Best Practice
November 18, 2013

Who says it’s not easy being green?

When we put out the call to cities across Canada for stories explaining how they are contributing to environmental sustainability, we were blown away by what they’re doing. From a solar panel program in Halifax to Vancouver’s strategy in response to the increased risk of coastal-storm related flooding, the innovation and dedication of so many of our governments in both responding to climate change and maintaining a sustainable environment is inspiring.

What follows are stories of environmental commitment from five cities that get it. They prove that with hard work and perseverance, municipal governments can make a difference where it matters most.

 

Conserving Charlottetown’s water
When it comes to reducing water demand, Charlottetown’s experience has been that a combination of initiatives is required: no one project or program can solve all water supply issues; small changes can make a big difference.

The City of Charlottetown has been facing water supply issues for some time, regularly pumping over 90 percent of its water supply capacity. Charlottetown Water and Sewer Utility provides water and sewer service to over 34,000 residents and the city continues to grow in population and service areas. Over the past several years there have also been concerns raised about reduced stream flow in the Winter River watershed (where the city’s three primary wellfields are located) and the effects this has had on the fish population and ecological integrity. The community group in this area, the Winter River Tracadie Bay Watershed Association (WRTBA), has been actively involved in watershed restoration and in increasing public awareness about the effects of the high levels of water extraction.

In 2010, the city completed an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan to guide decision-making and engage the public on moving toward being a more sustainable city. One of the primary goals identified as a priority among residents was to improve water resource management. As a result, Charlottetown hired a Water Conservation Program Coordinator to develop a water conservation plan and implement programs and initiatives.

Since 2011, the city has developed numerous successful initiatives that have aimed at engaging the public, increasing awareness and reducing overall water demand. It has replaced nearly 700 high flush-volume toilets through the Toilet Replacement Rebate Program, encouraged over 600 homeowners to voluntarily install water meters, and sold over 400 rain barrels through an annual rain barrel sale for outdoor water use. The upcoming Showerhead Exchange Program will encourage residents and business owners to bring in their old inefficient showerheads to receive a low-flow Kohler brand showerhead at no cost.

In an effort to support the commercial sector, Charlottetown offered free water audits to high-capacity hotels in the spring of 2013. This pilot project was offered in partnership with the Holland College Energy Systems Engineering Technology program. A student from their on-the-job-training program along with a utility representative conducted water audits at the hotels and provided a follow up report with recommended actions and a full cost-benefit analysis on each of the proposed actions. Hotel owners and managers were then able to consider the recommendations in their short- and long- term planning for hotel updates and renovations and see the types of savings they could achieve by making changes in their facility.

In the summer of 2012, water demand in Charlottetown reached new heights. The very dry weather contributed to an increase in water use outdoors and caused extraction rates to rise above permitted levels. Several streams in the Winter River watershed went dry. In an effort to curb outdoor water use and raise awareness about the environmental effects of the high levels of extraction, the city developed and released water use guidelines to the public asking residents to stop watering lawns, washing cars and promoting other outdoor water use. The media provided extensive coverage on the issue and water use was reduced to more typical pumping levels. The guidelines were officially adopted by City Council in September 2012 as formal water restrictions. These restrictions will run annually from June 1 to September 30.

In the fall of 2012, City Council adopted a Water Efficiency Policy that applied to all water use by city employees and throughout city facilities. The policy applies to all areas of operations and has increased discussion and action among departments on water use. The policy also applies to maximum flow rates for new or renovated facilities.

Moving forward, Charlottetown is looking at several new programs and projects to continue this focus on water conservation and efficiency. A water audit of the utility’s distribution system was conducted in the spring of 2013 that has led to the development of a Water Loss Program for reducing system leakage. In particular, a strong focus has been on installing water meters on all remaining flat-rate accounts, the vast majority of which are single-family homes. While a voluntary metering program has been in place since 2010, the focus now is to move toward mandatory metering where all services will be metered and billed based on consumption.

Ramona Doyle is the utility projects officer with the City of Charlottetown. She has been working with the city since 2010 on water conservation, wellfield protection and community awareness (rdoyle@charlottetown.ca).

 

A bright future for Halifax solar energy
Residents in Halifax are catching on to solar energy through a novel program being run by the Halifax Regional Municipality. In March the city launched its $8.3 million Solar City program for residents. Its goal is to have up to 1,000 solar hot water systems installed within 18 months.

Considering there are about 800 residential solar hot water systems installed in all of Canada, in a typical year, the program is clearly ambitious. As the first program of its kind in Canada, it is using a new financing tool for municipalities, similar to local improvement charges (LIC).

