Long before you get to the North Cape of Prince Edward Island, you see them on the horizon. Wind turbines, spinning in tandem, go from the size of your pinky to towering...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Alberta's carbon tax is expected to have a relatively minor impact on middle to lower income folks, but what about a major city that buys $60 million worth of power every year? That's going to cut into some budgets!
It turns out there's one municipality that's positioned very well for a carbon tax but its name might surprise you -- Calgary. That's right, the oil and gas capital of Canada is expecting to save $9 million thanks to their forward-thinking embrace of clean energy.
"We meet all of our corporate energy demand through renewable sources," says Arsheel Hirji, leader of sustainable infrastructure for the city of Calgary. "It started with the Ride the Wind program in 2003 where all of our light rail vehicles, our LRT system, was powered with renewable electricity. Now, renewable energy powers everything from the office administrative buildings to the street lights, to the libraries."
According to Hirji, powering Calgary's infrastructure costs more than $60 million annually. So, when the city approached ENMAX, their utility provider, with a desire to green that part of their grid, ENMAX was given the financial certainty to develop 120 megawatts of power generation at the Tabor and Kennel Hills wind farms.
"I can point to a wind farm in Tabor and Kennels Hills and say, "That power comes right to our doorstep," says Hirji.
This forward thinking was undoubtedly justified as a way to reduce emissions or be progressive, but now, Hirji says, this clean energy contract will save Calgary an estimated $9 million in carbon taxes in 2018 and $12 million in 2019.
Recently, the City of Calgary installed a 153-kilowatt solar system on their Southland Leisure Centre. Hirji confirms the city is looking at a much larger solar system, perhaps as large as 625-kilowatts on its composter facility now under construction.
"We hope that by 2017, in the opening of that composting facility, we'll also have the unveiling of Calgary's largest solar plant to date," says Hiji.
But the city isn't stopping there. Just in time for the province's plan to invest $3.4 billion in renewable energy over the next five years, Calgary just completed a solar assessment of all of their civic buildings.
"The city of Calgary owns and operates thousands of buildings," says Hirji. "That includes recreation centers, office administrative buildings, waste treatment plants, water treatment plants and more. A resource assessment told us that on those rooftops we could install about 26 megawatts of solar."
Unfortunately, Hirji says Alberta's municipal solar program isn't sufficient for the city to take the leap. Currently, the province's municipal solar program provides up to 20 per cent of the funding for a project, up to a maximum of $300,000. Hirji says two simple changes would make the math add up to a solar boom in cow town.
"I'm simply saying, 'Increase that number to 30 per cent and a $500,000 cap', and that makes significant enough of a difference to catch my attention.'"
"The province of Alberta has my commitment that with the right type of financing strategy for the city of Calgary, we could easily see within a three-year period, between three and a half to five megawatts of installed capacity within our municipal boundaries," says Hirji. For perspective that's half as much solar that is currently installed in all of Alberta.
Calgary's previous investments in renewable energy will now save them millions of dollars in avoided carbon taxes. The question going forward is how much more renewable energy the city will invest in.
"By 2026 the carbon taxation program in Alberta is going to cost the municipality into the tens of millions of dollars," says Hirji. "By investing in renewables, that tax is effectively avoided because the source of generation is tax free and therefore, our investments will help us hedge against cost increases related to Alberta's climate change strategy."
Calgary has a sustainable buildings policy, which can help make buildings solar ready, an idea that unfortunately didn't come in time for the new composting plant. The city is investing more in energy efficient buildings, installing more LED streetlights, combined heat and power systems and even providing education programs to teach city employed drivers how to save fuel through their driving behaviour.
Speaking of drivers, another big challenge for the city going forward is their vehicle fleet. Currently, transit buses and other city vehicles are primarily diesel-powered. The bus fleet alone is nearly 1,000 vehicles. According to Hirji, Calgary is looking at using electric garbage trucks and doing some pilot programs with electric buses as well. That could add up to a significant savings in a post-carbon tax economy.
For the average person the carbon tax will mean a 6.7 cent per litre increase in gas prices, and one analysis suggested Albertans who fall below a net-income threshold of $47,500 for singles or $95,000 for a couple could get back more in the form of a rebate than they will pay in carbon taxes. Make your next car some more fuel efficient model and you will actually be ahead of the game.
It's hard to say how many municipalities are as ready for the carbon tax as Calgary is, but one thing is pretty clear -- the carbon levy is already inspiring the kind of thinking that will reduce emissions. In the case of Calgary, the city seems poised to avoid paying almost $10 million in carbon taxes and through their solar program they are ready to capture funds through Alberta's municipal solar programs--money paid in carbon taxes by other, less prepared organizations.
