In Greek mythology, Icarus, while escaping Crete wearing homemade wings, ignores the advice of his father and, in an act of hubris, flies too close the sun. The wax holding his feathery wings together melts and he falls to his death.
As it turns out, it's important...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Brown gold. Prairie pies. Monkey missiles. Whatever you call them, they're all over the place in feedlot alley near Lethbridge, the food processing centre of Alberta.
Where you or I may turn up our noses at a pile of ripe, smelly manure, Stefan Michalski, director of operations at Lethbridge Biogas, sees a resource that can be turned into clean, green energy.
Michalski came to Alberta from Germany more than a decade ago with a dream, to tap the back-end of Alberta's agriculture industry and spin green energy from brown waste.
While biogas is relatively new to Alberta, it's very common in Germany.
"As of today, there's more than 8,000 plants in Germany alone," says Michalski. "It is a proven technology. It works even in Canada's climate, which we have a lot of sceptics always asking about, and it has been around for decades in Europe."
Normally, manure is spread on farmland as fertilizer, but this can pollute runoff, cause odors and release tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Normally, food waste is simply landfilled which costs money and, like manure, releases plenty of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Lethbridge Biogas takes the manure and food waste, mixes it together, heats it to 39 degrees Celsius and captures the methane (natural gas) to power twin 1.4 megawatt generators to produce enough power for 3,000 homes.
The 3.9 million litre digesters resemble giant, squat grain silos with dome tops. While it's easy to make jokes about cow manure, it's an essential ingredient for making biogas.
"Manure from a process perspective is a very valuable input material because it carries the form of bacteria you need, but it is actually very low in energy," says Michalski. "So if you can balance that out and add organics that are higher in energy content, you can create an ideal mix with a higher output that manure couldn't deliver."
Turns out food waste is very high in energy. It really makes you wonder when you see the food being dropped off (we saw vegetables, dog food, buns, coffee grounds and some messier stuff), but at least it's better to turn this food waste into biogas than to dump it in a landfill.
Lethbridge is a food production hub, so there is plenty of organic waste from potato and vegetable processing as well as from local restaurants and stores.
"Typically, we are cheaper than the landfill which is an incentive to do it here, not only because it makes more sense, but you want to create some diversion with an economic incentive," says Michalski. Many places in Europe have banned organic waste from landfills, thus ensuring the waste is used.
"First and foremost, we make power. Power still makes up about 60 to 70 percent of our revenue stream," says Michalski.
In addition to selling electricity, Lethbridge Biogas also collects tipping fees for organic wastes, which provides 20 per cent of its revenue and the final 10 per cent comes from selling carbon offsets.
"It is a small piece now but with the recent announcement of carbon tax and other initiatives around the Climate Change Leadership Plan, we think this is a piece that can grow," says Michalski.
Producing clean energy from waste is pretty cool on its own, but biogas production also helps cut pollution in several ways.
When farmers spread manure in the fields, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It can pollute local streams and runoff and let's face it, manure stinks.
The biogas production process takes the methane out of the manure and burns it to produce electricity, which reduces emissions almost 25 fold. Digestate, the leftover solids from the digestion process, is an even better fertilizer than manure, with fewer odors and significantly less pollution.
"[The farmer] has a product now that doesn't stink as much," says Michalski. "A product that's better balanced, that has a better nutrient and phosphor-nitrogen ratio. He can deal with it the same way he dealt with the manure before."
Lethbridge biogas collects the manure and returns it as a better product. "So for [the farmer], it's almost a no-brainer because he has to do nothing," says Michalski.
Most biogas applications are smaller than the 2.8 megawatt Lethbridge Biogas power plant which makes it perfect for farm scale and a great tool for economic diversification. James Callaghan has 250 head of dairy cattle in Lindsay, Ontario and he built a farm-scale digester and a 500 kilowatt power plant. Ontario has almost 30 farm-scale biogas plants. Michalski says there is room for hundreds of the same in Alberta.
Michalski says the biggest hurdle to developing a biogas industry in Alberta is the patchwork of regulation currently in place. Thanks to red tape and uncertainty, it took Michalski and his partners the better part of 10 years to get their plant going.
