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Archive for November 2014

More energy news this week (with an Italian profile…)

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The Montalto di Castro plant in Viterbo, Italy

The Montalto di Castro plant in Viterbo, Italy

Again, there has been a lot of energy news this week (or maybe it’s just a reflection of me discovering a great site, Energy Transition).

Starting with the unexpected: everyone knows about Germany’s transition to renewables, but few would put Italy in the same category; yet Italy is close behind, with 31 Gigawatts of renewables (excluding hydro). This puts Italy neck and neck with Spain (another inspiring story); only China, the US, and Germany have a higher production. Italy also decided to close down its nuclear plants in the 90s, a decision reaffirmed by referendum in 2011. In the first three quarters of 2014 Italy produced 19.6 TWh from photovoltaic energy alone. The importance of coal is gradually receding in the country.

Meanwhile, Germany is also continuing to phase out coal – or is it? Contradictory signals are coming from the new strategy paper from energy minister Sigmar Gabriel (reviewed – and criticized – here and here). Part of the rationale for extending the life of coal-fired plants is their ability to maintain baseload, that is, provide continuous power. Indeed, electricity prices increased in October due to a combination of cloudy and windless conditions, though the overall tendency calls for a long-term drop in electricity prices.

The fear, naturally, is that high energy prices will drive away industry. This seems unwarranted, however (with one small exception, a firm in the coal engineering sector leaving); industry is staying put and aluminum, a high electricity consumer, may actually benefit from the input of renewables. Policy is at any rate set to retain industry whole reducing fossil fuel use (see here and here).

Alberta wind energy producers get low prices because of the intermittent nature their supply. Of course, this is the type of issues that would be alleviated if effective energy storage could be developed. In that respect, there are encouraging new technologies being developed (links for geeks only): a solar/storage combo; a new flywheel design from Canadian high tech company Temporal Power; a more efficient way to produce hydrogen by hydrolysis; and breakthroughs in batteries and capacitors. Of course, seeking efficiencies remains fundamental. Along those lines, Germany announced a 10 billion Euro program for improving energy efficiency in buildings; a new system to get residential heat and hot water from computer cloud servers; and the town of Wildpoldsried, already famous for profiting from community renewable energy generation, is testing smart grid systems for efficiency savings.

One thing is clear from all this: renewable energy is still young and needs active support. But this support should be considered a social investment, which pays real dividends. This is amply demonstrated south of the border, where such federal programs have been shown to pay big dividends, showing criticisms to be groundless. As a result, renewables are now outcompeting new fossil fuel power projects in southern states such as Georgia and Texas (and in Brazil and India also).

On the political level, the climate accord between China and the US took everyone by surprise, setting the stage for climate discussions at the G20 summit; this despite the efforts of host Australian PM Tont Abbott to ignore the topic, having betted the future of Australia on coal exports. News that India is switching away from coal couldn’t have helped Abbott’s mood, either. This development is also putting pressure on Canada, as well.

Still on the political scene, at the local level environmentalists were heartened by news that many of the mayors elected in BC are the ones who have pledged to fight big oil, pipelines, and thermal coal exports.

In other news, there is movement in the (not well known, but considerable, and profitable) Canadian solar energy sector, with sales to Brazil and entry of an Italian company. Clean Technica claims that there is a trillion dollar development opportunity in renewables in BC (CredBC apparently agrees). There is a new initiative to bring solar power to rural Africa. A new study claims that the world could be powered entirely by solar; Denmark must agree, as it’s aiming to be 100% renewable by 2050. And the US Air Force is purchasing the world’s largest electric vehicle fleet, with enough energy storage to power 140 homes.

To cap it all, my favorite bit of news: a British study reports that collisions between wind turbines and wildlife could be avoided with a simple coat of purple paint. It doesn’t always have to be high-tech!







Written by enviropaul

November 16, 2014 at 2:27 pm

A secret garden? a good design, at least

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There’s a new building project in a neighbourhood that I particularly like for its urban character, the north Commercial Street area.

The very large hof (inner courtyard) from the kitchen window of the apartment of our friend Stephan in Hamburg

The very large hof (inner courtyard) from the kitchen window of the apartment of our friend Stephan in Hamburg

It’s a low rise development, four stories, with 48 apartments. What caught my eye, though, is its selling feature: what they call a “secret garden”. In other words, the building is wrapped around an inner courtyard. Not exactly revolutionary; most apartment blocks in Germany, for instance, are built this way around a hof, or inner yard. This is where kids play safely away from traffic; it’s also a bit less noisy, and there are the obvious “eyes on the street” dear to Jane Jacobs (except that the eyes here are also on the courtyard).

