Clean tech programs losing steam

Jan 19, 2009 04:30 AM

Support for clean technologies and energy in Ontario appears to have gone down, not up, despite rhetoric suggesting the contrary.

This isn’t to say there haven’t been well-meaning announcements of what the province intends to do, or programs that will be launched, or studies and reviews that will take place to analyze the opportunity in front of us.

In fact, we’ve got an announcement surplus in this province. Problem is, when it comes to spurring the local development and deployment of green technologies, we’ve got an action deficit. It’s easy to get the feeling the wheels are spinning but not taking us anywhere – at least not fast enough.

Take the following examples:

• Just last week Premier Dalton McGuinty announced a partnership with a California-based company called Better Place that ultimately intends to electrify Ontario’s transportation infrastructure to accelerate the manufacture and adoption of electric cars. It’s a good “first step,” as McGuinty put it, but before any investments or policy changes happen the government will take the next few months to study the opportunity.

It makes for a nice press release, but in the meantime the auto industry continues to bleed jobs. This should have been studied more than a year ago and we should be seeing some concrete action now. Magna International says it is building an electric car with Ford for the North American market. An announcement that those cars, their components, and their batteries will be built in Ontario is what we really need to hear.

The government last year put a freeze on its standard offer program, which pays a premium for electricity that’s generated from small-scale renewable energy projects. The program was progressive by North American standards and attracted a flood of applications that were “approved” by the Ontario Power Authority. The agency took this wild success as a reason to halt and refine the program.

But few of those approved contracts have actually resulted in built projects, and dozens of applications remain frozen in the pipeline. Remember when U.S. President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier claiming victory in the war against Iraq? Well, that didn’t reflect reality on the ground. The same thing applies to Ontario’s standard offer program, which after two years hasn’t lived up to its claim of success.

Meanwhile, the power authority limps along with a similar program that’s supposed to support small-scale clean energy projects. Tick. Tick. Tick.

• After two studies, more than two years of public pressure, and much foot-dragging, the Ministry of Transportation indicated in December it would let properly equipped low-speed vehicles be driven on public roads “under rules to be released this winter.” Of course, this means nothing until we know the rules, and while on the surface it might seem favourable for electric car maker ZENN Motor Co., don’t bet on it. McGuinty clarified this week that ZENN would need to add more safety features, and even then, would be of “limited use” in Ontario. Nice way to support a local company that sells into dozens of U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.

• Back in November 2007 the Ministry of Research and Innovation hailed the creation of an “Ontario Venture Capital Fund” that would use public/private capital to support budding companies in the province, including cleantech start-ups.

“It has been established to address the lack of investment funding in Ontario for innovative, high-potential companies,” the ministry stated. “Without access to long-term investment capital and support, these companies cannot grow and create jobs in Ontario.”

Terrific idea. By June 2008 the government proclaimed that the $205-million fund – $90 million from the province – was open for business, and that TD Capital Private Equity Investors had been chosen to manage it.

So how’s the fund doing?

“The fund is still in the very early days of implementing its investment strategy and is currently evaluating a number of potential investment opportunities,” said TD spokesperson Julia Deanne Koene, adding that “actual investment pace for 2009 is difficult to predict as it is entirely based on the fundraising cycles of the underlying fund managers, which are also difficult to predict.”

Nic Morgan, director of business development with Toronto-based solar start-up Morgan Solar, has experienced first hand the waiting game involved with government programs run by a committed but rule-bound bureaucracy.

“There’s a risk aversion here that runs deep and far. Governments like to talk about all the programs they launch, but they’re long on process and short on results,” he said. This isn’t just an Ontario thing. It’s a federal thing, a Toronto thing – apparently a Canadian thing. It makes one wonder if the maple leaf emblazoned on our national flag is made of red tape.

In the area of investment and financing, the private sector hasn’t been much better in supporting up-and-coming innovators that represent future jobs in this province.

It was disappointing to read earlier this month that venture capital investments in Canadian greentech companies fell 56 per cent in 2008 to $159 million (U.S.), according to tracking data released by The Cleantech Group. Canada performed the worst out of all the countries mentioned in the report and was one of only three that saw investments fall.

