Tuesday, February 27, 2007

UOIT: Brave New Design

Canada's newest university, The University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), adjacent to Durham College in Oshawa, is a leading example of how innovative design can be both beautiful and energy efficient. When construction began at the campus in 2002, the guiding principal was environmental sustainability. This was accomplished by incorporating advanced technologies and innovative, renewable energy systems.

"We all have to work towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving energy efficiency to lower operating costs," said Ken Bright, Manager of Special Projects, Utilities & Energy Management at Durham College/UOIT. Bright explained that as part of the pre-construction planning process, it was determined that the energy efficiency of the buildings would be 50 percent better than the National Energy Model.

After careful consideration, it was determined that a geothermal energy system was the most economical renewable energy source. UOIT is now home to Canada's largest borehole thermal energy storage (BTES) installation. The system, which has a 2,000 tonne capacity, consists of 370 wells, each one penetrating 180 meters into the bedrock and utilizing 80 kilometers of piping.

During the summer months, water circulates through the underground tubes, and is chilled to between 6 and 10 degrees Celsius. It is then circulated through the buildings, picking up heat as part of the air conditioning system. The water is then transferred through the heat pump to a ground loop, where it is returned through the underground tubes, dispersing its heat into the bedrock.

The reverse happens in the winter months. The water is circulated underground, collects heat from the earth, and disperses that warmth into the buildings.

"Essentially we are using the ground to store energy from one season to another," said Bright. In addition to being energy efficient, installing the BTES system made good financial sense. The payback on the installation is estimated to be 7.5 years.

The installation is also much more esthetically pleasing than traditional centralized air-conditioning systems that require large centralized plants above ground.

"Instead of having a large cooling tower to reject heat into the atmosphere, we reject it into the ground," said Bright. "We use a heat pump to transfer the heat energy from one water source to another."

Another innovative feature at UOIT is the installation of green rooftops on the five new academic buildings on campus. In total, 40 percent of the rooftop area of the new buildings has been "greened". Using soil beds filled with low maintenance indigenous plants, green roofs are both functional and beautiful. Rainwater is captured and held in the soil before it can reach the ground, effectively recycling the water back into the atmosphere. Any surplus runs off into an underground, 250,000 -litre storage area and is used for irrigation, thereby reducing municipal water use.

Green rooftops also help absorb carbon dioxide, a primary greenhouse gas. The air intakes are located near the gardens, which also helps to cool the air as it enters each building.

The BTES installation and green rooftops are just some of the energy efficiency improvements made at UOIT. In addition, many of the windows have been coated with microscopically thin layers of silver that is invisible to the human eye. These metal-oxide coatings allow heat to remain inside during the winter and help keep rooms cooler in the summer's heat. The insulating glass also blocks 99.5 percent of the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, thereby reducing fading and damage to furniture and other items.

Another energy saving innovation at the campus is the university's arena. Bright explained that the energy reclaimed from the arena's ice-making equipment is used to heat water, control the permafrost under the ice slab, and assist in snow melting.

"We take energy conservation very seriously," said Bright. He also added that the University has an aggressive recycling program. "I think it's the right thing to do."


For more information on UOIT's energy efficiency initiatives, visit www.uoit.ca.

How green is green? The LEED Green Building Rating System was developed to provide a recognized standard when assessing the environmental sustainability of building design. Developed in the U.S. by the Green Building Council (USGBC), the standard has now been adapted by the Canadian Green Building Council. For more information visit The Canada Green Building Council.

The solar energy that falls on Okotos, Alberta in a single day equals the energy from all the fossil fuel that is extracted from the province in an entire year. This is precisely why Okotoks’ newest subdivision, The Drake Landing Solar Community (DLSC), is the first community in the world that is designed to derive 90 percent of its space and water heating requirements from solar energy. For more information visit www.okotoks.ca.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Billion Tonne Challenge

Move over Rick Mercer. Forget about The One Tonne Challenge. British billionaire and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson has a better idea. Last week, Sir Richard announced the Virgin Earth Challenge. With Al Gore at his side, the flamboyant Sir Richard declared that he would award US $ 25 million to the first scientist who could devise an environmentally-friendly, cost-effective way to remove the equivalent of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from the atmosphere.

Before critics could jump on the fact that Sir Richard owns, among other things, the hugely successful (and greenhouse gas belching) Virgin Airlines, and Virgin Galactic, the world's first privately owned spaceline, the media savvy Branson said, "I could ground my airline today, but British Airways would simply take its place."

Point taken. But what Sir Richard failed to address was the inconvenient truth that Al Gore, a member of the panel judges making the award, could actually be in a position to claim the prize himself. I'm not referring to the dramatic impact that Gore's movie has had on the public awareness of the problem of global warming.