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On March 2, 2016, energy efficiency companies and experts from Canada and the United States gathered in Edmonton to talk about Alberta and energy. On the surface, that doesn't seem odd. Alberta is almost synonymous with energy in a lot of circles. However, when it comes to energy efficiency programs, the province...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Thanks to innovative zoning, hundreds of beautiful laneway homes have been built in Vancouver, B.C. This has increased urban density and provided an affordable option for people to live in the core of a city where homes sell for more than a million dollars.
In a sprawling city like Edmonton, Alberta, infill garage suites or laneway homes, are a rarity. So when we heard that Karly Coleman and Andy Hengst were building a carbon neutral, net-zero garage suite in Edmonton's Westmount neighbourhood we just had to see it.
"The Garage Mahal of your dreams," says Karly Coleman, leading me through this amazing laneway home.
Coleman and her partner Andy Hengst needed a new garage. But beyond increasing Edmonton's density and building a revenue-generating property, they wanted something cutting edge and green.
"It has solar walls, solar panels, a thermal heat pump, really thick walls, and energy efficient appliances. It's really cutting edge," says Coleman, who strove to include sustainably-sourced flooring, paint and windows as part of the build.
To build their dream suite, the couple hired Carbon Busters, an Edmonton-based zero-carbon design and energy-efficiency specialty firm.
"Zero carbon is basically a building that doesn't emit any carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gas emissions on a net annual basis by replacing the energy with renewable energy," explains Godo Stoyke, president of Carbon Busters and author of the Home Energy Handbook.
A carbon neutral home and net-zero home are similar in that both produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a year. The difference is a net-zero home produces its own energy right on the home, whereas a carbon neutral home can produce its energy elsewhere in the community.
"Let's say you're in an area where you're shaded from a high rise, well, if you have a net-zero ready building, it's almost impossible to make a net-zero house in that area," says Stoyke. "But with a zero carbon, you can! Put the renewable structures on a different building or somewhere in the community."
This distinction becomes important if you want to build a district geothermal heating system like the one that will be in Edmonton's planned Blatchford community, which will house 30,000 people and hopes to run on 100 per cent renewable energy.
This carbon neutral garage suite is net-zero and produces its own electricity using a 6.8 kilowatt solar system right on the roof.
The thing that really makes this laneway home unique is the solar-powered home heating system, which stores thermal energy in a 2,600-litre water tank to heat the home when the sun doesn't shine. It all starts with a solar air wall.
We've talked about solar air walls before. We even built one! But comparing it to Karly and Andy's solar wall is like comparing a dachshund to a husky.
This solar air wall is 2.5 meters wide by 5 meters tall and covers a large portion of the laneway home's south wall. A sheet of black metal material is mounted behind a wavy sheet of plexiglass, with an air space in between.
"When the sun hits this solar wall, the heat gets converted to infrared," says Stoyke. "Trapped inside, [the heat] travels all the way up to the ceiling."
The solar air wall preheats the air for an air-to-water heat pump, making the latter much more efficient.
"In the attic, you have a fan that blows this hot air towards an air-to-water heat pump," says Stoyke. "And this air-to-water heat pump has a refrigerant that transfers the heat down to the utility room where there's a second part of that heat pump, which stores [the heat] in water. This water gets used both for space heating and for domestic hot water."
The heat pumps work like your fridge, but in reverse. The system strives to keep the water in the large storage tank at 55 degrees Celsius. This stored thermal energy is fed to the water heater and directly into the home's radiant hot water heating system.
The heating system runs on 100 per cent solar energy -- solar electricity for the air source heat pumps and passive solar energy for the solar air wall.
The home has LED lights, energy efficient appliances (including a condensing dryer with no external vent) and high levels of insulation.
"The walls are 10 inches, so it's nominally R38, which is about twice as well insulated as a regular house. The attic is R105 which is two and a half times a regular house, and the floor has insulation of over R40, where most homes have R5," says Stoyke.
This project is very innovative. Stoyke has built numerous sensors into the home to make it part of his PhD research project at the University of Calgary. He hopes to learn just how much of a home's embodied energy can be offset through innovations in design.
"It's called a life cycle assessment," says Stoke. "We're recording the energy it takes to make the building, the energy it takes to run it, and the energy to decommission a building at the end of the life cycle."
The goal is not only to offset the energy a home uses, but to eventually turn the home into a net producer of energy.
Karly Coleman wants this project to be a model and inspiration for others.
"I hope this becomes the norm. I hope that technology like this, with the research that we're doing into how it's functioning and how well it functions in a climate like Alberta, both politically and temperature wise, provides information and awareness and opportunity for others to do the same thing."
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By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
When we last visited the Kinney Earthship it was a smokin' hot 30 degrees Celsius outside. Michael Reynolds and his crew from Earthship Biotecture, along with a group of volunteers, were just finishing work on this radically sustainable home.