"Well, we need a place for bioenergy and biogas, in particular," says Michalski. "We need some regulatory mechanism and incentives to get there."
Michalski thinks biogas should be recognized for its special benefits of not only producing base load green power, but solving a handful of environemental problems and creating economic diversification at a time when people are hungry for it....
It seems to happen with every new technology. It wasn't so long ago that some people were convinced a photograph could steal your soul. We may read about that now and have a little chuckle, but are we so far removed from the same phenomenon today?
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
The era of net-zero homes is upon us. These super-efficient homes use rooftop solar energy production and smaller, electric powered heating systems such as air source heat pumps to produce as much energy as they consume.
That's some sexy technology, but...
All Carl Lauren wanted to do was promote the construction of energy efficient homes. It sounded easy enough. So a few years ago he called up the mayor of Kimberly, B.C. and suggested his hometown make constructing homes to the Built Green standard mandatory.
The mayor at the...
No question, 2015 will be remembered as a banner year for clean energy in Canada. Perhaps surprisingly Alberta led the way as the new government there pledged to invest in clean energy.
"Alberta is going to move away from coal and towards clean power," said Premier Rachael...
It seems as we increasingly become a nation of urban citizens it is cities that are leading the way on climate change and renewable energy. Poll after poll after poll has shown Canadians support action on renewable energy, and municipal politicians are moving the needle here...
Change is hard. Green energy enthusiasts talk a lot about creating more sustainable cities, reducing emissions and greening up our lifestyle. But then we toil away inside the bubble of our geography and culture while the inertia of our traditions resists innovation.
Shedding this inertia, we flew to Vitoria-Gasteiz (or VG) in the Basque Country of Spain to take a look at the 2012 European green capital. I was looking for a shake-up, some stimulating ideas for creating new sustainable cities that are resilient, beautiful and oozing with livability.
A world away from home
Vitoria-Gasteiz could not have been more different than what I was used to. Where my home city of Edmonton is relatively new, VG is old, having been founded in 1181. Where Edmonton is one of the most sprawling in North America, VG is only six kilometres in diameter at its longest point. Where Edmonton is in the process of building a huge concrete ring road that encircles the city, VG has opted instead to build a massive 1,000 hectare greenbelt surrounding the city on recovered gravel pits, drained wetlands and industrial parks.
Their decades-long effort at rebuilding nature is creating resilience from climate change and floods while giving citizens an amazing place to live -- there are 2 million visits a year into the green belt alone. In fact, Vitoria-Gasteiz might be one of the greenest cities anywhere. It has an impressive 45 square metres per person of green space and gardens. You are never more than 300 metres from a park or natural space in VG. But the city is green in more ways than its parks and trees.
"There is a focus on using the biomass potential we have here, because we have 10,000 hectares of forest surrounding the city," says Gorka Urtaran, the mayor of Vitoria-Gasteiz. "That's one aspect. But also solar, wind, and geothermal power. Most of the new buildings, they consider including all these four types of energy."
Vitoria Gasteiz is a very compact city of 250,000 people and because of its geographical density you are never more than three kilometres from downtown, no matter where you live.
But in spite of its compact form, Vitoria-Gasteiz used to have a twelve-lane roadway that ran right through its heart. Then planners did something other cities only talk about.
They ditched the 12-lane roadway and built a truly multi-mode marvel of design for pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and yes, even car drivers too. This is almost never done, but planners simply looked at what modes of transportation were important in terms of numbers of users and then built infrastructure that works.
A revolution in urban design
Today fully 54 per cent of all trips in Vitoria Gasteiz are taken on foot, one of the best figures anywhere.
"We redesigned a very high speed traffic avenue into a new river corridor," says Luis Andres Orive, director of the Environmental Studies Centre describing the transformation of Gasteiz Avenue. "There were 12 traffic lanes. We divided it [the public space] in a more democratic way for pedestrians, for bicycles, and also reconstructed the river that was there 40 years ago. That meant a revolution inside the city."