American companies saw a 56-per-cent jump in investment, China was up 22 per cent, and Germany and Israel were up 217 per cent and 224 per cent, respectively.

Within Canada, how did Ontario do?

It had eight deals totalling $88.1 million, down 49 per cent compared to 2007.

There’s something seriously wrong with this picture. Sources assure that good news is on the way – the introduction of a Green Energy Act, for example, which would create an attractive market with policies that are supportive of renewable energy and the deployment of locally developed clean technologies. Let’s hope it lives up to expectations.

If I’m getting impatient, one can only imagine the impatience of auto workers who have lost their job, promising cleantech start-ups that can’t afford to commercialize their prototype and must seek funds from south of the border, or renewable energy developers who must cancel their projects because government pussyfooting has scared away investors.

And don’t forget the Riverdale grandmother who wants to get rid of her gas-guzzling Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme for an all-electric, emission-free city car from ZENN.

It’s always good to be cautious. This is public money. But when being cautious makes someone cripplingly slow, maybe it’s time to loosen up and just get on with it.

Sales show biodiesel co-op is ‘sustainable’


It’s a good start, but there’s a long way to go. That’s what organizers of a local biodiesel co-op say of their first foray into the market.

Everpure members bought 16,000 litres of the 100 per cent biodiesel — known in the industry as B100 — over a four-month period ending in late October. The fuel was manufactured by a company in the Owen Sound area and sold locally to test the market and generate buzz for the renewable fuel.

If enough interest grows, Everpure hopes to start making its own biodiesel in 2010, using locally grown oil seed crops and creating a loop that keeps those very same crops in the food chain.

“It’s like any other business, you have to start small,” Jay Mowat, chair of the co-op board, says of the sales project. “We proved that we’re sustainable. We can go on from year to year to make it happen.”

Everpure started as a collaborative effort of Everdale Organic Farm in the Town of Erin and Dufferin’s Power Up Renewable Energy (PURE), but is now an entity of its own.

Biodiesel produces a mere fraction of the pollutants put into the air by traditional petroleum products.

Local sales started in early July, running two days per week out of a trailer behind Jay’s Automotive on the south end of Hillsburgh. On average, each week saw sales of about 1,000 litres.

“I had sort of hoped to do a little more,” acknowledges Mowat.

Fellow board member Richard Proctor, president of PURE, says sales were “not exactly stunning, but we have a solid base of supporters.

“This is what we’ll build from. This was our first attempt, to see how it would go,” he adds. “I didn’t expect huge uptake by the community just yet — obviously we’ll have to gain some momentum.”

The co-op is looking to add more sales locations next summer — possibly in Orangeville, Guelph, Arthur, Georgetown and Acton.

Last week, Orangeville council agreed to discuss the possibility of finding a sales spot in town for Everpure’s truck, but no commitment has been made. Similarly, council agreed to investigate whether B100 can be used in lawn mowing equipment that is off warrantee.

Currently, the co-op has about 55 members, but Mowat considers only half of those to be active. He believes the rest joined to show support for the project.

“I think we need 200 members,” Mowat says of Everpure’s long-term goal. With that many members, he figures sales would average about 40,000 litres per month. “Which I think is possible to do.”

Two hundred active members would generate enough business to pay for a full-time employee to run the pumps and handle other aspects of the operation, Mowat adds.

In order to get to that level, or at least head in that direction, the co-op plans to undertake a couple of key steps this winter. Firstly, it will launch an aggressive membership drive and host public meetings in various area communities to generate interest.

There are also efforts underway to close the co-op loop and bring local restaurants into the fold.

Once fully implemented, Everdale envisions the loop working like this: member farmers produce vegetable oil crops and sell them to the co-op, the oil is then rented to local restaurants for use in cooking, before it’s reprocessed into 100 per cent biodiesel, which is then sent back to the farmers for use in their equipment.

Meal from the oil crops will be used as livestock feed; restaurants traditionally dispose of cooking oil without an additional use.

