They’re doing it in Germany: 140 regions of the country have set a goal to become 100% renewable energy regions, covering 30% of Germany’s land and 26% of her people, as we learnt in the June BCSEA webinar with Beata Fischer
Could British Columbia do the same? The climate emergency warnings are dire, and the need is great. When viewed historically, it is clear that the age of fossil fuels represents only the tiniest blip of time. Deep down, we know we need to stop using them.
Here in BC, 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions—the direct cause of climate change—come from burning fossil fuels, so it’s clear that a transition is needed.
So let’s embark on a mental exercise to see what it might involve. Would the transition away from fossil fuels fatally weaken BC’s economy, as some conservative thinkers fear? Worse yet, would it drag us back to the dark ages? Are the fear-mongers right? These are important questions to address.
This week, I’ll look at electricity and heat. Next week, I’ll tackle transportation.
Electricity—the Easy Part
In British Columbia, we use fossil fuels for three main purposes—electricity, heat and transportation. We are fortunate when it comes to electricity, for our power supply is already 95% renewable, thanks (for better or worse) to BC’s big dams, coupled with run-of-river and wind power. The solar revolution will soon reach BC, and several regions of the province are blessed with great wind, so there will be no problem filling the gap, even when demand increases to cater for a growing population driving a million electric vehicles. More on this later.
The Burrard Thermal Generating Station in Vancouver, which burns gas, is scheduled for closure, and BC Hydro’s two other smaller gas-fired generators at Prince Rupert and Fort Nelson could be phased out. There is also a 275 MW gas-fired generation plant in Campbell River, owned by Capital Power, which could be phased out when its contract with BC Hydro ends in 2022.
We waste a lot of electricity, too, which means we could save it if we wanted to: the average home in BC uses 11,000 kilowatt hours a year, which more than twice the average in Britain (4,600 kwh) and three times the German average (3,500 kwh).
Heat for Buildings—the Complicated Part
The next challenge is to substitute renewable energy for the oil and gas we use to heat our homes, and to provide process heat for industry.
In Victoria, Mark and Rob Bernhardt have demonstrated that a passive home that needs 90% less energy for heat can be built for the same effective price as a conventional home. This means that it is possible to set the bar high for all new buildings, with a building code requirement that they be zero carbon, as Britain requires for all buildings by 2020. Over time, this will become the norm for all buildings.
The tougher question is how to retrofit the two million or so existing buildings.
Every house that uses an oil or gas furnace can switch to a solar heat pump, combined with greatly increased insulation to keep the heat in. A solar heat pump is more commonly known as an air-source heat pump, but since it’s the sun that provides the heat, why not call it what it is?
A heat pump can also extract heat from the sea—which is how Brentwood College is heated in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island; from sewage—which is how Olympic Village is heated in Vancouver; and from the ground beneath a building or parking lot, which is quite common. The use of heat pumps will increase electrical demand, but meeting the increased demand will not be one of our problems on the road to becoming a 100% renewable energy region.
In the Hague, Holland, the small town of Duindorp has built a district ocean heat system that is heating 800 low-income homes, using the same heat pump technology as Brentwood College. Any community near a large body of water could do the same.
How Could We Achieve It?
Technical possibility is one thing: but how to turn it into reality? People are notoriously reluctant to turn their lives upside down for a home retrofit unless there is an important driver, such as a failed system. An increase in BC’s $30-a-tonne carbon tax would persuade some people to make the change, but equally, we could learn from San Francisco’s experience, where they have required an owner to bring a house up to the new energy code at the point of sale for over 30 years without any great social revolt.
Requiring a building to be upgraded to zero-carbon heat as a condition of sale would make the retrofit affordable for the seller, who would roll the cost into the sale-price; it would also make it affordable for the buyer, who would offset the increased price with lower energy bills. It would spread the load for the building industry, enabling them to train new staff knowing they had years of work ahead of them; and it would reach the bulk of BC homes, since the average Canadian family moves house five times during their lifetime, or once every ten years.