The design of the new building (called Mercer by Cressey) appears to accommodate a fair bit of greenery in the yard, which is all good. It’s not the originality of the design that I welcome; rather, it’s the fact that this old-fashioned European approach is making inroads here. And, again, such features increase livability of an urban area, and that’s why I like them.

Of course, the developer announces “boutique apartments”, with one and two bedroom suites priced between mid $300 and $400. I suppose that is what passes as reasonable prices in Vancouver, though this isn’t how the affordability crisis will get solved. Also, I deplore the fact that energy efficiency is nowhere mentioned in the advertising blurb or the website – that ought to be commonplace! (Marquee, a new building on Commercial at 7th avenue, and another nice addition, featured energy conservation in its marketing, which should be done everywhere; home buyers should factor in their future energy costs in their decisions.)

But I’ll settle for the inner courtyard, even with its pretentious “secret garden” name. It’s a good design, and I’d like to see more of it. A good addition to the neighbourhood.

Written by enviropaul

November 11, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Grief and denial

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About loss and the WWF report

About loss and the WWF report

I try not to blog about depressing stuff; but today, when everyone in the country is remembering what we lose in a war, all the broken lives and the sacrifices, the mood seems appropriate for reflecting on where we’re at.

My friend Michael dropped by last week, unannounced; he wanted to chat. He felt a bit shaken up; his mother had just died, after a long illness. This had come as no surprise but it’s always a blow.

But then he had a surprise for me; that’s not what he wanted to talk about.  He said he had just learned that about half of the animal species on Earth have gone extinct, according to the World Wildlife Federation’s latest report. And that’s what he wanted to talk about – “how come it’s not front page news”, he said. “That’s really burning me up. Have things really gotten that bad, that quick?”

There was a mixture of concern, anger, and sadness in his voice. It’s as if his personal grief had been subsumed in something bigger, something planetary.

And it got me thinking: yes, I knew about the report, I had read parts of it. I hadn’t been surprised – the report just confirmed what has been a depressing, long-term trend.
But why wasn’t I angry, like Michael? Why aren’t we all angry? Michael added “and it’s funny, I learned about that just after  listening to an radio interview of that guy [George Marshall] who studies the psychology of climate denial – it’s as if we’re programmed to ignore big news like this.”

I poured Michael a brandy, and we kept chatting. But I kept thinking, yes, we are indeed just blithely walking towards apocalypse – and sometimes it takes the shock of a personal loss to shake the complacency and the denial.

“How come you don’t blog about that”, said Michael, “about the loss of species; everybody should know about that.” Yes, that’s true, everyone should know about that. I try to blog about upbeat things, about hints of solutions on the horizon. But sometimes you have to take stock and look at the losses.

I don’t know if linking this to Remembrance Day is appropriate. The older generations, those who fought in the first World War, didn’t fight for wilderness or clean air, certainly. They fought for their country, they fought for something they valued. But what would they have thought, those who died long ago, if they could have seen our generation turn the Earth into a lonely desert because of short-sightedness and a warped sense of progress? Would they shrug, or would they instead reproach us for how we have treated the world they left for us to look after?

So cheers to you Michael, for reminding me that being complacent is also a form of forgetfulness – when what we need to do is remember.

Written by enviropaul

November 11, 2014 at 6:19 pm

Casa Pasiva: a super-efficient laneway home

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Casa Pasiva, still under construction

Casa Pasiva, still under construction

I payed a quick visit to Casa Pasiva, a new laneway house on east 15th in Vancouver.

The house sits in the back of a lot graced by a large heritage house. The owners have decided to renovate the old house and turn it into rental accommodation, while they themselves move into the smaller laneway house.

The old house is treated with new insulation added to the outside, and better windows. The old wooden houses of Vancouver will never be super energy efficient, but their performance can be improved quite a bit. What I saw convinced me that heritage character and energy efficiency are quite compatible.

The heritage house under renovation, showing the added insulation

The heritage house under renovation, showing the added insulation

The laneway house itself is built according to PassivHaus principles. The house has triple-glazed windows (assembled in BC), double-layer insulation, and an air-tight envelope that is coupled with a high efficiency heat exchange ventilation system (for a minimum of about three air changes per hour). Fresh outside air is brought into the living areas (bedroom, living room) and vented off the washroom and kitchen. But it’s also possible to open the windows and bring in fresh air; the house is designed for good cross-flow natural ventilation. There is also a small green roof.  What made the visit fun is that it is still under construction; all the working guts are visible.

Because of the orientation of the lot, the laneway house faces north and is shaded much of the day, unfortunately. This results in a thermal performance just shy of PassivHaus standard: an expected load of 18 kWh per square meter per year (the standard is 15). At about 7.5 cent per kWh in vancouver, that would mean a total cost of maybe $135 to heat the house – per year!

The lungs of the house: a combined ventilation/heat exchanger with over 90% efficiency.

