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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for June 2015

The Varennes public library, the first institutional net-zero building in the country

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The new public library in Varennes, with its south-facing solar roof

The new public library in Varennes, with its south-facing solar roof

A little news item caught my eye today. Apparently Varennes, a suburb of Montreal, is inaugurating a new public library. What is special is that it is the first institutional building in the whole country to be net-zero.

As Pasquale Harrison-Julien and Thomas Gerber write (in French), “the roof is black with solar panels, the façade green with plants, and the inside white with natural light.”

Natural light is used to its full potential. The windows are also automated to open and bring in fresh air when the outside temperature is pleasant, which also leads to energy savings. (The first generation of energy efficient buildings used to be sealed boxes with heat exchangers for air circulation. No more, as this library shows.)

The building is heated through a combination of solar energy and heat-pump, and has been designed to produce as much energy as it uses, a first in Canada. This remains to be demonstrated, as the building as yet to operate through its first winter, but the operators are confident that it may exceed its design performance and be net-positive. Library users can see what the building produces and consumes. When the writers visited, May 29th, the production was 81.6 kW for a consumption of only 17.8 kW. A video tour of the library, narrated in French, is available here.

The whole project has a budget of $10 million, and has proven very popular; even though it will not be officially finished until the end of the month, there have been already 10,000 new registrations (about half of the town’s population). I did a google search using a variety of search words to find local complaints or controversy – I got exactly zero hits.

Design details have not been forgotten: a cool section for kids, here, bathed in natural light

Design details have not been forgotten: a cool section for kids, here, bathed in natural light

Why sleepy little Varennes, of all places? The town is home to a cluster of research institutes, including the federal CanmetENERGIE and Concordia University’s Solar Energy centre. Public acceptance of inovations doesn’t seem to be an issue there. Where there’s science…

It’s a bit of a shame that this isn’t reported at all in English Canadian mainstream media, because it is a pretty inspiring initiative (you can find reports in English in specialized publications, though: see here, here, or here). Two solitudes, still? Even in solar?

Written by enviropaul

June 21, 2015 at 11:55 am

Italian Day on the Drive: something missing?

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italian days 15Today I went to Italian Day, but I didn’t get to hear any of the arias I so enjoyed last year. Nor did I see any of the classic cars – Ferraris, Alfa Romeos – I remember from previous events. They were probably there; the problem was me. I saw the crowds, grabbed some groceries, and turned tail. In my grumpiness I noticed the side streets were filled with parked cars, no doubt belonging to people who drove to this car-free event.

Don’t get me wrong: I still love the idea of the festival, even if I didn’t stay. But I doubt that many people came for the love of opera. Rather, we Vancouverites are starved for street events, and since it was sunny, everyone showed up.

The same thing happened with several car-free days on the Drive, especially on nice days. The answer is not to cancel these festivals; rather, the car-free part of it should become routine, if not permanent in some places. After all, successful pedestrian malls are found all over Europe. But a few  years back, Andrea Reimer, then an rookie councellor, got the city to organize car-free days on the Dtive every summer Sunday, and it was a flop. What gives?

What’s missing, maybe, is a destination, place to relax with a drink. When routine car-free days were created that summer, it seemed people stopped coming once the novelty of walking in the middle of the street wore off.  To keep them coming, but in manageable numbers, maybe we could try to copy what the real Italy does.  Successful car-free streets are not pedestrian thoroughfares; they are destinations. In Italy and throughout Europe, people come to these areas to shop, sure, but mostly to relax, grab a drink, eat a bite, meet friends. (According to facebook, several of my friends were on the drive today, but good luck bumping into one of them in this crowd.)

Everywhere in Italian cities, and throughout Europe, these public areas are places where pedestrians dominate: they walk, sit at a caffe, sip a drink; in busier areas they may enjoy listening to a busker or even witness a public dance.

