March 2012
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Month March 2012

Advanced Energy: Is Fuel Cell Technology Becoming Needed at Home?

fuel cell technologyFor years it has seemed that fuel cell technology was gearing up to be the savior of our transportation dilemma. These days it is looking like it will be more useful in buildings. This can only be a promising move towards a more sustainable, and realistic, future.

Scientists tell us that the amount of solar radiation that strikes the earth in one hour (4.3 × 1020 J) is more than all of the energy that is currently being used on the planet in a year (4.1 × 1020 J in 2001). And while this should certainly inspire us to pursue a solar-powered future, harnessing the sun’s energy so that it’s usable is still a real challenge. As solar photovoltaic panels decrease in price (as they have over the last few years), they are becoming more commonplace; however, without a means of “stockpiling” it, renewable power (including solar and wind) remains what’s called an intermittent energy. This means that since the sun only shines for a portion of the day, and the wind only blows at certain times, we can’t use these energy sources to run a 24/7 power-grid without incorporating some kind of storage mechanism into the system. And while many people are keen to put solar panels on their roofs, they probably wouldn’t be so thrilled about keeping a bunch of old lead-based batteries around.

But things are changing; as a result of new technologies, we now have more advanced batteries–as well as fuel cell technology, flywheels and other new options–to choose from.

In his recent book “The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy and the World”, economist Jeremy Rifkin describes a new economic model that is launching a sea change in the world’s use of energy. Rifkin reveals how the convergence of Internet communication technology and renewable energies is giving rise to a new (third) industrial revolution, a revolution that has already been endorsed by the EU, and is taking off, as we speak, in countries like Germany and Japan. He breaks down his strategy into five essential pillars:

1. Shifting to Renewable Energy;

2. Converting Buildings into Power Plants;

3. Hydrogen and Other Energy Storage Devices;

4. Smart Grid Technology;

5. Plug-In, Hybrid, Electric and Fuel Cell Technology based Transportation.

Rifkin, like many other experts, talks about the need to decentralize the power grid, to democratize energy, turning every suitable or retrofittable building into a powerplant that produces its own clean energy. Many are predicting that net-zero construction will become a $1.3 trillion global business by 2035, driven largely by demand from Europe–where building codes are increasingly requiring a zero-energy performance. The government in the UK has also decreed that by 2016, all new-build homes must include some form of on-site power generation.

One German-based company, Baxi Innotech, has partnered with Burnaby’s Ballard Power Systems to combine Ballard’s low-heat PEM fuel cells in a system that–when used in conjunction with renewable energy sources (or by extracting hydrogen from natural gas or bio-gas)–provides both electricity and heat, known as combined heat and power (CHP). This work has been in beta (preview/prototype) development since 2002, and Baxi plans to launch their system in the European market over the next two years. Boulder, CO based clean-tech consulting firm Pike Research projects worldwide revenue from fuel cells and hydrogen will reach $785 million alone by the end of this year. There’s been no word yet on when and where the method will be available here; Canada and the US haven’t been mandating the strict building codes and carbon pricing that have driven the European market to these technologies. And doesn’t that give us all the more reason to educate ourselves about these systems and demand–not only that the technology be made available to us, but also that we implement better building codes and full cost accounting methods here…?

Ballard Power Systems was founded in 1979 by Dr. Geoffrey Ballard. Ballard is now a world leader in zero emission, proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells and has been seeking commercialization of these hydrogen storage devices for use in vehicles and buses. The company has also been working on generators and distributed generation technologies. One of Ballard’s biggest local success stories is the fuel-cell bus fleet in Whistler, put into service right before the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Whistler fleet remains the largest of its kind in the world.

Of course, fuel cell technology comes with its own set of impediments, one of which is its current high cost. This obstacle to market acceptance can in part be attributed to the use of platinum to catalyze the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. The biggest platinum reserves in the world are in South Africa, where there has recently been talk about creating a kind of ‘Platinum Valley’ that emulates the success of Silicon Valley in the U.S. However, relying on any one country or company to supply a resource is risky, and there is only so much of this super-finite element out there. Researchers have found that using catalysts composed of carbon nanotubes promises to be a much cheaper way of making fuel cells, and there would be no resource supply issue down the road.