An earthship is an off-grid home that produces its own energy, captures its own water, treats its own wastewater, grows its own food and passively collects the sun's energy for heat.
That's the idea, anyways. But ever since the Kinney Earthship was built in the summer of 2014, Duncan Kinney has received many emails about one particular subject: how does it hold up so far north?
"I still get emails from people interested in earthships and they're like, "How does it do in the winter? How does it do in the winter? How does it do in the winter?" says Kinney.
Duncan is the former editor and production manager here at Green Energy Futures. He and his parents Glen and Dawn built their Earthship on a plot of land along the Little Bow River just north of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.
I remember the prairies of Southern Alberta as lush and green. Today, as I pull my Rav 4 through the rolling hills, the area more resembles a lunar landscape. The word that comes to mind is bleak. But as I look closer, some life stirs. Down in the coulees a herd of mule deer forage among the bits of land that poke through the sheets of snow. On the neighbouring property, cows are grazing, while a flock of about 500 waterfowl lift off from a field that still has corn stalks from last year.
I question the wisdom of the waterfowl wintering in a place where temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Celsius. But maybe they would say the same of the Kinneys and their Earthship.
"It's the middle of January," says Duncan Kinney. "It's been cloudy and crappy weather for four or five straight days. It is about -15 outside right now and here we are inside and it's 20."
The Earthship's primary heating system is its passive solar design. A greenhouse that covers the entire front of the home captures plenty of heat, even in the winter. The Kinneys added a petite wood stove, tucked into a corner, which provides supplementary heat to the living room, kitchen and master bedroom. While I was there, the overnight temperature dipped to -22 degrees Celsius outside but remained a comfortable fourteen degrees inside the Earthship. That's just one degree cooler than my city home at night with its setback thermostat.
On a sunny day the inside temperature bounces all the way up to 22 degrees from solar heating. On cloudy days the Kinneys light a fire in the morning and hardly notice the difference.
The whole goal of earthship design is for it to be an independent vessel, sailing on the Earth, providing its own essential elements. Perhaps this is why Glen Kinney starts my tour in the greenhouse.
"You can see even during this cold time of the year, we've got some tomato blossoms," he says, cradling the blossoms in his hand.
The greenhouse goes down to just a few degrees Celsius on the worst nights of January, but soars back up to the mid teens each day. Peppers and tomatoes ripen on the vine.
"For greens, we've got some Swiss chard and I planted some turnips just to get some turnip greens," says Glen. "We got some green onions that are growing here and some different herbs. I think that's rosemary there and some parsley."
The greenhouse is the Earthship's garden, its water treatment centre and passive solar heater.
The off-grid Earthship gets electricity from a 3.8 kilowatt solar system with battery storage. While I was there, and for only the second time since it was completed, the Earthship ran out of electricity.
Well, not totally.
"Everything that's on DC is still running," says Duncan. "The fridge is still running. The water is still running."
Essentials such as the fridge and water receive power because they are modified to run on direct current (DC) power, the stuff that comes right out of the solar module and batteries. The alternating current (AC) power comes from an inverter that gets turned off when the battery reserves get low.
"Right now, we're just charging up our system with this weak morning daylight in order to tick on our AC as soon as we can."
The Kinneys could have installed a larger solar system, but they are conservationists by nature and chose this size energy system to match their needs. The family seems to get along fine without satellite TV for a few hours.
Part of the reason they are able to get away with such a small solar system is they also have a propane system.
"We do have a big propane tank off the side of the house, which we've had for a year and a half now," says Duncan Kinney. "It's still 65 percent full, so we don't use very much of it. That's what we cook with, a natural gas stove that's been converted to run on propane."
Propane is used for the stove, clothes dryer and for the back-up on-demand hot water system.
We enjoyed our morning coffee under candle light while the weak morning light began to slowly recharge the solar batteries.
"The water system here has been incredible. It's one of the best features of the house," says Duncan.
Water is collected from the roof and stored in a 26,000-litre cistern system buried beneath the earth behind the home. Greywater -- anything that doesn't run through the toilet-- is piped into the greenhouse to water plants and undergo natural water treatment before it is reused again in the greenhouse or in toilets.
"We get about 13 inches of rain a year and there's cactus everywhere, so it's not like we're getting a lot of rain," says Duncan. "But [our supply] has never been below three-quarters full. Aside from having to clean the filters when you get a lot of silt in the system, it's been one of the best parts of this house. It's been rock solid."
We visited the Earthship in the middle of a Canadian prairie winter after a series of cloudy days, and the only hiccup was a short-term loss of AC power. It is indeed an independent vessel sailing much more sustainably on the planet Earth....
