Greening our Cities: Start with the Roads

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog.

A remarkable book has landed on my desk. Titled “2 Degrees: The Built Environment and Climate Change”, this volume by Alisdair McGregor, Cole Roberts, and Fiona Cousins details some of the climate challenges we’re facing, while also presenting practical and realistic solutions for how our built environment can not only contribute less to climate change, but also help us cope with its effects. In reading through, what has really struck me so far is the breadth of what “built environment” encompasses.

Often the first thing to come to mind is buildings. The popularity of LEEDPassivhaus, and other sustainable building standards has raised the profile of green buildings and their tangible and intangible benefits such as decreased energy costs, increased employee productivity, or an improved ability to capture and re-use rainwater. Cities across Canada are instituting sustainable building policies and ensuring that future buildings will be green, energy-efficient, and part of an integrated low-carbon cities. But the story doesn’t end with buildings; in fact buildings are just the beginning. What connects us all, in a way that we barely notice, are roads.

Worldwide, the amount of paved and unpaved road is estimated to be over 100 million km – that’s more than enough to drive all the way to the moon and back. The University of Washington has estimated that between two to four terajoules of energy is required for every lane-kilometer of roadway constructed. That’s roughly equal to the amount of gasoline required by 750,000 cars driving along that single kilometer stretch. This represents an enormous potential for emissions reductions; any innovations in road construction can drastically cut down on the energy consumption required by our municipalities and governments to build roads, highways, bridges, and even parking lots. Fortunately, such innovations are already here.

Similar to green building standards, the GreenRoads rating system, developed by University of Washington and engineering and construction firm CH2MHill, scores road projects based on a series of sustainability criteria. This system has been used on over 120 projects to date, and covers criteria such as use of recycled or local materials, environment management systems, incorporation of transit, and storm water management.

Stormwater diverted to bioretention can decrease run-off, replenish groundwater, and feed carbon-capturing plants
Stormwater diverted to bioretention can decrease run-off, replenish groundwater, and feed carbon-capturing plants

Here in British Columbia, companies such as Green Roads Recycling based out of Fernie BC, have shown that it’s possible to recycle road materials onsite. Traditionally, roads that have reached the end of their lifespan were ground up, and the residue was transported away to be stockpiled or remade into new asphalt with the addition of new material. Green Roads technology allows the asphalt to be heated and lifted, ground up, and placed right back on the road. In its 22 years of operation, Green Road Recycling has repaved over 4500 kilometers of road in the province representing some 6 million tonnes of recycled asphalt. Other approaches include incorporating recycled plastic or recycled aggregates into roads, both of which can significantly reduce the energy required to re-pave an existing section, or build a new road.

Parking lots also represent a huge potential for greening. Incorporating patches of grass and vegetation can significantly reduce water run-off while replenishing groundwater and reducing the heat island effect of a bare asphalt lot. The City of Toronto is a Canadian leader in green parking lots, having developed a set of guidelines and participating in the Green Parking Lot Program, a program from GTAA Partners in Project Green that helps to pay for the design and construction of green parking solutions, including permeable pavement, native landscaping, and curb-cuts.

So while the gleaming glass LEED Platinum office towers sprouting up across Canada are the more attractive and noticeable elements of our fledgling low-carbon municipalities, let’s not forget the most modest and overlooked parts of our cities that can help contribute to emissions reductions. You won’t get home without them.

(Feature photo courtesy of Mike Haufe/Flickr, green roads photo courtesy of EPA)

Financing Your Green Home

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog.

In the world of Monopoly – the board game, not the concept – a green house was the only choice. Given the cut-throat capitalistic tendencies of Monopolites such as Rich Uncle Pennybags, I think we can safely assume it had nothing to do with energy efficiency. In reality, green houses remain anything but common.

In fact, energy efficiency is often seen as a luxury for those lucky enough to move into high-end LEED platinum certified condominiums, and the average homeowner is stuck paying high electricity bills, dealing with draughty windows, and wasting many apples-worth of kilowatt hours on inefficient water boilers. While energy efficiency in homes continues to rise due to more modern building materials, the truly innovative measures – grey-water systemsgreen roofsgeoexchange technology, or low-VOC interiors – continue to incur a cost premium. While the net payout of such measures may be positive over a few years, for the average home buyer, or homeowner interested in renovations, it means not much more than a higher price tag.

For those consumers who are looking to green their homes, for financial or environmental reasons, banks have seen an opportunity. The major Canadian banks are currently offering several mortgage opportunities that at least purport to be designed around energy efficiency and environmental sustainability; the degree to which these mortgages are economically sensible rather than simply greenwashing is up for debate.