If Al Gore wanted to "walk the talk", give up his family's business and successfully manage to convince others to do the same, he could beat Sir Richard's challenge two dozen times over.

The business is beef and the by-product is methane, better known as cow farts. Scientists estimate that the planet's current stock of 1.3 billion cattle produce a whopping 100 million tonnes of methane annually. Given that methane is calculated to be 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, eliminating cattle would take the equivalent of 31 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That's a lot of gas.

I understand that eliminating the cattle industry isn't about to happen, so the next best thing would be to ensure that cattle are fed better. According to an article in The New Scientist, simply improving bovine nutrition has the potential to reduce methane production by 25 to 75 percent.

An interesting suggestion, but solving the problem of climate change by eliminating cattle farts is about as unrealistic a solution as waving $ 25 million in front of the scientific community and saying, "Go for it." First of all, any idea that sucks a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere will be worth a heck of a lot more than $ 25 million. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, there is no single solution, no magic bullet to get us out of the mess that we are in.

However, Sir Richard does have one thing right. We need to look for innovative solutions. Here are a few creative (and maybe not so obvious) ideas to consider:

* Cut your hair short and eliminate the need for electricity sucking blow dryers, flat irons, heat smoothers and curling irons.
* Shower in the dark (a true sensory delight). Showering with a friend, even better.
* Keep a spot-cleaning device (like Tide-to-Go) with you. Our son at university figures he saves several loads of laundry a week by using this simple to solution that allows him to wear clothes more than once.
* Wash in cold water. The makers of Coldwater Tide maintain that if we all washed in cold water, we could save enough energy to light up to 2.5 million households for a year.
* Phone before you drive. If you're looking for a specific item, call ahead to see if it's in stock.
* Cancel the dishwasher before it gets to the dry cycle. Open the dishwasher door and let the heat escape into your kitchen.
* Conduct a home energy audit. Sit down with family members and really look at how you use energy.
* And yes, cut down on your beef consumption, buy organically grown beef, or cut red meat out of your diet altogether.


Looking for alternatives to beef? Canada's new Food Guide, released last week, has incorporated organic, vegetarian and ethnic choices in its updated version. For more information, visit Health Canada at www.hc-sc.gc.ca .

Got a better idea? Sir Richard wants to hear from you. Visit www.virginearth.com.

Check out the rest of Branson's empire (and book your space flight) at www.virgin.com.

New Scientist is a great web-based source for science and technology information. Articles are available on a subscription basis.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Tipping Point

"Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war."

What is so chilling about this statement is that it wasn't made in response to last week's session of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) in Paris last week. It was the concluding statement made at the Changing Atmosphere Conference in Toronto - almost 20 years ago.

The only thing that has really changed since then (aside from the relentless increase in carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere) is that after two decades of denial and debate, we have finally reached a consensus. Enough scientists have said enough times that things are bad (and getting worse), and enough politicians have heard their dire warnings enough times that the message has finally gotten through. We have reached, at long last, the tipping point.

What remains to be seen is what action our politicians are prepared to take in the face of the truth that can no longer be denied. If the recent name-calling and political posturing witnessed on national television is any indication, the answer is likely to be too little, way too late. Unless a team of benign dictators dedicated to saving the planet miraculously overtakes the nations of the world, it's highly unlikely that we will see the kind of national leadership that's needed.

Nor should we expect it. The very nature of science and politics is routed in the idea of consensus, which understandably makes them reactionary. Despite the fact that respected American scientist Roger Revelle first warned us about climate change a half a century ago, his warnings were not given real legitimacy until the rest of the scientific community reached an overwhelming consensus on his finding.

Similarly, political action is built on the need for absolute public support. To take action without this support takes extreme courage, the absolute power to do so (see need for benign dictators), or a desire to commit political suicide. Since it would appear that none of the above conditions exist in this country, it is extremely unlikely that we will see the kind of political action needed to make the kinds of changes necessary to avoid catastrophic consequences.

This doesn't mean that we are doomed to catastrophe. What it does mean is that the responsibility to take the kind of action necessary rests firmly on the shoulders of every thinking, breathing, and capable person on this planet.

It would appear that perhaps the platitudes were right after all. To quote that horribly overused and abused statement by American anthropologist Margaret Mead,

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Environmentalists and social activists have been quoting this statement on bumper stickers, pins and placards for decades without fully understanding what it means. What it means is that we need to demonstrate the kind of courage that we expect from our politicians. We need to take the lead. We are the revolution.

