Urban initiative: The future is looking greener for Toronto

While Canada has traditionally lagged behind its peers in the uptake of renewable energy, the City of Toronto in Ontario is trying to shed that image; and with a series of municipal renewable energy projects, and a new province-wide feed-in tariff, it looks as though things could be beginning to change. By Robert MacMonagle.

Five kilometres out into Lake Ontario and 80 metres below the surface, three large pipes draw icy cold water (4°C year around) from the lake bottom and bring it to one of Toronto’s water filtration plants. There, heat exchangers transfer the cold energy into a district energy system operated by Enwave (a thermal energy utility that is partially owned by the City of Toronto) that provides both air conditioning and heat to Toronto’s downtown core. The chilled water capacity of this system is enough to air condition 3.2 million square metres of office space, equivalent to 100 office towers or almost 7000 homes, eliminating the need for 61 MW of electricity generation and the production of over 79,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually.

Enwave’s Deep Lake Water Cooling is one of a number of smart energy choices that Toronto is making that is leading to a sustainable energy future for Canada’s largest city.

Local businesses are saving money using PV powered lights like this one on West Bloor Street toronto association of business improvement areas

While Canada lags behind most of its international trading partners in its support and use of on-site and distributed renewable energy technologies such as geo-energy, biogas and solar, cities and towns across Canada are beginning to look at ways that they can stimulate energy usage reductions and increase energy generation inside local municipal boundaries. While Canada may be an ‘energy superpower,’ to quote its Prime Minister Stephen Harper, most municipalities such as Toronto export dollars outside the community to pay for the energy needs of their residents and businesses. In the case of Toronto this appetite for energy consumes almost $5 billion CAN annually (€3.2 billion). Officials in the City or Toronto are beginning to understand that energy conservation and local energy generation are effective ways of keeping those energy dollars in the local economy as well as creating new jobs for Torontonians.

Wind is back

Toronto has a long history of using renewable energy, dating back to the 1800s when wind mills dotted the shores of Lake Ontario and water mills were spread along the banks of the many small rivers that run through the City. However the large scale use of renewables did not reappear again in Toronto until 2003 when the first big urban (750 kW) wind turbine in North America was installed in downtown Toronto on the grounds of Exhibition Place – the site of many public events such as the Royal Winter Fair, the Toronto Grand Prix car race, and the Canadian National Exhibition.

The installation of this turbine was driven by the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-op (TREC), a local community group which followed the wind community co-op model developed so successfully in Denmark. This project created many North American ‘firsts’ – including the first turbine owned jointly by a publicly owned electricity company (Toronto Hydro) and a community based co-operative (WindShare) and it helped spawn the creation of similar community energy groups in other cities and towns throughout Ontario

The Scadding Court Community Centre in downtown Toronto has a 66 MWth solar air heating systems and displaces over 30 tonnes of GHGs annually conserval engineering

While the potential of further ‘city sited’ wind turbines is limited, there are huge opportunities just a few kilometres away out into Lake Ontario. Toronto Hydro Energy Services a subsidiary of Toronto Hydro which is owned by the City, is in the preliminary stages of assessing the potential of installing a 60 MW wind farm in Lake Ontario just offshore of the City and a consortium of private and community groups – known as ‘Spitting in the Wind’ – is looking at installing wind generators along a man-made land spit that extends out into the lake.

Not only did WindShare’s wind turbine stimulate fresh interest in renewables in the city, but Exhibition Place, the site of the wind turbine, noticed a huge interest from the 5.2 million visitors it hosts per year. Throughout its 126-year history Exhibition Place has always been a showcase for innovation and in 2004 it developed a bold vision of a sustainable energy future for the site which includes a commitment to be a leader in the use of energy efficient and renewable energy technologies and to achieve energy self-sufficiency by 2010.

Solar energy in Toronto

Exhibition Place’s next renewable energy project was to install a 100 kW PV system onto the roof of the ‘Horse Palace’ in 2006 and is currently Canada’s largest PV system. However Charlottetown, capital of Canada’s smallest province of Prince Edward Island, has recently announced plans to install a 108 kW PV system. Not to be outdone – Exhibition Place is studying how to increase the Horse Palace system to 2 MW over the next few years. A little competition between cities can sometimes be a good thing!

