Friday 3 July 2015

Perception is Reality in Vancouver

In the eyes of most of the world, Vancouver is a hot bed of green building activity, sustainable living and green energy. In reality, it is a city without water meters, a robust compost plan, an enforced energy code, one that dumps partially or untreated sewage into it’s waters, and a myriad of other not so green practices.
 As a Sustainability Consultant, I’ve seen concerted efforts to showcase renewable energy projects in the urban environment. In places across Ontario, PV is often seen on buildings and the side of the road. In Minnesota I’ve seen urban wind projects in St Paul and Minneapolis. Both wind and PV have popped up on co-ops, animal shelters, homes and parks. In the Middle East, Abu Dhabi just finished the largest PV project in the world, and the Saudi’s are about to embark on their own renewable energy boom using the power of the sun.
 Even energy efficiency has become a requirement in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia you now can not get an electrical connection until you have a certain amount of insulation. That’s something that is hard to hid or fake (unlike an ASHRAE “compliance” submission). They had no debates over which version of ASHRAE or other standards to adopt, (and then struggle to enforce) they simply are making people insulate their buildings. Contemplation of minimum requirements for equipment efficiency has also begun in earnest.
 While the Middle East isn’t known for green building, common construction practices will often get you all the LEED water credits. Cisterns, non-potable water usage, and onsite treatment is common at projects of all scales (even though water is heavily subsidized). Drip irrigation is the norm across the region and water conservation is a constant topic in design meetings. After all, when they first drilled wells in the 1930’s they were looking for water, not oil.
 In Vancouver you will be lucky to see renewable energy anywhere in the city. With the exception of a few city projects or start up companies, the low utility rates, lack of government incentive and perception that “we are green already” means you will be hard pressed to see renewable energy systems in the city. The cheap (basically amounts to almost free) water supplied to business’ and homes isn’t even worth sending you a separate bill for. In most cases it’s just tied to your property taxes and the city reads your analog meter once every 3 months.
 What you will see in Vancouver is glass condo after glass condo. This is despite the fact that the city has the highest energy standard in North America, and has had the highest energy standard for many decades now. You’ll also see lots of dead “green” walls. A fad that struck some years ago and would be something you would imagine would be easy to keep green in a rain forest like Vancouver. Usually these dead green walls are attached to buildings with an overall R value (insulation value) of about 1.5 (the energy standard is about 15 for reference).
 While Vancouver has one of the best urban plans in North American, and is blessed with relatively cheap and clean hydroelectric energy (thank you 1960’s provincial leaders), it really hasn’t moved past those two inherited elements in the few years it has decided it will be the greenest city in the world.
 It’s really time the City of Vancouver did some of the basics right rather than just continue to market on garbage cans that they want to be green by 2020. Start either enforcing your own building energy standard, or if you can’t figure out how to do that, just do what the Saudis did and just require insulation (a novel concept in Vancouver I’m afraid). Start metering and charging for water. Abottsford and Calgary have water meters and Vancouver doesn’t. How can these pick up truck towns be more water conscience than one wanting to be the greenest in the world?
 While perception often becomes reality (as it has in the case of Vancouver’s green claims), there needs to be more to Vancouver’s efforts than what City hall buys and what cars their fleet uses. Pretty much every city out there is working in that direction. “Greenest” certainly requires much more strategic and real effort than what is being expended to date.