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Cities can do more than fix potholes

February 15th, 2015 · No Comments

City should emulate Guelph and Chicago

By Terri Chu

Coming off an election campaign, I was often asked why I decided to run for city council. When members of Adam Vaughan’s old campaign team asked me to put my name forward, I had to think long and hard about putting life on hold in the name of public service.

However, the more I thought about it, the easier the decision became. As an energy consultant, the biggest challenges we face are usually political, not technical. Municipalities have more impact on climate change than any other level of government. We’ve sadly reduced the role to pothole fixer but there’s a lot that can be done at the city level. I congratulate all the elected officials in our city and sincerely hope that, in the coming term, more attention will be paid to our crumbling infrastructure.

Municipalities can push above and beyond provincial building codes. We saw that when David Miller pushed Green Roofs on the city. Chicago was able to limit the amount of window area in a condominium to 40% of total wall space in order to force higher efficiency buildings. Waterfront Toronto lost a prime opportunity for District Energy mostly due to a political standoff, not a technical problem. Guelph, with a much lower population than Toronto, has been able to lead in energy efficiency while Toronto falls behind despite the influence we could have.

While doing my Masters in Civil Engineering, one of the course projects I did was retrofitting a century home to meet modern energy efficiency standards.

I used my own home as a base model, measuring the thermal insulation value (there wasn’t much) and coming up with strategies to make it less of an energy hog. I also calculated roughly a 30-year payback – far too long for any homeowner to invest in. This is the curse of artificially cheap energy in Canada. We have more incentive to use than save.

Years later when I finally did have the money to renovate my home, the only retrofit strategy we could realistically afford was spray foam insulation. The house is much more comfortable, but I don’t pretend that I did it for any kind of financial payback. If we are to maintain our stock of heritage homes, as a city, we have to make it realistic for homeowners to insulate and lower their energy consumption. The city has a vested interest in this since it takes demand off our already stressed electricity grids. I’d like to see the City of Toronto provide a home energy loan program that is attached to the property and paid back through property taxes as opposed to the homeowner. This way, if the homeowner must sell or move, the new owner who will benefit from the lower energy bills will also be the one paying back the cost of insulation through the property taxes.

The stressed electricity grid is another issue the city needs to address. As more and more condos are built, the stress on the distribution lines will become unbearable, prompting a third transmission line into the city.

Nobody wants to see homes bulldozed for transmission towers. Council should be forcing new developments to become the centre of a smart grid with onsite generation. This is much more efficient than electricity travelling hundreds of kilometres to us (line loss is big) and would reduce our exposure to catastrophic failure.

Speaking of electricity, I truly believe we have to stop this nonsense of burying our trash hundreds of kilometres away.

Europe, Asia, and now even Australia have very clean energy from waste technologies that make us look positively Neanderthal in how we deal with trash.

It’s time we recovered both electricity and waste heat from our trash bin rather than leave our bits of plastic to ocean birds thousands of kilometres away (where it inevitably ends up).

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy use, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths. Send questions, comments, and ideas for future columns to Terri at terri.chu@whyshouldicare.ca.

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