Community engagement and participation has always played a major role in attempts to expand the use of renewables in Toronto but while interest in renewables, and particularly solar PV, has always been high in Toronto there have, until recently, been few success stories.

This 100 kW PV system on the Horse Palace is Canada’s largest exhibition place

In 1999 Greenpeace undertook a project to bulk purchase PV systems for homeowners in Toronto that was modelled after a similar Greenpeace initiative in the Netherlands. While 20 homeowners ultimately purchased small systems and a small system was installed on Toronto’s City Hall – the low energy prices that most Canadians pay (currently the delivered price of electricity in Toronto is less that $0.12CAN/kWh) and the lack of any incentive programmes at the provincial or federal level resulted in a low uptake in this first attempt of a community solar initiative.

This lack of government support has resulted in Canada having one of the lowest installed levels of grid-connected PV of any International Energy Agency (IEA) reporting nation. However this is all beginning to change since the provincial Ontario government (Toronto is the provincial capital) announced in March 2006 a feed-in tariff programme that pays small PV generators $0.42CAN/kWh and other generators such as wind and small hydro $0.11CAN/kWh for the electricity that they feed into the grid.

Among the first to take advantage of this scheme was a community group in Toronto that modelled their programme after the unsuccessful Greenpeace initiative. Ron McKay, founder of the Riverdale Initiative for Solar Energy (RISE), said: ‘I wanted to get together about 30-40 households who were interested in buying a solar electricity system for their house; go to a solar company with those numbers and say “Give us your best price”.’

While the formation of the buyer co-op helped reduce the price, just as importantly it provided a support mechanism for individual homeowners that wanted to take the ‘leap into solar.’ The success of RISE spawned similar community solar buying co-ops across Toronto and now over 10 groups are exploring purchasing solar PV and solar water heating systems. One community group is even exploring the opportunity for installing a local district geo-energy heating system.

Another recent community success story comes from the commercial sector. The Toronto Association of Business Improvements Areas (TABIA), an alliance of 55 local Business Improvement Areas that represent more than 22,000 small businesses owners has recently completed a pilot project that will see solar powered lights along many of the main streets in Toronto.

Every year, many of the 55 Business Improvement Areas brighten up their streets with decorative lights. ‘The cost of the electricity to run these lights pales to the costs paid to meter the energy use or to install the power lines,’ says John Kiru, TABIA’s Executive Director. Metering charges were over $20 per month for about $2 worth of electricity and the cost to install power lines to new lights can often be in excess of $10,000. So starting in 2006 TABIA began a pilot project to install 42 small 100 W PV systems to provide power to LED holiday lights in 87 trees along Bloor Street West which is a major shopping area in west Toronto.

Municipal government on board

While community interest in renewable energy has been growing steadily, the City government has also not been idle.

The city government has always considered Toronto a North American leader in municipal environmental actions and in 1999 it released the Toronto Environmental Plan which included a number of actions for increasing the use of renewable energy in the city. One of the actions that came out of the Plan was the establishment of a working group of city officials – the Renewable Energy Action Plan Working Group – that considers ways that the municipal government can reduce the barriers that renewable energy technologies face in Toronto. ‘One of the best things that the City can do is to make it easier for potential users of solar technologies to install systems,’ says Sean Cosgrove, Programme Advisor in the City’s Energy Efficiency Office. Currently provincial municipal zoning requirements place restrictions on homeowners who want to participate in Ontario’s feed-in tariff programme – the City has not yet established any ‘right to light’ requirements to protect solar system owner’s assess to sunlight and the City can not issue building permits for installation of residential solar water heating systems due to an interpretation of wording in the Ontario Building Code.

The first urban wind turbine in North America – this 750 kW Langley created renewed interest in renewables in Toronto exhibition place

One of the positive signs that the municipal government is becoming engaged in local energy issues is the recent introduction of the Toronto Green Development Standard that provides guidelines for new building construction. One section of the Standard requires that on-site renewable energy systems provide 5%-10% of the building’s energy needs. While it is voluntary to meet the standard for private construction, as building codes are a provincial jurisdiction, all developers are required to complete and submit a Green Development Standard Checklist when submitting their development application.