Unfortunately, the deck of cards being doled out to “energy players” is currently still stacked in favour of the competition; for example, the oil & gas industry has received over $400 billion in subsidies in 2010 alone, according to the IEA.  Many people believe governments can level the playing field by providing more incentives for power consumers to convert to clean energy systems, as well as rewards for early adopters. Programs such as feed-in-tariffs can also help to create a faster system payback; these have worked well in countries like Germany. Such incentives would help reduce reliance on foreign oil–a reliance that has remained a fact of life for many people, even in our country. Much of Eastern Canada, after all, does not have the privilege of burning Canadian oil and/or gasoline; most of their oil is imported from other countries such as Iraq and Nigeria.

So can Canadians look forward to a day, in the not too distant future, when fuel Compressed Air Storagecell technology will provide the electricity and heat we need in our homes? Quite possibly! But this type of technology, as previously mentioned, is not the only one that has been progressing. The recent surge of interest in electric vehicles has spurred the development of many promising new battery systems. In addition, ultra low-friction flywheels, compressed air systems and super-capacitors are being fine-tuned to meet the pressing need for energy storage.


Probably not. At least not on it’s own. But if we build better, smarter buildings, fuel cell technology has potential value.

Anyone involved in the building industry can’t help but be excited by all these revolutionary developments in the area of energy production and storage. But even as new innovations and technologies become integrated into the way we design and construct homes, the fact remains that energy saved is energy earned. It’s vital that we use the resources that are presently available to us as efficiently as possible–by upgrading insulation, for example, or by installing new high-efficiency windows and doors. Of course, as we create tighter building envelopes to conserve energy, we don’t want to incorporate materials that have the potential to off-gas carcinogenic chemicals. That’s why we also need to use healthy, non-toxic building materials.

With all that’s happening on so many different fronts, it’s becoming increasingly important that we take a holistic approach to any new build or retrofit. No single technology is going to provide a complete ”solution” on its own. Our hope is that we will soon be constructing a “Living, Breathing Building” that will serve as a template for anyone seeking to bring their home “back from the future” into today’s world.
Its walls will be made from renewable materials, such as our hemp bio-masonry. New thin-film solar panels on the building’s roof would collect the sun’s abundant, renewable, free energy, using it to create hydrogen that will be stored in a fuel cell such as Baxi’s. From there it will be transformed into both heat and electricity. Our building will thus heat & power itself. It’s already happening in Germany–why not here? The best way to predict the future, is to create it, after all!

Interested partners, please contact us!

Green Industrial Lands: The Missing Piece in a Green Economy?

Preserving industrial land is key for a healthy economy – but can industrial land also support a green economy (and vice versa)? This was the recent topic of Light House’s latest Market Insights session held in the LEED Platinum “Olympic Village” community, March 6th, in Vancouver. More than 35 people joined speakers from Light House, Tonko Real Estate and the District of Delta to discuss local interest in establishing greener industrial lands as well as the role of these Green Industrial Lands as a catalyst for green economic development.

Green Industrial Parks are already planned for Cowichan Valley and areas as far east as Olds, Alberta. In the Greater Vancouver area, however, most industrial land has already been developed. According to the Market Insights speakers, the area with the largest available commercial/industrial land is in Surrey/White Rock. Delta also has about 500 acres of land available in the form of brownfields (former landfills or contaminated sites). Within the city of Vancouver, the False Creek Flats area, near Terminal and Main, has been discussed as a potential site for green industrial development, most of which would take the form of local food processing and distribution, although nothing has been finalized as of yet.


One question that was not asked at the Light House event warrants consideration: What proportion of these green industrial lands will facilitate exports, and how much of them will serve the local economy? As climate change related events manifest more and more frequently in various parts of the world—and in tandem with what many are calling the end of the cheap oil era, the importance of rebuilding a local manufacturing sector is becoming increasingly obvious. But developing the necessary green framework for re-localization in places like Vancouver goes almost completely against the grain of Canada’s approach to economic development—the city is home, after all, to one of the largest ports in North America. So at one level of government—i.e. municipal, you have a huge push for green manufacturing and green jobs—as epitomized, for example, in Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan. That push turns out to be at cross purposes, however, with the goals of the federal government, which remains very committed to a more or less globalized model of trade and is also responsible for regulating the port.


Here, it gets even more complicated, since we are now seeing that Canada’s vigorous promotion, in the global marketplace, of its unconventional sources of oil (e.g. oil sands) is helping to drive up our dollar to the point where Canadian-based manufacturers of products intended for export now find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. This issue was recently raised by Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty. Export-oriented development alters the dynamic of industrial lands, not only by driving up costs per square foot for space, but also by changing the nature of what is done on those lands. Since the main function of Vancouver’s ports is to facilitate the movement of goods to and from overseas markets, industry in the region has traditionally developed in response to those, rather than local, market forces. But now, more than ever before, we need to ensure there is space available for locally driven industry, and that entrepreneurs and manufacturers whose intention is to serve the local economy do not find themselves in the position of being unable to secure affordable sites. We therefore need to put pressure on our political leaders to support policies that catalyze locally driven economic development, thereby strengthening the supply and value chains that will be required by future communities if they are to remain sustainable.


