Friday, December 12, 2014

Wake up Canada - part 3

At the recent QUEST 2014 Conference in Vancouver one of the speakers defending the need for developing Canadian oil and gas resources used this argument in a supposedly ironical question: "Whom would you rather buy [oil and gas] from - Nigeria, Russia, Venezuela - or Canada, which is a democracy, country with a stable economy and banking system, and a reliable ally [of the US] ... ?"

Firstly, I want to ask: do we (Canada) really want to put ourselves in the company with Russia, Venezuela and Nigeria??  
Secondly, do we need to convince ourselves in what we want to believe? We should not kid ourselves - whoever wants to buy, will buy where they can find it cheaper. There are reports that ISIS is the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world. The major source of its funds comes from sales of oil on black market reaching a quarter of billion US dollars a year. Do they sell at world market prices, or do their buyers care about their vendor being a democracy? I think these are rather rhetorical questions ...    

If it weren't bad enough, there is the global oil and commodities crisis bringing Russia's oil-dependent economy to the brink of recession and hurting Latin American and other oil producers. But wait, what is it - Canadian stock market is also down as well as Canadian dollar, Alberta and other Canadian provinces relying on oil revenues are making significant cuts to their budgets. Why do we find ourselves in the same hole? Can it get worse? Yes, and it probably will. Could it be avoided? Yes - see my previous posts on the subject: Wake up call for Canada and Wake up Canada - part 2

I am actually convinced that the current "oil trough" (the opposite of the "oil peak" anticipated in 80s and 90s) is good for renewable energy. Why? Because it will squeeze out more expensive and more harmful fracking and shale oil extraction. By the time of the next rise of oil prices which will not take too long to wait for, may be a year or two, the world will become a little "greener" and hopefully we will not want to turn back to "dirt fuels". The ascent of clean alternative energy is near.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wake up Canada - part 2

Ban Ki-moon, in an exclusive interview with CBC News, says Canada needs to stop stalling on setting climate change goals, and instead become "ambitious and visionary."
The UN Secretary General, while acknowledging the Stephen Harper government pledged $300 million dollars to the UN's Green Climate Fund that helps developing countries fight climate change, said there's more to be done by Canada at home.
"It's only natural that Canada as one of the G7 countries should take a leadership role," he said in an interview with CBC News chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge on The National.
Part of that change would involve moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels.
"There are ways to make a transformative change from a fossil fuel-based economy to a climate-resilient economy by investing wisely in renewable energy choices," he said.
According to the recent 2014 Climate Change Performance Index, a report from European groups Climate Action Network Europe and Germanwatch, only Australia rivals Canada in terms of its poor climate change record, among 34 countries analyzed.
Ban said there's additional pressure for Canada to act in the wake of the recent deal between the U.S. and China to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

UN Climate Change Conference talks are ongoing in Lima.

Friday, December 5, 2014

QUEST 2014

Back from Vancouver where attended QUEST 2014 Conference and Trade Show. I will share more when process all the information which was a lot. Here are some of the impressions from the conference.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wake up call for Canada