A lovely lady enjoying her drink on a quiet street in Italy

A lovely lady enjoying her drink on a quiet street in Italy

So, let’s imagine this: every Sunday, tables are spread all over the pavement on the Drive. Stop, sit and hail a waiter, or simply go in and order a pizza with a bottle of red, to enjoy outdoor with your friends just out there to the left – the server will find you. On a warm summer evening, I can just imagine the returns to the eateries on the Drive; and there a huge number of them there. And I can’t imagine that most of the other shops, the clothes retailers, the bookstores, etc, wouldn’t benefit from the walk-in traffic. This would create a destination which could remain popular over the summer – over three seasons, probably. Eventually, if the example of Europe serves, it would become so popular that the local merchants would lobby to turn this into a permanent feature.

Normally the Drive has a few tiny table on the sidewalk, where you can enjoy a coffee, but certainly not a beer. Today, you could sit out, in the street, at a table with a glass of wine, but it had to be in a suitable enclosure that created a bottleneck for the already dense street pedestrian traffic. No mingling allowed. Why can’t it be like in Italy? Outdoor drinking is a permanent feature; alcoholism and rowdiness isn’t.

All we’d need is a more relaxed attitude towards outdoor drinking.

Written by enviropaul

June 14, 2015 at 6:24 pm

Africa’s new power: sun and wind

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The Maasai Green Energy Africa project

It’s easy to dismiss Africa as a hopeless basket case, forever mired in corruption, civil wars, or failed states. But that does do justice to the continent where a number of very encouraging news on the renewable energy news have surfaced recently.

For instance, there are remarkable programs to bring solar electricity to rural areas. A Green Energy Africa project is bringing solar installations in rural homes in Kenya (2000 installations in Naiputa county alone) and empowers Maasai women into running small business selling these systems. And the hip-hop artist Akon was in the news recently with an ambitious proposal to fund and develop solar power and expertise. Akon Lighting Africa is located in Mali, with supply of sunshine 320 days a year. The project includes an academy where locals can develop expertise to produce solar power by themselves.

African countries are also leading in pledges for the upcoming climate talks in Paris: for instance, Morocco has pledged the complete elimination of fossil fuel subsidies (picking agood time to do it when oil prices are low); Ethiopia plans to reduce its carbon emissions by 64%, through use of simple technologies such as efficient wood stoves as well as through reforestation (some countries take the issue of climate change seriously…I hope Canada joins the club some day!).

But the large scale projects may be the most spectacular. The IEA forecasts that 45% of the future energy production in sub-Saharan Africa will come from renewables. For instance, Dubai-based Access Intra Africa plans to launch the largest privately owned solar plant in Uganda this year. The company has similar plans for Ghana, Mozambique, and 15 other African countries. The Uganda plant is slated to develop 10 MW, and the company’s portfolio is slated for one full GW. Said company chairman Reda Al-Chaar:

Solar power is no longer an exotic power solution, it’s becoming a real contender in any (power) generation mix. As far as power technology is concerned, solar power has made the biggest leap in the cost efficiencies in recent years.

In Kenya, Google is investing $700 million in the Turkana wind power project, a 310 MW facility that will increase Kenya’s generation capacity by 20%.

South Africa’s new renewable energy procurement program is also producing interesting results: US-based SunEdison has announced a winning bid for 371 MW worth of solar projects, while Germany’s Juwi has started construction on an 86 MW plant.

south africa wind

A wind farm in South Africa

This is great news for South Africa, a country currently plagued with rotating black-outs because of insufficient power generation. But what is most remarkable is how solar and wind are outperforming coal, despite rich reserves of the mineral in the country. According to The Guardian, wind projects are now completed at a cost of 0.05$/MWh, about half the cost of new coal. Even more telling, Medupi, a new, state-of-the-art dry cooled 4700MW coal plant, started last year, has been plagued with problems and construction delays. During that time, the country added 4300 MW of wind power already feeding the grid.

The end may be nigh for coal-produced electricity, and it would make sense for it to happen first in sun and wind rich Africa. But the prospect of Africa quickly developing technical expertise and manufacturing capacity based on sun and wind power is even more exciting.

Written by enviropaul

June 14, 2015 at 11:39 am