Traditionally, LICs have been used by municipalities to fund infrastructure upgrades like water and road projects, charging a particularly district or area for its new infrastructure. These charges would be attached to all the properties in that district until the capital cost was paid off. The Solar City program is doing the same thing, except on an individual property basis. Participation is also 100 percent voluntary by homeowners. This unique user pay model encourages the adoption of renewable energy and allows the municipality to finance the installation for a homeowner, removing the first cost barrier. The program is being run on a full cost recovery basis for the municipality and could be considered budget neutral.

The financing model can also be used to fund other types of programming such as efficiency or water conservation. The model ensures that the financing and charges stay with the property, regardless of homeowner. So if you sign up for the program and sell your house five years later, the new homeowner assumes the payments – and the benefits.

In 2010-11, Nova Scotia amended the Municipal Government Act to enable the financing scheme for all Nova Scotia municipalities. Other municipalities across Canada are now looking at implementing similarly financed programs, with the City of Toronto recently approving a $20 million pilot program in July 2013. Halifax’s program was kick started with help from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Green Municipal Fund.

The program’s numbers are showing the benefits of solar to the community. With an average cost of around $8,000 (after all rebates, incentives, administration fees and taxes), the average return on investment for homeowners is seven to nine percent. The program’s uptake is also strong because Halifax has some of the highest energy costs in Canada; with very little access to natural gas, most homeowners use oil or high-cost fossil fuel electricity to heat their hot water.

Solar City is also delivering technical innovation and is offering a $300 web/smartphone monitoring option to homeowners that allows them to see real-time water consumption, energy savings and performance of their solar system. It also allows them to check out their historical savings. This real-time feature is important to understanding changing patterns of energy and water consumption while maximizing the performance of the solar system. With the proof in the numbers, it has also helped market the program while increasing energy literacy.

The turnkey design of the Solar City program is another strong feature, simplifying the process for homeowners while also allowing them to take advantage of real economies of scale in procurement, quality control, financing and administration.

In April, during the ceremonial ribbon cutting of the first completed home, Mayor Mike Savage highlighted the macro economic advantages. “Solar City is not only saving homeowners’ money but also creating opportunities for local businesses; 40-60 new jobs are going to be a result of this program. I am also proud that the solar equipment is made right here in Nova Scotia by Thermo Dynamics. As the oldest independent solar thermal manufacturer in the world, they have a 30-year track record of success. With our community spending almost $2 billion in energy we are happy to look at alternatives. By reducing some of this … we reduce the exporting of our energy dollars from the community. This reduction is good for our economy and good for our environment.”

In the first five months of the program, more than 150 homeowners have had a solar system installed. Last year, without the program, about 50 solar systems were installed in Halifax. With the program just ramping up, it looks like a bright future for solar in Halifax.

Julian Boyle is a professional engineer and manager of strategic energy policy and initiatives for the Halifax Regional Municipality. He has led over $15 million in corporate efficiency and renewable energy projects over the last 10 years (boylej@halifax.ca).

 

Saskatoon speaks up for sustainability
The topic of the environment was high on the priority list for residents who participated in the Saskatoon Speaks visioning exercise held in 2010. The City of Saskatoon has had sustainability goals embedded in its strategic planning documents for well over a decade. However, in response to Saskatoon Speaks, the new corporate strategic plan creates greater emphasis and ensures environmental leadership is a strategic goal for all city initiatives.

Energy efficiency is foundational to environmental leadership. Interdepartmental collaborations focus on stamping out waste in the form of energy and water use. Saving money, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, modernizing operations, and introducing technologies that capture the enthusiasm of our citizens are all outcomes of this work.

Saskatoon currently has two LEED buildings (Fire Hall #8 and the Access Transit Maintenance Facility) and is constructing two others (the Police Headquarters and Remai Art Gallery of Saskatchewan).

Sometimes small interventions can be as valuable as these big commitments. In ice arenas, the City uses temperature set-back controls and ice additives to achieve natural gas savings (for space heating) and electricity savings (for ice production). Savings of $4,500 annually in utility costs are being achieved at each rink facility.

The city is also finding ways to implement environmental initiatives into new neighbourhoods. In Evergreen, the city’s electrical department, Saskatoon Light & Power, has installed LED street-lighting. Other initiatives include a $500 rebate for homes certified through Energy Star. Rainwater collection barrels, composters and Saskatoon Berry bushes are provided with each lot sale. The savings in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions from these initiatives are equal to taking 150 cars off the road.

