New Approaches to Energy Conservation

Robert Sheppard
Maclean’s
November 11, 2002

OK CONSCRIPTS, straighten up. Shoulders back, tummy in, turn down those thermostats. Uncle Jean wants you – and you and you – to reinsulate your homes, to change your driving habits and to think twice before you take the minivan to the corner store for a loaf of bread.

This is war, don’t you know. Forget Baghdad. Forget Ralph Klein. (Repeat after me: Alberta is not the enemy. Alberta is not the enemy.) We have a planet to save here, to save from the kazillion tonnes of burned fossil fuels we earthlings have shipped skyward to clog the atmosphere and mess with the weather.

Think of yourselves as foot soldiers in what promises to be a decades-long adjustment to the post-petroleum future. The battlefield is your living room, kitchen or maybe the basement where you keep the washer and dryer. Or, if you want to feel a little more exalted – this for all you premiers and corporate chieftains out there – think of yourselves as the John D. Rockefellers of conservation. That’s Ralph Torrie’s suggestion. The irony is intended.

Rockefeller, of course, was the industrial-age tycoon who gathered the little independent petroleum producers in the United States into one huge conglomerate and so made the future bright for vertical integration, little deuce coupes, Middle East wars, cruising for burgers, Exxon Valdez, and fleets of gas-guzzling SUVs squatting like occupying tanks. Torrie is an unassuming Ottawa energy consultant who has helped 300 cities around the world save hundreds of thousands of dollars by plugging leaks and becoming more energy efficient. He firmly believes that Canada can cut its gaseous energy emissions in half by 2030 – further and faster than the much-maligned Kyoto timetable – if only we paid attention to all the little things from window panes to water heaters. And he’s crunched some numbers to prove it: from 1970 to 1998, through the first wave of OPEC oil increases, Canada’s conservation efforts, most of them haphazard and now outdated, have nonetheless saved the equivalent of 7.5-billion barrels of oil, or 16 times the output of our entire nuclear power industry. “What,” he asks, “if we really tried?”

It’s a good question. The technology for a planet-saving future is largely available. (It’s habits that haven’t altered much.) Cities like Ottawa, Toronto and Edmonton have cut ENERGY emissions – and the promise of future bills – significantly by, for example, changing street lighting. So have homeowners who have switched to halogen or fluorescent lights. Though the sad reality is that, with house lights as with cars in the driveway, new homes tend to have twice as many as earlier households. Of course, all sorts of new appliances – refrigerators, furnaces, water heaters – are vastly more energy efficient today. But the little appliances – the constantly-on VCRs, cable boxes and microwaves – are “leaking” and need to be staunched. And if we switch to front-loading washing machines (they use half the water and offer more efficient rinsing), that would cut dramatically into washing and drying times. So would cooking teenager style – by microwave. Convenience doesn’t have to be wasteful.

Then there’s insulation. In Saskatoon, energy researcher Rob Dumont has built what experts say is the best insulated house in the world. An otherwise ordinary, two-storey wooden house on a quiet street, with a basketball net in the backyard, it has doubled two-by-four studs to accommodate R60 insulation in the walls and R80 in the attic – about triple the current new-home standards. Dumont is a keener. His latest gadget captures and recirculates some of the heat from water as it heads for the drain. But he says the added investment – about $13,000 in 1992 for the insulation, passive solar heating and a high-tech ventilation system – will pay for itself in 16 years. “It’s done much better than my mutual fund,” he notes. He also estimates that the same house in a more temperate climate like Vancouver’s would cost almost nothing to heat.

Houses and cars and light trucks, delivery trucks especially. These are the areas where real gains can be made. Ottawa’s Kyoto plan, laid before the provinces last week, would spread the sacrifices around. Each adult Canadian is theoretically responsible for reducing one tonne of carbon dioxide emissions a year, and that represents a 20-per-cent change in living or driving habits. This is a plan – not unlike free trade – that would touch all regions and all sectors of the economy. Serious cuts are expected from energy producers, big manufacturers and maybe even the car companies. For the moment, automakers are only being asked to label fuel consumption more prominently – like the health warnings on cigarette packaging – and to try to make cars that are 25 per cent more efficient by 2012.

But long-time conservationists like Torrie say this might not be the best approach. Why punish Albertans disproportionately, he asks – both as consumers and as producers of the coal, natural gas and petroleum that people burn with little thought of the consequences? Better to focus on the “pinch points,” he says – higher standards for new buildings and appliances; better fuel efficiency for SUVs, minivans and muscled-up pickups; and more direct training for delivery drivers and ordinary commuters.