  • BMO’s Eco Smart Mortgage gives a relatively low rate with a long amortization period, but has a series of requirements. For example, a single family home would need to meet 6 of 7 features, including a high-efficiency heating system, ENERGY STAR windows, or good quality attic insulation.
  • The RBC Energy Saver Mortgage uses a different strategy, offering a $300 rebate on a home energy audit. However the mortgage offerings themselves are standard fixed rate or variable rate mortgages with no added benefits.
  • While TD Canada Trust has offered green mortgages in the past, it is unclear whether they make up part of their mortgage offerings any longer.

The logic behind these tools is that due to increased energy efficiency, homeowners will pay less on their monthly bills and therefore free up cash to pay down their mortgage. This is based on the assumption that extra room in the budget will automatically lead to larger mortgage payments.

Other options for financing green homes include:

  • PACE or PAPER programs, whereby a loan for retrofits is repaid via an assessment on property taxes;
  • Tax credits for homes that perform above a certain threshold, though this would require ongoing monitoring measured against some performance standard like the BOMA BESt program (not currently available for single-family homes);
  • Simple rebates for homeowners who perform an energy audit and develop a plan for improving energy efficiency

All of these options have their drawbacks. PACE depends on the ability of local government to secure loans, yearly tax credits would involve a complicated system of monitoring and verification, and rebates require consistent political will. Ultimately, homeowners must decide what is in their best interest (pun intended) whether that be based on financial considerations, or a desire to do their part for emissions reductions.

Green mortgages and other financial instruments may be possible options, but there’s nothing stopping an individual from paying for an audit, doing up a simple retrofit plan with a reasonable budget, and marching into the local bank to request a loan. Maybe all we need is a push out the door.

(Feature photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

Comparing Apples and… Kilowatts

This post originally appeared in the Carbon Talks blog.

I admit it, I don’t look too closely at my electricity bill. It always seemed to me to be an esoteric jumble of rates, charges, definitions, and explanations. As long as the dollar figure didn’t climb too high, it didn’t bother me much. However effort to save electricity translates directly into cost savings, not to mention possible emissions reductions, no matter how small. It’s hard to argue with a virtuous act that also saves me money.

A typical electricity bill will tell you the number of kilowatt-hours that you used during the billing period (or an estimate of that number, based on previous patterns of usage), along with a rate. But what does that really mean? What is a kilowatt-hour? How much electricity do my various appliances and habits use? If I wanted to decrease that amount, what’s the most efficient way to do so? To answer these questions, we need a little bit of math.

In the context of electricity, the basic unit of measurement for energy is the kilowatt-hour (kWh) – if you use 1000 watts in one hour, then you’ve used one kilowatt-hour. A kilowatt is one thousand watts, and a watt itself is a measure of power – that is, how much energy is used over a certain period of time. To put things in perspective, one kWh equals approximately 3.6 million joules, or approximately 860 nutritional calories; that’s just over a dozen apples.

Is it turned off? Think again
Is it turned off? Think again

So how many apples of electricity do I use per month? To determine how much electricity a particular appliance or piece of equipment is using, first you need to determine its wattage. Most of us grew up with typical incandescent light bulbs, and those almost always have the wattage printed directly on the bulb; an average bulb may be 60 to 100 watts. Let’s say you use the bulb for roughly five hours per day; over the course of a month, this would add up to approximately 150 hours. We then divide 150 hours by the wattage of the bulb (let’s say it’s 60 watts), working out to 2.5 kilowatt-hours (or thirty apples, for those of you still counting in fruit). Larger appliances like a refrigerator may use 50-160 watts on average, yet spike to 700 watts when the compressor is running. An average window unit air conditioner runs somewhere around 1000 watts. An electric water heater can draw a remarkable 3800 watts.

Sometimes your device doesn’t list wattage, but only amperage and voltage. In this case, you’ll need to multiply these two numbers together. For example, my laptop draws 3.65 amps at 16.5 volts, which works out to about 60 watts. This is the maximum draw, however, and when your laptop is sitting idle or sleeping it could be significantly less.

Standby power, or the more romantically descriptive “vampire power”, is electricity consumed by an appliance when it’s plugged in, but not necessarily turned on. This includes not only a laptop, but also devices like a charging phone, an idle stereo system, or even the clock on the microwave.

