‘Carbon Neutral’ Goal Spurs Projects

Whatever its flaws, BC's quest for carbon neutrality is getting some things done in the public sector.


Solar panels on roof of Admiral Seymour School in Vancouver. Photo by Rob from Your BC: The Tyee’s Photo Pool.

Even its staunchest supporters admit that B.C.’s strategy to make government carbon neutral has some flaws. But the scheme has also brought benefits. By forcing public sector organizations to measure their carbon, and putting a price on those releases, the program has sparked greenhouse gas reductions throughout government.

The public sector’s interest in cutting emissions is reflected in the numbers. From 2008 to 2010, the government’s Public Sector Energy Conservation Agreement, or PSECA, gave out $75 million for capital projects that would reduce public organizations’ carbon footprints.

The program received a total of 852 applications, only 250 of which were approved and completed. While some of those applications were rejected because they didn’t meet program criteria, the level of interest was obviously high.

Even without the subsidies, public sector organizations have been working on cutting their GHGs, in part because they don’t want to pay to offset their emissions. To that extent, the carbon neutral government program has worked.

School District 27, in the Cariboo-Chilcotin, received a total of $750,000 in PSECA money. With two PSECA-funded projects and a host of other initiatives, the district figures it has eliminated almost 1,000 tonnes from its carbon footprint — a cut of 16 per cent, said district secretary-treasurer Bonnie Roller.

She said at least three-quarters of the cuts were prompted by the carbon neutral government strategy.

Emissions-reducing projects completed or planned in School District 27 include:

• A geothermal heat pump system at Mile 108 Elementary School;

• A high efficiency boiler at Williams Lake Secondary;

• Four solar hot water systems at different schools;

• A “solar wall” to preheat ventilation air at Williams Lake Senior Secondary; and

• Biomass boiler systems at two rural schools that burn wood pellets, which are considered to be carbon neutral fuel.

“In addition, the biomass fuel will come from local sources further reducing the transportation carbon production and aiding the local forestry industry,” Roller wrote in the district’s environmental report.

Leaders

School districts are going to cut their emissions to some extent even without a carbon neutral government strategy, Roller said in an interview. “Being in the education system, we very much want to be leaders.”

The energy projects teach students the importance of reducing emissions and how it can be done, she said. Science students, for example, will get an up-close opportunity to learn how solar hot water systems work.

Roller credits the district’s former manager of facilities, Doug Gorcak, who developed an early expertise in energy-saving systems. When the PSECA money was offered, S.D. 27 was poised to “get our foot in the door,” she said.

Gorcak has moved to Penticton, but the Cariboo-Chilcotin district is committed to continuing what he started, Roller said.

She said the energy efficiency projects have probably saved the district more than $200,000 over the last five years. Unfortunately, she adds, that money has been swallowed up by higher fuel costs for school buses.

Which brings up the downside of carbon neutral government from the school districts’ point of view.

District 27 has written to Victoria, asking that the carbon neutral government strategy be reformed. Under the strategy, when public sector organizations are unable to reduce their actual emissions further, and need to bring their carbon balance down to zero through the purchase of offsets, they must pay $25 per tonne of emissions to the Pacific Carbon Trust. The Crown agency uses the money to pay private sector companies to reduce their emissions. District 27 thinks that money should stay in the district, to fund more energy-saving projects.

For 2010, the first year of carbon neutral government, S.D. 27 sent $85,000 to the Pacific Carbon Trust. That’s a tiny portion of the district’s total operating budget — about 0.2 per cent. But Roller said it’s still a significant sum when dollars are too short to start with.

“When we budget, we budget out every penny,” she said. “Over the last two years our unrestricted surplus has been right around the $150,000 mark. Which isn’t very much when you’re considering a $54 million budget.”

Bigger budget, same gripe

The University of B.C. bought a lot more offsets than the Cariboo-Chilcotin school district — more than $1.5 million worth in all. But in relation to the university’s total operating budget, the amount is about the same, 0.2 per cent. And it’s money UBC as well would like to see come back.

“We would love to take those offset dollars and invest them in our own projects for sure,” said Nancy Knight, UBC’s associate vice president, planning.

UBC began reducing its carbon footprint in the 1990s, long before the provincial government declared war on climate change. It’s already met the Kyoto target of a six per cent reduction in emissions from its 1990 level.

And it has pledged to further reduce its emissions by 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2015. That’s five years ahead of the provincial government’s target.

The university has won awards for its commitment to sustainability. Its ECOTrek energy retrofit project — a six-year initiative launched in 2001 — saves $4 million a year in energy costs and is described by UBC as the largest project of its kind in Canada.

More feasible

The university is currently working on three more “really big projects,” Knight said:

• An $85 million project to convert steam heating facilities to hot water is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Point Grey campus by 20 per cent. “You don’t really need steam for heat,” Knight said. “Hot water is a much better source now.”

• A $27 million biomass project, to be completed next year, is expected to cut the university’s natural gas consumption by 12 per cent.

• A “continuous optimization” project, in partnership with BC Hydro, will regularly monitor and reduce energy use in 72 academic buildings. “Buildings are like vehicles,” said Knight. “They go out of tune.” This program aims to keep the buildings in tune, resulting in an expected 10 per cent reduction in GHG levels.

While UBC’s longstanding commitment to sustainability suggests that at least some of these improvements would have happened without the carbon neutral government strategy, Knight said the price the scheme puts on carbon makes them more feasible.

The steam-to-hot-water conversion project “would have been a tougher project to make the business case for without the carbon tax and the offset requirements,” Knight said. “I wouldn’t say that without those we wouldn’t have done it. But I think they made it a heck of a lot easier for our board of governors to see it was the right thing to do.”

UBC generally supports the carbon neutral government strategy, she said.

“I think there’s wrinkles in the policy and the programs, as there always are when you introduce new things. We look forward to continuing to work on those with government.”

So putting a price on carbon emissions can have positive effects. But when public sector organizations pay the price, does it make sense — in terms of either policy or politics — to give their money to the private sector?

In the next piece in this series, we’ll look at how and why this happens, and what it means.

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