While things are not going to change overnight, communities that plan ahead, like Vancouver, will be less affected when global supply chains become more and more volatile in response to the continued (and inevitable) rise in oil prices. This, of course, doesn’t mean an end to global trade: as Michael Shuman, economist with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and author of “Small Mart” has noted, “In a world of more self-reliant communities, where every community produces more of its own cost-effective goods and services, trade does not disappear. To the contrary, every act of cost-effective localization, by leaving the home community just a little wealthier, enables that community to import more things that it truly couldn’t otherwise produce for itself. In a world of localization, ironically, the value of global trade could well increase–only, the trade would be in highly specialized goods and services.” According to Shuman, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that local ownership in businesses pumps up the multiplier effect, meaning that every dollar spent locally generates up to four times more economic benefit—as measured in income, wealth, jobs, and tax revenue—than a dollar spent at a multi-national business.


Re-localization of our food systems has already begun: interest in CSAs (community-supported agriculture) is on the rise, and consideration is being given, in cities, to setting land aside for urban farming. Seattle, for example, recently announced plans for a permaculture food forest. It is also likely that initiatives like backyard chicken raising, now catching on in some areas, will increasingly become the norm.


Green Building is another industry that can benefit from an increase in local supply chains. Many building materials are made from potentially toxic materials; this was certainly true in the case of imported toxic drywall (which we’ve covered previously). Global multi-nationals like to move production to countries where low environmental and health standards (as well as cheap labour) permit them to decrease their production costs and increase their profit margins. But there is a high price being paid—although not by the companies themselves—for this practice. Air and water are being polluted in far away communities. Local jobs are being lost. And North American purchasers of various foreign-made products—having lost their connection to the manufacturing supply chain—can no longer take it for granted that what is going into those products is good for them.


On the positive side, building certification systems such as LEED and the Living Building Challenge are encouraging the production of locally manufactured goods that not only have a lower carbon footprint but are also less toxic to make and support the local economy. New voluntary product labels such as Declare promote transparency regarding the disclosure of potential harmful ingredients and/or carcinogenic chemicals. This allows people to make more informed decisions about the products they buy.




The rise of Green Industrial Lands can only increase the resilience and sustainability of communities moving forward. Such lands will provide a “home” for suppliers of green energy systems, sustainably-harvested wood, as well as new LED lighting systems, fuel cells for the home, non-toxic insulation for retrofitting our homes and/or prefab wall systems made from local, renewable, health-promoting materials. The possibilities are endless! These enterprises—and others still to come—will help to build a new restoration economy, demonstrating that we can have a system that allows both the economy and the environment to thrive.


Let’s help drive our local economy by voting with our dollars and supporting local businesses. In British Columbia, the local BALLE chapter is known as LOCO. You can find out if there is a BALLE affiliate in your community/region here.

Biomimicry! How We Can Start Learning From Nature, Rather Than Trying to Control It.

For centuries, science has been trying to understand natural systems in various ways. Biomimicry is a relatively new study, but one that has great potential in terms of how we can learn from, and implement natural principles into our designs.

There are obvious connections between biomimicry and sustainability. But how do we actually take some of these lessons and apply them to our modern lives?

First, let’s review. How does biomimicry fit within the scientific canon?

The original models for Western development and design systems can primary be traced back to the first Industrial Revolution and the work of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, and Rene Descartes. The scientific, mathematical and philosophical contributions of these theorists fostered the development of methods and goals for science that involved mechanization, the domination and control of nature, linear progress, duality (the view that fundamental aspects of reality are split into two, opposing entities), reductionism (the theory that complex phenomena are best explained in terms of their simplest, most basic physical components), and anthropocentrism (the belief that humans are the central element of the universe). These ideas have had a great deal of influence, not only on the progression of various sciences, but on the accepted worldview–a worldview that has remained pervasive, even though the paradigm in the scientific realm has been shifting for some time.

