A penny saved is a penny earned…and a unit of energy not consumed is less energy that needs to be generated. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says energy intensity - measured as energy consumption per unit of GDP - decreased by nearly one-third between 1990 and 2015. Thanks to the Paris climate accord, governments around the world are enacting policy to accelerate that trend of doing more work with less energy.
“Energy efficiency is the one energy resource that all countries possess in abundance,” Dr. Fatih Birol, IEA executive director said in a press release.
“I welcome the improvement in global energy efficiency, particularly at a time of lower energy prices. This is a sign that many governments push the energy efficiency policies, and it works.”
Industry-focused economies - especially resource extraction economies like British Columbia and Alberta - use more energy per dollar of GDP than service-focused economies. Countries with wider temperature variations like Canada tend to use more energy for heating and cooling. And huge countries like Canada require more miles travelled per capita for recreation, business, and freight hauling. Therefore, Canadians won’t be surprised to learn that their country has the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the world, according to the World Resources Institute.
Re-Energizing Canada: Pathways to a Low-Carbon Future is a report from Sustainable Canada Dialogues, a country-wide network of 80-plus Canadian academics, that was commissioned for Canadian Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr. Energy efficiency is one of the strategic pathways to decarbonization, according to the academics.
“Energy efficiency and conservation are critical strategies for reducing or avoiding energy consumption and cutting costs at the same time,” the report states.
"GHG cost-abatement curves suggest that energy efficiency measures like switching lighting to light-emitting diodes (LED), insulation retrofits and improving motor system efficiency are most cost-effective.”
Business is beginning to understand that using energy more efficiently is a big cost-saver, says Monica Curtis, who was recently chosen to head up the newly-created Alberta Energy Efficiency Agency.
“Energy efficiency does provide a very reliable cost-saving to homeowners and businesses who choose to implement that," Curtis said in an interview. "But there are barriers. There are information barriers. There’s the fact that electricity and natural gas usage is fairly invisible on a day-to-day basis.”
Curtis argues that in the digital age, energy efficiency innovators are applying computer-based technologies to energy systems, making them more accessible, reducing cost and driving more interest in energy-efficient alternatives.
Not everyone is convinced. Prof. William Dunford of UBC Engineering says energy efficient devices or systems sometimes don’t live up to their promise because of poor design or improper operation.
“I've certainly seen a lot of examples of systems which have been supplied supposedly to reduce cost, but in my opinion, haven't really done that. It's an area where it's sometimes difficult to prove, I think,” Dunford said in an interview.
“I think it's a trendy thing but I'm not sure that people are looking at it in as much critical detail as they maybe should.”
Dunford uses his own office building as an example.
“I'm in a building which was designed to be low-energy and had all these LEED ratings. What actually happens is, because of the (large) glass area, it gets very hot or very cold so people bring in auxiliary heaters and cooling systems, which defeats the whole objective.”
Dunford believes public policy will drive much of the improvement in efficiency because voters want a cleaner, more sustainable energy system and companies like to brand themselves as environmentally responsible. That may mean the technology costs more money, but companies will pay it if required by legislation.
But he cautions that policymakers and consumers have to keep economics front and centre when they’re considering changes to improve energy efficiency. Trying to do too much with technology that is immature leads to higher risk and cost.
“The economics obviously drive everything and it's important that people look at overall system economics. For example, if you're putting up photovoltaics, how much money goes into actually making the panel? It's a sort of system-level thing that really should be done,” he said.
Case Study #1 - Residential Energy Efficiency and MyHeat.ca
The systems approach to Canadian residential energy efficiency is what MyHeat.ca does, says founder and associate professor of geography at the University of Calgary Geoffrey Hay. The two-year-old start up uses a $600,000 thermal infrared attached to the underside of an airplane to fly entire cities, mapping heat loss from the building below. Hay’s team then uses proprietary algorithms to create online maps that gives homeowners and commercial building owners an image showing how much heat the building is losing.
“Energy's mostly invisible, we don't really get to see it. Our tag line is pretty simple - it's 'energy made visible.' At the moment, we have about half a million homes online - it's free. You can use any web browser or mobile device and you can log in and you can find out where the energy is leaving your home,” Hay said in an interview.
Hay believes that to conserve energy in a house, homeowners need information about where the energy is being used - and lost - in the first place. MyHeat.ca is the first step. Homeowners literally get the big picture and based on the colours on their rooftop, they can tell roughly where energy is leaving and how much. The next step is to get experts in to pinpoint the energy loss and fix it.
“We hook you up with service providers to be able to tell you where the problems are to be able to get them fixed," said Hay.
"We recently partnered ATCO Energy and Mike Holmes of the TV show 'Holmes on Homes.' These guys have people all across Canada and in the US - I think Homes on Homes is on the Fox Network now gets something like four to five million viewers on a Wednesday night.”
Designing and engineering an energy efficient new home is easy these days, according to Hay, illustrating his point with the example of his architect father who has a network of different experts and device suppliers - thermostats, appliances, lighting, heating and air conditioning, etc. - that he turns to for make sure every component in the system works as planned.
“A home is an ecosystem and homeowners have two choices: they can put plastic tape over their windows every winter and pray they're not going to freeze their butt off or they can work with people who actually have got a lot of research already done, have built hundreds of homes and know how to do it properly.”
