Could BC Become a 100% Renewable Energy Region?

Guy Dauncey, BCSEA, July 24, 2014

They’re doing it in Germany: 140 regions of the country have set a goal to become 100% renewable energy regions, covering 30% of Germany’s land and 26% of her people, as we learnt in the June BCSEA webinar with Beata Fischer

Could British Columbia do the same? The climate emergency warnings are dire, and the need is great. When viewed historically, it is clear that the age of fossil fuels represents only the tiniest blip of time. Deep down, we know we need to stop using them.

Here in BC, 80% of our greenhouse gas emissions—the direct cause of climate change—come from burning fossil fuels, so it’s clear that a transition is needed.

So let’s embark on a mental exercise to see what it might involve. Would the transition away from fossil fuels fatally weaken BC’s economy, as some conservative thinkers fear? Worse yet, would it drag us back to the dark ages? Are the fear-mongers right? These are important questions to address.

This week, I’ll look at electricity and heat. Next week, I’ll tackle transportation.

Electricity—the Easy Part

In British Columbia, we use fossil fuels for three main purposes—electricity, heat and transportation. We are fortunate when it comes to electricity, for our power supply is already 95% renewable, thanks (for better or worse) to BC’s big dams, coupled with run-of-river and wind power. The solar revolution will soon reach BC, and several regions of the province are blessed with great wind, so there will be no problem filling the gap, even when demand increases to cater for a growing population driving a million electric vehicles. More on this later.

The Burrard Thermal Generating Station in Vancouver, which burns gas, is scheduled for closure, and BC Hydro’s two other smaller gas-fired generators at Prince Rupert and Fort Nelson could be phased out. There is also a 275 MW gas-fired generation plant in Campbell River, owned by Capital Power, which could be phased out when its contract with BC Hydro ends in 2022.

We waste a lot of electricity, too, which means we could save it if we wanted to: the average home in BC uses 11,000 kilowatt hours a year, which more thantwice the average in Britain (4,600 kwh) and three times the German average (3,500 kwh).

Heat for Buildings—the Complicated Part

The next challenge is to substitute renewable energy for the oil and gas we use to heat our homes, and to provide process heat for industry.

In Victoria, Mark and Rob Bernhardt have demonstrated that a passive home that needs 90% less energy for heat can be built for the same effective price as a conventional home. This means that it is possible to set the bar high for all new buildings, with a building code requirement that they be zero carbon, as Britain requires for all buildings by 2020. Over time, this will become the norm for all buildings.

The tougher question is how to retrofit the two million or so existing buildings.

Every house that uses an oil or gas furnace can switch to a solar heat pump, combined with greatly increased insulation to keep the heat in. A solar heat pump is more commonly known as an air-source heat pump, but since it’s the sun that provides the heat, why not call it what it is?

A heat pump can also extract heat from the sea—which is how Brentwood College is heated in Mill Bay on Vancouver Island; from sewage—which is how Olympic Village is heated in Vancouver; and from the ground beneath a building or parking lot, which is quite common. The use of heat pumps will increase electrical demand, but meeting the increased demand will not be one of our problems on the road to becoming a 100% renewable energy region. 

In the Hague, Holland, the small town of Duindorp has built a district ocean heat system that is heating 800 low-income homes, using the same heat pump technology as Brentwood College. Any community near a large body of water could do the same.

How Could We Achieve It?

Technical possibility is one thing: but how to turn it into reality? People are notoriously reluctant to turn their lives upside down for a home retrofit unless there is an important driver, such as a failed system. An increase in BC’s $30-a-tonne carbon tax would persuade some people to make the change, but equally, we could learn from San Francisco’s experience, where they have required an owner to bring a house up to the new energy code at the point of sale for over 30 years without any great social revolt.

Requiring a building to be upgraded to zero-carbon heat as a condition of sale would make the retrofit affordable for the seller, who would roll the cost into the sale-price; it would also make it affordable for the buyer, who would offset the increased price with lower energy bills. It would spread the load for the building industry, enabling them to train new staff knowing they had years of work ahead of them; and it would reach the bulk of BC homes, since the average Canadian family moves house five times during their lifetime, or once every ten years.

