000 locals to evacuate their homes. When they returned, many found only charred piles of rubble.

      It’s hard to put the cost of climate change into human terms. Extreme weather, extended droughts, and devastating floods—all exacerbated by human-produced greenhouse gases—can seem insignificant to those unaffected. So far, Canada has remained largely untouched by the transforming conditions. That doesn’t mean, however, that the country is not responsible.

      Despite federal commitments to reduce Canada’s contributions to global warming, its greenhouse-gas output remains problematic. Last year, the Liberals failed to set targets for six major environmental policies, including zero-emissions-vehicle strategies, phasing out coal-fired electricity, and carbon taxes. Federal environment and sustainable-development commissioner Julie Gelfand gave a failing grade to 14 of the 19 government departments’ attempts to assess the impact of climate change—and then there’s the controversy surrounding the pipeline approvals.

      Perhaps more than any other province, though, B.C. is vocal about its opposition to fossil fuels. It’s also one of the best-placed locations for providing alternatives.

      Wind, solar, run of river, geothermal, large hydro, biomass, tidal, and wave power are all represented in British Columbia—often in unexpected ways. Vancouver’s Olympic Village, for instance, is entirely heated by pumping out the warmth from sewage. Wind power in the province now accounts for two percent of its electricity supply. Almost 90 percent of B.C.’s power currently comes from hydroelectric sources.

      Statistics, however, only tell half the story. While energy-usage calculations measure how close British Columbia is to hitting its climate targets, real change comes at the level of the individual. With renewable sources increasingly becoming available to consumers, residents are offered more choices to go green.

      That’s a concept upon which Terratek Energy, one of Metro Vancouver’s leading renewable-energy service providers, builds its business.

      The rise of solar power

      Terratek installs solar panels for electricity and heating in homes, companies, and institutions. Counting high-profile businesses including Mini Richmond, VanDusen Botanical Garden, and Sechelt’s St. Mary’s Hospital as clients, the organization offers a viable alternative to running solely on fossil fuels. So far, Terratek has reached hundreds of homeowners, more than 40 schools, and dozens of commercial clients.

      Cofounder and principal Scott Fleenor got into the industry early on. Recognizing the pressures on carbon-based energy and the mounting evidence of its damage, he started the business to create a forward-thinking solution to protect the environment. Now his motivations have changed. As well as making a positive contribution to climate change, the real joy of his work, he says, is making Metro Vancouver residents happy.

      “Everyone has a story about why they’re putting up solar panels,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his Vancouver office. “We see our clients as early adopters, and they care about the planet. If we can, we let the home or businesses’ owners turn their system on themselves. There was one woman in particular who still stands out to me. When we asked her to press the button, she was almost shaking—that’s how excited she was. You have to wait five minutes for the system to fire up. She was looking at the countdown timer, saying that it felt like a year. But the moment it turned on, and you could see the energy production—one kilowatt, two kilowatts, three kilowatts—her eyes lit up. She was holding back tears. She just turned around and said, ‘Thank you.’ I said, ‘No. Thank you.’ ”

      Terratek Energy installs solar panels in homes, businesses, and institutions.

      On top of that, some owners receive money back with the province’s net metering program, which lets individuals automatically sell surplus electricity to B.C. Hydro or Fortis B.C. for credit. If a solar system produces more energy than the home uses on Monday, for instance, that same amount of electricity will be available to withdraw from the grid for free at a later date. In the event that the system produces more energy than it uses, and the utility company deems that the credits won’t be cashed in before the end of the year, owners will be paid out at just under 10 cents per kilowatt hour.

      “Metro Vancouver is actually a great place to install solar panels,” Fleenor says. “Yes, we get rainy winters. But our harvest season really starts in April and ends at the beginning of October. During that time, we have our longest days. Our usable sunlight for energy during that period is, believe it or not, only eight percent less than Miami. Because Miami is closer to the equator, we get longer days in the northern latitude—up to 10 or 12 hours of sunlight during our peak periods. That’s where we catch up. If it’s wintertime and solar energy isn’t available that day, solar-panel owners can pull credits from the grid or use a little bit of hydro. But they’re able to capitalize on those peak periods later in the year.”

      Although Terratek was one of the first solar-panel companies to offer the service, it now faces competition from a number of similar local businesses. Vancouver Renewable Energy Cooperative, Penfolds Roofing & Solar, and Rikur Energy each provide parallel solutions—and the rate at which new solar organizations are entering the market highlights how much the demand for traditional renewables has grown.