In 1999, the International Energy Agency launched the One Watt Initiative with the goal of ensuring that all new appliances sold by 2010 would use only one watt in standby mode. Governments followed their lead, and in 2007 California enacted appliance standards limiting standby power to just 0.5 watts. In 2010 The European Commission put into force a regulation limiting regular standby power to 1 watt, and standby for any equipment that is displaying information or status to 2 watts.

In Canada, we are phasing in our own specific regulation on standby power; Natural Resources Canada estimates that we use between 5 and 6 terawatt-hours of standby power per year. That’s 5.5 billion kWh, or… 460 million apples.

The question of electricity cost is complicated, and depends on a number of factors not limited to where you live. The time of day, your peak usage, tiered pricing, and demand charges can all drastically affect the cost you’re paying per kilowatt-hour. Here in British Columbia, we pay based on what’s called a “stepped rate” system whereby we pay 6.8 cents per kWh for the first 1,350 kWh, and then 10.19 cents per kWh above that threshold. BC Hydro suggests that this system encourages conservation, and argues that the 10.19 cents rate is a more realistic charge for current sources of electricity.

Are we taking this comparison too far?
Are we taking this comparison too far?

Now that we know how to calculate our energy usage, and how much it costs, we can think about how to bring those numbers down. Last month I used approximately 420 kWh, and so I’m on the hook for about $28 – I live alone, with heating and hot water provided by my building, so this number doesn’t accurately reflect my total home energy footprint. But how can I decrease the amount of that electricity that I do personally pay for? I could turn down the fridge, as it’s probably too cold. I could use the microwave more often, instead of the electric stove. I could use standby power conservation sockets for my computer, phone, and other electronics. And of course I could simply use less water, lighting, and heat.

These are relatively easy things to do, yet how we can take personal responsibility for shifting Canada to a low-carbon economy is something most of us are likely to ignore, purposefully or otherwise. Things like carbon taxation and legislated emissions reduction targets will happen despite our habits. Other strategies, like a home energy retrofit, increased reliance on public transportation, and greater consumption of local food, rely on a combination of market forces that make a choice economical and desirable by default. However the smallest things we can do are at home, and those things will save both energy and money. With a bit more effort at conservation, I could save myself 1200 kWh per year. That may not seem like a whole lot, but it’s the equivalent of over 14,000 apples. That’s a lot of fruit.

(Icon photo courtesy of Brendan Wood/Flickr, power button photo courtesy of Carl Smith, apples photo courtesy of diebmx/Flickr)

Financing Retrofits: Show Me the Money!

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog.

The stereotypical image of the environmentalist as someone who is trying to escape society, go back to nature, build a log cabin in the woods to live off the land, and escape the monstrous and oppressively capitalist economic machine is becoming quickly outdated. As a society, some of us are beginning to accept that the neoliberal notion of progress – by some embraced as the most efficient tool for economic growth, and by others condemned as a noose tightening around the necks of the less fortunate – is not entirely incompatible with the goal of protecting the environment.

That’s not to say that money, and the pursuit of wealth, haven’t been major players in digging us into the hole where we stand now; I’m not sure anyone could argue otherwise with a straight face. But it does suggest that money, and again the pursuit of wealth, may be major players in returning us to the sunshine. This hole is deep, no doubt, and it’s filled with both the spoils and waste of the unfettered pursuit of progress, that ephemeral and elusive goal. However the tool that we used to dig ourselves into this hole, may in fact be not dissimilar to that we must use to dig ourselves out. That tool is simple: appeal to our wallets.

To encourage homeowners to retrofit their homes for energy savings is a daunting task. The up-front costs of home energy retrofits are large, whether that be a new furnace, insulation replacement, or draft-proofing. Anybody who wants to take advantage of the energy savings inherited from such a project must be confident that the investment will pay off. If you own your home, or are confident that you will be in the same house in ten or twenty years, then there’s no question. But if you’re young, unsure about future plans, or simply don’t have the financial stability to make such an investment, then it likely seems too risky.

Current governmental mechanisms, such as ecoENERGY and BC’s LiveSmart, provide grants to homeowners for retrofits, however uptake has been low, conditions for qualifying are stringent, and money for grants is limited. Other existing systems are based on bank loans and other private financing. While some banks are offering “eco-mortgages” and “green loans”, these rely on traditional credit mechanisms that are risky, long-term, and not accessible to low-income earners

This is where governments can step in and implement mechanisms to make the decision easier. In the United States twenty-seven states have adopted a model called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) by which local and municipal governments provide loans to homeowners for retrofits (the 2008 financial crisis has stalled these plans, but many are likely to live again). Critically, these loans are repaid via a property tax assessment. This means that if you sell your house, the loan goes with it – it’s inherited by the buyer.