In model-town Peterborough, Ont., where new products go to be tested, the feds have been trying out a retrofit program, not unlike the conservation schemes of the late 1970s. Homeowners receive a professional energy audit of their house and are eligible for about $1,000 in rewards if they spend $4,000 or more caulking windows and adding insulation or other energy savers. Initial response has been positive. But to meet the Kyoto deadline, Ottawa is counting on 20 per cent of older homes and buildings being upgraded by 2010. And in the current climate – with provinces like Ontario promising an electricity rebate after a summertime surge – how many making-ends-meet Canadians will take that challenge?

Ralph Torrie has a suggestion. Why not require energy audits on older homes every time they are sold, as with safety and pollution checks for cars in most provinces? Upgrading would be no small undertaking. By Torrie’s calculations, 40 per cent of Canadian homes have no basement insulation and 62 per cent heat with inefficient furnaces. But utilities or a government agency could lend the money – a kind of conservation mortgage – to be paid back from energy savings.

A warning note here. “Historically,” cautions Tom Adams of Toronto-based Energy Probe, “when governments have gone investing in this area and tried to pick winners we ended up with UFFI [urea formaldehyde foam insulation, banned in Canada in 1980 over health concerns] and nuclear power.” A vigorous foe of cheap energy, Adams has an unusual take on the situation. The good-guy hydroelectric provinces like B.C., Manitoba and Quebec, the ones claiming to be unfairly sideswiped by Ottawa’s Kyoto plan so that Alberta’s energy-sucking oil sands can survive, are the real gluttons, he says: if their consumers were forced by price to be more conservation-minded, there would be a surplus of electricity, enough to make all the sooty coal-burning power plants obsolete.

That’s Canada’s dilemma of course: energy is cheap. We grumble when the price of gas hits 70-odd cents a litre. But it’s at least double that in Europe – and yet Europeans are driving more each year, approaching North American habits. To reduce car emissions by 10 per cent may require only keeping your tires inflated properly, driving the speed limit and not idling the engine on those cold mornings. Well, maybe. But that supposes drivers want to be kind to the planet each time they get behind the wheel. And so far neither provincially imposed luxury-car taxes nor the high cost of SUVs has lent much support to that argument.

Automakers have done a decent job – when pushed and kicked – of eliminating nearly all the noxious, smog-inducing gases that flow from the internal combustion engine. But there is no easy end-of-pipe technology to trap carbon dioxide, the by-product of burning fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum. For car makers, the Holy Grail of the post-petroleum era is the hydrogen-powered fuel cell, a kind of super battery that NASA created for its spaceships. Its only waste product is water. Almost all the major car companies have test vehicles with fuel cell-powered motors bopping around Germany and California. But most automakers don’t see the hydrogen-powered car entering the commercial mainstream in the next 10 years. “They would certainly be outside the Kyoto timetable,” allows Blake Smith, Ford Canada’s director of environmental vehicles. Fuel cells are currently two to three times as expensive as petroleum for the equivalent mileage. But the biggest hurdles seem to be supply (if the hydrogen is simply extracted from natural gas, that’s not a huge carbon saving) and a safe, reliable refuelling network.

Still, at least two American companies have developed a fuel-cell power plant about the size of a small car to supply electricity to apartment buildings and big retail outlets. And miniature fuel cells, when they’re ready, could be a key factor in cutting the energy costs of household and office appliances. General Motors, for one, feels this is on the verge of becoming a $10-billion-a-year business.

Burnaby, B.C.-based Ballard Power Systems Inc. has begun delivering fuel cell engines for a pilot project of 30 European buses to begin next year. Ottawa’s Kyoto planning envisions 30 per cent of city buses powered by some kind of alternative fuel within a decade. That may simply entail pumping more cleaner-burning ethanol or even soy-based diesel in with regular fuel. The hybrid engine – half gas, half electric and self-recharging from the braking of stop-and-go city driving – may also be an interim solution.

Canada Post, among others, notably the giant FedEx operation out of Memphis, is experimenting with hybrid delivery vans. The hybrid car is another story. Media mogul Ted Turner drives a Toyota Prius. So do actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Alec Baldwin (he says it’s a great celebrity disguise). Vancouver’s Yellow Cab Co. has put just over 220,000 km on a two-year-old Prius, and is pleased with its performance. “Of course we don’t have as harsh a winter as you folks back East,” says Yellow Cab general manager John Palis. “But it’s worked out well. If it wasn’t for the small size we’d buy more.”

It costs just over ten bucks to fill the Prius tank. But the compact car itself sells for about $30,000 and that’s the Green dilemma in a nutshell: will consumers pay upfront for new earth-saving technology when the payback is not immediate or maybe even obvious?

Guilt alone probably won’t do the trick. Nor should it. Canada is responsible for only two per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases, though we’re the third worst emitter on a per-capita basis. (The David Suzuki Foundation says Canadians use more energy than the 760 million inhabitants of Africa.) But of course we don’t just use energy, we extract it, and expend enormous amounts producing and shipping it to the energy gluttons to the south.