In Greek mythology, Icarus, while escaping Crete wearing homemade wings, ignores the advice of his father and, in an act of hubris, flies too close the sun. The wax holding his feathery wings together melts and he falls to his death.
As it turns out, it's important...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Brown gold. Prairie pies. Monkey missiles. Whatever you call them, they're all over the place in feedlot alley near Lethbridge, the food processing centre of Alberta.
Where you or I may turn up our noses at a pile of ripe, smelly manure, Stefan Michalski, director of operations at Lethbridge Biogas, sees a resource that can be turned into clean, green energy.
Michalski came to Alberta from Germany more than a decade ago with a dream, to tap the back-end of Alberta's agriculture industry and spin green energy from brown waste.
While biogas is relatively new to Alberta, it's very common in Germany.
"As of today, there's more than 8,000 plants in Germany alone," says Michalski. "It is a proven technology. It works even in Canada's climate, which we have a lot of sceptics always asking about, and it has been around for decades in Europe."
Normally, manure is spread on farmland as fertilizer, but this can pollute runoff, cause odors and release tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Normally, food waste is simply landfilled which costs money and, like manure, releases plenty of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Lethbridge Biogas takes the manure and food waste, mixes it together, heats it to 39 degrees Celsius and captures the methane (natural gas) to power twin 1.4 megawatt generators to produce enough power for 3,000 homes.
The 3.9 million litre digesters resemble giant, squat grain silos with dome tops. While it's easy to make jokes about cow manure, it's an essential ingredient for making biogas.
"Manure from a process perspective is a very valuable input material because it carries the form of bacteria you need, but it is actually very low in energy," says Michalski. "So if you can balance that out and add organics that are higher in energy content, you can create an ideal mix with a higher output that manure couldn't deliver."
Turns out food waste is very high in energy. It really makes you wonder when you see the food being dropped off (we saw vegetables, dog food, buns, coffee grounds and some messier stuff), but at least it's better to turn this food waste into biogas than to dump it in a landfill.
Lethbridge is a food production hub, so there is plenty of organic waste from potato and vegetable processing as well as from local restaurants and stores.
"Typically, we are cheaper than the landfill which is an incentive to do it here, not only because it makes more sense, but you want to create some diversion with an economic incentive," says Michalski. Many places in Europe have banned organic waste from landfills, thus ensuring the waste is used.
"First and foremost, we make power. Power still makes up about 60 to 70 percent of our revenue stream," says Michalski.
In addition to selling electricity, Lethbridge Biogas also collects tipping fees for organic wastes, which provides 20 per cent of its revenue and the final 10 per cent comes from selling carbon offsets.
"It is a small piece now but with the recent announcement of carbon tax and other initiatives around the Climate Change Leadership Plan, we think this is a piece that can grow," says Michalski.
Producing clean energy from waste is pretty cool on its own, but biogas production also helps cut pollution in several ways.
When farmers spread manure in the fields, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It can pollute local streams and runoff and let's face it, manure stinks.
The biogas production process takes the methane out of the manure and burns it to produce electricity, which reduces emissions almost 25 fold. Digestate, the leftover solids from the digestion process, is an even better fertilizer than manure, with fewer odors and significantly less pollution.
"[The farmer] has a product now that doesn't stink as much," says Michalski. "A product that's better balanced, that has a better nutrient and phosphor-nitrogen ratio. He can deal with it the same way he dealt with the manure before."
Lethbridge biogas collects the manure and returns it as a better product. "So for [the farmer], it's almost a no-brainer because he has to do nothing," says Michalski.
Most biogas applications are smaller than the 2.8 megawatt Lethbridge Biogas power plant which makes it perfect for farm scale and a great tool for economic diversification. James Callaghan has 250 head of dairy cattle in Lindsay, Ontario and he built a farm-scale digester and a 500 kilowatt power plant. Ontario has almost 30 farm-scale biogas plants. Michalski says there is room for hundreds of the same in Alberta.
Michalski says the biggest hurdle to developing a biogas industry in Alberta is the patchwork of regulation currently in place. Thanks to red tape and uncertainty, it took Michalski and his partners the better part of 10 years to get their plant going.
"Well, we need a place for bioenergy and biogas, in particular," says Michalski. "We need some regulatory mechanism and incentives to get there."
Michalski thinks biogas should be recognized for its special benefits of not only producing base load green power, but solving a handful of environemental problems and creating economic diversification at a time when people are hungry for it....
It seems to happen with every new technology. It wasn't so long ago that some people were convinced a photograph could steal your soul. We may read about that now and have a little chuckle, but are we so far removed from the same phenomenon today?
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
The era of net-zero homes is upon us. These super-efficient homes use rooftop solar energy production and smaller, electric powered heating systems such as air source heat pumps to produce as much energy as they consume.
