Our Energy Future is Renewable

It’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”. The world is moving steadily and dramatically toward a renewable energy future dominated by clean electricity. As I mentioned before, the countries with the highest solar incidence are the ones making the most progress. Last year, Costa Rica supplied electric energy for 300 days solely from renewable sources. Some of the largest solar projects are being built in countries like India and China. Renewable energy in the UK increased by 27% in 2017.

Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the Energy Watch Group (EWG) conducted a study that “simulates a global electricity system based entirely on renewable energy on an hourly basis throughout a whole year. Its results prove that the existing renewable energy potential and technologies, including storage, are able to generate sufficient and secure power supply worldwide by 2050. Under favourable political conditions, a full decarbonisation and nuclear phase out of the global electricity system can succeed even earlier than that.” (my emphasis added)

According to the study, “A 100% renewable global electricity system is also way more efficient. It can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in electricity sector from about 11 GtCO2 equivalent in 2015 to ZERO emissions by 2050. The total losses in a fully renewable electricity system are significantly lower than in the current system. And, the global transition to a 100% renewable electricity system will create 36 million jobs by 2050 in comparison to 19 million jobs in 2015… The study shows that there is no reason to invest any single dollar in fossil fuel or nuclear power production. It also proves that energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will.” (my emphasis added)

This study comes at an important time as Ontario residents are preparing for an election this summer. With the price of electricity, the future of Ontario Hydro, and the ongoing refurbishment of nuclear generators at issue, determining the political will of our provincial parties is paramount. Unfortunately, one party seems to be entirely in denial about climate change and is paralyzed by its own political dogma. Its political will to form meaningful policy on this topic appears non-existent.

Where is Ontario now? Corporations successfully fought against feed-in tariffs and blamed renewable energy for higher electric rates; billions of dollars have been committed to nuclear refurbishment; the nuclear industry is hyping ‘micro-reactors’ to be scattered across northern remote communities; the bulk of Hydro One has been sold off and has made trans-national investments in pursuit of higher profits; revenue from carbon-pricing is being used to subsidize scattered voluntary conservation programs. We can do better but only if we have the political will.

According to the researchers, “policy makers should adopt favourable political frameworks and instruments, promoting fast and steady growth of renewables on the one hand and phasing out all subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear power generation on the other hand.” (my emphasis added) This summer’s election may be a ‘watershed’ moment for Ontario, either seizing the leadership opportunity or slipping further behind the global trend.

100% renewable electricity worldwide is a new cost-effective reality, Hans-Josef Fell & Prof. Dr. Christian Breyer, (The Beam, Feb 1, 2018)


The Politics of Power

I’ve written previously about the Ontario government’s Green Ontario Fund ($377 budget), and the accompanying lame* approach to this energy conservation initiative. While I applaud the plan to devote carbon-pricing revenues to energy conservation, I think our governments, national and provincial, are way too timid in their approach.

As an example*, I got a quote to install a new gas furnace ($3,000+); the Green Ontario rebate is $500. This old house could benefit from upgraded insulation in the walls – rough estimate up to $15,000 – possible rebate $1,280, based on total square feet. Still, $200 million more is allocated to school retrofits and $85 million for social housing upgrades.

It’s obvious that countries with greater exposure to solar radiation have recognized that sunlight is literally gold. India and Australia, for instance, are making massive investments in solar energy and battery storage solutions. Canada’s weak and haphazard approach means that we will be importing this technology for decades, as we have already with wind power.

One project that I’ve just read about emphasizes the difference. South Australia, which is already the location of the world’s largest grid-storage battery installation, courtesy of Elon Musk, is proposing an even more spectacular solar project – Continue reading

The ‘Green’ Struggle

In Ontario, carbon trading has led to carbon-trading revenue, which has led to some silly looking ads promoting the Green Ontario Fund. I guess we can’t have the government ordering people to use less carbon–based energy, so we have to put up with the effort at ‘persuasion’.

