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WMC cogen plan an example of the changes we’ll have to make

Plagued with problems from the start, the Woolwich Memorial Centre will benefit from the township’s investment in a combined heat and power (CHP) plant that will reduce the always-high utility bills at the facility.

The cogeneration system – turning the natural gas heating system into an electricity-generating plant – is the latest in a series of projects, a list that includes replacing much of the lighting in the building. There’s been much retrofitting carried out at the WMC to counter all the corners cut when the complex was built in 2009, not to mention some poor energy targets despite the relative newness of the building: there were plenty of better options available at the time, as it’s not as though the building is 40 or 50 years old, a time when standards were lower and the technology wasn’t as diverse.

In retrofitting the facility, the township is doing what most of us could stand to do, both as a cost-saving move and as a way to help the environment.

With CHP plants specifically, the technology can be installed in apartment buildings, condominiums, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, airports and factories. Electricity supplied by such facilities would cost less than $0.06 per kWh, dramatically less than the ever-growing costs on your monthly hydro bill.

Other measures such as replacing windows, boosting insulation values and adding green energy options make sense across the board. That’s the reason governments and utilities have helped homeowners with such projects, recognizing the value from an environmental perspective, but also the reality that such steps are much cheaper than building new generating capacity.

That said, governments typically don’t go far down that path because there’s a strong bias in favour of big, centralized megaprojects. That approach – 1950s thinking and policies – is entrenched, and its proponents have the ear of government.

The cheapest and most efficient energy is the energy you don’t need. That’s the rationale behind retrofitting your home – upgrading doors, windows and insulation, for instance. Or perhaps for a new car: double your gas mileage, cut your gasoline costs in half.

While most of us want only to have the lights come on when we flip the switch, paying little heed to how the electricity flows there, there is a growing awareness about environmental concerns. And, failing that, there’s the issue of our wallets: we certainly don’t want to see rates rise dramatically.

The benefits of retrofitting are hardly a new idea. These measures are tried and true.

Amory Lovins has been writing about just that for years. He’s made the argument, backing it up with numbers, that it would be cheaper and much more beneficial for governments and utilities to pay for home retrofits, including buying new energy-efficient appliances, than to invest in dubious megaprojects such as nuclear reactors.

At the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, where Lovins had been a lone voice in the wilderness for three decades, researchers focus on the market-driven arguments for going green. They’ve long espoused the cost savings of retrofitting homes and going with new technologies rather than building yet more centralized power plants. As a bonus, the work provides far more employment (for tradespeople, suppliers and the like) and spreads the wealth around to every community, rather than putting it in the hands of a few.

Lovins’ decentralized plan, what he called the “soft path,” was designed to counter earlier claims that we would have to build power plants at an exponential rate to meet projected demand, the so-called “hard path.”

In response, Lovins invented the concept of “negawatts,” so that utilities and governments could compare the cost of conservation measures against the cost of increasing power production. Negawatts represent power saved from one application that is made available to another application. For example, an LED light bulb uses much less energy than a standard incandescent bulb to put out a similar amount of light. Replacing one 100 watt bulb with one 9-watt LED therefore “generates” 91 negawatts of saved energy to use somewhere else.

Applying this philosophy to the built environment provides a tremendous payoff. Our older housing stock provides the most chance of improvement, but much of what is built even today is far less efficient than it could be, as we’ve seen repeatedly with the WMC, for example.

There’s a solid argument to be made, backed up with numbers, that it would be cheaper and much more beneficial for governments and utilities to pay for home retrofits, including buying new energy-efficient appliances, than to invest in dubious megaprojects such as nuclear reactors.

The previous provincial government rolled out a host of platitudes, bungled the green-energy file and saddled Ontarians with billions in debt in order to artificially lower prices, a scheme to buy votes and attempt to make the budget look better than it was. The Ford government immediately set about “fixing” the problems with no finesse and not much of a plan, moves that included cuts to conservation programs.

The government could have committed to market-driven reasons for going green, however. There are real cost savings in retrofitting homes and going with new technologies rather than building more centralized power plants or the overly generous wind and solar projects.

The Electricity Distributors Association, for example, notes conservation programs had helped local utilities save more than 5.8 billion kWh, enough to power more than 640,000 homes for a full year. Every $1 spent on local conservation programs to reduce energy waste yields $3 in savings, the group finds, with efforts to reduce energy waste adding $750 million a year to the province’s economy.

Anything that reduces costs – for real, not just for appearances – is to be welcomed by Ontarians, who are pay 22 per cent more on average for electricity than people in the rest of Canada. Large electricity users have it worse, paying 65 per cent more than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

Real change starts with the likes of the WMC cogeneration project.

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