The result is a stunningly walkable, beautiful urban landscape, bustling with pedestrians and natural spaces. With these projects, the city has increased their bicycle trips from one per cent to more than 12 per cent of total trips. Meanwhile, car trips have dropped from 36 to 24 per cent with transit making up the rest.
Energy retrofits - the big energy efficiency prize
Mode shift in transportation is tough, but one of the biggest energy efficiency nuts to crack is renovating old building stock. In Vitoria-Gasteiz, 60,000 homes were built with little or no insulation. These represent the largest energy-saving emissions reduction opportunity imaginable.
To take advantage of it, Vitoria-Gasteiz has embarked on one of the most ambitious home energy efficiency retrofit projects in the world. It aims to retrofit 750 to 1,000 homes in one neighborhood to reduce energy consumption by 75 per cent.
"There is no insulation at all," says Juan Carlos Escudero, director of the Vitoria-Gasteiz Environmental Studies Centre. "We have only brick walls and windows. So the possibilities for improving energy efficiency is really high."
Adding insulation is a no brainer, but the city also plans to install a district heating system for the entire neighbourhood. This involves setting up a biomass heat production facility that links to all the homes in the neighourhood. It has the capability to drastically lower heating costs and emissions. This is not easy to do unless you are retrofitting an entire neighbourhood such as they are doing in Vitoria-Gasteiz.
The average cost of the renovations is expected to be €21,000 ($30,660 Canadian) per home (for façade changes, insulation, exterior work, connection to district heating etc.), but thanks to various programs, each homeowner will pay about €9,600. It's a €29 million project with €6.4 million in EU funding; the balance will come from energy service contractors and homeowners....
By any metric, the renewable energy sector is a growth industry. By the end of 2014 there were 7.7 million jobs in the renewable energy industry worldwide, up 18 per cent over the year before. This according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. And that doesn't include large...
By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney
There's a quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead that you will see tacked up on bulletin boards or floating through your Facebook feed.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that...
In Edmonton, Alberta, almost every neighbourhood has a community league. These locally elected boards of community volunteers do the good work of running facilities and programs and engaging in civic issues. There are 158 such leagues in the city. It's the lowest level of representation we have and these...
By David Dodge, Duncan Kinney & Dylan Thompson
Renewable energy made up half of all the new power plants constructed in the world in 2014. That's an incredible number made all the better when you think of what these plants are replacing. Big, bad coal.
There are good reasons for this. Coal is not only the most carbon intensive form of energy available, but it has significant negative health effects. Burning coal releases a bunch of nasty stuff into the air: sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury and particulate matter. Those substances shorten lifespans, make you dumb and trigger asthma attacks.
And if stopping the catastrophic effects of runaway climate change is your goal, reducing or eliminating coal emissions is important since they are responsible for 44 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There has been no more effective opponent of coal than the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in the U.S. Bruce Nilles, the organization's senior campaign director, has been with the group since the beginning in 2002 when it started out by successfully stopping the construction of new coal power plants.
Today, they have 170 staff, including legal analysts, communications people, campaign staff and community organizers. They've also moved past stopping the construction of new plants. Now they're working to phase out existing coal power plants.
Coal phase out case study - How an Alberta company negotiated with the Sierra Club in Washington State
Alberta burns more coal than the rest of Canada combined so the newly elected Alberta government wants to accelerate the phase out of coal.
Asking companies to shut down plants isn't easy but as Alberta wades into this challenge it behooves us to examine successful case studies where coal power producers, workers, governments and environmental groups worked together to shut down a coal plant in a smart, humane and economically responsible way.
Dawn Farrell and Bruce Nillies shared the stage at the Alberta Climate Summit in Edmonton, Alberta in September to tell the story of a successful accelerated coal phase out. The event was put on by the Pembina Institute (full disclosure: Green Energy Futures is presented by the Pembina Institute).
"[The governor] basically locked us in a room for two days and said, 'You guys need to work this out. You need to come up with a reasonable way to transition this coal plant in a way that's respectful to the workers and the community,'" says Nilles. "And that's what we did."
