February International News

This edition focuses on Canada and Mexico.

Canada’s First SOFC Plant Opens in Calgary

Canada’s first solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) pilot plant opened December 14, 2000, in Calgary, Alberta. Global Thermoelectric Inc., a leading developer of SOFC technology, says the plant will significantly enhance Global’s fuel cell production capacity and support its prototyping and field-testing initiatives.

The new facility uses commercially available manufacturing technology adapted from the computer-chip industry. “One of the big advantages of our technology is that we can use proven production equipment that is available in the marketplace, rather than having to develop our own machines,” said Jim Perry, Global’s president and CEO. “This should translate into lower production costs and a competitive advantage for our fuel cell systems.”

The SOFC is a ceramic fuel cell. Global’s SOFC membrane, the heart of the device, is flat (tubular and circular variations exist) and has unique proprietary properties that give it very high power densities (the amount of electricity generated per square centimeter of surface area) contributing to lower weight, size and cost.

Global’s new pilot production plant occupies 32,000 square feet of leased space. The plant was assembled on budget and on time for a cost of approximately $7 million. The plant currently has a laboratory scale production capacity of 50 cells per day. Production is scheduled to increase in increments and by late summer 2001, the company expects to achieve production of approximately 250 cells per day. The maximum production capacity of the pilot plant is 1000 cells per day.

Canada’s CEOs Upbeat About Business Prospects

According to a National Post survey published in early January, CEOs across Canada are fairly upbeat about business prospects despite signs of an economic downturn this year.

In the survey, CEOs gave the economy a rating of 75 out of 100, even though the economy is showing signs of a slowdown while being hit by the U.S. economy, which in last year’s third quarter grew at an annual rate of only 2.2%, its slowest since 1996.

According to the survey, 81% of CEOs are optimistic about the economy, 78% are upbeat with their own sector and 90% are confident about their own company. However, rising oil prices, the decline in the stock market and inventories of unsold goods in several sectors did attribute to fears about the economy.

The survey, conducted from the end of October through November, interviewed 400 CEOs and senior executives. Interviews were conducted with executives from small firms (five to 49 employees), medium-sized firms (50 to 250 employees) and firms with more than 250 employees. Small firms’ responses were given more weight in the survey because they represent a larger segment of the economy.

Mexican Government Offers Aid to Offset Rising Gas Prices

The Mexican government has offered to provide financial aid to the nation’s industrial sector to temper the effects of skyrocketing natural gas prices. The government plan would finance the difference between a base price of $4 per million British thermal units (mBtu) and the current market prices for the clean-burning fuel during the first quarter of 2001. The move aims to quell an outcry from heavy industries over the surging prices that have sunk corporate profits and forced some temporary shutdowns of energy-intensive production lines.

Mexican firms pay natural gas prices that are pegged to U.S. market prices, even though the nation’s energy sector is largely controlled by the state. Officials have said Mexico gas prices could hit around $8 per mBtu in early 2001.

Global gas prices have soared in recent months, underpinned by soaring demand for the fuel because of fast-paced world economic growth, low stocks and cold winter weather in the U.S. Additionally for Mexico, a lack of investment in the production of natural gas in past years has limited domestic supplies, forcing the nation to rely increasingly on imports of the fuel.

The new aid plan also would complement earlier efforts by the government during the second half of the year to provide relief for the high prices without resorting to direct subsidies. Mexico has already offered to stretch out the payment terms of natural gas bills and to provide a 25% discount on August prices to companies that used natural gas futures contracts to hedge their costs. The hedging discount has cost the government $28 million.

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