That's some sexy technology, but...
All Carl Lauren wanted to do was promote the construction of energy efficient homes. It sounded easy enough. So a few years ago he called up the mayor of Kimberly, B.C. and suggested his hometown make constructing homes to the Built Green standard mandatory.
The mayor at the...
No question, 2015 will be remembered as a banner year for clean energy in Canada. Perhaps surprisingly Alberta led the way as the new government there pledged to invest in clean energy.
"Alberta is going to move away from coal and towards clean power," said Premier Rachael...
It seems as we increasingly become a nation of urban citizens it is cities that are leading the way on climate change and renewable energy. Poll after poll after poll has shown Canadians support action on renewable energy, and municipal politicians are moving the needle here...
Change is hard. Green energy enthusiasts talk a lot about creating more sustainable cities, reducing emissions and greening up our lifestyle. But then we toil away inside the bubble of our geography and culture while the inertia of our traditions resists innovation.
Shedding this inertia, we flew to Vitoria-Gasteiz (or VG) in the Basque Country of Spain to take a look at the 2012 European green capital. I was looking for a shake-up, some stimulating ideas for creating new sustainable cities that are resilient, beautiful and oozing with livability.
A world away from home
Vitoria-Gasteiz could not have been more different than what I was used to. Where my home city of Edmonton is relatively new, VG is old, having been founded in 1181. Where Edmonton is one of the most sprawling in North America, VG is only six kilometres in diameter at its longest point. Where Edmonton is in the process of building a huge concrete ring road that encircles the city, VG has opted instead to build a massive 1,000 hectare greenbelt surrounding the city on recovered gravel pits, drained wetlands and industrial parks.
Their decades-long effort at rebuilding nature is creating resilience from climate change and floods while giving citizens an amazing place to live -- there are 2 million visits a year into the green belt alone. In fact, Vitoria-Gasteiz might be one of the greenest cities anywhere. It has an impressive 45 square metres per person of green space and gardens. You are never more than 300 metres from a park or natural space in VG. But the city is green in more ways than its parks and trees.
"There is a focus on using the biomass potential we have here, because we have 10,000 hectares of forest surrounding the city," says Gorka Urtaran, the mayor of Vitoria-Gasteiz. "That's one aspect. But also solar, wind, and geothermal power. Most of the new buildings, they consider including all these four types of energy."
Vitoria Gasteiz is a very compact city of 250,000 people and because of its geographical density you are never more than three kilometres from downtown, no matter where you live.
But in spite of its compact form, Vitoria-Gasteiz used to have a twelve-lane roadway that ran right through its heart. Then planners did something other cities only talk about.
They ditched the 12-lane roadway and built a truly multi-mode marvel of design for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and yes, even car drivers too. This is almost never done, but planners simply looked at what modes of transportation were important in terms of numbers of users and then built infrastructure that works.
A revolution in urban design
Today fully 54 per cent of all trips in Vitoria Gasteiz are taken on foot, one of the best figures anywhere.
"We redesigned a very high speed traffic avenue into a new river corridor," says Luis Andres Orive, director of the Environmental Studies Centre describing the transformation of Gasteiz Avenue. "There were 12 traffic lanes. We divided it [the public space] in a more democratic way for pedestrians, for bicycles, and also reconstructed the river that was there 40 years ago. That meant a revolution inside the city."
The result is a stunningly walkable, beautiful urban landscape, bustling with pedestrians and natural spaces. With these projects, the city has increased their bicycle trips from one per cent to more than 12 per cent of total trips. Meanwhile, car trips have dropped from 36 to 24 per cent with transit making up the rest.
Energy retrofits - the big energy efficiency prize
Mode shift in transportation is tough, but one of the biggest energy efficiency nuts to crack is renovating old building stock. In Vitoria-Gasteiz, 60,000 homes were built with little or no insulation. These represent the largest energy-saving emissions reduction opportunity imaginable.
To take advantage of it, Vitoria-Gasteiz has embarked on one of the most ambitious home energy efficiency retrofit projects in the world. It aims to retrofit 750 to 1,000 homes in one neighborhood to reduce energy consumption by 75 per cent.
"There is no insulation at all," says Juan Carlos Escudero, director of the Vitoria-Gasteiz Environmental Studies Centre. "We have only brick walls and windows. So the possibilities for improving energy efficiency is really high."
Adding insulation is a no brainer, but the city also plans to install a district heating system for the entire neighbourhood. This involves setting up a biomass heat production facility that links to all the homes in the neighourhood. It has the capability to drastically lower heating costs and emissions. This is not easy to do unless you are retrofitting an entire neighbourhood such as they are doing in Vitoria-Gasteiz.