“The whole community benefits and none of the money goes out of the economy locally — that’s the key factor here. It’s a local economy initiative,” notes Proctor. “The [economic] spin-offs are enormous.”

During the sales project, Everdale sold biodiesel at two cents less than traditional diesel pump prices in the area. That in itself proved to be quite a learning experience.

At one point fossil diesel fuel cost two cents per litre less than the co-op’s purchase price and Everdale decided to sell at a loss.

“It didn’t hurt us that much — we’re not like the oil companies where they can deal with the fluctuations,” Mowat says, noting the co-op may have lost about $200 as a result.

“We’re in the black. We’re fine,” he adds of the project as a whole. Membership fees and sales profits from the rest of the endeavour more than covered that loss, he says. “We have no debt.”

‘De-malling’ Mississauga

Phinjo Gombu, Urban Affairs Reporter

The transformation of Mississauga may just begin with the central artifact of suburban sprawl: the mall.

“De-malling,” a hot trend in urbanism, involves transforming ailing, aging malls – of which Mississauga has its share – into something completely different: denser, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly hubs with buildings where people “will linger, live, work and play,” according to one consultant.

Planners in Mississauga presented their dream of reinventing these traditionally car-oriented destinations – while leaving surrounding traditional neighbourhoods intact – in a plan presented to city council yesterday.

Containing growth projections for the next two decades and beyond, the plan is predicated on provincial goals of curtailing sprawl and spending large sums on improving public transit across GTA. It’s also prompted by the reality that Mississauga has no agricultural land left to build on, with the last several hundred hectares in the city’s west end expected to be built over by next year, and that intensification is the only option left to grow.

There’s no question tens of thousands of people are going to move into the so-called Urban Growth Centre that extends around the massive Square One Shopping Centre at the city’s heart, all the way down Hurontario St. to the QEW.

That’s the focus of a visioning exercise called Downtown 21 that wants to reinvigorate the core area, including building smaller city blocks and doing away with surface parking – another staple suburban convenience.

But what’s generating excitement among planners is the idea of “community nodes” anchored by smaller, often tired shopping centres such as Meadowvale, Erin Mills, South Common and Sheridan, and at major intersections such as Dundas St. and Dixie Rd., that can become real “places” – just like Port Credit and Streetsville, established communities with their own vibrant street life. In place of vast hectares of surface parking around the mall, these nodes would sprout six- to 12-storey buildings and a commercial presence at street level to encourage walking and use of transit. Surface parking would be mostly eliminated.

Two major community nodes around central Erin Mills and the “uptown” area around Hurontario St. and Eglinton Ave. could have buildings as high as 25 storeys.

Mississauga planners Angela Dietrich and Paulina Mikicich acknowledge that the private sector still has to buy into the idea. But they think there is one ready-made market that could easily help populate these so-called “community nodes.” That would be aging homeowners who have lived for decades in the sprawling residential subdivisions around the malls, but want to downsize as they get older without having to move out of the neighbourhood. What better place, they say, than to be near transit and in a setting less isolating than a single-detached home.

Younger families moving into the traditional homes nearby would also benefit from being close to transit- and pedestrian-friendly community nodes where they can take care of daily shopping and other needs. “We think it’s a great option for (developers) to make more intensive use of their properties, as well as create a very desirable urban form,” said Dietrich.

Planning is already underway to develop the street-level “look” of the new communities they envision. Planning commissioner Ed Sajecki said new planning realities are inevitable as the city transforms itself from suburban to urban.

“If we are going to spend billions of dollars on transit, we want to make sure that our land use and density policies are designed in such a way that it is transit-supportive,” said Sajecki.

“A lot of Mississauga has been built on single-use development (residential areas for living, shopping centres for shopping) … This is about mixed use along nodes and corridors.”

Mississauga’s growth plan projects an injection of about 100,000 more people into the city in the next 20 years, under provincial population targets.

Officials say the city can easily accommodate double that number, even triple, if the market demand develops and the province revisits its forecasts in the near future.

The kind of community they want to offer in these areas could be an attractive alternative to traditional suburban development, which may have been pioneered in places like Mississauga but today is acknowledged as unsustainable and a recipe for gridlock. The “de-malling” plan is an acknowledgement that what’s been done can be undone, as Mississauga enters its second phase of development.