District Heat Using Renewable Energy
Replacing oil and gas in commercial buildings, apartment buildings and condos presents a higher order of challenge. One approach is district heat piped in from a central installation, sourced from industrial waste heat, water or ground-source heat pumps, biogas from composting, or the incineration of biomass. There are plenty of examples in Scandinavia, where they like to incinerate their garbage. In Sweden, however, recycling has become so effective that only 4% of the garbage stream is left for incineration, and they have had to start importing Norway’s garbage to keep the plants going.
This type of building also rarely changes hands, so requiring an upgrade linked to change of ownership won’t work; instead, we require that commercial and multi-unit residential building owners commission an audit every ten years to address building energy efficiency, and receive grants, loans and tax incentives for an upgrade.
Year-Round Solar Heating - Is This The Future?
Looking ahead, seasonal solar heat storage is perhaps the most exciting prospect on the horizon. At Drake Landing, part of a subdivision in Okotoks, south of Calgary, 52 homes built to the R-2000 standard collect more solar heat than they need during the summer. The heat is pumped into an insulated underground storage system with 144 boreholes and brought back in winter, providing 90% of the heating needs. The same is happening in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, sometimes for a whole community or a hospital using a district heat system, sometimes for a single building.
The European Solar Thermal Industry Federation has a goal that by 2030, 50% of all new buildings will use seasonal solar heat storage, and 50% of retrofits will do the same. If you want to see how much progress has been made, check out this database of 131 large-scale solar heating plants, the oldest—in Vaxjo, Sweden—dating back to 1979.
What’s driving Europe’s progress? In March 2007 a binding target was adopted by the 27 EU countries requiring that 20% of their final energy consumption should come from renewable energy by 2020. We need to do the same. British Columbia has an overall goal to reduce GHGs by 33% by 2020, but we have no sectoral goals. To achieve the same kind of technology progress as Europe, we might adopt a goal that every regional district should meet 20% of its building heat needs from renewable energy by 2020, excluding baseboard heaters, rising to 40% by 2025 and 100% by 2030.
Heat for Industry—the Even More Complicated Part
So what about the high-temperature heat that industry needs, currently provided by burning gas? This brings us to the highest level of challenge. In May 2014, the Carbon Trust produced a useful summary of industrial renewable heat progress. Globally, renewables supply 9.5% of the world’s industrial heat, the rest being provided by coal (45%), natural gas (23%) and oil (16%).
BC’s pulp and paper sector already uses biomass from its own wastes to create heat, burning black liquor (a waste from converting pulpwood into paper) and wood wastes.
For the very intensive heat up to 800°C that’s needed to make steel and iron, countries are embracing a variety of means, ranging from burning charcoal and biomass in Brazil to burning bio-liquids in Germany and using concentrated solar energy in Italy. Making cement requires even more intense heat, in excess of 1450°C, which is currently produced by burning oil, gas, coal and coke. In Brazil and the EU there is some use of biomass instead; Germany and Poland are burning organic municipal wastes.
Is It Possible in BC?
How much heat of this kind might be available in BC? The answer as far as I know is that no-one has done the research to see if we could match BC’s industrial heat needs to our renewable heat resources, factoring in the distances involved in trucking biomass from a forest to an industrial plant. At the super-sustainable Dockside Green neighbourhood development in downtown Victoria, where the Nexterra district heat plant was planned to operate on biomass, the rule of thumb was 100 kilometres trucking distance. The limit would change if or when trucking develops long-distance electric drive, but that’s not even on the horizon yet.
As for what’s on the horizon, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a way to make steam from direct solar energy using a cheap sponge-like surface made from foam with a graphite surface that sits on top of water. The sponge draws the water up and the graphite collects concentrated sunlight, and when they meet they generate steam. It’s obviously not a year-round system, but it shows that there is innovation going on, deep in the research labs where brilliant minds get to play.
Would it Destroy Jobs and the Economy?
Most of the transition described above would create new jobs, and since the renewable energy would be generated in BC, the money spent would remain within the provincial economy, creating demand as it circulates.
The main situation where the transition could create stress is if an imposed requirement created higher costs, causing a business to lose orders, a situation that could be addressed with price and tax incentives.
Where there's a will, there's a zero-carbon way.
Next Week: Could BC’s Transportation Operate on 100% Renewable Energy?
Part 2 in this series is here.
Part 3 in the series is here.
Part 4 is here.