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Archive for April 2015

SPEC’s solar tour

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The PV panels on the roof of the MEC building

The PV panels on the roof of the MEC building

SPEC, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, and the oldest enviro group in Vancouver, organises “solar tours” every now and then. I joined one yesterday, on the roof the Mountain Equipment Co-op.

MEC has two arrays of panels, each pumping out about 1.5 kW on a sunny day. The first set is an ten-year old mono-crystalline unit that was originally on the roof of the old SPEC house; the panels went for about $10,000 then. I remember bringing a class to SPEC around that time, and the staff made it clear that these units were for learning; with the cheap price of BC Hydro power, these would never pay for themselves.

The unexpected beauty of poly-crystalline panel up close.

The unexpected beauty of poly-crystalline panel up close.

Fast forward ten years: the second array of a similar capacity was purchased for about $1,300. PV panels are now so cheap that our guide, who showed some solar water heaters, recommended against them. “It’s now cheaper and simpler to put up PV panels and use the electricity to heat up a water tank”, he said. Wow – just a few years ago it was gospel that hot water heaters could pay for themselves in between 5 and 10 years, PV cells, well – now it’s the reverse.

The panels at MEC are a funny angle, about 20% off the vertical. This is less than optimal, but our guide explained that this is the simplest option: the mounts for this flat roof are ballast-type, which means that they are not attached to the roof. A higher angle would risk the wind moving them.
It’s still not super cheap, but it’s getting there. Most systems, as this one is, are net-metered, which means that extra electricity is sold back to BC Hydro at around 7 cents per kilowatt hour. (You’re charged more like 10 cents, though, when you buy power – taxes and fees seem to run one-way.) In BC there is no feed-in-tariff for solar electricity, unfortunately. (A feed-in-tariff is a higher fee as an incentive for solar power producers; Germany successfully pioneered this approach with the twin objective of creating a market for the technology and reducing greenhouse gases emissions. But BC has clean hydro power.)

Where solar PVs are most appropriate is in remote locations. BC Hydro charges about $12,000 for each pole that they install to reach your property. An ordinary house may require about $10,000 worth of panels, half of that or less if energy efficiency measures are used. A solar installation is more than panels, of course; there’s the cost of installation, inverter, batteries, etc, so that may double or triple the overall cost. But even then, it may be cheaper than connecting to the grid. Most homes, though, usually connect directly to the grid, sparing the expenses of batteries.

Our small group around the panels at MEC

Our small group around the panels at MEC

I asked about power failures – in the extent of an extended blackout, would a house with PV panels be able to produce power, say to keep the freezer from thawing? Unfortunately, that’s not possible with most installations; they shut down if the grid goes down. That is done for safety reasons; if there were some PV juice running through the wires while a technician is trying to fix them, there would an obvious hazard. But I was glad to hear that there is a new system coming that has an automated kill-switch that would enable users to still derive power from their cells even when the local grid is down.

The new housing co-op on 33rd (near Victoria) will use solar PV as part of its power supply, and our guide said that this is typical of an increased demand.

Our guide (stupidly, I didn’t write his name down) is a system designer and installer, and had lots of savvy with respect to practical issues. No wonder: before getting a Master’s degree in Sustainability Studies, he was a practicing electrician.

SPEC’s next tour will be on May 10th.  These free tours are part of the Wild About Vancouver outdoor education festival, with a very cool line-up of events.


Addendum: Rob Baxter, of Vancouver Renewable Energy, mentioned to me that the name of our guide is Darren C Anderson.


Written by enviropaul

April 19, 2015 at 1:36 pm

Canada, the climate free-rider

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Canada has the worst greenhouse gas emissions per capita

Canada has the worst greenhouse gas emissions per capita

Canada needs to step up its climate efforts.

This would seem to go without saying. But a combination of three articles published today made it cruelly evident.

Carol Linnitt, in DeSmogBlog, reports on the faulty logic behind Premier Brad Wall statement that Canada, being a minor emitter of greenhouse gases, need not feel it needs to act.  Writes Linnitt:

At the premiers’ climate summit this week, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall brought up a statistic that has received a fair amount of attention lately: Canada’s emissions account for fewer than two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions…Essentially, Wall appears to be suggesting that because no single action by itself will solve the problem, we shouldn’t take that single action.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne rejected Wall’s argument. “Yes, we are a small country in terms of our population and absolute emissions, but we are heavy emitters per capita and that actually gives us more of a responsibility to innovate and create technology that allow us to deal with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

Wall’s argument has been repeated often, and it needs adressing: why, indeed, should we care? A bit of international context may be useful here. (And at least Wall is attending, which is better than can be said about Christie Clark.)

Today Brazil announced that its upcoming initiative will surprise many. From the article:

Brazil will increase the use of renewable energy, target zero net deforestation and push for low-carbon agriculture as part of its climate proposal, Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said in an interview. In its proposal to the United Nations climate conference in Paris this year, Latin America’s largest nation will propose ambitious new targets to reduce destruction of the Amazon rainforest, boost reforestation and increase solar, hydro and wind energy.