This system takes the risk out of retrofit projects. A well-planned retrofit can immediately produce energy savings, and by design these savings offset the increased tax payment. The homeowner saves money almost immediately, the value of the property potentially increases, and there is no long term risk.

Up here in Canada, the discussion on PACE-style mechanisms has been quiet but growing. A comprehensive report by the David Suzuki Foundation in 2011 examined the need for a financing mechanism for home energy retrofits similar to PACE. The report concludes that current Local Improvement Change (LIC) mechanisms present in municipalities across the country – designed for public infrastructure such as sidewalks, streetlights, and local parks – could be modified to apply to home retrofits, producing a made-in-Canada approach called Property Assessed Payments for Energy Retrofits (PAPER).

The hurdles in transitioning a LIC-type mechanism to PAPER lay mainly in terms of ensuring municipal governments have the legal and administrative power to make it happen. That is, it’s not so much a question of whether we can make this work, it’s a matter of working out the details.

No matter how we frame our politics, most of us spend at least a few minutes a day worrying about money; in the economic system that we’ve been born into, it inevitably influences the choices we make. In working to promote a low-carbon economy, we should recognize this system, and use it to our advantage. Everyone wants to spend less. With the right mechanisms in place, Canadians will not have to be forced to reduce their energy costs, they’ll do it because it leaves more money in their wallets. As long as those cost savings aren’t channeled toward a new Hummer, then everybody wins.

(Icon photo courtesy of phototouring/Flickr)

Green Building Materials, and the Evolution of Normal

For the first few years of my life, I lived in a brick house and as far as I was concerned, all houses were made of brick. When I was six years old, our family moved to a wooden-frame house and I discovered that houses could also be made from wood. Eventually we settled into a modern concrete house, and I slowly began to understand that a house is defined by its function, not how it’s built. However if I suggested that a house could be made out of paper, or a car could be made out of hemp-fiber, you may think I’m dreaming. We have a natural tendency to define and limit what we consider to be normal, and it takes imaginative minds and innovators to break those preconceptions.

Despite the idea that the twenty-first century is seeing a green building revolution, many traditional building materials were inherently green, as most homes were built with locally sourced materials without energy intensive manufacturing methods. Mud brick, adobe or cob, cut stone, and timber have all been used for thousands of years around the world. It was a desire for increasingly large, dense, durable, and architecturally unique structures in the twentieth century that led to the development of modern and energy-intensive building materials such as steel, concrete, and glass.

While it is unlikely that we will start building our homes and offices out of quarried stone again, there have been significant advances in incorporating recycled material into modern buildings. For the average consumer, however, it is the choices that can be made inside the house that will matter most. From counter tops and paint, to wallboard and tiling, there are many options for reducing our carbon footprint.

green building material is defined by a number of characteristics: a certain percentage of recycled content, renewable and locally sourced raw materials, an energy efficient manufacturing process, and a durable and long-lasting final product. Even packaging, marketing displays, and choice of transportation can be factors. Examples of green products include:

  • Wood flooring made from bamboo, a durable wood that grows rapidly, ensuring sustainable production
  • Counter tops made from 50-100% post-consumer recycled paper mixed with resin can have the same strength, durability, and look as quarried stone
  • Paint that is certified as low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) releases fewer chemical compounds into the environment
  • Recycled gypsum, the natural material often used in wallboard, can be added to new wallboard products, avoiding the need for further energy-intensive resource extraction
  • Glass tiles can be made of pre- and post-consumer materials, including manufacturing scrap, and glass bottles
Recycled glass tiles
Recycled glass tiles

The challenge is making these kinds of products normal – that is, when the average consumer decides to renovate, the choice of product should be green by default. Shifting to this way of thinking has been hampered by the most common criticism of green building practices: an assumed cost premium, however this is an oversimplification. As manufacturers, suppliers, and contractors become more knowledgeable about and comfortable with green materials, demand will increase and initial costs will inevitably fall. Combined with the long-term energy efficiency savings of green buildings, the net cost savings are undeniable. The role of the consumer in driving demand is crucial, and awareness of our options is the first step.

Unfortunately many champions of low-carbon initiatives who decorate their homes with niche green products are derided as elitist, but this characterization ignores the fact that the use of green materials and technology benefits everyone, through increased energy efficiency, lower emissions, and local economic growth. Regardless of your politics, the drive to a low-carbon, cost-effective, and efficient economy starts at home. The first step can be as small as choosing your brand of paint.

(Feature photo courtesy of, glass tiles photo courtesy of Interstyle Ceramic and Glass)