The average cost of the renovations is expected to be €21,000 ($30,660 Canadian) per home (for façade changes, insulation, exterior work, connection to district heating etc.), but thanks to various programs, each homeowner will pay about €9,600. It's a €29 million project with €6.4 million in EU funding; the balance will come from energy service contractors and homeowners....
By any metric, the renewable energy sector is a growth industry. By the end of 2014 there were 7.7 million jobs in the renewable energy industry worldwide, up 18 per cent over the year before. This according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. And that doesn't include large...
By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney
There's a quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead that you will see tacked up on bulletin boards or floating through your Facebook feed.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that...
In Edmonton, Alberta, almost every neighbourhood has a community league. These locally elected boards of community volunteers do the good work of running facilities and programs and engaging in civic issues. There are 158 such leagues in the city. It's the lowest level of representation we have and these...
By David Dodge, Duncan Kinney & Dylan Thompson
Renewable energy made up half of all the new power plants constructed in the world in 2014. That's an incredible number made all the better when you think of what these plants are replacing. Big, bad coal.
There are good reasons for this. Coal is not only the most carbon intensive form of energy available, but it has significant negative health effects. Burning coal releases a bunch of nasty stuff into the air: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter. Those substances shorten lifespans, make you dumb and trigger asthma attacks.
And if stopping the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change is your goal, reducing or eliminating coal emissions is important since they are responsible for 44 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There has been no more effective opponent of coal than the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in the U.S. Bruce Nilles, the organization's senior campaign director, has been with the group since the beginning in 2002 when it started out by successfully stopping the construction of new coal power plants.
Today, they have 170 staff, including legal analysts, communications people, campaign staff and community organizers. They've also moved past stopping the construction of new plants. Now they're working to phase out existing coal power plants.
Coal phase out case study - How an Alberta company negotiated with the Sierra Club in Washington State
Alberta burns more coal than the rest of Canada combined so the newly elected Alberta government wants to accelerate the phase out of coal.
Asking companies to shut down plants isn't easy but as Alberta wades into this challenge it behooves us to examine successful case studies where coal power producers, workers, governments and environmental groups worked together to shut down a coal plant in a smart, humane and economically responsible way.
Dawn Farrell and Bruce Nillies shared the stage at the Alberta Climate Summit in Edmonton, Alberta in September to tell the story of a successful accelerated coal phase out. The event was put on by the Pembina Institute (full disclosure: Green Energy Futures is presented by the Pembina Institute).
"[The governor] basically locked us in a room for two days and said, 'You guys need to work this out. You need to come up with a reasonable way to transition this coal plant in a way that's respectful to the workers and the community,'" says Nilles. "And that's what we did."
TransAlta is an Alberta-based company that operates the coal-fired Centralia Big Hanaford power plant, in Washington State. Beyond Coal lobbied to shut down this 1,340 MW coal plant for several years before former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire stepped in.
A shorter, but more certain life for coal
Together TransAlta CEO Dawn Farrell and Nilles hammered out a deal that would see one boiler shut down in 2020 and the second in 2025. In exchange, TransAlta got an expedited permit for a natural gas plant on the same site. TransAlta also kicked in $55 million for a community development fund. This satisfied TransAlta and their investors, gave union workers a timeline for transitioning to different work and gave Beyond Coal a termination date that, while not as soon as they would like, ensured the plant would cease operation sooner rather than later.
"We thought, okay, a little more time here, and we get the outcome we want, which is retirement," says Nilles. "And in a way where the unions were in support of the final outcome as was the local community. That was really a win-win for everybody."
But not every every company is like Transalta, willing to sit down and hammer out a deal that works for everyone.
"We worked on the south side of Chicago with two coal plants, ancient coal plants that were operating without modern pollution control in the middle of residential neighbourhoods," says Nilles. "The company refused, refused, refused to come to the table, and ultimately we got the mayor of the city to say, you will either agree to shut that coal plant down, or I'll make you shut that coal plant down."
Farrell believes TransAlta's history of collaboration with NGOs was key to making the Washington deal work. Transalta also opened up their books and were extremely transparent throughout the process. That's key to getting an outcome that all sides are happy with.
"The community is excited about the community investment fund. I think the environmental impacts are no longer an issue, people are no longer believing that they should try to close the plant down, because they know exactly when it's going to be closed down," says Farrell.
"We know exactly how much capital to put into the plant so that by the end of 2021, when we shut down Unit One, it's ready to be shut down, we're not over-investing in it," says Farrell.
Alberta has a huge greenhouse gas emissions problem and accelerating a phase out of coal is the easiest and simplest way it can dramatically reduce emissions.
TransAlta is at the table in Alberta, but it will scratch and claw for a longer phase-out and every concession it can muster. These negotiations are never pretty but they are happening right now, the only difference is the negotiations appear to be happening not with Beyond Coal, but in the media.
