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Banking on the benevolence of the OMB

April 14th, 2015 · No Comments

Board destructive to environment

Most people in this neighbourhood have a horror story or two to tell about the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). No doubt the majority of cases to hit the OMB are ruled in the developer’s favour. While many will focus on the aesthetics and neighbourhood impact of the board, I tend to focus on how destructive they are to the environment. The OMB has effectively taken control of energy planning out of the hands of planners and municipalities and put it into the hands of benevolent developers who we hope will do the best thing for the environment.

Very few places outside of North America would have an electricity generating station venting waste heat into the atmosphere while right next door a warehouse sits with its own set of shiny new furnaces. Energy is so cheap in Canada that our modus operandi is to waste it. If the provincial Liberal government is serious about taking action on climate change mitigation and adaptation, it needs to start enabling municipalities to take control of their own climate futures. Small legislative changes cost the province relatively little and can make a large impact down the road.

Ontario needs the province to create a framework for municipalities to run with their own thermal energy planning. District Energy, in a nutshell, is a network of underground pipes carrying hot and cold water from a central plant to end-users for the purposes of space heating and cooling. On its own, District Energy is only slightly more efficient than the status quo (and often this is debated), but with the use of waste heat and innovations such as Toronto’s Deep Lake Water Cooling, it’s a hands-down efficiency winner. So the question becomes, why are there so few systems?

Like most things in life, this boils down to cost. In a big congested city, it can cost millions for a single kilometre of piping that no one in their right minds would lay unless there were an ample supply of customers willing to buy from them. Buildings can’t take on district energy that doesn’t exist yet and is not designed for them. North Vancouver solved this chicken and egg problem by declaring the region a thermal energy zone. In short, if you want to build there, the building must be “District Energy Ready”.

Ontario municipalities trying to emulate North Vancouver’s success will often stumble across the OMB.

Forcing developments above and beyond code is a difficult endeavour. As it stands, Ontario falls behind as the rest of the world wakes up to the fact that, in order to be efficient and resilient, we should be recovering waste heat and generating electricity close to where it is consumed.

If Premier Wynne is serious about Ontario addressing climate change mitigation and adaptation, allowing municipalities to set their own energy futures is an easy and cost-effective way to go about it. Unless there is a framework to deal with thermal energy, not just electricity, Ontario will quickly fall behind our peers. The Ministry of Energy needs to have a formal mandate to deal with thermal energy and municipalities need to have greater control over local building codes above and beyond provincial codes.

Dealing with climate change is a difficult issue and Ontario needs to leverage the talent, willpower, and enthusiasm of its municipalities. Binding them to the OMB will not accomplish that.

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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