TransAlta is an Alberta-based company that operates the coal-fired Centralia Big Hanaford power plant, in Washington State. Beyond Coal lobbied to shut down this 1,340 MW coal plant for several years before former Washington Governor Christine Gregoire stepped in.
A shorter, but more certain life for coal
Together TransAlta CEO Dawn Farrell and Nilles hammered out a deal that would see one boiler shut down in 2020 and the second in 2025. In exchange, TransAlta got an expedited permit for a natural gas plant on the same site. TransAlta also kicked in $55 million for a community development fund. This satisfied TransAlta and their investors, gave union workers a timeline for transitioning to different work and gave Beyond Coal a termination date that, while not as soon as they would like, ensured the plant would cease operation sooner rather than later.
"We thought, okay, a little more time here, and we get the outcome we want, which is retirement," says Nilles. "And in a way where the unions were in support of the final outcome as was the local community. That was really a win-win for everybody."
But not every every company is like Transalta, willing to sit down and hammer out a deal that works for everyone.
"We worked on the south side of Chicago with two coal plants, ancient coal plants that were operating without modern pollution control in the middle of residential neighbourhoods," says Nilles. "The company refused, refused, refused to come to the table, and ultimately we got the mayor of the city to say, you will either agree to shut that coal plant down, or I'll make you shut that coal plant down."
Farrell believes TransAlta's history of collaboration with NGOs was key to making the Washington deal work. Transalta also opened up their books and were extremely transparent throughout the process. That's key to getting an outcome that all sides are happy with.
"The community is excited about the community investment fund. I think the environmental impacts are no longer an issue, people are no longer believing that they should try to close the plant down, because they know exactly when it's going to be closed down," says Farrell.
"We know exactly how much capital to put into the plant so that by the end of 2021, when we shut down Unit One, it's ready to be shut down, we're not over-investing in it," says Farrell.
Alberta has a huge greenhouse gas emissions problem and accelerating a phase out of coal is the easiest and simplest way it can dramatically reduce emissions.
TransAlta is at the table in Alberta, but it will scratch and claw for a longer phase-out and every concession it can muster. These negotiations are never pretty but they are happening right now, the only difference is the negotiations appear to be happening not with Beyond Coal, but in the media.
And as Centralia shows, compromise is necessary on all sides. However, it's worth pointing out that even if Alberta phases out coal by 2030, Ontario turned off its last coal fired power plant in 2014.
MORE ON HUFFPOST:...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
You've seen them before, though they don't tend to stand out. Hutterites -- women in bright coloured, identical dresses and men in somber, dark jackets and hats. They're almost always at the farmer's market on a Saturday morning selling fresh eggs, carrots and potatoes.
This quaint image of a quiet people is a stereotype many of us know, so it was with curiosity and anticipation that I made my way down the highway to Southeast Alberta to visit the largest solar farm in Western Canada at the Green Acres Hutterite colony.
The Hutterites are ambitious, industrial-scale farmers. The Green Acres colony farms 20,000 acres, runs a hog and chicken operation and operates Crowfoot Plastics, a one-of-a-kind plastics recycling plant, just outside Bassano, Alberta.
The brothers Hofer
When I arrived, Dan Hofer, the "financial boss" of Green Acres, and his brother, Jake Hofer, Green Acres' electrician, greeted me. With them was David Vonesch, Chief Operating Officer at SkyFire Energy, the company that installed the colony's 2-megawatt solar system.
The Green Acres colony has a population of about 80 people. Breakfast and dinner are communal while lunch is eaten in the home, which is where I joined Dan Hofer for stew, bread, and a glass of wine.
Afterwards, they took me to see the solar farm up close. It's quite the sight. More than 7,600 solar modules, row upon row, all facing south. It's a field of blue that just sits there, quietly harvesting the sun and powering the colony's future. Thinking on this brings a smile to Jake Hofer's face.
"It still blows me away to this day," says Jake Hofer. "Yes, you look at the system, day after day, and there's nothing moving, no moving parts, and yet it creates all this energy."