And as Centralia shows, compromise is necessary on all sides. However, it's worth pointing out that even if Alberta phases out coal by 2030, Ontario turned off its last coal fired power plant in 2014.
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By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
You've seen them before, though they don't tend to stand out. Hutterites -- women in bright coloured, identical dresses and men in somber, dark jackets and hats. They're almost always at the farmer's market on a Saturday morning selling fresh eggs, carrots and potatoes.
This quaint image of a quiet people is a stereotype many of us know, so it was with curiosity and anticipation that I made my way down the highway to Southeast Alberta to visit the largest solar farm in Western Canada at the Green Acres Hutterite colony.
The Hutterites are ambitious, industrial-scale farmers. The Green Acres colony farms 20,000 acres, runs a hog and chicken operation and operates Crowfoot Plastics, a one-of-a-kind plastics recycling plant, just outside Bassano, Alberta.
The brothers Hofer
When I arrived, Dan Hofer, the "financial boss" of Green Acres, and his brother, Jake Hofer, Green Acres' electrician, greeted me. With them was David Vonesch, Chief Operating Officer at SkyFire Energy, the company that installed the colony's 2-megawatt solar system.
The Green Acres colony has a population of about 80 people. Breakfast and dinner are communal while lunch is eaten in the home, which is where I joined Dan Hofer for stew, bread, and a glass of wine.
Afterwards, they took me to see the solar farm up close. It's quite the sight. More than 7,600 solar modules, row upon row, all facing south. It's a field of blue that just sits there, quietly harvesting the sun and powering the colony's future. Thinking on this brings a smile to Jake Hofer's face.
"It still blows me away to this day," says Jake Hofer. "Yes, you look at the system, day after day, and there's nothing moving, no moving parts, and yet it creates all this energy."
Aside from thinking it's nifty, once you understand a bit more about Hutterite culture, their embrace of solar power makes perfect sense.
"Every piece of our colony's livelihood is an asset and is very important," says Dan Hofer. "...you grow and supply your own meat, you grow and supply your own garden and vegetables as much as possible, so [solar power] falls kind of in the same category, it's self-sufficient. You're relying on your own resources; you're not relying on someone else...."
Building a 2-megawatt solar system is a little more ambitious than planting potatoes. It required an investment of $4.8 million dollars. But after careful analysis the numbers seemed to add up nicely and the banks agreed.
"We did it for economic reasons," says Dan Hofer. "They didn't have an issue at all. After seeing some of the numbers, how the economics would work out, they were fully supportive."
As for the environment, Dan Hofer says the clean nature of solar energy is gravy: "We're all polluters of the land, so it's good to give something back."
For project developer SkyFire Energy, the project was a first in terms of scale.
"The solar resource here is some of the best in Canada," says Vonesch. "A system installed right here will produce about 50 or 60 per cent more than if the same system were installed in Germany, where there's more solar than anywhere in the world."
The wind resource in Southern Alberta is also among the best in Canada. So why did the colony choose solar and not wind? "Maintenance was one of the big issues," chuckles Jake Hofer. "And I'm terribly scared of heights."
Making an investment for the future
Thanks to a keen business sense and a DIY attitude, Green Acres pushed the envelope on the cost of the solar. They secured an original quote to build their 2-megawatt solar farm for $2.80 a watt, but reduced that to $2.40 a watt through their own labour.
The result is a payback of 15 years if electricity prices remain low, or as few as 10 years if they start to escalate, says Dan Hofer.
It turns out I wasn't the only solar tourist on this day. Intrigued by the economics, First Nations people from all over Alberta were also touring the solar farm and thinking about projects of their own.
"I think because of this system, because of Green Acres taking this leap, we've seen increased interest in these types of systems, and this scale of project," says Vonesch. "It's taken the 'what's possible' to a new level, and lots of people are looking at it and following suit."
"Ontario now has phased out coal, and has significant solar penetration," says Vonesch. As of late 2014 Ontario had installed 2,171 megawatts of solar and had 939 megawatts more under construction, way ahead of Alberta with a total of almost eight megawatts.
The rumor mill is alive with speculation about new supportive renewable energy policies that will be coming from the new Alberta and federal governments.
"In the first half of this year in the US, solar was the largest new source of generation coming onto the grid, out-competing wind and natural gas," says Vonesch. "It was the largest new source of energy in the US."
Many are expecting Alberta and Canada to look to renewable energy to begin nibbling away at soaring greenhouse gas...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Climate change is often portrayed as this giant, fuzzy, future threat that's hard to relate to, but the mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, brings the idea home: "We don't have to look much further than the disastrous Calgary floods of 2013, the increasingly intense summer storms we now face, or the growing legions of potholes caused by Edmonton's more frequent freeze and thaw cycles. Like it or not, the problem is at our doorstep."