While classical Newtonian physics was based on the premise that only the “material” is real, the new quantum physics suggests that only relationships are real; everything exists because of its relationship to everything else—and everything, at the most fundamental level, is connected. Quantum physics may seem to have more in common with Buddhism than it does with classical physics; however, it doesn’t contradict the laws of thermodynamics and is now accepted by a majority of scientists. What this new physics is revealing has earth-shattering implications–not only for our understanding of the universe, but also for the relevance of the systems and development models that have shaped much of our 20th-century thinking.

As noted above, Newtonin-Baconian-Cartesian notions have been extremely influential in a number of areas; in fact, they still govern much of public policy. But what we are now seeing is that many of the assumptions upon which these ideas were founded are in fact false.

Some fields of study are actually “blossoming” in the sunshine of the new paradigm, since their philosophical underpinnings are now being validated and affirmed. One of these fields, known as biomimicry (or biomimetics), involves examining nature and its processes in order to solve problems relating to design. Although nature’s elegant forms have been inspiring human design for eons, today’s approach to biomimicry is rooted in the firm belief that exploring design through biology produces the best results.

And so far, those results have been astounding! Examples of biomimicry are showing up in many forms.

They range from solar panels (e.g. the “solar leaf”) modeled after the process of photosynthesis…to wind farm designs that exploit wind turbulence by mimicking a school of fish. Wind power is even being harnessed without blades—by means of giant wind “stalks.” These stalks, which have been engineered to compress as they sway in the wind, operate much like a forest would (see the picture below) and create a charge. Even plumbing and electrical designs are changing based on some of nature’s principles. A company named PAX Scientific that manufactures “fluid handling devices” –including fans, mixers, pumps, turbines, and propellers,–began modelling their rotors after strange-looking biomimetic shapes, and soon discovered these new designs showed a 30% improvement in efficiency over the old Cartesian designs!

In the building industry, one model that currently incorporates biomimicry into it’s design approach is the Living Building Challenge. Traditionally (as we’ve noted previously), buildings have been looked at as a mechanistic assembly of parts. According to the Living Building model, however, a building is viewed as an organism; it is therefore symbolized by the metaphor of a flower. Nature, we all know, wastes nothing; Living Buildings follow this example. They take a closed-loop approach to collecting their own energy, capturing their own water, and treating their own waste.

When will Biomimicry take over the world of design?

Not yet, but there is progress. The green-business blog, Triple Pundit, recently described the emergence of a new economic index for biomimicry activity, called the Da Vinci Index. This index tracks the number of scholarly articles associated with biomimicry–along with patents, grants (and their dollar value) that also relate to this topic. From a baseline of 100 in the year 2000, the Da Vinci Index was found to have shot up, by 2010, to 713. Science is leading the way, and the rest of the world is slowly catching up! We can therefore expect that as design and related fields become more holistic, the Da Vinci Index will continue to show rapid growth in the field of biomimicry.

Is It Wise To Use Farm Crops for Alternative Building & Fuel?

ALTERNATIVE BUILDINGIs it sustainable to use productive farmland to grow crops for the fibre we use in alternative building materials? This question is coming up quite frequently now, especially since the completion of recent life-cycle assessments on crops intended as biofuels. For anyone wondering about the sustainability of bio-fibre crops, these studies are worth reviewing.


Growing crops in order to harvest their energy is now big business, and biofuel production is attracting lots of investment. But is this a good thing? Researchers at Michigan State University concluded, after analyzing 17 years’ worth of data, that it’s 36 percent more efficient to grow grain for food than for fuel. Of course, the type of crop being grown is an important consideration: it’s more efficient to use cellulosic or non-food plants over corn, and even more efficient to grow algae. Algae, more than any source, holds the most promise as a biofuel. For starters, it does not occupy valuable land, and can actually be grown using waste-water. Also, its production can be managed as part of a co-generation system, with waste CO2 from industrial plants being sequestered into the algae as it sits in huge tanks, thus closing the loop on CO2 emissions.

When it comes to fibrous crops, it’s important to know the primary reason for growing the product. In the case of some crops–like wheat, for example, farmers might want to keep the straw on the field to improve soil quality, so there might be concern about exporting nutrients out of the field.


In the case of a dual-crop like industrial hemp, both the “food for fuel” trade-off as well as concerns over nutrient loss can be eliminated; this species can actually be grown in rotation with food crops and helps to improve the soil. Hemp is also an incredibly rich source of raw materials. A 1938 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine noted that over 25,000 products can be manufactured from it, including dynamite and cellophane. And during the 1940s, even Henry Ford was arguing that everything we make from hydrocarbons can also be made from carbohydrates like hemp.