Dear Gerald,

I read with interest your article in the SPIN. May I offer my two cents of opinion on the subject?   
First I must admit I agree with many points you made. For example, there is no need in 21st century to fly over the world to demonstrate support for climate change action. I totally agree that televised video-conference would be not only more efficient but also more effective. A great example of this approach I witnessed at the Green Buildings Council Conference in Vancouver last year where Cisco technology (which was one of the sponsors of the Conference) allowed to connect live audiences from Portland Oregon, Germany (forgot the city) and Shanghai China with Vancouver over the gigantic wall screens. 
I would leave the discussion of the level of urgency on the climate change aside for time being – but I hope we agree that both so called “green” side and its opponents (should we call it “black” for oil?) have their agenda and political lobbies. Either side is supported and promoted by various sectors of industry and because of that they have more in common than different. They all want to build mega-gigantic projects – economy of scale of course – be it a wind farm, a solar power plant the kind you mention in your article, a hydroelectric dam nuclear power plant or any other. 
Any technology has its hurdles. And any large-scale projects create large-scale problems. Wind turbines kill birds and bats (by the way, encasing them in the “housing” will significantly reduce turbine's efficiency so this is not a good option). Solar plants expropriate large areas of land and contribute to the grid instability. Hydro dams flood huge areas and disturb regional ecosystems (Site C comes to mind). Fukushima disaster reminded again of potential dangers of nuclear meltdown. 
But keep being reliant on fossil fuels – be it oil or natural gas - is not an alternative. “Business as usual” is an equivalent of stagnation at best, and in a world moving forward with a fast pace it is a guarantee to be left behind. The statement that fossil fuels are “wonderfully efficient, abundant throughout the world’s crust and will not go away” is extremely misleading. If a definition of efficiency is simply "being cheap” in a short run, then I want to know a long-term cost. "Abundance" is a very relative notion. Distribution of fossil fuels around the planet is very uneven – this is why some parts of it have to bring them from the other side of the globe spending lots of the same fossil fuel on the way. “Will not go away” doesn’t even fit common sense. All natural resources are finite, and in the case of fossil fuels the rate of their extraction exceeds the rate of their natural generation by thousands times - this is the fact which will not go away. Don’t forget oil is used not only for fuel – all plastics, paints, a lot of cosmetics and number of other products are derived from oil. While we may change our estimates of when the so called “oil peak” occurs, new methods of the natural resources extraction can only accelerate the rate of their depletion. They are also becoming more costly, which eats into the so called “efficiency” of fossil fuels. Alternative technologies, particularly solar PV and solar thermal, at the same time are becoming less expensive and more efficient in terms of their performance. 
Cost of one alternative versus another deserves more discussion. Even if one would wave away an indirect cost of a long-term consequences of a greenhouse effect and global warming - which although would be not wise but it is in the human nature to think what would happen later - he or she can hardly do the same about the health affecting air, ground and water pollution. And what about after-cost of unavoidable equipment failures and human errors? Shall we recount events like oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, derailment in Lac-Megantic, an explosion at pump station in Saskatchewan and barely avoided another disaster with the Russian cargo ship which lost power near the British Columbia coast? 
Risking of falling victim of the overused (and may be over-politicized) term “sustainability” I need to say few words about it. Any system – technical, economical, biological or social – consists of a number of components. In very general terms, sustainability is a system’s ability to remain in balance over extended period of time without need for external resources or energy. In other word’s it is a measure of a system’s stability. It is a lesson of generations of engineers that the more complex system is – i.e. consisting of a larger number of components – the less stable it is.
One of the most familiar and relevant examples of a complex system is a power grid, consisting of a large number of energy producers (typically power plants), even a bigger number of all sorts and sizes energy consumers (from residential homes to institutions and industry) and an extremely tight and interconnected energy transmission and distribution network including under and above ground power lines, substations and many other. In a centralized grid all components are highly inter-dependent, which on numerous occasions was demonstrated by big blackouts, recently in Calgary. Residents of Sun Peaks are very well familiar with the consequences of a drunk driver hitting a power pole. Several hours in darkness, and often in cold during the winter is not fun to say the least!
Take another example, from a subject which became touchy recently – distribution of oil and natural gas over pipelines. Complex, expensive, subject of environmental concerns and political disagreements, their short-term benefits are unstable. As with any resources, demand for Canadian oil is highly dependent on an unpredictable international business and political environment. Pipeline like the Northern Gateway is an easy target for terrorists’ attacks and political manipulation. Take example of Russia using its natural gas supply as a tool for political pressure on Ukraine and not too subtly - on Western Europe. Bet on China is a very risky gamble. For one, Russia will easily and happily overflow it with much cheaper oil and gas than Canada can ever afford to offer. US is already resisting Canadian oil – not only they have enough of its own but they are steadily moving away from oil dependency. 
I hear you asking - what is the alternative? Glad to oblige. I am not a supporter of government mandated or subsidized technologies, but I strongly think we need a long-term sustainable national energy strategy based on the System Approach and Real Options methodology.
Decentralized energy system should be very seriously considered. Continuous progress in solar, particularly solar thermal technologies in combination with air and ground source active heat exchange, as well as in in energy storage technologies including fuel cells and phase-change thermal accumulators, makes a self-sufficient house or a building a real possibility. We are talking about more than “net-zero” building where more energy produced than consumed at some periods of time but it needs to draw energy from the grid at other times averaging to about zero over the year. We are talking about a building as a self-sufficient system. Passive design, energy conservation measures and new highly thermoresistant materials in combination with ultra-efficient lights, appliances and electronic equipment significantly lower energy demand. Equipped with on-site renewable energy generation, heat recovery, water recycling. No more blackouts or freezing while waiting for a power to be restored. Individual houses are connected in an “intelligent network”. A further evolution of a “smart grid”, it is a sort of an “energy cloud” in which all nodes are independent from each other but can combine the power when needed.  
The projects like Northern Gateway and alike take an enormous amount of financial and intellectual resources which could not be used elsewhere. The more we invested in these the more difficult it will be to change the course later. It is more than likely that much higher return on investment in 30 to 50 years of projected lifetime would be achieved if invested in the research of new technologies. This would have more than economical and environmental benefits but also decide on which way Canada would be moving in the future – slide to a backward resource dependent state or move toward the advanced technological society. And if the government still wants to build something large across the country I have a proposal - high-speed train connecting Canadian West and East Coast. It works for Japan, Taiwan and Korea - why it shouldn't in Canada? 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Saskatchewan - More Lessons To Learn

I hate to sound negative and say "I told you so" but in fact I did. The fire at the pump station in Prud'homme Saskatchewan showed that not only electrical power grid is susceptible to failure with wide and costly impact, but the same with potentially more dangerous consequences applies to a gas and other pipeline grids.

