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Communities Push a Productive Pathway to Cleantech 

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By David Hodes

Adjusting from a story of environmental friendliness to one of environmental sustainability.

The support for clean technologies among manufacturers and other industries has rapidly spread throughout the world in the last 10 years in part as a response to rising concerns about global warming.
In communities in Canada and the United States in particular, the process of switching to cleantech methods has been finding firmer footing as manufacturers, chemists, researchers and business advisors embrace what has come to represent a new economic boom being pushed by government mandates and becoming a standard line item in strategic business plans.

Findings from the Canadian Clean Technology Industry Report 2014, published by the thought-leader consultant company Analytica Advisors, indicate that there’s an opportunity now for Canada to create a $50 billion industry by 2022.
In 2012, the Canadian cleantech industry generated $5.8 billion in exports, and currently has $11.3 billion in revenues, or 1 percent of the global market share. The industry grew 10 percent annually from 2010 to 2012, compared to 1.7 percent growth in the Canadian economy as a whole.

The Canadian cleantech industry invested more than $1 billion in R&D in 2012, and $5 billion from 2008 to 2012, of which $3.5 billion was from small and medium enterprises. The bump in interest in cleantech in Canada is rooted in the 2009 Ontario Green Energy Act, created to expand renewable energy generation, encourage energy conservation and promote the creation of clean energy jobs.

When the act first came out, it was a hit. But that was the problem.

Rob Nolan, manager of investment attraction for Durham Region Economic Development in southern Ontario, and east of Toronto, says that the incentives offered by the act were great. “Applications swamped the federal government and it took them a long time to get through them,” he says.
For Durham, eight large contracts have been awarded under the terms of the act, mainly for solar and wind farms, he says, and mostly in the Western Ontario region. But the big explosion of new manufacturers expected in Durham has not materialized.

The bump in interest in cleantech in Canada is rooted in the 2009 Ontario Green Energy Act, created to expand renewable energy generation, encourage energy conservation and promote the creation of clean energy jobs.

“One of the things unique to the province is that they tend not to have cash incentives,” Nolan says. “So what tends to happen is that a company will get a project-related incentive where once a company has done something like research and development, they will get a tax credit. That makes it a little bit harder for us to compete with American interests.”
Since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, many U.S. renewable energy projects have taken advantage of a cash grant program for 30 percent of eligible costs to install technologies such as wind, solar, biomass and hydrogen fuel cells.

“What we tend to find is that some of our smaller companies that were already operating in that space are now starting to grow because there are opportunities here that they are starting to supply,” Nolan says. “Some of them have gone into supply parts of the solar panel, and some of them develop companies that manage and set up solar and wind farms — these are build-out and engineering firms.”
The utilities in the region are working on additional smart grid development, Nolan says, with collaborations between the secondary learning institutions and the utilities around metering. “For example, the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology, in Oshawa, runs a hacker lab to work on data security within the smart grid.”

There are other sustainable options in play in the region. One example of biomass energy generation comes from a pilot project at the 102-year-old St. Marys Cement plant in Toronto, in a partnership with Toronto company Pond Biofuels, where they are taking the waste heat from the cement plant and using it to grow algae. The algae are used as biomass fuel.

One of the medium-sized cleantech companies in the region is in the Burlington, Ontario, based EcoSynthetix Inc., a renewable chemicals company that produces a family of commercially proven bio-based products, earning net sales of $5 million in the first quarter of 2014.

This biobased chemical company makes two types of products: their Biolatex line, used to replace petroleum-based emulsion polymers that enable graphics to stick to glossy paper stock; and their EcoMer line, used as a biobased building block for creating new waterborne sugar-acrylic adhesives and resins.

The sugar used to produce EcoMer is derived from renewable resources such as glucose or dextrose from cornstarch. It can be produced at various viscosity levels, ranging from a resinous solid to a low-viscosity liquid, inks, toners and plastics.

