In March, motivated by the climate crisis, Vancouver City Council took the bold step of declaring that Vancouver would become a 100% Renewable Energy City, obtaining 100% of its energy from renewable sources, and asked its staff to get back to them by fall with a clear articulation of the date by when it might be feasible. The city's staff, in turn, are seeking the public's input, using the hashtag #VAN100RE.
This is a great beginning—but what does it mean, and how soon might it be achieved? This week, the Renewable Cities Global Learning Forum is happening in Vancouver, where answers to these questions will hopefully be suggested.
Ideally, becoming a 100% renewable energy city should mean replacing all of the fossil-fuel energy that’s used in Vancouver with renewable energy. In reality, it can’t include the energy used to make the bicycles, iPads and yoga-mats that Vancouver depends on, since success here hinges on how fast countries like China and Vietnam can become zero-carbon, and whether 3-D printing using bioplastics will transform manufacturing.
Also, there are no renewable energy solutions yet for heavy machinery and equipment, long-distance trucking, or shipping in Port Metro Vancouver. There are experiments underway using biofuel, there’s talk of using renewably-sourced hydrogen for long-distance fuel, and there may be a breakthrough in batteries enabling long-distance electric trucking, but these things are nowhere close to market readiness and are not within Vancouver’s control.
So if the quest is limited to electricity, buildings and light transportation, is it possible? And if so, how soon? 2060 will be too late to be of any value, and 2020 is too soon to be achievable.
CHALLENGE #1: ELECTRICITY
Vancouver begins the challenge with an advantage, since 95% of its electricity is already renewable, if we include hydro. The remaining 5% comes from a gas-fired plant in Campbell River for which the contract with BC Hydro expires in 2022. For Vancouver’s electricity to be 100% renewable the city will need to persuade BC Hydro not to renew the contract, and to hold firm to the commitment that 100% of its new electricity will be clean, without any gas-fired generation. No amount of solar on Vancouver's roofs or solar community cooperatives will make a difference, valuable though it they are.
CHALLENGE #2: BUILDING HEAT
The heat used in buildings is where the real challenge begins. It is really possible to retrofit every building so that it no longer burns oil or gas to generate heat?
The city includes some 70,000 condo units, 150,000 single family, duplexes and rowhouses, a host of rental apartments, hotels and commercial buildings, and a host of public buildings. So this is a huge challenge. Vancouver City Hall itself is heated by gas.
Every building will need to be retrofitted to reduce heat-loss, and converted to air-source or ground-source heat, to biofuel, or to use pipes under the streets to deliver district heat from a mixture of biomass, biogas, sewer heat, industrial waste heat, refrigeration heat recovery, ground-source heat, ocean-source heat and solar district heat. The task is huge, and if left to market forces it could take 100 years to complete, if the availability of natural gas lasts that long.
To accelerate the change, Vancouver will need to partner with the provincial and federal governments on a detailed portfolio of solutions, including an increased carbon tax, tax-write-offs and incentives for the cost of a retrofit, on-bill financing for retrofit loans, building energy labeling, changes to condo bylaws, and requiring an energy-saving retrofit to be completed before sale, as San Francisco and Oakland have been successfully doing since the 1980s.
It will also need a dedicated city-wide non-profit able to provide everything a building-owner needs; it will need every new building to be zero-carbon, as Britain does; it will need every new large building to be ‘district energy ready’ with the right plumbing and electrical connections; and it will need a major investment in district energy, raising the finance either from green bonds or from the market, helped by the Municipal Finance Authority and a government loan guarantee.
If all this could be achieved, could it reach 100% of Vancouver’s buildings? Almost certainly yes, since by the time most building owners have made the switch the companies that sell oil and gas will have either closed down or become renewable heat companies.
And how soon? Given the uncertainties, it will need to be an aspirational goal. I would argue for 2040, since 2030 is probably too soon to get it all done, and 2050 will be too late in terms of the climate crisis.
CHALLENGE #3: LIGHT TRANSPORTATION
For light transportation, every car, motorbike, bus and light truck will need to be electric (or hydrogen, though it’s a long shot).
There is much that Vancouver can do to make its streets more attractive to pedestrians, and if Vancouver had a world-class bicycle network it is possible that Vancouverites might be persuaded to make 35% of their trips by bicycle, as people already do in Holland and Denmark. Vancouver has hills, but electric bikes eliminate gravity and make cycling possible for people of all ages.
It’s also possible that many more people could be persuaded to use transit, especially if the plebiscite passes. Amsterdam is electrifying its entire city bus fleet by 2025. Most buses have a planned life of 12-years, so if TransLink bought only electric buses starting in 2020 all of Vancouver’s buses would be electric by 2032.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are already on the road and batteries are falling in price, so by 2025 a new electric car with 300 kilometres range could cost the same as a conventional car, while costing six times less to run.
EV progress is outside the city’s control, but Vancouver can ensure that there are ample charging spots and fast-charge stations, and it can offer free parking to EVs and free use of bus lanes, as Norway does. It can buy EVs for the city’s own fleet, and it can remove all barriers in the way of electric bicycles, three-wheelers and cargo-bikes. Amsterdam has set a goal to achieve 100% renewable energy for light transportation by 2040, so maybe Vancouver can too.
CHALLENGE #4: MARINE TRANSPORTATION
What about the small boats? The SeaBus ferries can be retrofitted as electric ferries, since there’s already one running in Norway on a 20-minute crossing, and more are planned. There are many electric boats and watercraft on the market, including speed boats, passenger ferries and water scooters, and they all have the benefit of being silent on the water, which is a blessing to both humans and whales.
CHALLENGE #4: INDUSTRIAL PROCESS HEAT
Next, there is industrial process heat. Vancouver is a not an industrial city, but Vancouver’s breweries use gas to heat the brew mix in their beer kettles, and the city’s works crews use gas to melt asphalt for road repairs. Indeed, the asphalt itself is made from oil.
100% renewable heat can be generated from biomass, biogas, concentrated solar, or even hydrogen, but it requires a big commitment to make the change. So far, there are no alternatives to asphalt for road surfacing, apart from concrete, which is also a source of carbon emissions. Road repairs can be done recycling the existing asphalt using a warm mix approach, but energy is still needed to heat the mix to 110° Celsius.
Oil is also used in plastics, consuming 4% of the world’s oil supply. The plastics of the future will be bioplastic, but Vancouver could show willing by banning the use of plastic bags, as many cities have done. It could also ban the use of plastic water bottles, as San Francisco has done.
CHALLENGE #6: FOSSIL FUEL EXPORTS
And then there are fossil fuel exports. Vancouver does not have jurisdiction over coal and oil exports through its ports and railways, but declaring itself a 100% Renewable Energy City while still exporting fossil fuels would present a problem, and not just to the cynics of the world. Vancouver should continue to lobby against increased fossil fuel exports, and work with the province to end the trade entirely.
The goal is admirable, and the means exist to get most of the way there. All that really needs is commitment from the city, from its people, and from the higher levels of government as willing and active partners.
Guy Dauncey is a speaker, author and eco-futurist who works to develop a positive vision of a sustainable future, and to translate that vision into action. He is founder and Communications Director of the BC Sustainable Energy Association and the author or co-author of nine books, including the The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming. He is an Honorary Member of the Planning Institute of BC.