The carbon challenge
How St. Albert can make 182,000 tonnes disappear
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 03:15 pm
St. Albert has a problem – a 181,822-tonne problem, to be exact.
St. Albert’s environmental master plan commits the city to getting its residential greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below what they were in 2008 by 2020.
Assuming our emissions and population grow by 1.5 per cent a year (as predicted by the city’s greenhouse gas inventory report), that six-per-cent reduction works out to 181,822 tonnes of emissions, or about 12 tonnes a person.
In other words, each of us will be doing the emissions equivalent of putting 28 barrels of oil in our yard and lighting them on fire. To meet our climate goals, we’ll each have to extinguish six of those barrels.
It’s a big job, and we don’t have a plan to do it — the city’s emissions reduction strategy is stuck in neutral because we can’t find a consultant.
Fortunately, St. Albert isn’t the first community to take on the greenhouse-gas challenge. There are many champions right here in Alberta, and we can use their ideas to give our plan a kick-start.
Take Calgary, for example. Calgary has been working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions since 1994, says Linda Harvey, head of the city’s climate change and energy division, and not just because it’s concerned about climate change.
“The sources of air pollution and greenhouse gases are pretty much the same,” she notes — cars, power plants, and other engines of fossil fuel energy. Reduce fossil fuel use, and you reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money on energy, and prevent harmful air pollution.
Medicine Hat is making aggressive investments into renewable power and conservation for similar reasons.
Natural gas might be cheap now, says Medicine Hat Mayor Norm Boucher, but it won’t be that way forever. Retrofitting buildings and installing solar panels improves property values and shields residents against price spikes, he says. “It creates jobs, and it creates energy (to put) back into the community.”
The energy challenge
About 99 per cent of St. Albert’s emissions come from electricity, natural gas, and gasoline use, according to St. Albert’s greenhouse gas inventory report. If we want to put out those burning barrels, we’ll have to use less energy.
Electricity is our biggest source of emissions — understandable, since almost all of it comes from coal. St. Albert can meet its 2020 climate goal if it reduces its electricity emissions by 51 per cent — something we could do overnight if half the town signed up for wind power.
It would be cheaper, however, to start with conservation first; using green energy is a cost, while using less energy is a savings.
Calgary is replacing all its streetlamps with LEDs, for example, a move Harvey says has already saved them plenty of money, prevented about 64,000 tonnes of emissions since 2003, and earned them cashable carbon credits with the province.
Medicine Hat has turned to incentives to save electricity. Its award-winning $550,000-a-year HAT Smart program offers residents $50 to $2,500 rebates for everything from efficient appliances to solar panels.
About 10 per cent of city residents have tapped into the program since 2009, says city spokesperson Wilbur McLean, preventing about 12,000 tonnes of emissions in the process.
We could also give residents power-saving equipment. Calgary recently teamed up with hardware giant Rona to sell home energy savings kits. The $40 kits included about $250 worth of easy-to-use items, including compact fluorescent light bulbs and a $100 coupon for a home energy audit. They sold 2,200 of them in a day, with staffers on hand to explain how to use everything in them.
Renewables are usually the next step after conservation. The City of Calgary has committed to using 100-per-cent renewable electricity for its operations as of this year, Harvey notes. St. Albert would beat its 2020 corporate emissions target (20 per cent below 2008 levels) by almost 85 per cent if it took the same step.
Medicine Hat now has about 16 major solar electric installations, and is building a $9-million solar power plant with the help of the federal and provincial governments.
Heat from natural gas accounts for 25 per cent of St. Albert’s emissions, according to the city’s greenhouse gas inventory. If we reduce the heating needs of our homes by 30 per cent (say, through better insulation), we’ll get 36-per-cent closer to our 2020 emissions goal — enough to quench two of those burning barrels.
Medicine Hat’s HAT Smart program offers residents up to $750 to add more insulation to their roofs. Such upgrades generally get you the most heat-saving bang for your buck, according to Leigh Bond of St. Albert’s Threshold Energies Corp., since heat rises and roofs usually leak heat.
The city also has some stick to go with that carrot: residents that use more than 22 gigajoules a month of gas get hit with an additional $1.01/GJ Energy Conservation Charge on their bills, McLean says, the cash from which goes to fund HAT Smart.
Building standards like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program can also reduce heat loss. The City of Calgary now requires all its new buildings to be built to LEED Gold levels of conservation, Harvey notes, and all its old ones to be retrofitted to LEED Silver.
If we want truly huge heat savings, however, we’ll have to look at district heating.
Okotok’s Drake Landing is a 52-home community that’s heated almost completely by the sun. The homes were built to be 30-per-cent more efficient than average, says Dawn Smith, Okotok’s sustainability co-ordinator, and have solar collectors on them that capture the sun’s heat and store it in what is essentially a huge underground radiator. When the homes need heat, they pull it out of that radiator in the form of hot water.
These homes now get close to 97 per cent of their heat from the sun, Smith says, which drastically reduces their emissions. “The 52 homes of Drake Landing have the same greenhouse gas impact per year as 6.5 (regular) homes.”
But it’s expensive. The system cost $7 million, Smith says, and it had federal support. “Natural gas is just too cheap in this province at this point to make these projects cost effective,” she says.
Still, she says, it’s drawn a lot of interest from developers. “If it’s sized correctly and if it has enough houses and density, it would pay for itself.”
Transportation creates about 32 per cent of St. Albert’s emissions. If each of us could be convinced to replace 10 per cent of our car trips with walking or cycling or busing, we would get about 15 per cent closer to our 2020 goal — equivalent to one less barrel burning on each of our lawns.
Cites can do this using transit. According to Calgary Transit, one bus can carry 41 cars worth of people for about a fourth of the emissions.
Calgary has invested heavily into transit, Harvey says, roughly doubling its service hours and more than doubling its ridership since the mid-1990s. The city’s transit system prevents about 289,000 tonnes of emissions in 2010, according to the Calgary Transit website.
A burning problem
The climate challenge is huge. Even if we put out six of those burning barrels on our lawns, we’ll still have 22 left over. Climate models suggest that in order to completely prevent artificial climate warming, we’ll have to put out all the barrels by becoming carbon neutral.
Harvey says she thinks people are ready to get started. “When we did (our) community greenhouse gas plan, and we went out and talked to folks, they were there and they were excited. They wanted to stop talking and do stuff.