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Energy alternatives viable for Whistler

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Start with buildings says alternative energies expert

Whistler may not be the most solar-friendly place on earth, but according to green energy guru Dr. Donald Aitken there is still a huge potential to use green heating and lighting alternatives, and cut both our energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

"What we’ve learned from the examples we have is absolutely applicable to the town of Whistler and its unique environment," Aitken told a crowd of more than 300 residents who attended his presentation at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler on Oct. 25. He was the first in a series of five guest speakers being brought to town by The Natural Step early adopters to introduce the Whistler Sustainability Initiative and The Natural Step framework for sustainability to the community.

Aitken is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on renewable energy. He currently trains architects and engineers in practical and sustainable building design.

Because commercial and residential buildings are a leading consumer of energy and producer of greenhouse gas emissions, Aitken believes that, "buildings are the starting point for energy efficient policies." A more energy-efficient and energy-conserving building makes energy alternatives, such as wind power and solar power, more viable because less power is required.

He doesn’t see an immediate end to the consumption of fossil fuels, but a gradual shift over the next few decades.

"All our power is yesterday’s sunshine, brought in by photosynthesis and concentrated in the earth with the decay of plants and animals more than 5 million years ago," says Aitken. "Think of it as a gift. The world is giving us the gift of fossil fuels to power the transition to the post fossil-fuel era."

The industrial era has evolved from wood-powered turbines, to coal, to oil and natural gas, with periods of overlap and each fuel peaking about 60 years apart. By Aitken’s estimation, we’re already on the downside of the oil and gas peak, and at some point in the near future the use of alternative fuels will overtake gas and oil.

Provided, of course, that we are willing to make the transition.

"The worst thing we could do is to slide down to the bottom of that curve when all the oil and gas runs out and say ‘what are we going to do now?’"

In addition to fossil fuel shortages, mankind is facing threats from global warming and declining air quality. Failure to address those issues in the long-term will affect towns like Whistler as, among other things, the glaciers recede.

A one degree Celsius rise in the average temperature in the last century has already caused the snowline to recede up the mountainsides by more than 500 metres in some areas. If we continue to increase our fuel consumption at current levels, a further three degree rise is probable by the end of this century.

In addition to trapping heat, greenhouse gases block the sunlight from reaching the earth, which will effectively starve plants. Carbon dioxide levels are already higher than at any point in the last 100,000 years, and will double to more than 700 parts per million in the next few decades.

"What effect is that going to have on the ski industry?" asks Aitken.

Rising temperatures will melt glaciers, and could eventually cause flooding in coastal areas. Higher temperatures and concentrations of carbon dioxide are already being blamed for recent unpredictable weather phenomena that are putting insurance companies out of business. Nine of the 10 hottest years in the past century were recorded in the 1990s, as were some of the most violent storms.

While people are debating whether global warming is real or not, insurance company pay-outs climbed to $100 billion from 1987 to 1996, more than triple what was paid between 1980 and 1989.

That said, Aitken believes that the transition to alternative fuels is possible without affecting industry or our way of life – provided that energy efficiency and conservation measures are introduced now.

High efficiency appliances, such as ovens and refrigerators, are the easiest way to start the transition.

"One energy-efficient bulb can save the burning of 400 pounds of coal in its lifetime," he says.

Another concept that has been effective is daylighting, a process whereby companies put in skylights, light wells and windows to use existing daylight.

"Between 40 and 60 per cent of energy costs in an office building are lighting. Why?" asks Aitken. "Most of us work during daylight hours, and the sun is free."

Examples of architecture optimized to take advantage of daylight can be found as far north as Scandinavia, but the idea is only now being rediscovered by many architects.

Lockheed Martin recently incorporated daylighting in an office in New Mexico, expecting an energy payback in five years. "What they discovered is that employee absenteeism went down 15 per cent, and the benefits of lower absenteeism paid it back in one year," says Aitken. "People love to work in this building and productivity has gone up."

The Walmart chain of stores also discovered that sales were 50 per cent higher under the store skylights at one location, and are planning to add skylights to all of their locations in the near future.

In schools that use daylighting instead of fluorescent lights, learning retention increased by about 26 per cent.

Another innovation that Whistler could benefit from is geothermal exchange technology, whereby water is piped a few hundred feet underground where the sand is warmed by geothermal radiation, and pumped back up to heat buildings and provide hot water.

For energy plants that use steam power to activate their turbines, by preheating the water from the ground they can get it to boil faster and it is safer than coal, wood, oil and natural gas.

You can also reverse the process and pump heat out of rooms and back into the earth during the summer months to air condition a building.

Whistler does have geothermal exchange capability, according to Aitken, and several projects are in the initial planning phases.

Wind power is also readily available to Whistler. Small wind turbines (1 kilowatt to 100 kW) only require steady winds of about 14 km/h to be effective, while large turbines only require wind speeds averaging about 20 km/h.

And although the horizon is almost non-existent, and the sky is frequently hidden by the clouds, even solar has its uses for heating water and providing electricity.

"You do your efficiency first, take care of drafts, using energy efficient bulbs and appliances, then top it off with renewable energy," says Aitken. "For example… one building took care of 92 per cent of its costs through daylighting, and the remaining eight per cent was supplied by a single row of solar cells for $20,000."

For Canada, which is already high in hydroelectric values, one of the biggest benefits of adopting energy efficient building designs and supplementing energy needs with renewable energy is the ability to sell that surplus power to the U.S.

For the U.S., energy efficiency could have wider implications.

"We currently spend about 25 per cent of our military budget to protect our oil interests in the Middle East," says Aitken. "If we could improve fuel efficiency standards to 32 miles per gallon, we wouldn’t have to import one drop of oil from the Middle East."

If the mileage of every sport utility vehicle in the U.S. was increased by one kilometre, the U.S. wouldn’t have to encroach on the Alaska National Wildlife Preserve to bolster its supply, adds Aitken.

Whistler recently commissioned a study on energy use in the valley and found that energy consumption is poised to increase by 28 per cent by 2020, while greenhouse gas emissions are expected to increase as much as 44 per cent. The study evaluated the needs of commercial users, residential users, transportation, public works and industry.

If Whistler begins to adopt and promote moderate energy saving measures now, the increases in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions could be held to 13 per cent and 11 per cent respectively.

The next speaker in the Leadership Through Sustainable Innovation series is Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of Interface Carpets Inc., who will be in Whistler on Dec. 1.