District Heat Using Renewable Energy

Replacing oil and gas in commercial buildings, apartment buildings and condos presents a higher order of challenge. One approach is district heat piped in from a central installation, sourced from industrial waste heat, water or ground-source heat pumps, biogas from composting, or the incineration of biomass. There are plenty of examples in Scandinavia, where they like to incinerate their garbage. In Sweden, however, recycling has become so effective that only 4% of the garbage stream is left for incineration, and they have had to start importing Norway’s garbage to keep the plants going.

This type of building also rarely changes hands, so requiring an upgrade linked to change of ownership won’t work; instead, we require that commercial and multi-unit residential building owners commission an audit every ten years to address building energy efficiency, and receive grants, loans and tax incentives for an upgrade.

Year-Round Solar Heating - Is This The Future?

Looking ahead, seasonal solar heat storage is perhaps the most exciting prospect on the horizon. At Drake Landing, part of a subdivision in Okotoks, south of Calgary, 52 homes built to the R-2000 standard collect more solar heat than they need during the summer. The heat is pumped into an insulated underground storage system with 144 boreholes and brought back in winter, providing 90% of the heating needs. The same is happening in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, sometimes for a whole community or a hospital using a district heat system, sometimes for a single building.

The European Solar Thermal Industry Federation has a goal that by 2030, 50% of all new buildings will use seasonal solar heat storage, and 50% of retrofits will do the same. If you want to see how much progress has been made, check out this database of 131 large-scale solar heating plants, the oldest—in Vaxjo, Sweden—dating back to 1979.

What’s driving Europe’s progress? In March 2007 a binding target was adopted by the 27 EU countries requiring that 20% of their final energy consumption should come from renewable energy by 2020. We need to do the same. British Columbia has an overall goal to reduce GHGs by 33% by 2020, but we have no sectoral goals. To achieve the same kind of technology progress as Europe, we might adopt a goal that every regional district should meet 20% of its building heat needs from renewable energy by 2020, excluding baseboard heaters, rising to 40% by 2025 and 100% by 2030.

Heat for Industry—the Even More Complicated Part

So what about the high-temperature heat that industry needs, currently provided by burning gas? This brings us to the highest level of challenge. In May 2014, the Carbon Trust produced a useful summary of industrial renewable heat progress.  Globally, renewables supply 9.5% of the world’s industrial heat, the rest being provided by coal (45%), natural gas (23%) and oil (16%).

BC’s pulp and paper sector already uses biomass from its own wastes to create heat, burning black liquor (a waste from converting pulpwood into paper) and wood wastes.

For the very intensive heat up to 800°C that’s needed to make steel and iron, countries are embracing a variety of means, ranging from burning charcoal and biomass in Brazil to burning bio-liquids in Germany and using concentrated solar energy in Italy. Making cement requires even more intense heat, in excess of 1450°C, which is currently produced by burning oil, gas, coal and coke. In Brazil and the EU there is some use of biomass instead; Germany and Poland are burning organic municipal wastes.

Is It Possible in BC?

How much heat of this kind might be available in BC? The answer as far as I know is that no-one has done the research to see if we could match BC’s industrial heat needs to our renewable heat resources, factoring in the distances involved in trucking biomass from a forest to an industrial plant. At the super-sustainable Dockside Green neighbourhood development in downtown Victoria, where the Nexterra district heat plant was planned to operate on biomass, the rule of thumb was 100 kilometres trucking distance. The limit would change if or when trucking develops long-distance electric drive, but that’s not even on the horizon yet.

As for what’s on the horizon, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a way to make steam from direct solar energy using a cheap sponge-like surface made from foam with a graphite surface that sits on top of water. The sponge draws the water up and the graphite collects concentrated sunlight, and when they meet they generate steam. It’s obviously not a year-round system, but it shows that there is innovation going on, deep in the research labs where brilliant minds get to play.

Would it Destroy Jobs and the Economy?

Most of the transition described above would create new jobs, and since the renewable energy would be generated in BC, the money spent would remain within the provincial economy, creating demand as it circulates.

The main situation where the transition could create stress is if an imposed requirement created higher costs, causing a business to lose orders, a situation that could be addressed with price and tax incentives.

Where there's a will, there's a zero-carbon way. 

Guy Dauncey

The Practical Utopian 


Founder, Communications Director, BC Sustainable Energy Association 

Empowering British Columbians to build a clean, renewable energy future.

We welcome your membership to make it happen.

Author of City of the Future: A Vision of a Better World (forthcoming, Fall 2014)

Author of The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming 
Author of 
Cancer: 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic
Follow Guy Dauncey on Twitter

The whole future of the Earth seems to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future.

 - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

BCSEA E-News | Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Could BC Become a 100% Renewable Energy Region?
Part 2: Transportation
By Guy Dauncey, BCSEA Founder and Communication Director

Last week I started to explore the possibility that British Columbia could become a 100% renewable energy region, as 140 regions in Germany are planning to become.

This week, we look at transportation. Is it possible that we could get where we want to be and ship our goods where they need to go without any use of fossil fuels? 

Helsinki, capital of Finland, is taking a big step in this direction, with its goal that by 2025, nobody will need to own a car in the city at all, thanks to an advanced integrated ‘mobility on demand’ network of shared bikes, transit, LRT, and computer-automated Kutsuplus minibuses that adapt their routes to take you wherever you want to go. 

The cars, trucks, ferries and planes that we use to go about our daily lives are 38% of the cause of global warming in BC, so this is clearly a big deal. So let’s start at the easy end, and work our way into the difficult, uncharted territory. 

Have you ever tried cycling in North Vancouver? 

Cycling is easy: the bustling city of Copenhagen has already demonstrated that 35% of its commuters can get to work by bike, and many cities in Holland can boast equally good numbers. 

“Ah, but it’s flat,” you might respond. “Have you ever tried cycling in North Vancouver?” 

“Ah,” I respond, “have you ever tried an electric bike?” Electric bikes defy gravity, making hills vanish with a twist of the hand. In so doing they open up new realms of possibility for older cyclists, and anyone who doubts their ability to cycle a 10 km round trip. Add safe protected bike-lanes, off-road bike trails, clearly marked intersections, good bike-sharing schemes with bike-attached tablets that give GPS based-directions, as they are doing in Copenhagen, and you’ve got a set-up in which cycling becomes irresistible. 

There’s a cost to all this, of course - but in Holland, which has 35,000 kilometres of bike paths and spends $580m a year on bicycle infrastructure, the cost is 4.3 cents per kilometre pedaled by each cyclist, compared to 22 cents for a motorist. In other words: it is five times cheaper. For shorter distances of 5km or less the bike will also get you there faster than a car. In Copenhagen, they justify the cost of the bike infrastructure by the health care savings: the health benefit of cycling comes to $1 per km, creating an overall annual benefit to the Danes of some $388 million. 

But even so—where will the money come from? It could come from existing transportation budgets, by spending less on roads. It could come from an increase in the gas tax. It could come by changing the way we use income from the carbon tax, spending it on positive climate solutions instead of returning it in tax reductions. It could come from a special green bonds issue. Or it could come from road tolls, which make sense in a post-carbon world when gas taxes will no longer exist. 


1,000 Kilometres a Day - in an Electric Bus 

Next up is public transit, bus rapid transit and light rail transit. There are cities all over the world with excellent systems, from Portland to New York, Paris to Tokyo, Curitiba to Bogota. Light rail can be fully electric - and so can a regular bus. There are 100% electric buses on the road without overhead cables in Seoul, Montreal, London, Helsinki, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Geneva (using a 15 second flash charge), Adelaide (solar electric), Umea (Sweden), San Francisco—and soon, everywhere. In the US, the Proterra electric bus has set a world record, travelling over 1,000 kilometres in a single day, using rapid fast charging during the day.

 In China, the auto-manufacturer BDY recently received an order for 1,800 electric buses that can travel 300 km on a single charge, with 1,200 going to Dalian in northeast China and 600 to Nanjing in eastern China. With that kind of range, fast luxury electric coaches travelling into Vancouver from Whistler and the Fraser Valley cannot be far away, equipped with tables, coffee and orange juice. 

Next, there’s railways. The West Coast Express from Vancouver to Mission could easily be electrified, as railways are in many parts of the world. If you have never travelled on a fast, comfortable train, you don’t know what you’re missing. When I lived in England, I would regularly take the two-hour ride from South Devon to London. The seats were arranged in groups of four around a table, enabling you to spread out, work, and talk to fellow travellers if you wanted to. When I travelled on a high-speed train across South Korea, averaging 300 kph, the journey was so smooth you hardly knew you were travelling. It’s just a matter of commitment, to make the investment.

 In the Lower Mainland, there is an existing Fraser Valley Interurban rail line that runs from New Westminster to Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack where a light rail train could operate, sharing the track with existing goods use. Maybe the rail line that carries coal to Roberts Bank at Tsawwassen could also share the track, allowing a light rail passenger service to operate there too.