“You have to dispel the notion that Mississauga is built out,” planning policy director John Calvert told councillors. “We’re far from that.”

Green Jobs need to be Key in Ontario’s Economy

TORONTO, ON (October 22nd, 2008) – Green Party of Ontario Leader Frank de Jong said today that the McGuinty government is failing to provide leadership and innovative solutions in this challenging economic time. The Green Party called for more support for small businesses and investment in the green job sector as a sustainable solution to improve Ontario’s economy.

“We need a more diversified economy to provide greater stability during tough economic times, and that means investing in Main Streets across this province,” said de Jong. Small and medium sized enterprises account for 60 percent of private sector employment.

A recent study by Canadian Policy Research Networks shows that 23.7 percent of young Canadians are underemployed, the worst showing across 19 OECD countries. “Generalized investments to stimulate the economy will likely lead to more McJobs and underemployment” says Shane Jolley Deputy Leader. “Now more than ever we need strong local economies with vibrant small businesses and local farms,”

The Green Party called on the government to maintain a balanced budget by ending unfair subsidies for large businesses and scaling back its plans for spending $40 billion on nuclear energy. “When the province is facing a deficit, it is irresponsible to spend taxpayer money on projects that are not needed and historically run over budget,” said de Jong. “Spending our tax dollars on nuclear is fiscally irresponsible when there are better options.”

“We can create thousands of jobs in Ontario in the green energy sector by reducing taxes for individuals and businesses, investing in energy conservation and demand management programs and rewarding businesses and home owners who reduce their consumption and invest in renewable energy,” stated Deputy Leader Judy Smith Torrie, citing a recent study that California’s energy efficiency policies created 1.5 million new jobs.

The Green Party challenged the government to mitigate the effects of the economic slow down by reducing personal income and business taxes; and, by creating incentives for investing in green infrastructure and energy efficiency. “We need to boost the manufacturing sector by making Ontario attractive to green technology research and development,” observed Smith Torrie. “Ontario has the manufacturing industry, the skilled and educated labour force, and the raw materials to become a global leader in green energy production.”

The Green Party of Ontario’s goal is to build a fair and just society in balance with nature that values the health and vitality of its families, local communities and economies. We strive to achieve this through sound fiscal management and progressive social policies. Our solutions acknowledge the interdependence of the economy and the environment. For more information visit www.gpo.ca.


Media Contact
Sara McMillen
GPO Communications Coordinator
416 220 9536

Shane Jolley
Deputy Leader, GPO
519 378 9604

Ecuadorian Assembly Approves Constitutional Rights for Nature

Nature’s Constitution

Quietly last Monday, the Ecuadorian Constitutional Assembly changed the world. Seriously. As the report below shows, they approved legislation that would transform the planet, and ecosystems, from mere things into entities with legal rights to exist and flourish. It’s the sort of thing that will give jurisprudence something to work on for a good long while.

This takes the idea of individual human rights, and gives them to entities systems that are hard to define either as individual or human. As to what this means in practice, and whether it’s adopted in the final constitution, we’ll have to see. But as to what this means in theory, it’s already revolutionary.

Ecuadorian Assembly Approves Constitutional Rights for Nature

On July 7, the 130-member Ecuador Constitutional Assembly, elected countrywide to rewrite the country’s Constitution, voted to approve articles that recognize rights for nature and ecosystems.

“If adopted in the final constitution by the people, Ecuador would become the first country in the world to codify a new system of environmental protection based on rights,” says Thomas Linzey, Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

The following clauses will be included in the constitution that will be submitted to a countrywide vote, to be held 45 days after Assembly finishes its work later this month:

Chapter: Rights for Nature

Art. 1. Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.

Every person, people, community or nationality, will be able to demand the recognitions of rights for nature before the public organisms. The application and interpretation of these rights will follow the related principles established in the Constitution.

Art. 2. Nature has the right to an integral restoration. This integral restoration is independent of the obligation on natural and juridical persons or the State to indemnify the people and the collectives that depend on the natural systems.