And we still want to build more pipelines ... 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Calgary - Lessons To Learn

In one of the previous posts I made a point which I have been trying to emphasize for quite some time already. We do not need gigantic power grids with all their complexity and stability problems. Another confirmation of it was the latest incident in Calgary where underground fire left thousands of people struggling without a power for several days, disrupting traffic and businesses and will be certainly costing many millions for the city.

What if each building had its own power generated in sufficient volume on-site? This would give each individual unit (building, facility, business operation etc.) an independence from the grid preventing such blackout incidents. It would also remove a problem of power fluctuations in the grid which is a subject of such a many problems. There is technology which makes it possible today. Note that examples of the so-called "net-zero" or even "net-positive" buildings although a move in the right direction are not totally autonomous self-sufficient systems. They are still dependent on the grid in that they draw from it when there is not enough energy produced on-site to satisfy the building's demand, while sending energy to the grid when they have excess of it (e.g. solar PV in the middle of the day during summer).

Fully autonomous building would not depend on the grid at any time! It however does not have to be completely "off-grid". On the contrary, all independent on-site generation systems should be connected in the "intelligent network" which would utilize its resources most efficiently, while never leaving any of the nodes starving without energy. Intelligent energy network built on the Systems Architecture principles of modularity, re-usability and scalability, is actually much more than what is usually known as a "smart grid" although it can certainly be considered its evolution.   

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Connecting Technologies - Conecting the World, part 2

Technology has certainly advanced dramatically in any areas since 90-s but not that much in the area of offshore wireless communication which I was talked about tn the post about Techwest Startrack system.

Imagine you are on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles from land, and want to make a phone call or access the Internet. Did you ever wonder how your wireless device works when there are no cell towers or traditional infrastructure available like at home?  And more importantly why it does not work better, faster or cheaper for voice and data applications?

English: MS Majesty of the Seas, one of Royal ...The ability to communicate while at sea is incredibly complex and has only been possible and reliable within the past ten years. Unfortunately, the connectivity comes at a steep price because of the high investment required by the cruise lines and satellite carriers who must price access by the amount of bandwidth that is used. It turns out that this is a highly inefficient and costly method to allow passengers and crew to communicate, and the formula is about to change.
While the state-of-the-art has dramatically improved there are still many technical obstacles to achieving the same level of interconnectivity that we experience on land through wired or wireless networks. Cruise ships are seeing dramatic increases in traveler demand for communications services caused by the use of smartphones, laptops and tablets as part of their vacation experience. The bottom line for the consumer is that current cruise communications networks aren’t designed to meet these voracious demands for mobile connectivity.
Consider the following statistics from MTN Communications, one of the biggest sellers of telecom equipment to the cruise ship industry:
  • Internet Logins – In the past five years, Internet logins on the MTN network almost doubled from approximately 15 million to 27 million per year;
  • Voice Usage – Based on revenue data over the past five years, voice usage increased approximately 50 percent;
  • VSAT Bandwidth – In the past five years, bandwidth demand among MTN VSAT (high-speed) customers increased six-fold from 75 Mbps to 475 Mbps per year
Limited bandwidth is still the main reason network speeds, quality of service and data rates are better on land than at sea, coupled with the failure to integrate other technologies that could optimize the transport of large amounts of data by using different networks.
Virtually all of the fleet has WiFi throughout their ships but it is painfully slow at times which is due to the number of users and available bandwidth. There are also severe limitations on the types of files that can be accessed in order to protect the network and compensate for the bandwidth limitations. Internet access costs between $.25 and $.75 per minute, depending on the selected plan.
Cellular voice and data is available on all ships but is very costly, up to about five dollars a minute through your local carrier, or up to ten dollars a minute if you use Intelsat satellite links through the ship’s voice network. Data connections through cellular can also be very pricy unless you have a data plan. Verizon is the only American carrier that offers a good deal for their customers that use tablets or smartphones on ships. They have a monthly cost of $25 for each 100 Mbytes.
While AT&T has a similar plan it doesn’t allow for data access at sea, which means you can pay around $20 per megabyte. That translates to a high cost for using email and sending pictures, to say nothing of downloading documents. If you try to save money by using a VoIP service such as Skype to make and receive calls you will have limited success because of the latency issues with voice transmission through a satellite, whether you establish a WiFi or cellular connection.