In our housing programs, the city supports environmental initiatives that further enhance the affordability of homes to residents with lower incomes. The Pleasant Hill Revitalization project includes Saskatoon’s first multi-unit residential solar energy installation that off-sets the electricity used by homeowners and then sells any excess back to the grid. Reducing monthly costs for energy helps these homeowners avoid becoming victim to “energy poverty” and having to choose between spending on food or paying high energy bills during winter months. The city’s focus on “triple bottom line sustainability” ensures affordability and social inclusion while also being economically and environmentally responsible and progressive.

The city itself is also working on opportunities to replace conventional energy sources with green energy technologies. The Landfill Gas Energy Generation project captures the methane produced by decomposition at the landfill facility and pumps it to an electrical generating station where the power is sold into the grid for a profit. Projects being explored for the Green Energy Park at the landfill may provide up to 10 megawatts of energy, enough to supply 6,000 homes and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to removing 23,000 cars from our roadways each year.

Two Saskatoon pools are now heated by the sun using the largest solar hot water installation in Saskatchewan. With 90 solar panels at Lawson Civic Centre and 72 panels at Harry Bailey, approximately 20 percent of the heating energy required for the pools will be provided and 111 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year will be saved.

On the water conservation front, a number of initiatives are highlighted under the Be Water Wise campaign. Rainwater is captured and re-used for bus washing at Access Transit, reducing water consumption for washing by 50 percent. Parks Branch has increased use of raw water for tree watering and implemented an Automated Irrigation Management System (AIMS) that is capable of detecting soil moisture conditions and adjusting irrigation schedules to conserve water. The water treatment processes in Saskatoon contribute 30 percent to the city’s corporate greenhouse gas emissions and, therefore, these initiatives have strong financial and environmental benefits.

There are many changes to waste management. The residential curbside recycling program launched earlier this year will double recycling diversion from the landfill, saving 15 percent of the annual airspace used. A multi-unit dwelling recycling program is currently under development. Existing yard-waste composting programs have tremendous support in the community, currently diverting 20,000 tonnes of organic material from the landfill (17 percent of all material disposed at the landfill).

The City of Saskatoon recognizes that the beauty of the urban forest also provides carbon sequestration equivalent to soaking up the emissions from 3,400 vehicles. Saskatoon’s forefathers set aside the river valley for the enjoyment of future generations, and the city remains committed today to conserving nature, biodiversity, and the quality of life in Saskatoon.

Brenda Wallace is a member of the Canadian Institute of Planners and manager of environmental services with the City of Saskatoon (brenda.wallace@saskatoon.ca).

 

Guiding Edmonton homeowners to green decisions
On June 20, 2012, Edmonton City Council approved the Green Building Plan and Policy. The policy outlines the strong role the City of Edmonton can play in improving the environmental, health and socioeconomic performance of all existing and new buildings in Edmonton and gives the city a mandate to lead and support the delivery of public and industry education campaigns, provide incentives, and use its authority in land use planning and development approvals to transform the local green building market.

The Green Building Plan is a set of policy and programs designed to address barriers identified in the local market that prevent the shift to greener outcomes. It was structured around market transformation theory, which is based on observing how innovations are adopted and diffused through society and the marketplace. New technologies like hybrid electric vehicles or new practices like smart growth, with consumer interest will be accepted first by innovators, then by early adopters and finally successively larger and larger percentages of the market.

One barrier that is often identified by building professionals is that consumers rarely demand a greener product. Homebuilders often report that the consumer is willing to upgrade countertops or flooring but will rarely invest the same dollars in upgrading the building envelope. Research suggests that much of the reluctance can be linked to a lack of understanding of what it means to build green and the ultimate value of green to the individual consumer.

However, it is also much more complex than that, as the choice the consumer is making is deeply rooted in social norms and societal values. As a result, education programs must be combined with longer-term social marketing designed to build a city-wide culture of sustainability. As the cultural norms shift, the individual consumer will more proactively seek out greener choices.

This shift is not easy to achieve and requires sustained effort, but the methodology has shown success for other sustainability programs in Edmonton, most notably, in its world-renowned waste management system. Although Edmonton’s waste management system includes leading-edge, end-of-pipe solutions, it also relies on social marketing to encourage citizens to separate recyclables at the source and reduce backyard waste through initiatives such as grass-cycling and composting.

To help facilitate the greening of the housing market, Edmonton recently launched its Green Home Guide and social marketing program. The guide provides easy-to-read background information on various energy efficiency improvements and green features that are possible in today’s residential market (both new and resale). Through a series of quick text descriptions and infographics, the guide helps consumers get a better understanding of what defines a green home. Important concepts such as location efficiency, payback and operational costs are also highlighted.

The intent of the guide is to convey the value and benefits of green, above and beyond saving the environment. These include comfort, cost savings, aesthetics and the cool factor. The guide also underlines the message that various levels of green can be attainable at any budget and that it is not an “all or nothing” game.