Along with edible seeds (used in nutritional oils and a wide range of health-food products), industrial hemp produces two types of fibres: a sheath of “bast,” or long fibres, and a woody core of short fibres called “hurds” (or “shiv”). Hemp, like its close relative, marijuana, belongs to the genus Cannabis; however, the fibre-producing variety contains only negligible amounts of the psychoactive drug, THC. The hemp plant is actually one of the most ancient crops in cultivation. As early as 1801, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, acting on behalf of the King of England, was distributing free hemp seed to Canadian farmers. The resource has been used extensively throughout the world; in fact, the original King James Bible, Magna Carta and American Declaration of Independence were all written on hemp paper. Other early hemp products included ship sails, ropes, and the fibre-reinforced composites used by Henry Ford in prototype cars. During the war, the U.S. Government actually mandated production of this versatile crop; unfortunately, by the middle of the 20th century, its association with marijuana had led to its demonization throughout much of the world.

Here in Canada, it was only in 1998 that our government legalized, once again, the growing of hemp for its seed and fibre. However, by 2010, the amount of land licensed for hemp raising (over 27,000 acres) had increased by almost 94 percent over the previous year. Several different varieties of hemp are grown here; some produce better seed, some better fibre. While the ever-popular seeds have traditionally been the main focus, these varieties of hemp also produce a huge amount of useful fibre as a by-product. Although it may not all be the higher quality bast fibre type required for production of textiles or automotive parts, the surplus (shiv) is perfectly suitable for use in alternative building materials. While most plant straw yields about 1.3 tons of fibre per acre, hemp weighs in at 4.5 to 7 tons; this means enough fibre can be grown on one hectare of land to build a fair sized house! A bonus for the environment is that the plants also sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide (10 tons per acre), thereby reducing the atmospheric pollution that contributes to climate change.

Hemp bast fibre is increasingly being used by European auto companies, such as BMW, to manufacture internal door panels and other parts. And a Canadian company, Motive, plans to market a hemp fibre car called the Kestrel, which is currently in the prototype stage. Meanwhile, hemp shiv is finding its own market for use in construction as alternative building materials. Using our hemp bio-masonry products you can take advantage of the strength and insulative properties of hemp shiv to create an incredibly high-performance alternative building envelope.

alternative buildingSo why haven’t we seen more use of industrial hemp fibre products in Canada? Fibre production is closely tied to processing capabilities, which until recently have been quite limited. However, pockets of fibre processing are beginning to pop up all across the country. Companies interested in using this fibre to produce building materials, car panels, and paper are looming on the horizon. Among them is Biostruct, which is becoming a leader in the green building materials industry. Our business model, which will grow organically, includes utilizing bio-regional processing facilities, supporting local economies, creating green jobs, and keeping carbon-based transportation to a minimum. Using Biostruct natural building products will allow LEED-registered projects to obtain bonus credits for incorporating local non-toxic materials, and also to fit within the guidelines of the Materials Radius for Living Building projects. Whether you, as a builder, seek certification of a project or not however, there are other benefits to accessing more localized manufacturing—one of which is quality control.

The 2008 case of imported toxic drywall is an example of what can happen when manufacturing is subcontracted out, and the company marketing and distributing a product has no knowledge of what is going into it. Over 550 million pounds of the imported drywall–later found to be contaminated with hydrogen sulfide–were sold throughout North America between 2001 and 2009, and many of the houses in which it was used had to be demolished. Yet it appears there are still well over 100,000 homes in the state of Florida alone that contain the drywall, which is not only a major health hazard (causing nosebleeds, sinus problems and respiratory infections), but also a fire hazard. The Chinese Drywall Complaint Center says, “Because we are talking about hydrogen sulfide contained in the imported toxic drywall, we fear in a decade or so, exotic cancers, exotic pulmonary issues, or exotic neurological disorders will start popping up in former, or current families, that have lived in toxic drywall homes. In a decade or so, we also believe the health-care costs associated with long term exposure to toxic drywall will shoot up into the billions of dollars per year.”

Unfortunately, safety and health standards really haven’t changed that much since 2008, and international trade agreements still have a tendency to favor large corporate supply chains over locally manufactured products in most industries. It’s entirely possible, therefore, for this type of thing to happen again. We can’t afford that risk. Our health and well-being are too important. Let’s rule out the possibility……! Buy local. Look for better natural building methods.

If you’re interested in hearing more about the “Living Economies” connection to “Living Buildings”, also check out this article in Yes Magazine by best-selling author David Korten.