Every cruise ship has one or more satellite dishes and complex antenna arrays to provide the primary communications link to other ships and land for passengers and crew. MTN is the primary provider of such facilities for almost thirty years.
When you are on a ship, all telephone, data, and video traffic is carried through a complement of large satellite dishes found on the top deck.
One global company based in Florida, MTN has for the past thirty years pioneered and developed satellite-based services for virtually all of the cruise ships and cargo carriers in the world. The Maritime Telecommunications Network began offering services when the Intelsat  constellation was launched in 1965. The introduction of these orbiting repeaters changed the way the world communicated and four years later we watched the result during the first lunar landing that was relayed through Intelsat.
There is no simple technical solution to improve the passenger experience in connecting with the outside world while at sea. Provisioning more bandwidth from the satellites is not the answer without also considering land-based services and on-ship clouds for caching of data. As reported by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, smartphone sales have overtaken PC sales in 2012 and in the future will dwarf the amount of data used by laptops. This is also true for ship passengers and has caused the industry to respond.
Consumer demand, economics, and technological advancements have driven MTN to launch its next-generation platform to serve the cruise ship industry. It is called NEXUS, and it will ultimately change the way we communicate to fellow passengers and to the rest of the world.
One deficiency in the way communications facilities are presently configured is the lack of interoperability between onboard WiFi systems and those on shore when the ship docks. That means that cruise lines cannot take advantage of the newest technology to handoff high-volume traffic and to cache large files. To solve this problem MTN is building a seamless network to tie onboard and on-shore systems together as part of a larger plan to enhance connectivity, regardless of where the passengers wishes to talk, text, or transfer data.
MTN has invested in the design and launch of special-purpose satellite payloads that will ride on the next generation Intelsat EPIC platform  which will offer at-sea communications experience which is presently impossible to achieve.
There are three essential components to NEXUS: network, applications, and storage. In simplified terms the system will be a hybrid network of satellite and terrestrial facilities tied to a ship cloud to transfer very large amounts of data and store it onboard. Client applications, Internet café, cellular Mobile at Sea, TV, social media and other applications will all be merged and seamless for passengers.
This is accomplished by sophisticated control and manipulation of satellite spot-beams, on-the-fly bandwidth allocation from the satellites, and data compression. A large part of the equation is WiFi for data transport which is why MTN is building an infrastructure to tie WiFi on land to ships when they are within a few miles from shore. This will allow them to optimize expensive bandwidth from Intelsat to route all other traffic to land-based systems.
If you have wondered why connections are so slow it is because presently there are only a few megabytes of bandwidth that must be shared among all passengers and facilities on any ship. In the future it will not be megabytes but terabytes that will be available.
The next generation system will also offer a unique application called Connect at Sea. This will fill a needed gap in ship-to-shore communications and also provide for friends and family to be able to communicate onboard without high cost by giving direct dial capability between smartphones. Connect at Sea will eliminate this problem and allow voice, text, and messaging between smartphones, just like Skype and other applications can accomplish on land. This is a WiFi-based service that can be used onboard, in port, or anywhere there is a suitable WiFi connection. It will go a long way to reduce the high cost of communications for passengers on a global basis.
In the near future whether you are in the middle of the ocean or docked at a foreign port, your personal communications device (whether smartphone, Blackberry, laptop or tablet) will provide equivalent communications that we have all come to expect at home. It will all be possible because of sophisticated networks, powerful computing, low cost bandwidth terrestrial integration, and seamless switching. No more $5.00/minute phone calls and no delays in transmitting or receiving emails or access to websites.
A short half-century ago when the first Sputnik satellite was launched by the Soviet Union it is fair to say that nobody could have foreseen the results today. Today, we expect and demand such services whether we are on a mountain top or in the middle of an ocean.

From Forbes.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Connecting Technologies - Connecting World

In 1994-1996 I worked in a small Canadian company Techwest Data Systems which developed a communication system via geostationary satellite for offshore applications. The system consisted of an antenna stabilized in 3 axis with gimbals, signal beacon receiver and the controller. Simple and reliable it utilized a rectangular scan pattern to search and lock the antenna on the satellite. It worked well in calm conditions. But in severe weather (when stable communication is especially important) it was loosing the signal and it was taking a very long time to re-acquire it. The solution for the problem was seen in using more powerful receiver which would make the system significantly more expensive. At that time I was responsible for developing control software for Startrack. I devised a non-orthodox algorithm which was implemented and tested - it resulted in the pointing accuracy and signal stability requirements of then customer ComSat to be exceeded more than twice. The system was successfully installed on a number of cruise ships in Caribbean and elsewhere.  
Since then the company was bought by Data Marine Systems from Aberdeen, Scotland for their floating oil rigs in the North Sea. Later it found its way to China.