That's why it was an important first step when in April 2015 Edmonton city council unanimously passed the Edmonton Community Energy Transition Strategy. Iveson supported the plan and he is a big believer in the capacity of local governments to get stuff done on climate change. And because of several recent progressive electoral victories, there has never been a better chance to get support from other levels of government.
"What's different is that we have provincial and federal governments who are not denying that climate change is anthropogenically connected; they're prepared to go to Paris and talk about what we're going to do. But if they want to be successful, they're going to need to plug into specific and achievable and measurable and cogent local strategies, which we've provided here," says Iveson.
Jim Andrais is the program manager for environmental policy for the City of Edmonton and he says the Community Energy Transition Strategy is a necessary step designed to protect the quality of life in Edmonton from climate change, air quality and higher energy price risks.
"What we're talking about here is an investment," says Andrais. "The actual savings to Edmontonians who make these investments will total $2.5 billion dollars between 2018 and 2035. That means $2.5 billion dollars in Edmontonians' pockets that wouldn't be there otherwise."
Between 2018 to 2021 the strategy estimates its plan will cost $25 to $30 million a year to achieve three specific targets by the year 2035:
What does energy transition look like in Edmonton?
Initiatives to achieve these goals are not finalized yet, but they will most certainly involve energy efficiency in city operations, homes and industry, mass and non-motorized transportation, and likely a significant uptick in solar energy production in the city.
The LRT is also a cornerstone of building more a sustainable city: "I have strong vision, backed by our counsel, unanimously, to pursue build out of the system. It's got to get to all corners of the city," says Iveson adding that a transit oriented lifestyle is part of helping more people walk, take transit and perhaps even avoid the need for a second car.
Iveson says urban design can help us all become more efficient and to that end Edmonton has begun one of the most ambitious projects anywhere, to build an inner city super green community on reclaimed airport lands.
"One of the things we are looking at closely for Blatchford... is 100 per cent renewable energy for 30,000 people plus business on that 600 acre green development we're planning. In addition to a geo-exchange field, one of the things we're looking at is like they did for the Vancouver Olympic village is harvesting waste heat out of the sewer trunk line which runs through."
Work is already underway on the first part of a large-scale geoexchange heating and cooling system that will heat and cool the homes in a neighborhood that seeks to be net-zero on a grand scale.
On the energy production side Iveson sees some real opportunities.
"I think solar is getting closer and closer to grid parity and I think has some real potential," says Iveson. "The Blatchford project will use "Solar ready construction subdivision patterns that orient for passive and active solar collection. I think we're trying to position future residential and industrial construction to be able to harvest those opportunities."
Edmonton is well placed to attempt to build a community of super energy efficient homes because the city has been ground zero for net-zero home innovation in North America.
"We have some amazing builders, whether it's Landmark Homes and their goal to build net-zero homes at an industrial scale through prefabrication," says Iveson. "But then we also do have some boutique builders who are building really extraordinary green homes, including a number of net-zero homes, I think the largest concentration of them in Canada."
"There are companies like PCL who are doing extraordinary and consistent work delivering LEED certified really high performing commercial and institutional buildings... And then again in the sort of boutique end of things you see the Mosaic Centre which is a truly net zero and very beautiful centre for commerce and for community in our industrial south east, which is a great example of commercial building technology that is also business feasible."
Greening the grid
Cities are already playing an important in purchasing clean electricity. The city of Calgary purchases 100 per cent renewable electricity for its own operations. Medicine Hat built Canada's first concentrated solar thermal plant as well as Canada's first wind farm on city land, Starland County has an amazing solar program for farmers and Vancouver is pledging to go 100 per cent renewable by 2050.
And while Edmonton is only taking its first steps Iveson is much more hopeful about this plan than he was six months ago
"So I'm actually as optimistic as I've been that some of the big policy changes that need to happen nationally and provincially are going to happen," says Iveson.
"We can be a leader in the Canadian context and internationally around some of the technology that's going to be required to get us to the finish line. And that is not only ethically the right thing to do for our environment, for our climate, but it's also a great business opportunity."
Are you interested in learning more about energy transition, solar energy or clean energy in general. Join us at the Edmonton Community Energy Forum on Saturday, Nov. 14. It's only $20 to register. Don Iveson will be one of the keynote speakers and both David Dodge and Duncan Kinney of Green Energy Futures will be hosting breakout sessions....
If you've hung around some of the wackier, more conspiratorial parts of the internet you may have heard of Agenda 21. According to former Fox News host Glenn Beck it is a radical plot that will "put their fangs into our community and suck all the blood out...