Sometimes, he laughs, the system still doesn’t work properly.
“I built an energy-efficient home 15 years ago, put in all sorts of gadgets and stuff, tried to make it really energy-efficient. Sat on the toilet one day and my toilet seat’s hot,” he said. “I put my hand in the water tank and the water was hot. Here I am with this space-age energy efficient house and I was literally flushing heat down the toilet. Houses are built by people and people make mistakes. But we’re a lot better now than we were then.”
How much better? Hay points out that are several Calgary builders offer “Net-zero” homes that generate as much energy as they consume. Net-zero housing provides a way to significantly reduce energy-related costs and protect against future energy cost increases, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. Net-zero houses tend to be more resilient during power failures because they need so little energy to operate and stay warm.
Imagine the problems making older homes energy efficient, he says, when the majority of a city’s housing stock is old - some of it 50 to 100 years old or more. Retrofitting those houses to be energy efficient is much more difficult. Hay describes war-time houses in Calgary that were part of the MyHeat project not even having newspapers in the walls for insulation.
“What we need are ways to be able to equitably and not very expensively retrofit the old homes. Most of the energy efficiency technologies are about new buildings,” he said.
“I would say, it will be at least another five to ten years for really good retrofit technologies.”
In the meantime, people are beginning to take an interest in the energy consumption of their house in rather surprising ways. Hays says they have had homeowners ask for their homes to be removed from the map, which MyHeat is happy to do, then call them back ask to be added to the map again because neighbours made fun of them for hiding the information. Social status around energy efficiency sounds weird, says Hay, but it’s a real thing.
“We're having people phone us and say, ‘I'd like to move to a community that has green values, how do I do that?’ And we say, ‘We just show you where the energy is leaving,’ and they say, ‘Well, which community is wasting the least energy per capita?’ And we're like, 'We can tell you that!’ And they say, ‘Okay, I'm going to buy a house there.' We're actually changing the way real estate works. It's pretty powerful,” he said.
Case Study #2 - Methane leaks in the oil and gas sector
What can be more wasteful - and less efficient - than venting, leaking, or burning perfectly good natural gas? If only the answer was simple. Sometimes producers don’t have the pipeline infrastructure to transport the gas or building the infrastructure is too expensive. At other times, gas is vented or flared to relieve pressure that could cause unsafe conditions. According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, however, Alberta cut the amount of natural gas flared by 80 per cent from 1996 to 2010, while British Columbia regulations were on track to eliminate routine flaring by 2016.
This is important because natural gas is mostly methane (CH4), which is up to 84 times more potent a greenhouse gas over 20 years than carbon dioxide. Government, industry and environmental critics have debated how harmful leaks from oil and gas production and distribution are to the climate. The leakage rate threshold for natural gas to be beneficial for the climate is 3.2 per cent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculates a leakage rate of around 1.5 per cent, while other studies found rates ranging from 1.2 to 1.6 per cent (we can assume Canadian rates are similar).
Canadian environmental groups argue that British Columbia and Alberta leakage is much higher than the threshold, which actually makes gas worse than coal, which would negate the BC government’s argument that liquefied natural gas is an excellent replacement for coal in Asian power plants.
“Industry has long known about this problem and has the technology to fix it, yet new peer-reviewed science shows it has underreported the magnitude of the problem by more than 250 per cent in British Columbia,” Ian Bruce, science and policy director of the David Suzuki Foundation said in a media release. “We can’t afford to delay action any longer. Industry needs to take responsibility now.”
The Canadian government introduced new regulations in May 2017 to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production 45 per cent by 2025. The regulations “will require industry to conserve valuable natural gas by regularly checking and fixing gas leaks and adopting new practices that prevent the gas from being vented into the air during oil and gas production,” according to a government backgrounder. Ottawa calculated that from 2018 and 2035, the new regulations will reduce GHG emissions by about 282 megatonnes.
The Canadian oil and gas sector is “very aligned with the objective of 45% reduction of methane by 2025,” Patrick McDonald, CAPP director of climate and innovation, said in an interview.
“Our industry has been a leader in the space for a number of years. We’re continuing to innovate and intend to lead the world in terms of lower emission production mechanisms,” McDonald said.
Three decades ago, Amory Lovins introduced the idea of the “negawatt” – a unit of energy saved by using energy more efficiently that could actually be traded in the marketplace like any commodity. The highly acclaimed American physicist and environmental scientist wrote numerous books on energy efficiency, but we are only recently putting some of his ideas to work in a significant way. The impetus for change was the debate over global warming and the role of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide in raising the temperature of the Earth.
Better technology appears to be the best approach to improving energy efficiency. While that technology has improved over the past decade or two, it still appeals mostly to Innovators - and perhaps in some cases, like home retrofitting where the cost savings can be significant, Early Adopters - and is not far up the diffusion S-curve yet.
The International Energy Agency thinks faster and deeper adoption of energy efficiency technology will be driven by government policy for a while yet, as demonstrated by the Canadian case studies of MyHeat.ca and methane emissions in the oil and gas sector. But much of the technology required to significantly improve energy efficiency for personal and commercial consumption already exists and appears poised to accelerate its market penetration. In the future, Canadians will be using much less energy to perform much more work.