Over the past decade Brazil has been one of the world’s protagonists in combating climate change, slashing its greenhouse emissions by 41 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to official data.

So Brazil will join Mexico in leading the pack, yet neither Latin American nations are as rich as Canada; yet they are doing their bit (and will probably create numerous jobs in the process). Mmmh, what is going on?

Even more eye-opening is this news from the Netherlands today:

Public hearings will take place in the Hague on Tuesday in the first case in the world to use existing human rights and tort law to hold a government responsible for failing to reduce carbon emissions fast enough… They will ask the judiciary to declare that the Dutch government must implement policies to reduce its emissions by between 25% and 40% below 1990 levels by 2020.

The lawsuit has been brought by the sustainability foundation Urgenda with 886 Dutch citizens acting as co-plaintiffs including teachers, entrepreneurs, artists and children legally represented by their elders.

Salto , who is an ambassador for WWF, said: “Everybody is waiting for the government to take action but the government has done so little. If the case succeeds, they will be forced to take action. If you look at Denmark, they’ve managed [to reduce emissions], so why can’t we? I want the Dutch to lead the way in this.”

So, let’s see. We have a number of developing countries who are a lap ahead of Canada. We have an advanced country sued by its own citizens because of its perceived slow-down in climate mitigation. We have a small country – Denmark – held as an example and as justification for that lawsuit.

I wish that Canada would take on the role of Denmark: a small country that leads by example. Instead, as Linnitt writes,

Alberta’s growth in emissions is actually un-doing the climate gains made in other provinces, such as Ontario’s phase-out of coal powered energy plants. That’s been allowed to happen because despite eight solid years of promises, Canada still has no national regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

The debate about climate change isn’t merely a moral one. The cost of failing to act will almost certainly outweigh the costs of acting. Think: floods, heat waves, adaptation efforts, rising sea levels, water scarcity, lower crop yields and wildfires.

But that’s not the only issue. In school, students who don’t pull their weight in group work end up ostracised, isolated, and marginalized. At the level of relations between nations, this is the risk Canada is courting; in future agreements, free-riders risk becoming marginalized. Under Harper, Canada has accumulated dinosaur awards, and at climate talks is considered irrelevant. That’s is bad enough; time to change course. Enough already, Brad Wall, listen to your Ontario counterpart.

Written by enviropaul

April 16, 2015 at 8:48 pm

Some thoughts on the Vancouver spill

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A friend tagged me on a facebook post of an early picture of the spill, and comments started pouring fast and furious. Furious, indeed, several were – indignant that this should have happened at all, and mad at the authorities for seemingly tolerating it or fumbling the response. (And as usual, there were counterpoints; one person working in the Tar Sands felt compelled to defend the whole industry.)

My first thought was that this is really small spill: about two tonnes of heavy hydrocarbon. (By comparison, a supertanker carries about a qurter million tonnes.) Despite this, several things were obvious:
• The spill spread over much of English Bay, soiling most of the beaches of Vancouver and West Vancouver.
• Even though the spill was detected almost immediately, it took quite a while before a response was put in place.
• There was a fumble in communications, resulting in the public being notified to stay away from the water almost a full day after the start of the spill.
• The response would have been faster if the Kitsilano Coast Guard base had not been closed two years ago.
• There are still questions as to the nature of the material spilled, its fate (for instance, if there was a bitumen fraction, did it sink and where?), and of course its impact.
• There was at least some impact to the biota – people were tweeting pictures of affected ducks.
• The ship is brand new, yet leaked, making one question the idea that newer ship design protects against leaks or accidents.
• For once, the media seemed to be asking the right questions.

Here are a number of links that describe what happened, from the Vancouver Sun, the Tyee (here and here), Vancity Buzz, DeSmogBlog, a petition from LeadNow, a first-hand acount from CBC, a video clip from the Directly Affected folks, among many others.

Saturday evening, the coast guard announced that the spill is now gone from the water: mopped up or evaporated. Fine. But the beaches are still sullied, and we don’t know how much is on the sediment. For that matter, world-class response or not (and this definitely was not), it is never possible to remove all of an oil spill. There are always residuals. In this case, I can only hope that the consequences will be minimal.

But numerous questions remain: what happens next? I see two possible trends. Either some people will say that, after all, the spill was no big deal and the response worked. Or people will become even more weary of the idea of increased numbers of tankers in our waters. But in all events, one salutary outcome is that the risk is now impossible to ignore, and the whole Lower Mainland is talking about the situation.

Among the questions that need to be answered are regulations. Flags of convenience enable ships to dodge a lot of questions. For that matter, trains that carry hazardous materials are still not required to notify municipalities as to the nature of their cargo; in both cases, the municipalities are now the first responders (since senior levels of government have off-loaded their responsabilities to them) but there is no communication mechanisms in place to enable the cities to do their job.

And this happened in a busy harbour, on a nice day, with lots of eyes on the water in the third largest Canadian city. What happens in the event of a large spill in rough waters in the Great Bear wilderness?

Written by enviropaul

April 11, 2015 at 9:30 pm