If only the ads focused on real personal and environmental benefits instead of imaginary tiny feet. Such as:

Contractor truck backing into driveway / unloading materials/equipment etc.
Neighbour: What happening?
Homeowner: I’m installing / upgrading [insert program]
Neighbour: Sounds expensive
Homeowner: It’s worth it. I get a Green Ontario rebate of [insert rebate $] and I will save [insert energy savings] every year. You benefit too because my carbon footprint shrinks [ X ] %

But sadly, I think the tiny feet will prevail and be less than effective. The ads mention the word, “rebate” a lot but judging from what I have seen it may not be enough to motivate much action.

The Green Ontario Fund is a mixed bag of incentives. A rebate of $250 to replace a gas furnace isn’t likely to motivate anyone. Households are being steered toward an air-source heat pump instead with an incentive of “up to” $5,800. A ductless heat pump has a rebate of $1,900 and homes with existing ducting are eligible for amounts ranging from $3,250 to $5,500. I haven’t seen any mention of renewable energy systems except geothermal.

But a rebate of “up to” $5,000 for high efficiency windows ($500 per window opening) may encourage some people to make the leap. Basic upgrade to insulation carries a rebate of “up to” $7,200. I’ve already paid for attic insulation on my own dime some years ago so that drops to a maximum of $3,800 for upgrading insulation in exterior walls and $1,900 for basement walls. The rebate offsets a part of the cost of insulation materials but wouldn’t be enough for contractor labour or the cost of cosmetic restoration to the interior or exterior walls. My guess is this program might cover about 20% of the total actual cost.

I’m not sure what kind of householders these programs are aimed at, but as a senior, I’m pretty sure the up-front cost is too steep and the return on investment is too distant. I imagine we will live in this house more or less “as is” for as long as we can. Eventually whenever we sell, someone else will either renovate or rebuild to a higher efficiency standard. The Green Ontario Fund won’t make that happen any sooner. But brace for some aggressive advertising from ‘approved’ contractors this year!


Wisdom of the Crowd

Believe it or not, “cap and trade” was being debated as an economic policy option way back in my university days. It has only taken a lifetime to implement it in a handful of jurisdictions and the debate still continues.

The real question is what happens with the money, and how effective will it be in addressing the critical climate change issue? (Climate Change Is About to Accelerate Past the Point of No Return, Dec 2016) The opposition party agues for a rebate of a carbon tax directly to households. The current government has taken a different approach.

Now that Ontario has ‘captured’ the revenue from the first auctions of carbon credits the government announced this month that it “will use the proceeds of its cap-and-trade program to establish a fund — called the Green Ontario Fund — through a provincial agency. The program will offer up to a $7,200 rebate for new insulation, up to $5,000 for new windows, and up to $20,000 for new ground source heat pumps.”

Is there a difference to these two approaches? Either way, with cap and trade or a carbon tax, whether or not we see any real change in carbon emissions is still very much up to us. We have to make thousands of individual decisions to do something meaningful in a timely manner.

At least the Green Ontario website presents a menu of funded options for both households and businesses. You’ll notice that some of these programs were previously-existing conservation programs offered by gas distributors and electric utilities (Save on Energy) while others are new provincial programs. Now all conservation programs are grouped together in specific categories: home; small business; organization. But you, the consumer, have to educate yourself about the different opportunities, weigh the relative value of different options (net cost and estimated savings), be motivated to complete an application for your chosen program(s) and select a pre-approved contractor. Hence, I’m giving a little nudge with this free plug for the Green Ontario web site – the government is waving a fist full of dollars your way. They’ve got my attention and maybe yours.

Ontario isn’t the first to tackle carbon emissions. In the UK, a decision was made some years ago to ‘just do it’. An insulation upgrade program simply went street by street, house by house, in a systematic approach that was said to be 90% more efficient than a random installation based on scattered applications. It gave an immediate boost to employment but this approach requires deciding priorities – who’s first and who comes last.

The New Year promises to be a decisive time with a likely tumultuous election in the mix. Will Ontarian homes and businesses be motivated enough by the carbon trade incentives? Will contractors be up to the challenge? Will the total upgrades be good enough and numerous enough to make a meaningful difference in carbon emissions and your payback savings? It’s entirely up to you and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’.