      With its left-leaning populace and history of environmentalism, Metro Vancouver has proven receptive to more conventional alternative energies such as solar, wind, and hydro power. As the price drops and technology improves, all three forms are becoming more commonplace as both governments and consumers move away from carbon-based fuels. But while the region is seeing an uptick in tried-and-tested renewables, it is also a hotbed of more experimental solutions.

      Metro Vancouver’s innovation

      Take, for instance, Burnaby’s General Fusion. Currently in the process of creating a safe, clean, and on-demand renewable energy, the company is translating an idea from science fiction into reality. By heating hydrogen atoms to extreme temperatures, General Fusion aims to replicate the reactions that happen inside the sun.

      “We’re trying to re-create the energy of a star here on Earth,” CEO Christofer Mowry tells the Straight by phone from his office. “We create energy in bursts—in pulses—and use it to make steam. The steam turns a turbine, and it makes electricity. By doing that, we can power 10,000 homes for a year with a single bucket of saltwater.”

      General Fusion’s reactor works much like a diesel engine. In a diesel vehicle, air is compressed in the chamber by a piston. Fuel is then injected into the chamber, and when it meets the highly pressurized air, it ignites. As the fuel burns and expands, it pushes the piston back out. The company’s reactor operates in a similar way. Hydrogen gas is heated to very high temperatures, and is injected into a chamber. Liquid metal surrounds the plasma, and is compressed by hundreds of pistons. That compression pushes the plasma to fusion conditions, heating up the liquid metal around it. The heat is then used to make electricity.

      General Fusion uses cutting-edge technology to power its plant, which heats hydrogen gas to five million degrees Celcius.

      In Mowry’s mind, harnessing fusion could be the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to making the switch to renewables. Currently, most clean energy comes from intermittent sources—meaning that if the wind isn’t blowing or clouds are covering the sun, no energy is being produced. Fusion, however, is available whenever it’s needed.

      “There are a lot of advantages,” he says. “Firstly, it’s carbon-free. It’s also safe. There’s no radioactive waste and it can’t melt down, so it doesn’t have any of the downsides of nuclear power. Fusion is the densest form of energy that exists in the universe, so we don’t need a mountainside covered with wind turbines to light a city. We can do it with a very small power plant.

      “On top of that, the fuel is water,” he continues. “Only a tiny amount is needed to power a plant for a year. Everyone has access to the fuel. You don’t need uranium mines or pipelines or anything like that. It’s great from an energy-security and also national-security perspective.”

      The technology is still in its infancy, but is advancing fast. The recent development of key tools like 3-D printing and high-speed computers have made it increasingly easy to manufacture complex machine parts and coordinate the 600 cylinders that power the reaction. Where previously fusion’s biggest challenge has been the small amount of energy it produces—often less than it consumes to make the reaction—that is no longer the case.

      “I think people would say that the technologies today are good enough that we can break even,” Mowry says. “A big government program that they’re doing in France, for instance, creates more energy than it uses. The big challenge for us is to make it economical and to make it practical. We have to make cheap electricity, and it can’t be too expensive to build.

      “Now we need to put all the pieces together on a large scale,” he continues. “We’ve made a tool to inject the plasma [superheated hydrogen], we’ve created what’s essentially an engine block, and now we’re showing that they can work together. We’ve started a program to create a machine 70 percent of the size of a commercial power plant, and it will be used to prove the economics of what we’re doing. We’re aiming for our design to be commercially viable within the next decade.”

      Inside a General Fusion plant

      For Mowry, locating General Fusion in Metro Vancouver has been a positive decision for the company. Initially chosen by the founder, Michel Laberge, who earned his PhD in laser fusion from the University of British Columbia, the setting has since become a hot spot for inventive energies.

      “This is the first time I’ve lived in the area, and I’m really pleasantly surprised by how active the community is,” Mowry says. “The local economy seems to be excellent for clean energy. I’m not sure why so many companies have gathered here, but it’s obviously a great place to live and it’s easy to attract talent. We need the best and the brightest at what they do, and from that perspective it’s a great place to be. On top of that, we have the GLOBE Forum in Vancouver—North America’s largest summit on clean tech and sustainable energy—and TED is also here, which brings some excellent minds.”

      Different approaches

      Fusing atoms might be one way to make clean energy from hydrogen, but other local companies are reimagining how else the gas might fuel a green economy.

      As early as the 1900s—when the element was used to power streetlamps—scientists have recognized hydrogen’s potential as a clean energy source. As well as being colourless, odorless, and nontoxic, when it burns or is used in a fuel cell, the only waste product is water. The gas is light, and—when extracted from water and hydrocarbons—abundant. During the past few years, it has been used to power everything from homes to cars and airplanes.

