Rethink, Retrofit & Renewables: The three "R"s for the 21st Century

ReNew Canada is a great infrastructure magazine with a strong focus on green and innovative design. The most recent issue has an article that I wrote on the place of sustainable infrastructure renewal as part of the greening of the economic recovery. I've reposted it below.
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We seem to be in the midst of an infrastructure epiphany. You can hardly open a newspaper without seeing investment in infrastructure discussed as the cure for our global economic woes, or at least something that will lessen the pain. In Canada, as we head into what the OECD is predicting will be a deep recession, we have seen the current government come around to accepting the need for both increased spending and a quicker roll-out of money from the Building Canada Fund. They are even considering running a deficit again.

All of that is pocket change compared to what is going on in the US, where both Obama's incumbent government and major financial players like Citigroup (the world's largest bank) have made clear their interest in infrastructure as we try to find our way through the coming years. This is all in the context of a global rush on infrastructure, with nations either building or re-building the systems that keep them ticking.

Thanks goodness for the Infrastructure Deficit! Who would have though crumbling roads, bridges and utilities would be good for so much?

The truth is they aren't. If we are going to make the most of this opportunity to cushion our economies, retrain our workforce and rebuild our cities, old definitions of what counts as “infrastructure” and how we build it need to come under real scrutiny. Comparison's to the New Deal aside, the rush to spend can't be an excuse to re-live the 20th Century.

Energy: Drain or Gain?
This is nowhere more clear than when it comes to the issue of energy. The low economic multiplier effect of energy spending is already well known. A dollar spent on energy leaves behind few benefits; the impact of investment in traditional utilities is only slightly better. A dollar spent on energy efficiency, by comparison, creates both direct and indirect benefits to the local economy far higher than other forms of spending. Given that increasing efficiency is far cheaper than building new generation capacity, and also helps us reduce our carbon emissions, we seem to have a winner on our hands. There is also an obvious market: we live and work in a sea of stunningly inefficient buildings. Retrofitting them would both create employment, spur local industries and save money that could be re-invested into the local economy.

Consultants working in Portland (OR) estimate that a city wide retrofit of existing housing stock could provide 1,500 jobs and economic benefits of over 6 million dollars, annually, for 20 years. So what's stopping us? It's not a lack of technology, or proven profitability. The problem is that we haven't come around to thinking of efficiency as a utility.

Well managed energy systems and proper insulation are not rocket science and the entry of big players like Honeywell into performance contracting has shown the profits to be real. But consulting firms paid to improve the performance of a single client's operations are picking the low-hanging fruit. To tap into the larger market, local and regional governments need to aggregate the efficiency needs of the multiple smaller buildings and facilities spread across our landscape. They need to turn them into manageable units big enough to attract private investment capital that can then be used to back city-wide efficiency projects coordinated by local governments in partnership with private firms (the above housing retrofit plan for Portland would require annual investments of $125M per year). In other words we need to get comfortable providing efficiency in the same way as we provide other utility services.

There are some financial models out there that we might be able to employ – like the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, Berkeley's Sustainable Energy Financing District, or the feebate driven green building policy currently under review in Portland – but it is up to us to figure out what true utility scale efficiency efforts would look like. That will mean pursuing infrastructure investments that have more to do designing new financial models, training a local workforce and creating incentives for local manufacturers than with laying pipe or stringing wires.

Goind Beyond "Normal"
As we begin to fix ageing infrastructure, it is worth our while to consider options like these that go beyond our normal understanding of what is possible. We need to ask what aspects of our infrastructure is broken because of age or poor maintenance, and what part is broken by design. Take the confused competition between public and private transportation systems currently underway in Vancouver.

At the same time as the BC government wants to double transit ridership by 2020, it is also poised to invest tens of billions of dollars in the Gateway highway expansion project. Car centred urban planning is broken by design: even when it works well, it works badly. Not only does it use money that would be better spent on transit systems (B.C.'s transit plan is expected to fall short of funds by 2012) it promotes a form of land-use that is very hard to service with transit. It locks us into a cycle of sprawl and congestion driven expansion, while leaving local economies highly vulnerable to volatile gas prices. At the hight of gas prices this year auto dependent consumer were simply staying at home.

Gateway is an example of the type of infrastructure spending we will end up with if we continue do what we are used to doing. As we begin to repair or expand existing roadways we need to be asking how we could be replacing them altogether with other forms of mobility. The first barrier, as it was with utility scale efficiency measures, is conceptual: in this approach people, not cars, become the fundamental unit of transit and land-use planning.

Competing in the 21st C.
Since before our federal election we've been told not to panic because economically Canada is in better shape that most of our friends. While that may be true, the idea that that somehow lets us off the hook is dangerous. The way that other countries, particularly the United States, respond to this crisis will define the economy for years to come. Their focus seems to be clear: alternative energy. Echoing the advice of financier George Soros, Obama laid out his priorities in a Time magazine interview in October: “there is no better potential driver that pervades all aspects of our economy than a new energy economy … That’s going to be my No. 1 priority when I get into office,” Our infrastructure spending needs to position us competitively in that economy.

Again, that leads us to rethink business as usual: It could mean revamping building codes to remove barriers for new energy systems, rolling out district and distributed energy generation, or changing provincial legislation, as Alberta has recently done, to allow small scale producers to sell energy back to the grid. Those types of initiatives have been successful elsewhere, notably in Germany, which has used feed-in tariffs and other incentives to support a cleantech sector that has grown by 250,000 jobs in five years. (At least one Canadian solar cell company has relocated there to take advantage of the burgeoning market.) How we spend our infrastructure dollars could play a key role in building in demand for innovative Canadian alternative energy technologies at home, and preparing them to compete in a growing global market for clean energy technology.

To deliver on our inflated expectations, investment in infrastructure needs to go well beyond roads, bridges and traditional utilities. Apart from a looming global recession, there are other reasons to take energy efficiency, public transportation and alternative energy systems seriously. In September the UK's Tyndall Centre reported that our greenhouse gas emissions are growing twice as fast as we thought they were, and experts are now predicting a shocking 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature by the end of the century. As well as reducing emissions, innovative approaches to infrastructure will build cities and regions that are more resilient to the effects of a changing climate and volatile energy costs.

The Contradictions of Efficiency
But efficiency is a double edged sword. In isolation, increasing performance often (counterintuitively) leads to increased resource consumption. The more efficient you make something the more people tend to use it, or else resources saved in one place are re-invested elsewhere spurring further resource consumption. UBC's Dr.William Rees, one of the originators of eco-footprint analysis, warns against what he calls “becoming more sustainably unsustainable.”

We are moving into a period of heightened competition for resources, pressing needs to reduce our demands on the world's ecosystems, and continued social inequality both at home and abroad. Infrastructure spending isn't going to solve these problems, but it could play a key role in figuring out how more of us can live well on less.

Keeping these multiple benefits in mind over the next few months and years will serve us well. The possibility is there that we could rapidly start to reduce the impacts of decades of inefficient development, and build communities, countries and economies that will provide livable and resilient homes for us in the future. Or ... we could sit back, secure in the fact that things “aren't so bad here in Canada”, and watch as the world passes us by.

Comments

1 Response to "Rethink, Retrofit & Renewables: The three "R"s for the 21st Century"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.