Aside from thinking it's nifty, once you understand a bit more about Hutterite culture, their embrace of solar power makes perfect sense.
"Every piece of our colony's livelihood is an asset and is very important," says Dan Hofer. "...you grow and supply your own meat, you grow and supply your own garden and vegetables as much as possible, so [solar power] falls kind of in the same category, it's self-sufficient. You're relying on your own resources; you're not relying on someone else...."
Building a 2-megawatt solar system is a little more ambitious than planting potatoes. It required an investment of $4.8 million dollars. But after careful analysis the numbers seemed to add up nicely and the banks agreed.
"We did it for economic reasons," says Dan Hofer. "They didn't have an issue at all. After seeing some of the numbers, how the economics would work out, they were fully supportive."
As for the environment, Dan Hofer says the clean nature of solar energy is gravy: "We're all polluters of the land, so it's good to give something back."
For project developer SkyFire Energy, the project was a first in terms of scale.
"The solar resource here is some of the best in Canada," says Vonesch. "A system installed right here will produce about 50 or 60 per cent more than if the same system were installed in Germany, where there's more solar than anywhere in the world."
The wind resource in Southern Alberta is also among the best in Canada. So why did the colony choose solar and not wind? "Maintenance was one of the big issues," chuckles Jake Hofer. "And I'm terribly scared of heights."
Making an investment for the future
Thanks to a keen business sense and a DIY attitude, Green Acres pushed the envelope on the cost of the solar. They secured an original quote to build their 2-megawatt solar farm for $2.80 a watt, but reduced that to $2.40 a watt through their own labour.
The result is a payback of 15 years if electricity prices remain low, or as few as 10 years if they start to escalate, says Dan Hofer.
It turns out I wasn't the only solar tourist on this day. Intrigued by the economics, First Nations people from all over Alberta were also touring the solar farm and thinking about projects of their own.
"I think because of this system, because of Green Acres taking this leap, we've seen increased interest in these types of systems, and this scale of project," says Vonesch. "It's taken the 'what's possible' to a new level, and lots of people are looking at it and following suit."
"Ontario now has phased out coal, and has significant solar penetration," says Vonesch. As of late 2014 Ontario had installed 2,171 megawatts of solar and had 939 megawatts more under construction, way ahead of Alberta with a total of almost eight megawatts.
The rumor mill is alive with speculation about new supportive renewable energy policies that will be coming from the new Alberta and federal governments.
"In the first half of this year in the US, solar was the largest new source of generation coming onto the grid, out-competing wind and natural gas," says Vonesch. "It was the largest new source of energy in the US."
Many are expecting Alberta and Canada to look to renewable energy to begin nibbling away at soaring greenhouse gas...
By David Dodge & Dylan Thompson
Climate change is often portrayed as this giant, fuzzy, future threat that's hard to relate to, but the mayor of Edmonton, Don Iveson, brings the idea home: "We don't have to look much further than the disastrous Calgary floods of 2013, the increasingly intense summer storms we now face, or the growing legions of potholes caused by Edmonton's more frequent freeze and thaw cycles. Like it or not, the problem is at our doorstep."
That's why it was an important first step when in April 2015 Edmonton city council unanimously passed the Edmonton Community Energy Transition Strategy. Iveson supported the plan and he is a big believer in the capacity of local governments to get stuff done on climate change. And because of several recent progressive electoral victories, there has never been a better chance to get support from other levels of government.
"What's different is that we have provincial and federal governments who are not denying that climate change is anthropogenically connected; they're prepared to go to Paris and talk about what we're going to do. But if they want to be successful, they're going to need to plug into specific and achievable and measurable and cogent local strategies, which we've provided here," says Iveson.
Jim Andrais is the program manager for environmental policy for the City of Edmonton and he says the Community Energy Transition Strategy is a necessary step designed to protect the quality of life in Edmonton from climate change, air quality and higher energy price risks.
"What we're talking about here is an investment," says Andrais. "The actual savings to Edmontonians who make these investments will total $2.5 billion dollars between 2018 and 2035. That means $2.5 billion dollars in Edmontonians' pockets that wouldn't be there otherwise."
