Mar 19, 2009

Why we need more Clean Energy Acts

Technology alone won’t achieve sustainability -- we also need to address the human and social factors

Despite the head-line-grabbing economic downturn, climate change is still making news: melting Arctic ice shelf, severe drought in Argentina, and unprecedented heat waves and wildfires in Australia.

A lot has been written about sustainable development and how to stop climate change. But much less has been written about how to make it happen.

Ontario has just tabled a far-reaching Clean Energy Act last monthwhich goes a long way in that direction. But there is still room for more.

We know we could reduce our green house gas emissions by 60% by the year 2050, and surpass Kyoto targets in the process. Most of the technologies to do that already exist.

Now it's not a technological fix by itself that will solve that. Green technology alone will not stop climate change. What is critical is to make sure that these technologies actually get deployed and used in our society. That requires a multi-dimensional effort crossing all levels of governments to make these technology choices available, affordable and acceptable to consumers. What our society needs is in-depth change management.

For the last few months, our team at the University of Ottawa has been examining the various barriers to sustainability: what’s stopping innovation and change that would result in a systematic transition to a sustainable society.

And what we are discovering is a whole range of barriers to innovation and change: social, economical, legal, institutional, human, attitudinal, etc. that prevent large-scale deployment of green technology.

Here’s an example. We know how to build a very efficient or zero energy house. The technologies to do that have been known for years. So how come we're not using them? That was the subject of a workshop at the University of Ottawa last week, where practitioners, builders, real estate agents, developers and researchers explored the barriers to making the residential sector totally green.

Cost has a lot to do with barriers to change. Many energy efficiency and environmentally clean options for residential houses require an upfront investment few are willing to make. The roller coaster price of oil and natural gas over the last two or three decades have not helped to establish a stable rate of return or payback. And building owners should not be expected to absorb all these costs. This raises a number of questions: how might we use municipal and property taxes to encourage energy efficient houses and buildings? Can we change mortgage requirements to look at the entire lifecycle cost of a house, including energy savings? Can we convince utilities, who save money from avoided capacity increases, to help out?

There's also the training of builders and contractors, so they can learn how to integrate these new technologies in the existing building systems. The challenge is to retrofit and renovate all the existing houses and buildings in Canada to be energy efficient. We estimate that the total number of contractors and trades people needed to be approximately 1 million FTEs. That’s a lot of new jobs. And no one is addressing how to meet that need.

The mandatory energy audit before selling a house proposed in the new Clean Energy Act will go a long way to signal to potential buyers that there is a real measurable dollar value associated with energy efficiency. But it is only one of many measures to encourage energy efficient retrofits. Those who object to it should realize it’s no different from having to pay $80 to get a car safety-checked before selling it.

Another barrier is NIMBY, as we recently saw in the cases of windmill farms or large solar photovoltaic installations. Despite the promise of environmental benefits, neighborhoods have objected to such installations. The new Clean Energy Act is addressing this barrier very clearly for new renewable technologies.

But there are still many other areas of social and economic activity that need to be addressed. In the commercial sector, landlords generally want to minimize upfront investments, even if it will reduce energy operating costs for the tenants. That might require a change in legislation governing leases.

Transportation is another area. Here’s a simple example: inflating your car tires to the correct pressure can save between 4 and 8% of gasoline consumption. Yet studies show it’s much easier to wash your car than to check your tire pressure accurately. In fact, many gas stations don’t even have properly calibrated air pumps. Changing that is complex, and involves change management, industry cooperation, shift in consumer attitudes and motivation.

Convenience and availability are other factors. Many energy efficiency products are often inconvenient to use, e.g. meters that can be read only with great difficulty or provide incomplete data. And some products are very difficult to find in your local store. Changes in product design, standards and codes should help address these deficiencies.

And I haven’t mentioned industry, or regional development.

Unlike any previous social change in our history, the transition to a sustainable society will require an unprecedented level of cooperation between cities, provinces and the federal government. But at the end of the day, consumers need to be aware. And they need to be able to chose acceptable green products and services that are affordable, accessible, and available. That is no mean feat, and will require more legislative and regulatory changes.

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