The lungs of the house: a combined ventilation/heat exchanger with over 90% efficiency.

The design of the little house (well, it’s a bit over 100 square meters, or 1000 square feet) was also very interesting. There is the usual architectural considerations, sure; but for a geek like me, what’s fun is discussing how the thermal performance is simulated for various weather/occupancy scenarios and the design (size and location of windows, for instance) tweaked for optimum performance.

Air ducts, water, and lots of wiring: the working guts exposed.  And insulation to be added!

Air ducts, water, and lots of wiring: the working guts exposed. More insulation to be added!

It’s pretty gratifying to see this kind of construction happening here. There ought to be many more; that would make some unit costs for things like windows and heat exchanger go down. But more importantly, to have numerous energy eficent houses would result in a much lower need for power, so reducing greenhouse gas emissions (and the need for power projects like Site C). Seeking “negawatts” – that is, looking for energy efficiencies – is still the cheapest source of power.


But I feel even more encouraged by seeing the heritage house being well pampered and insulated. There is a lot of housing stock in the Greater Vancouver that could use a performance overhaul, instead of a demolition. How about bringing back the program to subsidize residential energy efficiency improvements? That would spur change and create jobs. Just sayin’.

Written by enviropaul

November 9, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Clean energy news this week (and good news they are!)

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Community energy: a farm in the Black Forest in Germany, with a roof covered in solar panels

Community energy: a farm in the Black Forest in Germany, with a roof covered in solar panels

Every now and again there is a flurry of news about energy.  I did a previous round-up a while back; this week, the news are pretty positive.  Here’s a quick overview.

One of the interesting trending news this week is decentralized energy, where communities decide for themselves to build solar or wind or what-have-you. One of the reasons why the Energiewende (the energy policy that promotes clean energy) is so popular in Germany is that clean energy is most often owned and operated by the local communities. Decisions are taken at a local level, so not only is there a sense of control and little NIMBYism, but communities are often better off financially; see here, here, and here.

David Roberts chimed in with the idea that developing countries might be better off foregoing large centralized power plants (including the costly development of a distribution grid) and move right away to decentralized power; a similar leap happened with phones, where cells phones were adopted without resorting to land lines.

(This also means that there are very few complaints of the type that have plagued the wind industry in Ontario; Health Canada has finally released a report that verifies that there are no negative health impacts from wind power.)

Germany is looking to aggressively move away from coal. The discussion paper issued by the Merkel government pointed out that there are too many fossil-fired power plants the system and overcapacities “have to be cut” in order to meet climate targets.  Also in Germany, a new 23 million Euro program has been unveiled to promote the development of electric vehicles.

France has started construction on the largest solar plant in Europe, a 300 MW behemoth expected to feed the grid in October of next year (details here and here). France and Germany also announced a plan to cooperate on renewables. This is great news coming from France, which has been slow to develop renewables until now.

This October, Scotland produced enough wind energy to power over three million homes in the UK – more than there are homes in all of Scotland.

A Bellingham, WA, based solar panel manufacturer is expanding and opening a plant in Minneapolis. This shows there is optimism in the field. The same thing can be said of BC, according to a new report profiled by CREDBC. Indeed, a few weeks back a German expert told the Clean Energy BC conference that Canada is well suited for the development of clean energy.

Speaking of BC, this weekend two highly-efficient houses built on PassivHaus standard open their doors to the public. This Saturday (November 8) between 10 am and 4 pm, visit Surrey’s 1st Passive House and New City Design Award Winner 2014 located at 1702-156A Street. The owners will be present and share their experience. The following Sunday (November 9) between 10 am and 4 pm, Vancouver Low Energy Infill home “Casa Pasiva’ at 919 East 15th Ave in Vancouver can be visited.

These are all pretty uplifting news. If you’re looking to nurture that mood and get a good overview of where things are at south of the border, listen to this very interesting audioclip from Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. He explains why clean energy is, not the future, but unfolding already now. Click on the October 15 show in the link here from Vancouver Co-op radio.


Addendum: of course, as soon as I posted, I found this article in Grist that claims that solar power will reach parity with conventional electricity in everyone but three of the US States as of 2016; US solar is already going gangbusters.  Love swimming in positive news!




Written by enviropaul

November 7, 2014 at 4:34 pm

My daily commute in Germany

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Spatzieren - going for a walk in the Pinneberg neighbourhood, with cows and woodlots.

Spatzieren – going for a walk in the Pinneberg neighbourhood, with cows and woodlots.  Dense?  No.  But transit accessible.