In the cases of severe or permanent environmental impact, including the ones caused by the exploitation on non-renewable natural resources, the State will establish the most efficient mechanisms for the restoration, and will adopt the adequate measures to eliminate or mitigate the harmful environmental consequences.

Art. 3. The State will motivate natural and juridical persons as well as collectives to protect nature; it will promote respect towards all the elements that form an ecosystem.

Art. 4. The State will apply precaution and restriction measures in all the activities that can lead to the extinction of species, the destruction of the ecosystems or the permanent alteration of the natural cycles.

The introduction of organisms and organic and inorganic material that can alter in a definitive way the national genetic patrimony is prohibited.

Art. 5. The persons, people, communities and nationalities will have the right to benefit from the environment and form natural wealth that will allow wellbeing.

The environmental services cannot be appropriated; its production, provision, use and exploitation, will be regulated by the State. “Public organisms” in Article 1 means the courts and government agencies, i.e., the people of Ecuador would be able to take action to enforce nature rights if the government did not do so.”

Fuel prices force rethink of U.S. suburbs




July 11, 2008 at 8:50 AM EDT

NEW YORK — Ever since the rise of the automobile in the 1950s, the American Dream has featured a home in the suburbs and two cars in the garage.

Now the iconic white picket fence comes with a hefty price tag in the form of the cost of the gasoline needed to drive to work and to the supermarket, and the suburban idyll is under review.

In different parts of the United States, there are signs of change. While home prices in the suburbs have crashed, apartments in city centres are in demand. Home builders across the country are frantically trying to unload land they had intended for new subdivisions. And planners are rethinking how they can meet demand for housing.

One such place is Stapleton, on the site of what used to be Denver’s airport. Its developer, real estate company Forest City, puts homes within walking distance of schools and stores while linking them to the workplace by public transportation.

Resident Evelyn Baker says Stapleton appeals to a “cheapskate” side of her nature that favours towing her offspring about in a trailer attached to her bike over paying for gas for her car.

“We’re a family of four with two young kids and the obligatory yellow Lab, but we’ve managed to get by with one car,” said Ms. Baker, who has lived here since April 2006.

And, with gas prices above $4 a gallon, Ms. Baker said her move to Stapleton feels like a smart decision both because of lower day-to-day costs and the durability of her home’s value.

“I do feel like my house is retaining its value, and I’m really excited about that,” Ms. Baker said.

In the suburb of Maricopa, about an hour’s drive outside Phoenix, residents have a very different feeling.

Built on former corn and cotton fields, the suburb has grown to number 38,000 people from about 1,500 in 2002, accommodating people who were willing to accept longer commutes in order to get homes at cheaper prices.

These days, Maricopa has been inundated by foreclosures and short sales — where lenders agree to take a repayment that is lower than the outstanding loan to avoid dealing with a foreclosure, and high gas prices are part of the reason.

“Gas prices put a strain on people. The bulk of people that live here have to work and do have to commute, so obviously it adds to their expenses,” said Bill Wasowicz, a realtor with Fortuna Land & Realty in Maricopa.

The town even launched its own bus service, taking residents to work in central Phoenix and home again for $6, but still homes here are hemorrhaging value.

Tracy McKelvey and his wife Jan lived in a similar suburb and used to commute two hours each day to their jobs in Phoenix. But, a few years ago, they traded in their three-bedroom, two-garage house in the Phoenix valley for a downtown loft.

Both McKelveys now travel to work by scooter and enjoy restaurants, cafes, sports arenas and shops within walking distance of home, taking advantage of the $2.3 billion that the country’s fifth-largest city is spending to build housing, a university campus and a mass transit rail system.

“We save money on gas. It’s a good feeling. I haven’t sat in a traffic jam for years,” Tracy McKelvey said.

As people like the McKelveys take action to shorten their commutes, home builders are fleeing the suburbs, too, sometimes selling land at a loss, even the priciest parcels snapped up at the height of the building boom.

Meritage Homes Corp [MTH.N], the 12th-largest U.S. home builder, has pulled out of many places where people are not buying, said spokesman Brent Anderson.