Recently I came across of the old publication which returned me back in time:
TECHNOLOGY Vessel Movement Influences Offshore Communications System Design.

Below is a direct quote from the publication:
"Startrack" (Techwest of Burnaby, B.C.) system could be modified economically to mount a C-band antenna.
An Andrew 3.6-m antenna was selected to enhance reliability during monsoon conditions and improve the "link budget." A radome protects the antenna dish from wind loading and prevents water fill because of the severe up angle that was required because of the almost overhead satellite. 

A geostabilized platform has some interesting aspects. For one, in the link budget calculations, one may use zero pointing error. The stabilized platform homes on the satellite beacon, and constantly "nutates" (wobbles) around the signal to keep optimum signal strength. Thus, it does not matter how well the satellite crew keeps its "bird" on station. For this reason, one major market for stabilized platforms is for otherwise useless, unstable satellites.
On the other hand, the system is active, not passive pointing, and therefore must be operating correctly to receive a signal. The benefit to the satellite operator is that the offshore station cannot interfere with another satellite because it cannot point at it unless it has the same beacon.
Because of controversy about too many satellites in this same area, side lobes were of great concern. Asia Satellite required the running of a complete set of pattern tests on the antenna with the platform operating and fixed.
Another interesting engineering aspect of stabilized antenna platforms is that they are dynamic, and can be dynamically unstable. Because the system was modified with a much larger, heavier antenna than the original, Techwest used its motion simulator to run extensive tests.
It is quite impressive to see the floor rocking and rolling ... in a storm, and the big 3.6-m antenna solid as a rock on the signal. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Is 3D-printing a Disruptive Innovation?

No talk about Disruptive Innovation today will be complete without mentioning the 3D-Prnting phenomena, or in the technical term "additive manufacturing".

Not being an expert in the area myself, I would rather link to a couple of interesting articles from IEEE Spectrum:

3D-Printer  Makes Soft Objects

3D-Printed Model Robots

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bullitt Centre - Connecting technologies and 90 percent rule

Another example of connecting technologies - Bullitt Centre in Seattle - has been called the world’s greenest office building.

The 52,000-square-foot building outfitted with cutting-edge environmental technologies, such as insulation and energy-saving heating and cooling systems, aims at meeting the rigorous standards of the Living Building Challenge. It is supposed to be completely powered by the 575 photovoltaic solar panels on the over sized roof. Completed in 2013 (a year behind the schedule), the US$18.5 million, 6-storey building, designed by Miller Hull Partnerships, is built to be “zero-energy”.

To make enough room for 14,000 square feet array of solar panels the roof had to be made projected as much as 20 feet beyond the building's perimeter. According to the designers, the solar array delivers 242 kilowatts of power in total. In the summer, it will produce more electricity than it uses, and in the winter it will produce less. The surplus power will be sold into the Seattle electric grid. The building then draws electricity from the grid in the winter months when production is low. To achieve its “net zero energy” goal, the summer production surplus must meet or exceed the winter production deficit. While strictly speaking it is not a 100% efficiency, this is a way around the 90 percent barrier.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Underwater Energy Storage

Browsing recently through the latest issue of IEEE Spectrum - my favorite nighttime reading  - I came across of one interesting idea - underwater energy storage, developed and currently being deployed in a pilot project by a Canadian company Hydrostor. Having recently considered a pump back hydro storage for one of our clients, we came to a conclusion that the potential and difficult to accurately estimate  environmental impact of a large scale project (it would not be economically viable on a small scale), its high cost and other limitations make such a project hard to justify.
An underwater energy storage on another hand largely mitigates these problems. One version is a flexible underwater balloon, looking not unlike high-flying air balloon, is convenient for small-to-medium size applications, can be deployed temporary and re-deployed with little disturbance to the fauna and environment at large.

An underwater energy storage implemented as permanent installation is more suited for medium-to-large size applications and can actually benefit underwater fauna by providing with the structure to build an ecosystem not unlike the coral reefs.          

Friday, August 1, 2014

Is there a future for Biofuels? Part 2

It appears there is after all ... and for the power generated with biofuel.

Green Energy Project in Merritt, British Columbia
- State of the art biomass facility to generate 40 MW of clean electricity
- Will help support local forest industry and mills and create new jobs
- Merritt is the second BC biomass plant project by Dalkia and Fengate, bringing their investment in the province to $470 million.

While not the "greenest" of all still a much better alternative to fracking and mega-pipelines...

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Choices We Make - Part 3

In one of my recent posts I mentioned an idea of the common energy policy for North America and promised to continue on it. I want to make clear - my view is quite different, if not opposite - to what is often promoted as the  North American Energy Strategy.

