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GREENINGS (JUNE 2016): Taking action on climate change

June 14th, 2016 · No Comments

Leaked provincial plan contains good ideas for the long-term

By Terri Chu

In mid May, The Globe and Mail leaked the Government of Ontario’s plan to address climate change. Adrian Morrow and Greg Keenan reported in a May 16, 2016, article that the newspaper had obtained a draft version of the plan, and that “Ontario will begin phasing out natural gas for heating, provide incentives to retrofit buildings, and give rebates to drivers who buy electric vehicles. It will also require that gasoline sold in the province contain less carbon, bring in building code rules requiring all new homes by 2030 to be heated with electricity or geothermal systems, and set a target for 12 per cent of all new vehicle sales to be electric by 2025.”

The leaked plan has been met with both praise and condemnation, largely depending on which economical and political interests are in play.

Phasing out individual buildings from being heated directly with natural gas opens the door for district energy systems to be built across the province.

As an engineer in the energy sector, I welcome many of the initiatives, particularly the ones relating to reducing fossil fuel consumption and building district energy systems.

For the uninitiated, district energy systems rely on massive networks of underground water pipes that deliver hot and cold water to heat or cool spaces. District energy generally uses natural gas as its primary heat source, but can also make use of ground source heat pumps, solar thermal heating, absorption chilling, or, as in the crown of Toronto’s energy system, deep lake water cooling.

Deep lake water cooling is particularly important because our city’s massive condominium boom is stretching the capacity of Toronto’s two existing lines for transmitting its energy needs. During the hottest days of the year when everyone is running an air conditioner, the grid is so overloaded that line loss can be as much as a quarter of all electricity transmitted. Not only are “hot” lines inefficient, they physically sag, something that led to the power failure that precipitated the blackout of 2003. The ability to reduce electricity demand would seem like a prudent long-term investment but future costs (and blackouts) are seldom the problem of those currently sitting in office.

District energy systems are expensive and the ability to attract private investment is limited since it is notoriously difficult to retrofit old buildings to be district energy compatible. Without an existing stock of potential customers, investments in underground pipes aren’t the best use of monetary resources. Some cities address this by requiring that all new buildings be compatible for future district energy connections, a scenario that doesn’t fly in this province since compelling developers to go above and beyond building code is just asking for an Ontario Municipal Board challenge. Further, builders seldom retain ownership of the buildings; once a building is developed, a builder simply walks away, without really caring about operating costs.

Phasing out individual buildings from being heated directly with natural gas opens the door for district energy systems to be built all across the province. Individually, homeowners can’t efficiently make use of geothermal systems, biomass sources, or thermal storage. Inside a big system, it suddenly makes sense to invest in solar thermal arrays when the costs can be shared over many users. Building these systems will create jobs in the province and reduce our dependency on natural gas. It would build a skilled trade labour force without draining our pockets to transfer funds out of the province to pay for resources we aren’t producing ourselves. So while fossil fuels companies will get a kick in the pants, trades, clean tech firms, and our secondary economy will get a boost.

While some market segments will inevitably be hurt, I have little doubt there will be fantastic growth in other sectors. Yes, in the snapshot of today’s economy, there will be changes, but that doesn’t mean all those changes will result in us living in destitution. We don’t know how those changes will shape the future economy but what I do know though is that to do nothing will also do little to help us pay for the reconstruction of places already affected by climate change. Alberta is smouldering while we bicker. It’s time to take action.

The Governement of Ontario released its climate change action plan just as the Gleaner went to press.

Terri Chu is an engineer committed to practical environmentalism. This column is dedicated to helping the community reduce energy, and help distinguish environmental truths from myths.

 

READ MORE BY TERRI CHU:

Cloth diapers have gone from burden of the poor to luxury of the rich in one generation (May 2016)

Provide help or stand aside (April 2016)

Don’t fall prey to marketing (March 2016)

 

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