Where developers can’t escape, they’re offering unprecedented incentives to move inventory. In May, Michael Crews Development offered to give away a row home valued at $400,000 with the purchase of a $1.6 million luxury home in the upscale city of Escondido, north of San Diego.

A recent survey of 903 brokers affiliated with national real estate chain Coldwell Banker suggests that pressure is building. Almost 80 per cent of them said higher fuel costs are increasing their clients’ desire to live in cities.

“People rejected cities for 30 years or so but now they’re looking again,” said John Norquist of Congress for the New Urbanism, a Chicago-based group that promotes walkable development.

Young families, once considered synonymous with suburbs, are increasingly opting to raise urban babies in places like New York.

“Parents recognize that there are good reasons to live in cities,” Mr. Norquist said. “Walkability, convenience, not having to drive kids everywhere. And gas prices at $4.50 a gallon will accelerate that.”

Even smaller cities are getting in on the act. Omaha, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri, are among those revitalizing their downtowns.

Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, said that once the only people who lived in the city’s downtown were those who were in jail. “It’s a different story today,” he said.

And retirees who put their empty nests in the suburbs up for sale are increasingly looking at moving into cities. That shift may get a further boost when the big Baby Boom generation starts turning 65 in 2011.

Experts like Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and head of the graduate program in real estate development at the University of Michigan, note that people are now willing to pay a premium to live in the city, a reversal from the last 50 years.

“These are not the cyclical changes that recessions cause every few years. These are game-changing structural changes,” Mr. Leinberger said. “The market is demanding walkable urban product.”

The resale value of attached housing, such as condominiums and co-operatives, is appreciating faster than single-family homes, said Arthur Nelson, a director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. In regions where housing is losing value, attached homes are losing value at a lower rate than single-family ones.

“Condos are a much more resilient investment than single-family on the whole, nationwide,” he said.

Prices are up 5 per cent in Washington’s Georgetown neighbourhood, an area of upscale townhomes, and down 30 per cent on the city’s fringe, Mr. Leinberger noted.

For those who can’t afford or don’t want to live downtown, but can’t afford or don’t want to commute to the suburbs, hybrids like Stapleton are literally a middle ground.

Government and home builders are supporting such communities by expanding rail networks and putting housing within walking distance of train stations, said Sam Zimmerman-Bergman of Reconnecting America, a mass transit advocacy organization.

However, Forest City’s Ronald Ratner, head of residential development, cautions against overstating the trend, which he says still needs nurturing.

Federal transit spending isn’t sufficient to keep pace with the increase in local demand for transit, said Zimmerman-Bergman, although that could change with the reauthorization of the federal transportation bill next year.

On the local level, municipalities whose budgets have taken a hit due to falling property values are struggling to fund transportation needs.

Another obstacle is a bulky permits and approvals process, which becomes increasingly cumbersome the closer a developer gets to a city, and the difficulty this presents for developers.

“In home building, one has to work years ahead in terms of approvals,” said Kira McCarron, vice-president of marketing for luxury builder Toll Brothers Inc [TOL.N]. “So it isn’t possible for any builder to react on a dime in terms of a trend that presents itself today.”

But some cities, like Denver, that have either streamlined their review process or provided the necessary transportation infrastructure have found productive partnerships with builders eager to get into hybrid development.

San Mateo, California is another example. A few years ago, that city moved to wean residents off cars and onto trains by allowing housing near its transit hub, which prompted developer Edward Lipkin of EBL&S Development to turn an old department store into what he calls a village.

Station Park Green, slated for completion in 2009, will have 600 residential units in a mix of rental, condos and townhouses; retail including a coffee shop and a small grocer and rail access to San Francisco and San Jose.

“The idea is to eliminate as many of the car-based necessity trips as possible,” Mr. Lipkin said.

For years, Mr. Lipkin was a developer of shopping malls in the classic sprawling suburban style. Then his experience in San Mateo inspired him to reorient his entire business to development along the lines of Station Park Green.

“That was the opportunity to participate in what we felt was an emerging trend,” said Mr. Lipkin. “We just feel it’s the future of development in the United States.