“Canadians love their minivans,” notes automotive consultant Dennis DesRosiers. But in almost every other respect, he says, we are much more energy responsible than our American neighbours. We drive, on average, 2,000 km less per vehicle per year, we own fewer cars per capita and, on a market share, we buy half as many of SUVs as the Americans. (Large SUVs represent about one per cent of the Canadian cars on the road.) “Since the late 1970s, Canadians have been predisposed to buying the most fuel-efficient vehicles,” says DesRosiers. That means, he says, that to meet Kyoto, the product will have to change. And without the giant U.S. research machine in sync, that’s not going to happen soon.

The fact that the Bush administration has opted not to sign the Kyoto accord has fuelled a high-octane business and energy-sector opposition to Canadian ratification. The argument is that higher conservation-induced costs will make Canadian exports uncompetitive. But trade and efficiencies are highly complex matters. When it comes to clean-air requirements, many U.S. states are already well ahead of Canada. And as the C.D. Howe Institute – no fan of Kyoto – reported last month, if the U.S. economy grows faster than anticipated because it is not constrained by Kyoto, that should translate into greater Canadian exports, especially of Alberta’s oil and gas.

Alberta’s oil patch doesn’t see the world unfolding that way, however. It has been leading the fight to delay the Kyoto timetable for what it calls a made-in-Canada solution. The business lobby makes some good points and may well get its wish – though likely not in the way it wants. The Chrétien government intends to ratify the treaty by next month after a brief parliamentary debate, and then let industry groups thrash out the hard details of implementation themselves over the next two years.

Canada’s Kyoto commitment is to cut 240 million tonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases by 2012. Plans for about 80 MT – through municipal action and improved forestry and agricultural practices – are underway, Ottawa says. Another 60 MT are being left for future consideration. That leaves 100 MT on the table now. Of that amount, heavy industry, power generation and the oil and gas sector are to be responsible for 55 MT.

Ottawa’s proposal envisions capping the large emitters at 85 per cent of their currently estimated 2010 emissions – details to be negotiated over the next few years. One strategy would be to make themselves 15 per cent more energy efficient over the next decade. Alternatively, they could invest in offsetting green power or carbon-absorbing forestry, or buy pollution permits from companies that can exceed their reduction quota and have “credits” to sell.

The share-the-pain plan is intended to affect all provinces equally. But some, like Alberta, will clearly have serious adjustments to make. The northern Alberta tar sands – energy rich but as environmentally sooty as their name sounds – may not survive without special help. Ottawa is dangling incentives for clean-air research. And it is promising to invest in a CO2 pipeline, an inducement for big emitters – the tar sands among them – to capture carbon dioxide and find a market for it. One possibility is to pump it back into Alberta’s deep coal beds. That is expected to release trapped natural gas and methane, and so provide untapped sources for – guess what – hydrogen, the fuel of the future.

None of this, though, is a quick or easy fix. For example, Calgary’s TransAlta Corp., a large coal-generating utility, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the country, plans to invest $2 billion in wind power. It has also invested in agricultural improvements in the Third World and pilot projects for emission trading. In short, it’s done all the things you’d want a forward-thinking corporation to do. And yet it says it can’t possibly reach its Kyoto target before 2017 at the earliest. And then only with special dispensation for its existing coal-fired plants.

The big winners could be Canada’s cities. Thanks in part to a $300-million federal investment, cities have had a head start in getting their environmental act together, to the point where they look to have eight MT of Kyoto credits to sell a few years down the road. Best guess, that could represent an $80-million transfer from polluters to municipalities. More importantly, if cities plough this money back into more energy-saving devices, they will have even more credits to sell down the road, transforming themselves – think globally, act locally – into engines of change.

That’s the hope anyway. But keep in mind we’re in this for a long, uncertain haul. Any emission cutbacks that humans make now will take at least 100 years to work through the atmosphere. Also, with the U.S. sitting out and developing nations exempted, fully two-thirds of the world is not covered by the Kyoto plan. Something else to remember is that there are no real penalties in the Kyoto treaty: countries that don’t meet their targets just have their overruns added to the next target like interest on a credit card. Ottawa’s response is simple: this is a serious global issue and industrialized nations have a responsibility to step up to the plate first. Still to be seen is whether ordinary Canadians will answer that call to arms.

Why We’re Talking about Kyoto

Projected increase in Canadian greenhouse gas emissions if current policies don’t change (in millions of tonnes):

2000 2010

Total 726 809

Power generation 130 126

Mining and manufacturing 142 152

Operation of buildings 80 79

Oil and gas industry 107 147

Passenger transportation 110 116

Commercial transportation 70 78

Agriculture 61 76

Gas from landfills 26 27

Other 0 8

Source: Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada

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