We have to walk the talk. We have to do the "to do" list. We have to reduce, reuse and recycle all the time. Forget about drive-thru anything, automatic car warmers or taking the car out for a drive just for the sake of going for a drive. Park the car, sell the car, take public transit, invest in energy retrofits, go solar, go wind. Turn off the lights, turn down the heat on your water heater, in your homes, and turn up the heat on your politicians. Rant at them with as much force and energy as if your life depended on it. Because it does.


Write, phone, email or pester the politician of your choice. For a complete list of MPs, visit www.canada.gc.ca. For a list of Ontario's MPPs, go to www.gov.on.ca.

Starting on February 1, David Suzuki is traveling (by tour bus) across the country to ask Canadians, "What would you do if you were Prime Minister?" Once the tour is complete, Suzuki plans to deliver the answers to Parliament Hill. For tour dates and locations across Canada, visit www.davidsuzuki.org/tour

You can also video your response to the question and broadcast it to the world. Join the youtube group and upload your own 20-second video to www.youtube.com/group/you4PM. Have fun. It's the only world we've got.

The International Panel on Climate Change report, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, can be downloaded from www.ipcc.ch

Friday, February 02, 2007

An Idle Threat

Now that the cold weather has finally arrived, Canadians everywhere are embracing one of their favourite winter past times -idling their cars. It's convenient, easy, no expensive sports equipment or skills are required, and it can be done just about anywhere. You can idle in the driveway before work, at the school when picking the kids, or at the store when stopping for those quick in-and-out purchases! And for people who get the chills just thinking about getting their cars started on chilly winter mornings, there's the remote car starter. For about the same amount of money that it costs to buy a decent winter coat, these handy devices waste gas, electricity, and help to contribute to global warming in a big way.

So, for the benefit of those not-so-hearty Canadians out there who haven't been paying attention to rising concerns about climate change, here's the message: idling your car in the winter isn't just bad for the environment, it's becoming a social faux pas, much like public spitting became at the turn of the last century.

If you're still not convinced, perhaps the economic arguments against idling might get your attention. Simply put, unnecessary idling can be very hard on your car's engine, which in turn can cost you big money. According to Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency,

"An idling engine isn't operating at its peak temperature, which means that fuel doesn't undergo complete combustion. This leaves fuel residues that can condense on cylinder walls, where they can contaminate oil and damage parts of the engine. For example, fuel residues are often deposited on spark plugs. As you spend more time idling, the average temperature of the spark plug drops. This makes the plug get dirty more quickly, which can increase fuel consumption by 4 to 5 percent. Excessive idling also lets water condense in the vehicle's exhaust. This can lead to corrosion and reduce the life of the exhaust system."

If that wasn't bad enough, idling your car does nothing to heat up the parts of your vehicle that are essential for safe winter driving, namely the wheel bearings, steering, suspension, transmission and tires. The only way to warm up these parts is to actually drive your car, which cuts warm-up time in half.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) advises that whether you're cold starting your vehicle or waiting (any place other than in traffic), don't idle your engine for more than 30 seconds. The UCS also suggests that when it comes to buying a new car consider purchasing a hybrid vehicle. When hybrids are not in motion, the engine switches off, effectively eliminating idling.

Great responsible suggestions, but the problem is that our habit of letting our cars idle has nothing to do with driving responsibly. It's about personal comfort - plain and simple. Consider the following:

Early one frigid winter morning I was out for my neighborhood walk when I saw a woman rush out of her house in a housecoat and curlers. She went into her garage and then backed two vehicles out on to her driveway. She left both of them running while she returned to her morning preparations. Given her state of undress, my guess is that at least one of those vehicles would be idling for twenty minutes or more.

On another occasion, my walking buddy and I were forced to walk up a driveway and around the front of an idling car to avoid its exhaust. The owner of the car came out of the house just in time to overhear my comment about how inconsiderate some people can be. (It's important to note that it was a sunny day and the temperature was at least 5 degrees Celsius.) The woman was so enraged that she got in her car and followed us, screaming obscenities as she went. She drove up and down the street several times, wasting more fuel in the process, before she roared off in disgust. Some people clearly don't have enough to do.

So here's my suggestion - give your car and the planet a break and don't idle your vehicle. Not only will you cut down on your greenhouse gas emissions, and save gas and wear and tear on your vehicle, you'll probably even save enough money to buy a decent winter coat.


The environmental, health and economic costs of unnecessary idling are outrageous. For more information, visit Canada's Idle-Free Zone.

For more information on hybrid gas vehicles, visit the UCS's Scientists Hybrid Information Center, or check out, Union of Concerned Scientists website and subscribe to the Greentips newsletter.