Saturday, March 17, 2018

How to green Canada

Whenever it is mentioned that Canada produces a lot of greenhouse gas per capita as compared to many other countries, the excuses start pouring in. We're colder. Our population is more spread out. Etcetera. It's interesting to note that Russia does better than we do and they're just as cold and spread out as we are. But I think we're missing the point.

We could do better. We could substantially reduce our greenhouse gas footprint if we just tried a little harder. But we don't, because we don't have to. It does require spending some money. But the payback is among other things, more energy independence, cleaner air, a seat at the green technology table, lower lifetime energy costs and plenty of new business opportunities.

So how do we get there? Incrementally. Let's start with homes. Although the technology to build zero-energy homes has been around for a long time now, housing developments in Canada that feature them are still boutique offerings. There are definitely more zero-energy developments today than even 5 years ago, but it's not enough. We need, like California, to phase mandatory zero-energy residential to 100% of new builds by 2022 at the latest. Not only will this allow for zero energy materials and resources to scale up in capability and down in cost, but homeowners will reap the immediate benefits of almost or even absolutely no cost heat and cooling at a premium of 10% at most on the initial outlay of their home. It has been suggested that solar panels on every south facing roof in Canada could eliminate the need for fossil fuel power plants, except as standby generators when wind and solar are lower than optimum. Never mind that grid energy storage is now a thing. More on that later.

Geothermal can play a big part in zero-energy conversion too. This could play an even bigger role in corporate construction, as high density buildings don't typically have a lot of space to mount solar panels. But between better construction techniques and materials, and geothermal, it could be much cheaper over time to heat and cool the places we work and learn.

Transportation. Electric or at the very least hybrid powered planes are just around the corner. The very companies designing those planes right now say that they will be the perfect vehicle for short hop flights of 200-300km, which would remove a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Electric cars are currently a luxury option, but intense competition will make them affordable even for budget conscious vehicle owners in the very near future. In fact, autonomous electric vehicles could dramatically change the vehicle landscape more than we can imagine, as it might not be necessary to own a vehicle anymore if you can summon a ride at will. Governments have seen the value of subsidizing first adopter electric vehicle owners in the past. I think the next smart thing to do would be to offer large tax rebates to people who adopt the new reality of shunning outright vehicle ownership. Autonomous, on demand vehicles will reduce if not outright eliminate the need for endless parking garages, and most of on street parking. It would eliminate the need for low density public transit, which has always been a hard pill for municipalitites to swallow. Uber is already making inroads in solving last mile transit problems for smaller towns and cities in the last few years. Whole residential neighbourhoods could be reimagined as well. You can build a whole new kind of neighbourhood when people don't own their own vehicles anymore. Goodbye attached or unattached garages and parking pads on your property. This gives you more of your yard back, or makes it possible for higher density, neither of which is a bad thing. It wouldn't even be necessary to build massive roadways passing by every single house. You could walk a few extra metres to catch your ride at a pullover station just in time for it to arrive. You could build little parks for 10-20 homes right in their back yards, eliminating the safety issues of kids having to cross streets to get to a safe play area.

The power grid. The excuse the utilities have always used to argue against serving more of the power grid with renewable energy has been our apparent inability to store power. The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine they say. This may be true, but there are a lot of times when the wind does blow when we don't even need the energy (overnight), and it could be stored for when it is needed. It sounds impossible, but other jurisdictions have been doing it on a small scale for over a decade. Excess power can be used to pump water to a high elevation reservoir (easily done in our Rocky Mountain areas), which would power hydroelectric generators when the wind takes a rest. Excess power generated from solar can now be stored in massive lithium battery banks thanks to new storage solutions from Tesla and others. This kind of solution is already online in the southern US desert states and parts of Australia and it's a matter of time before we see this kind of grid storage everywhere. This removes all remaining excuses for bringing more and more wind and solar generation online. Fun fact: one of the top 3 solar panel builders is in Canada. How come most people don't know this? Fun fact #2: Calgary has 333 sunny days per year on average, as does most of southern Alberta. Sounds like the perfect place to leverage solar in a massive way. Southern Saskatchewan could do the same.

Agri-solar. As I blogged about in April 2016, solar could transform how we farm as well. Considering how precious water is, and how hard it is to farm a larger variety of crops in areas with long, hard winters, solar could make it possible to heat and light greenhouses while conserving water in a closed agro-system. With energy left over to top up the grid. Germany is even testing solar farms where the panels are raised high enough and spaced apart far enough to allow for crops underneath.

I look forward to a Canada that leads the world in the transformation, so that we can go from fossil fuel dependancy, to purely fossil fuel export, to keeping it in the ground and exporting the green technology that will replace it. We can lead this movement, or sit back and watch it happen everywhere else first.

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