Power of the Wind


Regular readers may recall that I have written a couple of times about a new wind energy turbine technology designed for roof-top installation. Originally developed in the UK, the RidgeBlade® system is suitable for use on domestic and commercial buildings. Although the system won an international award and funding for commercial development, little more has been heard about it until now.

Remarkably, RidgeBlade® is now a Canadian-owned technology. The company, Power Collective Inc., has set up shop at Innovation Park in Kingston, Ontario. More information is available from their web site (https://ridgeblade.ca).

“In January 2017, early testing began at Western University’s WindEEE Research Institute. The WindEEE facilities allowed the RidgeBlade to be tested in various wind conditions confirming that the roof-mounted wind turbine can effectively harness the wind that is gathered by a sloped roof.

By simulating additional turbulence, we also proved that the RidgeBlade is an ideal system to use in urban environments, where the wind conditions can be unpredictable and inconsistent.” (RidgeBlade Completes Early Testing Phase In London, Ontario, Power Collective, Jan 16, 2017)

Since then the company was invited to exhibit at the Smart Energy Week in Tokyo, Japan, one of several hundred exhibitors of Small Wind and Hybrid technologies.

To advance it’s commercial ambitions, the company is currently interested in hearing from potential qualified system installers to bring the technology to the urban home and business market. According to the web site, they have representatives in Toronto and Montreal.

This is an exciting development considering that the Seimens wind turbine blade factory in Tillsonburg is winding down, and several conventional wind turbine tower projects have been loudly opposed by residents and environmentalists. The RidgeBlade® technology presents an opportunity to use wind power where solar may not be ideal, or an opportunity to optimize renewable energy generation by combining both. Local power generation is a trend that is only gathering momentum. Combined with micro-grids and battery storage, our energy landscape will experience a complete make-over.


Passive Design, Active Results

We are slowly learning that we have the knowledge and technology to eliminate a lot of today’s conventional home energy use. The latest example is a passive solar home built in Innisfil. The outstanding feature is that it is built without the need for a conventional furnace. The south facing home is very highly insulated, sealed and uses passive solar gain. It’s no surprise that the builder and owner formerly worked with the Kortwright Centre for Conservation.

I first wrote about passive solar and net-zero energy construction a few years ago so it’s encouraging to know that the concept is finally attracting wider practical application and real world experience under our local conditions. Importantly, municipal authorities are learning to recognize this certification standard.

We’re able to learn about some of the technical details from a recent news article at Simcoe.com (Home builder lives without furnace in passive house, July 13, 2017). The home’s ‘raft’ foundation has a styrofoam base below concrete and the walls are “double stud” allowing for an R65 insulation factor. Notably, the owner says they have “come up with a wall [insulation] system just as efficient without adding significant cost.” Certainly the budgeted cost of ducting and furnace could be applied instead to this use.

An energy recovery ventilation (EVR) unit runs continuously to ensure a proper air circulation and stable temperature within the airtight building envelope. Surprisingly, energy-efficient windows came from Ireland. The article didn’t indicate what distinguished them from so many possible local window suppliers. Solar panels are being added to the home as well.

This type of approach continues to be a ‘pay now or pay later’ proposition. The builder suggests it could be offered as a “luxury option” in subdivisions with a pay-back over 20 years. Otherwise, potential home-buyers could just opt for conventional construction and take a chance with future energy prices or ‘move up’ later when energy efficient techniques become more widely adopted. Passive solar design and ‘net zero’ energy technology makes even more sense for multi-unit construction where the benefits are likely to be more easily achieved.

There is another option. Builders could consider a better trade-off between home size and efficiency. I walked through a builder’s ‘luxury’ model home recently out of curiosity. My wife remarked, “I could be happy with half of this house!” to which another couple immediately responded, “Great! I’ll buy the other half!” Maybe an enterprising builder can recognize an opportunity to make ‘less’ equal ‘more’.