Biobased latex binders are manufactured by an extrusion process that converts the very high-solids starch paste into a thermoplastic melt phase, and then crosslinks and sizes the starch molecules into nanoparticles. “Our view is that our society in general is in trouble in a sense that oil has become very expensive,” says John Van Leeuwen, CEO of EcoSynthetix. “And so much of the petrochemicals that are being used to make consumer products are making those products more expensive. So we need to find an alternative.”

One of the big customers for the company is Suzano Papel e Celulose, in Salvador, Brazil, the biggest paper producer in that country and one of the largest in the world. They were the first adopters of the biobased product.

Another big customer is Japan’s Nippon Paper Group Inc., in Tokyo, that country’s largest paper producer.

Van Leeuwen says that the biotech space, and the opportunities to businesses that it represents, is enormous. To fill that space his company needs to come up with new products for four or five different market segments in addition to the packaging, building parts and other consumer goods markets that they already serve. “Automotive might be a good target,” he says.

That opportunity is right in his backyard. The largest General Motors plant in North America, also the Canadian headquarters of GM, is in Oshawa; the Canadian headquarters of Volkswagen Group Canada is in Ajax.

In the United States, cleantech communities are making headway throughout the country, led by San Diego, Portland, Austin and Denver. But there are pockets of deep investments elsewhere.
The largest U.S. VW plant, in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a sustainable model unmatched anywhere. The 1,400-acre, $1 billion VW plant is the first and only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certified automobile manufacturer in the world. The plant includes a 66-acre, 33,000-panel solar farm to power the manufacturing operations there.

The largest U.S. VW plant, in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a sustainable model unmatched anywhere. The 1,400-acre, $1 billion VW plant is the first and only Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) platinum certified automobile manufacturer in the world. The plant includes a 66-acre, 33,000-panel solar farm to power the manufacturing operations there.

J. Ed Marston, vice president of marketing and communications for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, says that they are working with VW to get other companies there and support expansion related to chemical manufacturing for the solar power industry.

fall vw solar panels

Solar farm near VW’s manufacturing plant in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Marston says looking to the future; his group has been working with Bradley County to recruit Wacker Chemie, a German company that manufactures hyper-pure polycrystalline silicon for the solar industry.
That company’s $2 billion plant will be up and running in the next couple of years, Marston says. “It’s a pretty complicated facility. But Chattanooga State Community College has worked with them to develop a very intricate training program to get them the expertise they need for their employees.” The Wacker Institute at the college is a 25,000-square-foot facility offering training for chemical operators, lab techs, mechanical and electronics technicians.

One of the bigger stories in the area comes from Electric Power Board (EPB), the local power and telecommunications provider. They have installed one of the more advanced smart grids in the country, Marston says. “They connect all of the homes and businesses and put smart switches throughout the network. And they are beginning to explore how they can do things like managing time and use rates so that companies can switch their manufacturing or their power usage to off peak times.”
Van Leeuwen says that the story for cleantech development has switched over the last 10 years from being about environmental friendliness to being about environmental sustainability. “Those are two very different things,” he says. “I think everybody had a sort of wish list item 15 years ago about this, but pretty much every CEO thinks that they need to work on sustainability now, especially in the packaging industry.”

Van Leeuwen says, even with the increase in the use of fracking technology (getting oil and natural gas out of shale deposits), the world is about to tap out the natural resources for oil and maybe make it last for another 50 years. “But if you look at the consumption and the population growth, it’s going to run out a lot faster than most experts are claiming.”

In the short term, it’s about convincing companies that cleantech manufacturing, like his company’s biobased latex and resin process, is worth the disruption. “In the paper industry, it’s about getting past the conservatism,” Van Leeuwen says. “They are very slow to change. The building industry is a bit more progressive because of the push from the government about ending the use of carcinogenic formaldehyde in the resins for particle board.”
For more information about the organizations featured in this article, visit:

Chattanooga (Tenn.) Area Chamber of Commerce

Durham (Ont.) Region Economic Development

EcoSynthetix Inc.

Illustration credit by Volkswagen of America

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About the author: David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dhodes11@gmail.com.

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