Here is my two cents on it:

1. You cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing oil and gas production - it is like eating a cake and having it too.
You cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing oil and gas production – it is like eating a cake and having it too. - See more at:
You cannot reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing oil and gas production – it is like eating a cake and having it too. - See more at:

2. While coordinated policy is desirable and important, it should be directed not to tying all North America energy resources in one gigantic web with a monster "spider" in the middle pulling the strings, but to creating a distributed array of loosely connected intelligent mini- and micro-systems allowing more flexibility, reliability (preventing massive blackouts and large-scale consequences of natural or human-induced disasters), extensibility and ability of non-disruptive evolution to new technologies.
While coordinated policy is important and desirable, - See more at:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Choices We Make, Part 2

Another Mega-project has been approved by the Government of Canada. The Northern Gateway is a proposed 1,200 kilometer twin pipeline that would carry bitumen from the oil sands in Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. From there, the crude would be shipped to Asian markets.

The $7-billion pipeline would be developed by Enbridge, a major Canadian energy delivery company based in Calgary. The application to the National Energy Board was submitted in 2010. Since then, a review panel hosted consultations and heard from residents of the affected communities. The panel eventually approved the project, but with 209 conditions to be met. It is not a surprise that many still disagree to say the least.

Former Conservative MP Stockwell Day says: There are already thousands of pipelines running across North America, and the Northern Gateway pipeline, if approved, will be one of the "safest and most sophisticated.

Dear Mr. Day. Perhaps you remember we met with you some time ago and I told you about my aerospace background. As someone who spent more than 30 years building complex systems in various areas I know not only in theory but in practice as well, that any technical system, as "safe" as it might seem, will fail sooner or later. And in most cases the reason for it would be not a natural disaster or even a terrorist attack, which are always a possibility, but a basic human error. (Just remember Lac-Megantic derailment, or the South Korean ferry accident). When failure happens, we would look back and ask ourselves: "Why?"  
Why all the discussion is around how to move oil - one way or another? Why do we need to move it at all? Why not consider refining it on-site (or as close as possible)? Selling oil to the Asian market has very  questionable economic prospects - Russia will easily undercut Canadian prices. And because Europe is transitioning to alternative sources, in 20 years (this is probably an optimistic time frame for the Northern Gateway to start its operation) Russia will flood all the oversupply to China pushing Canadian oil out.
There are different alternatives completely. If the government's argument is exclusively about money, why not compare the pipeline with other possible ways of investing $7 billion and see what return can be obtained from investing in technical innovation, energy conservation, renewable energy, distributed systems etc. On the scale 20 years many alternatives will show at least the same, but likely a bigger economic potential than pipeline ,with much less environmental risks and they would have much more public support. On a global scale, it would show our commitment to contributing into resolving global pollution problem rather than contributing into the problem. Most importantly, instead of remaining a backward resource-based economy, it would create a path for Canada to become a nation with a modern future-oriented economy, which we all would be proud of and our children and grand-grandchildren would be grateful for.   

There are choices we make, but there is at least one choice - between Future and No Future - we should not be making...

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Choices We Make: Part 1

More than a year ago I wrote about system approach which is a must for Sustainable Development.

A lot has happened in the world since then. Syria conflict, Iraq insurgency, Putin's invasion into Ukraine, Obama's announcement of the new GHG targets.
World can go upside down, but nothing seems to shift Canadian national "energy policy", still counting on oil, gas and pipelines to deliver them.

Not being a particular fan of Hillary Clinton, must say I very much agree with what she said in the interview with CBC Peter Mansbridge about climate and energy policy: "Why not to create a common energy policy for North America, including Canada, USA and Mexico based on the plan of transition from fossil fuels to renewables?".  Indeed - why not? In global issues such as climate and energy going beyond national orders is much more effective than trying to do something in isolation. After all, there is NORAD, there is NAFTA, why can't there be NAES (North American Energy and Sustainability) ?

To be continued...

Monday, June 9, 2014

Is there a future for Biofuels?

I must admit I have been always skeptical about bio-fuels. Growing corn or sugar cane to make fuel ? It may be "renewable", but it takes the land and resources out of agriculture in the world where hundreds of millions of people are starving. And is it any better than greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels from oil and gas? 

United Nations Energy Future Coalition says cellulosic ethanol is cleaner and does not drive food prices up because it is produced from wood waste or other non-food plants.

A Canadian company, Iogen Corporation, which specializes in industrial enzyme production, is operating a pilot plant in Ottawa and is planning to build a commercial plant in Idaho. Brazil has started construction of a commercial biomass-to-ethanol facility using Iogen's cellulosic bio-fuel technology.

And of course processing waste into bio-fuel works two ways - reducing amount of refuse disposal while providing a relatively inexpensive and less polluting source of energy...