Title Electric Car 

So now we come to the big one—the electric car. Among those who observe the scene, there is a sense of welcome inevitability that the future of cars and light trucks will be electric.

 Not hydrogen fuel cell, since a fuel cell electric vehicle uses three times more energy than a straight EV.

 Maybe not biofuel, since progress on second-generation biofuels grown on marginal land is slow, and most biofuel still has a large carbon footprint, with the exception of recycled biodiesel, as distributed by the Cowichan Biodiesel Co-op and other groups.

 And not natural gas, since gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel that increasingly depends on fracking for extraction, polluting the groundwater with unknown chemicals and releasing fugitive methane emissions into the atmosphere.

 EV prices are falling, and choices are increasing. EV drivers report a really positive driving experience, and BC’s charging infrastructure is spreading. If BC was to follow Norway’s example, with a well-organized system of incentives, 10% of all new cars sold could be electric. The question is not ‘if,’ but ‘how soon?’

 At today’s fuel-prices, a regular car costs $200 a month to lease and $150 for gasoline, which comes to $11 a day. A Nissan Leaf, offered for lease in America for $199 a month, and costing just $10 a month on electricity, comes to $7 a day. With prices like that, anyone who does not drive a leased EV will be losing $4 a day, or $120 a month.

 The best policy approach to accelerate the EV revolution is simply to set a high standard for fuel efficiency. In Europe, by 2020, new cars will need to produce no more than 95 grams of CO2 per kilometre, reduced from the current 120 g/km. The same approach could be used to reduce emissions to zero, giving auto-manufacturers time to plan and retool. This is not something BC could do on its own, however; it would require federal regulation to make it Canada-wide.


Could BC Produce Enough Electricity? 

Would there be enough electricity if every car and light truck in BC were to be electric? If two million electric vehicles each traveled 15,000 kilometres a year at an average 25 kwh per 100 km, each vehicle would use 3,750 kwh a year, totaling 7,500 GWh, compared to the 60,000 GWh that BC consumes every year. 

Solar PV on half of BC’s south-facing rooftops could produce 7,500 GWh a year; alternatively, since a 3 MW wind turbine can produce 7.5 GWh a year, sufficient for 2,000 cars, a thousand turbines could produce the power for two million electric vehicles. A 30% efficiency improvement on every home could free up the same amount of power. 

Given the potential for far more travel by bike and transit, a more realistic calculation might be for one million EVs driving 10,000 kilometres a year, resulting in 2,500 GWh of additional demand, or just 4% of BC’s current power usage.


The Car-Sharing Revolution 

In 1998, just 905 people belonged to carshare groups around the world. By 2012, that number had increased two thousandfold to 1.78 million. By 2020, carsharing revenues are set to hit $6 billion, with 12 million members worldwide. 

The real breakthrough, however, comes with peer-to-peer carsharing, when people put their cars into a shared rental pool. It started in San Francisco several years ago, and has spread through outfits such as GetaroundBuzzcarRelayRides and Communauto in Montreal, with owners earning up to $300 a month. It is only a matter of time before it reaches Vancouver and Victoria. 

So picture a 100% renewable energy transportation future in which you say where you want to go, and your tablet shows your local travel options, including walking, bike-sharing, car-sharing, transit, LRT and drive-and-parking, with the likely cost and travel times. 

Picture a zero-carbon future in which you call up a Helsinki-style minibus, which whisks you away to your destination. 

Picture a green, sustainable future in which a long-distance trip to Kamloops, Whistler or Revelstoke is a matter of a bike-ride, carshare or minibus to the bus station, and a leisurely luxury electric coach-ride, using priority lanes to bypass heavy traffic. 

Will any of this future without fossil fuels undermine BC’s economy, or destroy jobs? Far from it: and it could also increase general happiness. If the rate of car ownership falls, as people no longer see cars as being necessary, residential streets can be narrowed, creating space for trees, food and children’s play. With narrower, slower streets come more neighbourhood friendships, more green space, and an increase in our social and ecological wealth. What’s not to like about this future? 

Next week: in Part 3, I will explore the more difficult challenge of achieving 100% renewable energy for long-distance trucking, boats, ferries and planes. In Part 4, I will wrap things up by asking how we might be able to achieve all this.