The desired outcome of the guide and associated marketing program is better-informed consumer choice which, in turn, is expected to build greater demand for greener homes.

Checklists at the back of the guide prompt home buyers to ask a series of questions of their builder, real estate agent or contractor so they can quickly assess the green components of the home. Questions are asked in plain English and guidance is provided on what to look for. The checklists can also be used to help plan green renovations. The information is also being designed for the web, and e mobile versions of the checklists are being planned.

The guide was developed in close consultation with local industry, which included the Canadian Home Builders’ Association – Edmonton Chapter and the Realtors Association of Edmonton. Working closely with industry ensured the recommendations in the guide were realistic and achievable in the local market.

 

Mike Mellross is the corporate environmental management program manager in the Sustainable Development Department of the City of Edmonton. He led the development of the Green Building Policy and Plan in 2011 (mike.mellross@edmonton.ca).

 

Preparing Vancouver for sea level rise
While infrastructure design is often cited as part of the solution, creating connections through strong social relationships and support networks will go a long way to improving the capacity of any community to adapt before an event and recover quickly and effectively afterward. Getting to know your neighbor could be one of the best things you could do to prepare yourself, and your family, for an emergency.

In the last year floods ravaged Alberta communities, storm surges swamped coastal New York State, and Torontonians waded to work after 126mm of rain fell in a record-shattering event. The Insurance Bureau of Canada confirms that claims related to extreme weather are increasing. The ability of our communities to withstand a shock while maintaining essential functions and to recover quickly and effectively – essentially, building resilience – is quickly and legitimately complementing sustainability as a new planning framework.

Resilience is much more than an ability to recover from a traumatic event; it’s a characteristic of human-built natural systems and their interactions. As such, it requires identifying projects that cross disciplines and that provide a range of benefits now and in the future. Enhancing resilience is proving to be an effective silo-buster within the City of Vancouver, a goal around which disparate interests and experience can come together. City staff is undertaking a host of projects that will improve resilience, from strengthening community social connections to earthquake preparedness planning.

Vancouver’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, adopted by City Council in 2012, targets both rainfall and coastal storm-related flooding as top priorities. The threat of coastal flooding is expected to escalate with sea level rise (SLR); the B.C. government draft guidelines for SLR anticipate a 0.5-metre increase in sea level by 2050, a one-metre increase by 2100 and two metres by 2200.

The city is working at both the strategic and applied levels to increase its resilience to sea level rise. At the applied level the city is reviewing flood-proofing policies that rely on flood construction levels (FCLs -minimum habitable floor elevations), setbacks and construction methods for flood hazard management. Our planning and building groups have been encouraging a one-metre increase in FCLs since February 2012 in response to the provincial government’s guidelines. Recommendations for flood-resilient construction methods and materials will accompany the revamp.

Flood-proofing policies will need regular review as sea level rise becomes the new normal and the projections continue to be refined. A comprehensive planning and development review concluded that while a one-metre change is relatively straightforward within current regulation and design tenet applications, additional elevation would require a wholesale change to how we design and build in flood prone areas. The development community has been involved as an important stakeholder since 2011 and will be joined at our consultation table by builders, architects, engineers and others in further dialogues to provide input to policy development and planning.

On the strategic front, Vancouver is planning for sea level rise response by undertaking a Coastal Flood Risk Assessment (CFRA). The project, funded in part by the federal government, includes the following steps:

• Understand the hazard: Incorporating sea level rise, what sort of storms will cause flooding? What is the extent and depth of that flooding?
• Map out vulnerabilities: Given the projected flooding, which populations, critical infrastructure and public and private assets are vulnerable?
• Quantify risks: What will be the extent of infrastructure damage and other consequences from flooding?
• Identify and prioritize response options.

The last step, identifying and prioritizing how we could respond to the flood risks, is a project in and of itself. The four recognized categories of response are: Protect (walls, storm gates, dikes); accommodate (raise buildings, FCLs, flood-resilient building); retreat (over time remove development from coastline); and avoid (impose restrictions to development along coastline).

Taking what has been learned about potential damages during risk modeling, the city will bring stakeholders together to help plan and identify environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of each potential response option on a site-specific scale.

Sea level rise presents a novel challenge in building resilience, one that Vancouver luckily has time to prepare for. Other shocks may come as more of a surprise, and continued work across sectors to build resilience and learn from events is imperative.

Tamsin Mills is the senior sustainability specialist with the City of Vancouver’s Sustainability Group. She was the project lead and author of the city’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (tamsin.mills@vancouver.ca).

 

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