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Energy: Choices We Make, Part 3

This is a continuation of the discussion started previously. 
If you browse through the article World's Largest Solar Power Plant in Arizona, do not stop at the end of the article - read the comments. You can find other "largest": the largest floating solar farm in Singapore,  largest wind farm etc etc.

Why are we obsessed with the gigantic projects? They are financial overkill, they - even if promoted as  "clean" - inevitably harm environment, they need power generated to be transmitted, which mean losses and additional cost, they bring instability into grid and they are vulnerable to terrorist attacks or natural disasters.
We need not the gigantic centralized power plants, but distributed networks of small nodes - agile and flexible - see Energy: Choices We Make  Part 1 and Part 2.
How flexible? Each house or building can have its own autonomous energy generation and even plug-in electric vehicle batteries can be used to store energy and then charge back the building: Leaf-to-Home.

Great concept from tirelessly innovative Nissan. They should have put the car in a carport covered with solar PV panels though ...

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Adams Lake "green vision" Part 2

Two years ago I was introduced to the green vision of the Adams Lake Indian Band. Today we are working together on a comprehensive Community Energy Plan to implement that vision. I had a chance to take a closer look now at the unique solar thermal system installed on the Gym building.  

View of the rotating towers from the front (South-East). The front wall mounted panels can also be seen.

View of the rotating towers from the back (North-West).

Each tower has 36 flat solar thermal panels joined together. This photo hopefully helps appreciate the scale of the system. The system incorporates a closed loop underground heat storage. Importantly, it is a locally grown technology, which is a big plus for the community.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Green" light at the end of the tunnel for India

According to the MIT Technology Review, even today in 21st century 1.5 billion people on this Earth currently lack electricity. Nearly 70% percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 600 million people, is without electrical power.
India is a country whose economy including technology sector is growing faster than most developed countries. However today there are still 400 million people without electricity in the country. The ambitious plan of the new government is to bring the light to each household without building mega power plants but rather using individual home based solar panels. Time of "gigantic centralized systems has passed. Multitude of small but interconnected cooperating (synergetic) systems offers the advantage of flexibility, reliability and evolvability - be it an intelligent network of distributed energy modules, or a swarm of micro-satellites". (Evolving Technologies)

Watch out Canada !

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Where Evolving Technologies Meet

Back from Toronto where I attended this year's Canadian Conference on Electrical & Computer Engineering (CCECE).

CCECE is a major conference under the IEEE Canada umbrella for researchers and industry professionals in the area of electrical,  computer and control engineering from Canada and around the world to meet annually in a Canadian city to disseminate their research advancements and discoveries, to network and exchange ideas in order to strengthen existing partnerships and foster new collaborations. Last year the conference was held in Regina, Saskatchewan. This year it was hosted by the Ryerson University in Toronto. Next year it will be held in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Ryerson University

CCECE 2014 with the theme "Electrical and Computer Engineering - The Enabler of the New Economy" covered wide spectrum of topics related to electrical and computer systems, optimal control, intelligent networks and other areas.

I had a chance to attend a number of sessions from different streams, including Renewable Energy, Control & Robotics, and Cognitive Radio. It was interesting and enlightening to see how interconnected today's research in seemingly different areas has become. For example, in wireless networks researchers are looking for inspiration at Darwin's theory of evolution, utilizing genetic algorithms (even borrowing terms from the biology vocabulary like population, ancestry and chromosomes) and cultural studies (memetic algorithms). In quest for optimal solutions for multiobjective problems researchers emulate other nature-inspired ideas, e.g. raindrop algorithm etc. From the other hand, Black-Scholes financial model for option pricing is finding its use in the area of alternative energy.       

Diversity of the studies presented was also broad - from new type of keyboard for mobile devices to global data mining, and from aerial robots to submerged energy generators using marine currents.

I was reaffirmed again in my conviction that time of gigantic centralized systems has passed. Multitude of small but interconnected cooperating (synergetic) systems offers the advantage of flexibility, reliability and evolvability - be it an intelligent network of distributed energy modules, or a swarm of micro-satellites.

The next crucial step should be to connect what is envisioned and published in the papers with real world stuff "enabling the new economy". 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Students Present Designs of the Mountain Health Centre

On April 28 students of the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) presented their designs of the Health care and Community building to the Sun Peaks Mayor and Council. While varying in architectural style, from traditional Thyrolean to distinct modern, all designs carried energy efficiency and "green" features - from optimal building orientation for better use of natural sunlight and enhanced thermal insulation to incorporating solar panels and accommodating other onsite energy generation capabilities. The project was a collaboration between Architecture & Technology Department of TRU and Ascent Systems Technologies.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Fuel Cell vs Solar

Continuing the subject of future mobility (see also 90% Rule) here are a couple more examples, which are hopefully not a very distant future after all.  