People think that European transit systems work well because the cities are so dense, with short distances and high ridership. It’s easy to form that impression as a tourist, since one is always visiting the denser historic parts of a city. But this can be a wrong impression – and a very unfortunate one, too, since it is often invoked to justify why we cannot have European-style transit. And with it, any hope of developing transit as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Not that the impression is completely false; there is sprawl in Europe, but less than in North America. I’ll take Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, because I’m more familiar with it; and when I go there I stay in the burbs.

It’s somewhat difficult to compare the two places, so I included two large suburbs around Hamburg (Pinneberg and Stormann) so that we have similar population sizes (2,290,000 for Hamburg, 2,310,000 for Vancouver). This gives a density of about 800 people/km2 for Greater Vancouver, compared to 1050 for the Hamburg-Pinneberg-Stormann. (Why did I pick these two areas? It’s because that’s where I usually stay, either at relatives, in Ahrensburg in the Stromann area, or at friends in Pinneberg.)
But even given the slightly higher density, there is an amazing discrepancy between the two transit systems. The Germans chose to go with rail for moving commuters; not so BC.

The Greater Hamburg commuter train system

The Greater Hamburg commuter train system


Vancouver: the Skytrain and West Coast Express

Vancouver: the Skytrain and West Coast Express









What does that look like on the ground? I took a German class for a couple of weeks there once. Here are pictures of my commute from Uncle Detlev’s house to my school in Altona, about 25 kms. Door to door, including a twenty minute walk by the horse pastures, that’s a bit over one hour by rail.

In terms of neighbourhoods and distance, that’s the equivalent of going from, say, North-East Surrey to Kitsilano: from semi-rural hobby farms to trendy. But I couldn’t replicate that commute here. Is it really so much to ask? Why can’t we have enticing transit?

The fields in front of Detlev's house.  A low density, garden-city style development

The fields in front of Detlev’s house. A low density, garden-city style development

Detlev's house (left), in Ahrensburg.

Detlev’s house (left), in Ahrensburg.










The path along the Lottbeck, a little creek on the way to the station

The path along the Lottbeck, a little creek on the way to the station


The horse pasture down the street on my walk to the train

The horse pasture down the street on my walk to the train






...and then to the station.  Note the clock: the trains are on time.

…and then to the station. Note the clock: the trains are on time.

The little bakery where I'd get a choco-croissant to much on during class

The little bakery where I’d get a choco-croissant to much on during class









Note the bike/ hiking path parallel to the train tracks (from Ahrensburg to Volksdorf, on the way to downtown)

Note the bike/ hiking path parallel to the train tracks (from Ahrensburg to Volksdorf, on the way to downtown)







at one of the trandy outdoor cafes near Altona, after my German class

At one of the trendy outdoor cafes near Altona, after my German class

...and just like in Kits, there's a beach nearby

…and just like in Kits, there’s a beach nearby!

Written by enviropaul

November 3, 2014 at 7:18 pm

Is Metro’s garbage gonna keep leaking? (or, what Belkorp wrought)

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Clawing away at our garbage...

Clawing away at our garbage…

So Belkorp and BFI won, and environment minister Mary Polak rejected Metro’s bylaw 280. It was a masterful PR and lobbying campaign on their part, and quite a few people in the environmental community got hoodwinked in the process.

The proposed bylaw said: whatever waste is generated in Metro Vancouver needs to be treated in Metro Vancouver – and pay Metro’s tipping fees accordingly.
Polak justified her decision by saying that this approach created a monopoly.

One of the opponents to the bylaw, NorthWest, has pledged to build a murf (a mixed waste recovery facility) to sort and recover recyclable and compostable material in Coquitlam.

But the question is not whether this facility will be able to deliver on its (questionable) promise to divert 80% of the waste away from disposal; rather, it is: why build one at all?

Without the bylaw in place, the cheapest solution is to ship waste to Washington State through the transfer station in Abbotsford. Currently about 20% of the commercial waste is diverted this way, leaving an estimated $11 million hole in Metro’s budget. It would be naïve to think that figure isn’t going to grow without the bylaw; indeed, it would be irresponsible for commercial waste haulers not to seize this bargain. So why build any kind of costly treatment facility?

The net effect of this leakage, and resulting lack of funds, is the threat to any current attempts to treat garbage responsibly. Recycling, murfs, waste-to-energy, gasification, compost, any of these projects that are key to efforts to reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are bound to be shelved.

The politics – and the PR campaign that Belkorp and co have mounted, are quite fascinating, in their own right (Frances Bula has covered the situation in detail here and here, articles well worth reading). By establishing a link between the bylaw and incinerators, they managed to fool the environmental community into doing its work, even though there was no link, as I described here, and even though, for that matter, WTFs deserve a fair hearing.

All in all, a bad decision for the environment, and another instance that shows that environmentalists, like everybody else, can shoot themselves in the foot. Sigh.

Written by enviropaul

November 2, 2014 at 8:11 pm