The City is also in the process of developing an energy plan for the community. The Energy Plan for Toronto (EP4T) will be considering the long term energy needs of Toronto and how the city can move to a sustainable energy future by 2030. A priority for providing for the future energy needs of Toronto is energy efficiency with a growing useage of local renewable energy technologies.

The city government has also been a long term user of renewable energy technologies and Toronto has been tapping its landfill sites for methane gas capture, and electricity production, since the early 1990s, recovering more than 50% of methane that the sites produce.

The City also operates four waste water treatment plants and is in the process of introducing biogas cogeneration energy systems into the two largest plants. Currently, the methane produced in the treatment of sewage is utilized within the plants for heating requirements or is simply flared off. The City is in the process of installing a 4 MW cogen system at one of the plants that will supply both electricity and hot water with another project slated to start an another plant soon.

One of the first users of PV in Toronto was the Toronto Parking Authority which, starting in 1999, began switching over its individual parking meters to ‘pay and display’ kiosks that vaguely resemble three-metre high slot machines that are powered by small 10 W PV modules. Savings to the parking authority are substantial as the kiosks are easier to maintain and require less servicing. Without the use of solar to power them, the kiosks would not be practical as the cost to trench and connect them to power lines would have been prohibitive. Now the City also uses PV to power all its road repair message boards and has installed over 260 solar illuminated Transit Shelters.

Swimming pools, with their expensive heating bills, are a natural for solar heating in Canada. In fact, almost 75% of solar water heating system sales in Canada are for the heating of pools. The City operates 63 indoor and outdoor swimming pools and spends over $4.5 million annually to heat them. Recently the City has completed the first phase of an energy efficiency retrofit programme for arenas and recreation centres which also installed four solar pool heating systems. The four systems are amongst the largest in Canada and have an overall energy capacity of almost 740 kWth. As a follow up to this highly successful first stage the City plans to install solar heating systems at a further ten pools this year.

This fire training facility at Toronto’s international airport has a unique solar water providing heated make up air conserval engineering

Finally, Toronto is home to many innovative renewable energy companies, one of which – Conserval – is the manufacturer of Solar Wall™, a product that is sold world wide. Solar Walls are used in many buildings in Toronto including a community centre in Toronto’s downtown core, the City’s vehicle maintenance building and a recently completed fire station at Toronto’s international airport.

While owning a solar energy system is intrinsically appealing to those who are environmentally conscious – there are many that simply look at the bottom line of economics and the potential for project failure in a technology that is still relatively unknown in Canada.

Another of Toronto’s world leading renewable energy firms, Mondial Energy Inc., is looking at solving this problem by acting as a ‘solar utility.’ Mondial owns and maintains solar thermal energy projects, mainly on the roofs of client’s buildings, and sells the thermal energy delivered from the solar collectors. Mondial prices this energy lower than alternatives such as natural gas and commits to a long term stable price contract. Says Alex Winch, President of Mondial: ‘We believe we have broken the two biggest barriers to renewable energy deployment, up-front capital cost and technology risk. We are responsible for maintaining the solar panels. We meter the heat we deliver to the building and bill on the basis of delivered heat.’

Recently Mondial has partnered with Fat Spaniel, a internet based energy metering firm, to meter the thermal energy output of one of its largest Toronto projects, a 110 kWth solar water heating system to provide the domestic hot water needs for 110 apartments in two adjoining buildings. This is the first commercial solar thermal system to be metered by this method and the energy output can be viewed by anyone at the website www.mondial-energy.com/live-solar-energy-monitoring/11-Main.htm . ‘We see Fat Spaniel’s ability to monitor solar thermal systems as the last mile to opening up the solar thermal market to massive adoption,’ says Alex Winch.

While Canada is not yet a centre of renewable energy useage, renewable energy activities like these that are occurring in Toronto may soon turn Canada into, not only just an energy super power, but a ‘clean energy super power.’

Robert McMonagle is a Senior Energy Consultant with the City of Toronto
e-mail: rmcmona@toronto.ca

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