      Despite those small successes, though, commercial adoption of the fuel has been hindered by its storage problems. Hydrogen is notoriously difficult to contain. The element, a gas at room temperature, must be compressed very tightly—usually to a pressure three times that of a scuba tank—to be housed in its natural state. In order to withstand that kind of stress, an expensive carbon-fibre shell is required to avoid punctures.

      Storing hydrogen as a liquid is similarly problematic. In order to force the gas to change its state, it must be cooled to -253 Celsius, making it very difficult to transport in a cost-effective manner.

      Metro Vancouver business Hydrogen in Motion, however, is working on a third way to contain the element.

      “We have a solid-state storage material for hydrogen,” Grace Quan, cofounder and CEO of the business, tells the Straight on the line from downtown Vancouver. “Instead of putting the gas inside an empty tank, we put something in the tank that attracts the hydrogen. We can then get a much higher density of the element in a smaller space. It’s also under a much lower pressure, which brings down the costs to store and transport it.

      “It’s always been theoretically possible,” she continues, “but no-one had made the material. On our team, we have a couple of theoretical physicists. We did some quantum modelling, built this substance at a quantum scale, and then synthesized it. It took many, many experiments.”

      Hydrogen in Motion has completed its prototype. It holds seven grams of hydrogen, which equates to 100 watt hours of power.

      Quan, who conceived the idea during a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, imagined a world in which she could run her dream car (a Jaguar) on hydrogen. With its new storage method, Hydrogen in Motion can significantly decrease costs associated with the fuel and make the technology accessible to everyone. Quan pictured the gas being stored in small tanks that weighed less than 25 pounds and that could easily be swapped to power homes and vehicles. Now, the company has finalized a prototype of that vision.

      “Imagine a propane tank for your barbecue, but smaller and lighter,” she says. “It’s very intuitive: you just pop it into your car or lawn mower or electric bike or home generator. The model is to plug in and play, just like changing a pop bottle in a SodaStream. By storing hydrogen at high density rather than high pressure, you can create much more power in relation to the size of the tank, and it’s much safer.”

      Quan is thinking globally about the impact of her company’s creation. Prior to launching Hydrogen in Motion, the CEO worked for the Canadian International Development Agency: a federal-government organization established to support sustainability in developing countries. Seeing hydrogen as a fuel that could aid nations of all stripes, she envisions the technology lighting the 82 million homes in Africa that exist without electricity, transporting crops from fields in poorer nations, and powering silent, durable drones that could survey agricultural land. Equally important to her and cofounder Mark Cannon, though, is reducing carbon use in western nations.

      “For cars especially, there are big advantages to running on hydrogen,” she says. “What the fuel-cell stack does is take the hydrogen and oxygen and run it through a catalyst. The catalyst layer releases an electron and electricity is produced. It’s a chemical process—not what you currently have in your vehicle, which releases greenhouse gases through combustion. With the fuel-cell stack, all you produce as a waste product is water, and it’s silent as well. There are hydrogen vehicles out there right now, and they’re currently using high-pressure tanks. Our tanks will be much more efficient.”

      Hydrogen cars are already in operation, but Hydrogen in Motion believes it can dramatically reduce the costs associated with the fuel.
      Pierre Olivier Clement Mantion

      For Quan, establishing Hydrogen in Motion in Metro Vancouver was an obvious choice. A hub for hydrogen technology, the city boasts clean-tech giant Ballard Power Systems Inc.—one of the pioneers of the hydrogen-fuel world—as well as companies like Hydrogen Technology and Energy Corporation (HTEC), Loop Energy, and Hydra Energy, all of which are working on developing different parts of the hydrogen supply chain.

      “It’s a rich, rich area here in Vancouver,” she says. “Although hydrogen-storage experts are few and far between, the companies here have grown and shrunk and grown and shrunk and shed a lot of expertise into the ecosystem. As well as that, there’s a lot of collaboration. We’re talking to Ballard and other businesses about linking up the supply chain and combining our storage with their generation and fuel cells. We’re also working closely with local universities like UBC and SFU.

      “More than that, it’s a fantastic place to grow a clean-tech company generally,” she continues. “The city is so supportive. There are programs that allow companies to demonstrate their new technologies using city assets. B.C. investors who put money into our company get a 30-percent tax refund. And because we’re in clean tech, we have exemptions, which makes it even more attractive.”

      With the huge diversity of clean energy available to consumers, and with much more efficient methods currently in development, Quan believes that time is up for carbon-based fuels.

      “I believe that this is the way we change the world and get to a carbon-free economy,” she says. “I think hydrogen is the way. Now I’ve found the way to make it happen, and I’m in the place where I can do it.”

      Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays