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Could this off-the-grid technology be the future of electricity?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at an off-grid power company, driving an electric car in winter and Trump's influence on the Green New Deal.

Also: Don Pittis on the Green New Deal

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello there! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • It's called OOM, and it could change the way we generate power
  • Did Trump help inspire the Green New Deal?
  • The worst places for traffic congestion
  • When the rubber hits the snow: How electric cars fare in winter

Meet OOM: Could this off-the-grid technology be the future of electricity?

(OOM Energy)

In August 2003, a sagging high-voltage power line in northern Ohio brushed up against some tree branches. Before long, three transmission lines had short-circuited and 45 million people in the northeastern U.S., as well as 10 million in Ontario, were in the dark — for hours, days, in some cases even a week.

It was a tough lesson for power companies, who implemented recommendations from the investigation that followed (such as keeping power lines away from trees). But the fact is, most of us still rely on the grid to provide electricity to our homes and businesses.

If Craig Clydesdale has his way, however, that will all change. He's the founder and CEO of OOM Energy, an Oakville, Ont.-based company that has developed a new way of providing electricity to customers.

"You're looking at the next big thing," Clydesdale said. What he's referring to is his company's Integrated Energy Platform (IEP), an on-site power system that aims to take buildings off the sometimes unstable electrical grid while also reducing their carbon footprint. Oh, and it's portable.

OOM's unit shouldn't be confused with a generator, which creates mechanical energy and delivers it only as a backup, when existing systems fail. What Clydesdale's company provides is private, continuous electricity with no upfront cost for the unit. The customer just pays a regular bill directly to OOM each month.

So what's in the unit? The current version uses natural gas, a battery and an inverter. While it's not a zero-emissions solution, Clydesdale said the system can be modified to include greener energy as it develops and becomes more affordable — such as solar panels or hydrogen, which he believes to be the future.

The unit only generates power when it has to. That's unlike power lines that deliver electricity to your home, which have to be constantly running just in case. OOM uses artificial intelligence to calculate a building's power requirements, so its customers only get "what they need," Clydesdale said.

At the moment, OOM units are being sold to organizations and businesses with large demands, such as ones in agriculture and industrial manufacturing. But they've also been used in high-rise apartments and multi-residential units.

Last month, Stoneridge Ice Centre in Burlington, Ont., became the first arena in North America to adopt OOM's new technology. The estimate is that their annual electricity costs will drop from $180,000 to $145,000 — a savings of 20 per cent.

Although Clydesdale has a unit for his home, right now, OOM's main focus is on commercial and multi-residential buildings.

Clydesdale doesn't know of anything like OOM on the market, but he said he'd be happy to see others rise to the challenge of a green, off-grid solution. At a time when more ice storms are predicted for parts of Canada with climate change, Clydesdale said this type of technology could be the security people are looking for.

He said it's potentially "a multitrillion-dollar industry. There's lots of room for all of us."

Nicole Mortillaro


Given Trump's climate inaction, Green New Deal could be a political winner

(Saul Loeb/Getty Images)

CBC business columnist Don Pittis weighs in on the Green New Deal, the sweeping plan put forth by left-leaning members of the Democratic Party in the U.S. to address climate change.

To conservatives who understand the science of climate change and its potentially  dire economic effects, it may seem strange that the decision on whether to halt it has become a left-right issue.

With the announcement of a major climate action initiative in the U.S., that polarization has become even more pronounced.

The idea of a transformational project to boost the economy using green technology has been around for decades. But now, an emerging left-leaning faction of the Democratic Party has offered up the Green New Deal, where fighting climate change is firmly anchored in a platform of wider social change, including items such as eliminating poverty and increasing income equality.

"I think [the Green New Deal] does mix a lot of things that are not necessarily compatible, and subordinates the goal of reducing carbon emissions to a lot of other things on the liberal social democratic wish list," Mark Cameron, executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, told me on the phone last week.

A firm supporter of carbon pricing as a business-friendly way of cutting CO2 without distorting the economy, Cameron was director of policy and research for former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

But as others told me, the hostility of U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters to the whole idea of fighting climate change has surrendered that political turf to the Democrats.

As the name implies, the Green New Deal is unabashedly a social project, harking back to the original New Deal introduced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to combat the inequality, unemployment and hunger of the Great Depression.

