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Leading Toronto into sustainability: a Q & A with cleantech guru Tom Rand.

As a MaRS lead advisor and cleantech venture capitalist, Tom Rand is used to talking to people who "get" the science and economics of renewable energy. Translating that into terms that will allow the general public to not only understand, but be inspired to act upon it, is the reason he's also added "author" to his long list of career credits. His new book, Kicking the Fossil Fuel Habit: Ten Clean Technologies to Save Our World, is an easy to digest primer on, among other things, solar, geothermal and wind power; their costs, benefits and realistic pit-falls. It's also a passionate call to action on climate change.  A hefty tome, full of breathtaking full-page photos of various cleantech projects and natural phenomenon around the world, it rivals any other coffee table book on the market. Some of the projects and technologies in the book are occurring right in our back yard. Planet Traveler on College Street (see Yonge Street's February story on it), a retrofit project conceived and funded by Rand and partner Anthony Aarts, is one of them.  Sitting under the solar panels of the soon-to-open hotel, Rand talks to us about what inspired him to become a cleantech player and how Toronto is becoming one too.

Carla Lucchetta: You started out in computer software. What exactly was it that precipitated the career change?

Tom Rand: I had been an overeducated observer of climate change for many years with fist-pounding discussions with family around the kitchen table about this issue.  One night just after I'd sold my company (Voice Courier Inc) I had dinner with some interesting, active people; one of them was Toby Heaps of Corporate Knights. I found the conversation really inspiring and I realized I needed to become a very active player, not just sit on the sidelines observing and yelling from the benches. So, inspired by Toby, I opened a green fund and that's what really got me into the game.

Apart from your hotel, can you name a few green technologies or projects around Toronto?

In terms of technology, we have one of the most promising solar companies in the world which is Morgan Solar (see Yonge Street's February story on this company), right here in downtown Toronto. They recently hired Asif Ansari as their CEO (as reported in our Innovation and Job News section last week). His arrival is a very big business story in Toronto. He's a huge player from L.A, who's built billion dollar companies and he didn't come to Toronto, or a small company like Morgan, to fail.  Their product, Sun Simba, is a game-changer in the solar sector; it's smaller so it costs less. They have an injection molded piece of plastic which takes light and focuses it all into one chip. We used to do that with lenses, big lenses, so they got rid of that and basically made frisbees with a chip inside; all the light that hits the frisbee is directed onto their chip. That's their core technology so at the end of the day they will be able to come into the market place with a game-changing price for solar PV (photovoltaic).

In terms of projects; in cities, the focus has to be buildings. You know we're never going to have a solar farm here because where would we put it?  I think my hotel is leading the way. It's yet to be seen how fast these other buildings are going to begin.  The City of Toronto green tower renewal initiative helps. There's lots of talk but not lots of money. You have to fund retrofits, that's the missing piece.

The Green Energy Act is going to open up a lot of projects.  It's an economic development act that is about seeding an industry to bring manufacturers of wind and solar equipment to Ontario so we can begin to sell that technology around the world. The Europeans are fifteen years ahead of us on this stuff, so is South Korea. There's a reason for that, that's when they began putting together their version of the green energy act.

In all your travelling and researching, what is one thing Toronto is doing well?

One, the agreement the city had with Planet Traveler about the use of geothermal technology. No other city that I know of has opened up public spaces to geothermal heating and cooling. That, I think, is a very progressive and very interesting commitment.  Two, Morgan Solar, which I believe will be the next RIM. And three, MaRS is one of Toronto's best treasures. Why? Because it's a very far thinking innovation centre that doesn't exist elsewhere at that scale and with the depth of talent they have there. If I had access to MaRS when I started my software company it would have been ten times as big, because I would've received advice at the right time. That's the gap it fills.

What could Toronto be doing better?

I think we could do what they're doing in California with PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) bonds. Where you use property taxes as a means to generate capital for building retrofits.  That would be something I'd love to see in Toronto.

Finally, as well as having an electrical engineering BA and a science Master's, you also have a PhD in Philosophy. How do you think this helps your work in clean tech?

Philosophy is just an interest of mine. I want to know how the universe works.  It's taught me how to think. I can spot a bad argument a mile away. I kind of take that for granted now. But when I think back to some of my thinking prior to that work it was certainly sloppier than it is now. Other than that, it's completely useless.

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer, TV producer and essayist for TVO The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She keeps a blog at www.herkind.com.

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