WINNIPEG, MB - Whenever we have started out with the premise that government needs to lure industry to the province, we have ended up losing our shirts. The successful and long-term enterprises have been those that saw an opportunity and seized it.
Government needs to get out of the way. It can help by removing barriers to investment or by adapting current regulations to meet current needs. In that regard, government must be nimble and responsive. It must be ready to act as a facilitator and partner, not as a convenient bank, which only promotes incompetence. Of course, there are times when you are in a bidding situation and the corporate welfare types come begging, but if we create a dynamic atmosphere geared to 21st century needs, that will occur less and less.
Let’s take stock of what we have and do a little stargazing. I am particularly interested in our vast and resource-rich north.
For over a century, we have been struggling with how to connect the south to the north via a feasible transportation system. The reason we have failed is that, apart from wanting to maintain sovereignty over the northern coast, we don’t have a compelling reason to go there. Even the much-touted tourism industry represents only 3% of the northern GDP.
How do we turn our present hydro lemon into lemonade and go beyond paying down hydro’s debt to something that would power our whole economy?
Are there opportunities based on energy to create something in or from our northern environment that is in demand for domestic or external use? Something that makes people need to be there?
We may have more going for us than we think.
Lithium and Gigafactories
In addition to hydro electrical power, our mid-north is home to several lithium deposits including the active lithium-caesium-tantalum Tanco mine at Cat Lake on the Winnipeg River where we produce 100% of Canada’s caesium, which is used in some batteries. There are several other known lithium deposits around Red Sucker Lake, Red Cross Lake, Gods Lake, Cross Lake and McLaughlin Lake, and deposits have been identified at Wekusko Lake. Of course we already know about our resources of nickel, cobalt, copper, silver, even graphite, all used in some way or another in the production of energy.
Due to the demand for lithium for battery production right now, there is renewed interest in Manitoba’s lithium.
If we developed those resources, could our north someday be the site of one of Elon Musk’s Gigafactories producing lithium-ion batteries? The Gigafactory in Nevada is powered by a 70 megawatt solar farm. When Keeyask is completed, it will add 4,400 gigawatt hours to our current supply. We could easily provide the power to run a battery factory with the advantage of a nearby supply of lithium and other needed minerals. Musk expects the demand for batteries to grow not just to power cars, but to power homes and small businesses using his solar-charged battery packs. As these technologies prove themselves, look for demand to explode just as it did for mobile phones.
Cryptocurencies like bitcoin
What about using our excess hydro power to lure cryptocurrency computer farms to the north? Each Bitcoin transaction requires the same amount of energy that it takes to power nine homes. Being able to locate computer farms in a cold climate as well as near the source of full strength hydro energy generation would be a real advantage. As a side benefit, the heat from the computers could be recycled to warm homes and heat greenhouses at a fraction of the cost we are now charging northern consumers.
It is not far-fetched to think about this. Manitoba and Quebec are being looked at as potential centres for this activity right now due to our low energy costs and our cool climate. And a small bitcoin farm operated by Bruce Hardy in St. Francis Xavier is recycling its heat to warm water for his fish tank and to grow plants.
Manitoba also has a vast saltwater shoreline in a cold climate with ample hydro power generation nearby. It’s not hard to imagine hydrogen production occurring near our hydroelectric resources, perhaps combining those with the new nano-technology that efficiently pulls hydrogen from salt water. We could build the compressors needed to reduce the gas to liquid there, and send the condensed product to the world via ship or overland on a new network of roads and rail.
Hydrogen production is not a new idea in Manitoba -- it goes back to the Schreyer days. A committee that examined the feasibility and reported on it in 2003 came to the conclusion that if all the potential hydroelectric power of Manitoba was converted to hydrogen we would be able to produce about 2 per cent more power than North America could use to fuel all its automobiles if they all ran on hydrogen fuel cells.
Fifteen years on and the excitement about using hydrogen power has not materialized. Nor has the auto industry cottoned on to the idea, but hydrogen is still used as rocket fuel.
Forbes predicts that battery powered electric cars will win the power struggle over fuel cells because battery powered cars are faster, cheaper, quieter, simpler and easier, if not faster, to power up because the foundation of needed infrastructure is in place.
The one advantage hydrogen fuel cells have over batteries is the time it takes to re-power the car, but even that is changing. While right now, battery recharging at the most powerful chargers takes about half an hour; new technologies will carve that time to minutes.
A company called Store Dot in Israel is working on a nano-technology using organic materials to make a battery that will recharge in five minutes and produce 300 miles worth of power. Toshiba has introduced a charger that can deliver 200 miles in 6 minutes. The re-charging issue will be resolved, and we need to be looking at where this is going and how to take advantage of the new technologies. We need to be thinking about the power grid required to supply electric transportation power.
In the short term, we still need to sell our power to other markets if we can.
The way power is being transmitted is being readdressed. We are looking for more efficient less intrusive mthodes of moving current. Coukld we use rail lines to provide a pathway from Manitoba to eastern or western markets within Canada? why not? We have to look at every avenue.
It has been shown that the demand traditional electric energy will decline in future, as new technologies come into play. We need to think ahead and try to position ourselves to meet what demand there is, particularly with regard to finding ways to meet the mobile energy needs that will continue to grow.
Why shouldn’t we be developing charging technologies or delivery methods and sell the power needed to animate those technologies?
To conclude, I know that the current habit of thought is to get government money invested in building infrastructure and luring companies to our province -- incentivizing, I think it’s called. On the other hand, fair tax policies, reasonable regulations, and the removal of systemic barriers to business are better answers.
Unleashing the power of creative thinking and personal energy are really the only long term solutions.
Dorothy Dobbie, Manitoba Post