Between 2018 to 2021 the strategy estimates its plan will cost $25 to $30 million a year to achieve three specific targets by the year 2035:
What does energy transition look like in Edmonton?
Initiatives to achieve these goals are not finalized yet, but they will most certainly involve energy efficiency in city operations, homes and industry, mass and non-motorized transportation, and likely a significant uptick in solar energy production in the city.
The LRT is also a cornerstone of building more a sustainable city: "I have strong vision, backed by our counsel, unanimously, to pursue build out of the system. It's got to get to all corners of the city," says Iveson adding that a transit oriented lifestyle is part of helping more people walk, take transit and perhaps even avoid the need for a second car.
Iveson says urban design can help us all become more efficient and to that end Edmonton has begun one of the most ambitious projects anywhere, to build an inner city super green community on reclaimed airport lands.
"One of the things we are looking at closely for Blatchford... is 100 per cent renewable energy for 30,000 people plus business on that 600 acre green development we're planning. In addition to a geo-exchange field, one of the things we're looking at is like they did for the Vancouver Olympic village is harvesting waste heat out of the sewer trunk line which runs through."
Work is already underway on the first part of a large-scale geoexchange heating and cooling system that will heat and cool the homes in a neighborhood that seeks to be net-zero on a grand scale.
On the energy production side Iveson sees some real opportunities.
"I think solar is getting closer and closer to grid parity and I think has some real potential," says Iveson. "The Blatchford project will use "Solar ready construction subdivision patterns that orient for passive and active solar collection. I think we're trying to position future residential and industrial construction to be able to harvest those opportunities."
Edmonton is well placed to attempt to build a community of super energy efficient homes because the city has been ground zero for net-zero home innovation in North America.
"We have some amazing builders, whether it's Landmark Homes and their goal to build net-zero homes at an industrial scale through prefabrication," says Iveson. "But then we also do have some boutique builders who are building really extraordinary green homes, including a number of net-zero homes, I think the largest concentration of them in Canada."
"There are companies like PCL who are doing extraordinary and consistent work delivering LEED certified really high performing commercial and institutional buildings... And then again in the sort of boutique end of things you see the Mosaic Centre which is a truly net zero and very beautiful centre for commerce and for community in our industrial south east, which is a great example of commercial building technology that is also business feasible."
Greening the grid
Cities are already playing an important in purchasing clean electricity. The city of Calgary purchases 100 per cent renewable electricity for its own operations. Medicine Hat built Canada's first concentrated solar thermal plant as well as Canada's first wind farm on city land, Starland County has an amazing solar program for farmers and Vancouver is pledging to go 100 per cent renewable by 2050.
And while Edmonton is only taking its first steps Iveson is much more hopeful about this plan than he was six months ago
"So I'm actually as optimistic as I've been that some of the big policy changes that need to happen nationally and provincially are going to happen," says Iveson.
"We can be a leader in the Canadian context and internationally around some of the technology that's going to be required to get us to the finish line. And that is not only ethically the right thing to do for our environment, for our climate, but it's also a great business opportunity."
Are you interested in learning more about energy transition, solar energy or clean energy in general. Join us at the Edmonton Community Energy Forum on Saturday, Nov. 14. It's only $20 to register. Don Iveson will be one of the keynote speakers and both David Dodge and Duncan Kinney of Green Energy Futures will be hosting breakout sessions....
If you've hung around some of the wackier, more conspiratorial parts of the internet you may have heard of Agenda 21. According to former Fox News host Glenn Beck it is a radical plot that will "put their fangs into our community and suck all the blood out...
The story of Tillsonburg is probably pretty close to the ideal example of what the Ontario government was looking for when it enacted the Green Energy Act in 2009.
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The CTrain in Calgary is one of the greatest examples of electrified transport in Canada.
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Whether you call it a cottage or a cabin, Jason Rioux's summer home built partly out of shipping containers near Bobcaygeon, Ont. is pretty cool. With its rustic décor and innovative off-grid approach this solar-powered getaway is an interesting take on shipping container architecture.
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