Toyota is pushing its FCV hydrogen fuel cell concept car. (A side note - it doesn't look like your typical Corolla, does it?)

Ford comes up with a solar powered car, charged by a special canopy with Fresnel lenses.

Interesting to see which technology will eventually become a disruptive innovation?

Should some day write about self-driving cars...

Monday, April 21, 2014

Energy: Choices we make. Part 2

In the Part 1 of this series we were looking at some of the energy alternatives offered today. What conclusion we can make?

Is there any pure "clean" technology - the one which would not burn fossil fuels creating pollution and greenhouse effect, would not use toxic materials, would not require destructive mining to extract rare minerals and would not jeopardize valuable land and habitat? If you pay any attention to the recent debates about technology and energy in particular, you would be inclined to answer No. May be cold fusion or antimatter are the answer, but if we want to be realistic, we should be able to implement the solution on a global (or at least national) scale within a reasonable time frame and without exhausting all national resources.
What do we have to do then to satisfy our thirst for energy and not to kill ourselves and the planet? Can we do anything, is there any answer? I take a liberty to argue Yes, there is. And I am not asking you to turn off all the lights, stop manufacturing goods and go hunting and gathering.

The answer is Systems Architecture, specifically its principles of modularity and evolvability. Let's look again at my favorite example of aviation history. Did jumbo jets carrying 300-400 people appear first, or they were preceded by evolution of the technology? Note that any technology evolution - similar to its biological counterpart - is not straightforward. In the case of aviation, planes with piston engines and propellers were gradually becoming bigger, faster and more capable until they reached their ceiling of capability. By that time the new type of engine - jet - had been introduced into aviation. It became a disruptive innovation - first in military airplanes, initially in those requiring speed the most, fighters, then gradually in all others, until jet aircraft became dominant in aviation. Do you know however that before the airplanes era, lighter than air vehicles were flourishing and were promising to become the major means in military and civilian applications? Pictures of gigantic airships carrying thousands of passengers were on the pages of futuristic and scientific magazines. Did that promise materialize? It didn't! Not unlike their biological cousins - dinosaurs - they were wiped out and replaced by more advanced, heavier than air "species" - airplanes.

Clean energy should come through the similar path. Why do we need to build enormous wind turbines (or even fields of them), solar farms taking large areas or super-expensive geothermal plants (not even talking about nuclear plants, especially in the areas with known seismic activity)? We know all these technologies are still far from perfect! Economy of scale you say? This argument however makes sense only for the producer (or rater a seller) of the particular technology - be it wind turbines, PV  modules or other. But what if we consider side effects mentioned above, add long time to construct and commission and then wait many years for payback? A recent study in Iceland shows that it may be more efficient to build several wellhead geothermal generators one at a time rather than one big geothermal field plant because they can be implemented sooner. One big plant requires long transmission lines with all associated cost and operation losses. For some new technologies (e.g. hydrogen fuel transport) extensive infrastructure has to be built to replace existing one. But what if the path chosen is a dead end like airships? What if, for example tomorrow's fuel cell technology would not require an extensive infrastructure while we will have already heavily invested in it? It is a missed opportunity and wasted resources...

I believe the focus should be on small-scale technologies but implemented incrementally. Being small means less expensive, therefore can be built with less capital and faster. Being small also means more flexible, i.e. fitting much wider range of applications. For example, a small solar thermal system with optimized configuration and adaptive real-time control can provide hot water and/or space heating not only for a big commercial building, but to a single-family residential house, for a temporary accommodation in a logging or exploration camp and even as a mobile platform for rapid deployment in military or disaster relief operations. Small unit (module ) can be easily repaired, replaced, moved or upgraded. Multiple modules can be connected in an array for increased capacity. Importantly, the technology can be improved, made more efficient, compact, less expensive etc. and expandable without dramatic disruption which would be the case for a large centralized system. This works similarly for small wind turbines, where we might find that vertical axis turbine provide better efficiency vs. traditional horizontal axis propeller due to its omnidirectional sensitivity, lower operating speed and less impact on birds. Micro-hydro can be implemented in many more places than a huge dam, without a need to flood big areas. And so on.

What is especially important, decentralized energy system - and I am speaking in general terms - makes it more resilient against fluctuations of the load in the "grid" of any kind, robust to the point of autonomy, in case of a technical failure, an environmental disaster or a terrorist act.       
I see energy of the future not as one or few super hubs distributing energy at their own will, but rather as many smaller individual energy sources each controlled by its own smart control system, but all connected in the intelligent network sharing information between each other about their performance, consumption pattern and other important data such as weather, solar irradiance etc. leading to much better overall efficiency.