While critics insist it was actually the massive stimulation from spending on the Second World War that rebooted the U.S. economy, the original New Deal set the tone for a more egalitarian social and economic system that formed the basis of the postwar shared prosperity.

Without a climate change plan of its own, the Trump Republicans have given their Democratic opponents lots of flexibility to formulate a final green policy they think will appeal to voters.

With U.S. unemployment at record lows, massive public sector stimulus on green projects would likely be hard to justify. But if the rich keep on getting richer as the economy goes into recession, and if public worries over the effects of climate change continue to grow, a Green New Deal may catch the voters' imagination as a way to kill two birds with one stone.

Don Pittis


The Big Picture: Traffic congestion

Sitting in traffic is no fun, but getting around in some cities is clearly worse than in others. According to research by traffic-analysis firm Inrix, the worst traffic is in Bogota, Colombia — drivers there lost 272 hours to congestion in 2018. As you'll see from the chart below, notoriously bad Canadian cities like Toronto and Montreal come off looking almost manageable in comparison.

(CBC)

What's on your mind?

Last week's story on household waste elicited some interesting emails. One reader pointed out that black plastic, which we cited as something that can't be recycled, is actually recycled in some communities across Canada. The reader helpfully clarified that "municipalities have different rules because they've invested in different technologies. That makes it tough for consumers and businesses."

We'll be returning to the topic of zero waste in the coming weeks and months, but if you have comments or suggestions on this topic, we'd be happy to hear them.

Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • For anyone with a bird feeder, putting out food for our winged friends during the scarcity of the winter months seems like a small act of mercy. But an ecologist at the University of Alberta points out that it also puts birds at risk of accidentally colliding with windows or coming face to face with urban predators.

  • As Emily Chung wrote in a story last year, online shopping is a significant generator of carbon emissions. Given Amazon's outsize influence in this space, there's reason to be encouraged by the company's announcement this week that it's aiming to make all its shipments "net zero carbon." The first target: Making 50 per cent of its shipments net zero by 2030.

Snow problem: Electric cars in Winterpeg

(Bryce Hoye/CBC)

The coldest days in Canadian winters wreak havoc on vehicle batteries, and so you'd think the problem would be especially acute for electric vehicles (EVs). But many EV owners say that impact isn't a big deal once the rubber hits the snow.

A recent cold snap that swept through Canada provided an interesting case study for Winnipeg, where temperatures were in the -35 C range. On days like that, Jordan Loewen said his Tesla Model 3 was losing as much as 40 per cent of its battery range. Heating the cabin of the car was the main culprit, as it is for many EV owners.

This is the first Winnipeg winter for Loewen's black Tesla, which cost him a cool $75,000.

In ideal conditions, Loewen said his car can do 500 kilometres on a full charge. On the cold days of winter, however, he's getting more like 300 kilometres. On paper, that may look like a problem, but Loewen is a city commuter, and is only logging 60 kilometres a day on average.

Tesla advises against exposing its vehicles to extreme conditions — colder than -25 C, warmer than 60 C — for more than than 24 hours, but Loewen said he hasn't seen any issues.

"It performs and handles well in our winters, exceptionally so," said the 32-year-old Loewen.

Ross Redman paid $26,000 for his Mitsubishi i-MiEV seven years ago, and said it has stood the test of time (and temperatures) in Winnipeg.

"I've been told by several people that an electric car will never work in the winter time, and I use it every day," said Redman.

Like Loewen, Redman loses range in the winter — about 50 kilometres of the 100 kilometres he would get in the summer. But also like Loewen, he's a city driver, and isn't driving enough for that loss to change his habits.

Both say the loss in winter range is a small price to pay for vehicles that cost less than a few hundred dollars in fuel annually. Redman said he pays about $7 a month in the summer and $10 in the winter months on electricity bills to charge his little hatchback in his garage.

Redman acknowledges one big roadblock to owning an electric car in Manitoba is that he can't hop into his Mitsubishi and cover the province's vast distances without getting what is called "range anxiety."

That's because Manitoba, like some other provinces, is a patchwork of charging stations and lacks a supercharger network in particular. Those stations charge most electric vehicle batteries in less than an hour.

The Manitoba Electric Vehicle Association estimates a $4-million investment could establish enough supercharger stations around the province to make long road trips possible for EVs like Redman's, which lack the extended range of Loewen's fancy ride.

Bryce Hoye


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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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