Saturday, November 27, 2010

Government sabotaging climate policy abroad

The cover of the Climate Action Network Report.

It's been clear for a while that fossil fuels, from whatever source, are our government's bet for economic prosperity for the future. Actively interfering with other countries who are making progress to protect the climate is particularly shameful.
Tactically, this makes sense for the government. We have the resources, and a strong resource based economy helps ensure re-election.
Strategically, weakening other countries' climate policy, is like doing a rain dance during a flood. It's silly at best, and if it's successful, it makes the larger problem even worse. 
With fossil fuels, the problem is the product. No matter how you extract it, the carbon from the use of these resources finds its way to the atmosphere. The climate doesn't care where the carbon comes from.
The world is going to address this problem sooner or later. Sooner would be nice, because it will avoid some of the pitfalls of inaction. Later, fossil fuels will become unaffordable and the climate will be worse than if we act now. Bad news.
The good news is that having the resources puts us in control of our destiny. Between coal, oil, natural gas, and unconventional oil we have lots of resources here. We get to decide how, and whether the resources are used.
Politically, the current strategy seems to be closely aligned with smoke 'em if you got 'em, or perhaps basking in the warmth of an out of control grass fire. Not a good long term strategy.
The efforts to weaken other countries' climate policy (Mr. Stelmach goes to Washington, for example) attempts to lock in a fossil fuel infrastructure for our own short term benefit. What it misses is the opportunity to lead the transition to a carbon-neutral future.
It will take more willpower and innovation to transition off fossil fuels, but the rewards would be tremendous, both economically and environmentally. Do you want your wind turbines manufactured here or abroad?
Ask your government to lead you to where you should be going, not back to where you were.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Open data: Smarter solutions for better cities



Video from http://gordonmcdowell.com/20101108-yyc-city-council/ - Thanks Gordon!

Municipal governments have lots of information. Although it's hard to predict the benefits, public information should be made available in a form that computers can use.

Application developers would be able to create interesting ways of remixing that information and making it more useful.

Imagine that snowplow crews kept track of which roads were cleared, in realtime, and fed that data to applications which could keep track of which roads were passable, and after a big dump of snow, could give you an idea of how long before your crescent would be cleared. It would save you having to call to ask when your road would be cleared, because you could find that out yourself.

Or, imagine that realtime GPS tracks from every bus in the city were available, along with what route they're on and the number of the individual bus. What could you do with that information?

With the right application, you could tell where the bus is, and whether you've missed it or not. You could find out how long you'll have to wait for the bus, and whether you have time to run back and grab that thing you forgot.

A clever application developer could even use the GPS tracks as a proxy for traffic congestion and provide realtime traffic reports, so its users could avoid areas of congestion.

Smartphone-using drivers could contribute to the dataset by uploading their (anonymized) GPS tracks in realtime as well. (WEB UPDATE - THIS IS STARTING TO HAPPEN.) (I'm going 25 km/h on this part of the highway.) With enough participation, you'd have a live traffic congestion map. (That highway's slow right now.) Smart direction finding programs could then take traffic into account when giving you directions.

Some interesting experiments are happening in Calgary with closed captioning of their council meetings, machine translation, and webcasts on youtube. They are leveraging things that already exist to provide access to non-english speakers.

Of course the most exciting possibilities are the ones that haven't been imagined yet. With the data electronically available and applications can be developed to sift, recombine and present the data in ways that haven't been imagined yet. Moreover, the innovative cities that take the lead on this give themselves an advantage.

Making public information available electronically will provide more opportunities for developers to build interesting and useful applications.

Thanks to the #yycdata innovators for inspiring this column and bringing these ideas to life. -A.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

District energy: Forget the furnace, feel the heat

Inside the Calgary District Energy Plant - October 2010

We live in a cold climate. In the winter we would freeze without some way to stay warm.

A district energy system can keep entire neighbourhoods warm, without needing everyone to own and maintain a furnace.

District heating is more energy efficient than many individual furnaces. It's more worthwhile to use renewable energy and end users don't need to own, maintain, or leave space for a furnace.

There's a district heat system in Okotoks, Alberta that stores summer solar heat in the ground and distributes it in the winter.

The new district energy facility in Calgary provides the heat for city hall, and is set to provide all the heat for the new East Village redevelopment.

That facility can be operated by one person, and he gets to go home at night. The system will let him know if there's a problem and he can either log in and fix it from home, or go in to fix it.

Some systems can make electricity too.

Customers pay for the heat they use. The heat is generated in a plant with big boilers rather than at home in your less efficient furnace.

District heating has been operating in europe for over 50 years.

Revelstoke has been using district heat since 2005, burning waste wood from a local timber mill.

As you think about how to grow your city, consider district energy as an alternative to the same old system.

It takes vision and leadership to try to change the way things have been done. Not every city has what it takes to be a leader.

Don't miss out on the potential benefits. Do the research. Look at the options. Figure out if it makes sense for you.

This sort of system won't be cheap to start up, but keep in mind that every dwelling unit that it serves will not need to buy a furnace of its own. That's the sort of savings that adds up quickly.

Remember, district energy is only one element of the city we should be working towards. Higher density mixed use communities not only work well for direct energy, they provide a the critical mass of people for local business, social interactions, walkable communities and viable transit.

WEB EXCLUSIVE: BC's Community Energy Association has lots of great resources including the Heating Our Communities - Renewable Energy Guide for Local Governments in BC.

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

What's mined is yours: protect your ecosystems

Strip Mine: Tap, Sacrifice Strip Mine to destroy target land.

There's no getting around the fact that Canada is a resource-rich country. This land is our land. Valuing an intact ecosystem is a complex exercise. The benefits of keeping the system intact are small but enduring for everyone. On the other hand, strip mining the land involves a big short-term payday for the the mining company. Simple. Short-sighted.

That short-term payday is accompanied by what economists call externalities. Those externalities take the form of environmental degradation and disruption to the intact ecosystems. But the mining company won't be around for the devastation.

Surprisingly, we are getting better at these decisions. As intact ecosystems become rare, we start recognizing their intrinsic value. They have more triple-bottom-line value intact than if we destroy them.

For example, on November 2 the Federal Government announced that it would not approve the $3 Billion Prosperity Gold-Copper Mine proposed by Taseko Mines Ltd. due to significant adverse environmental effects. The tailings from the mine would have destroyed Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), Y'anah Biny (Little Fish Lake) and portions of Teztan Yeqox (Fish Creek). The mine would also have trampled on First Nations interests in the area. The BC Government had already approved the project, but it also required federal approval.

As another example, an application by a potato farming company to buy 65 square km (100 quarter sections) of native grassland near Bow Island in Alberta was withdrawn. The Alberta Wilderness Association pointed out that the area provides habitat for several species at risk.

In both of these cases, significant public outcries were made and may have swayed the outcome. Frankly, it's too bad these outcries seem to be necessary. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf, then we need to scrutinize them constantly for fear that they'll cave to special interests or return political favours.

However, in the same news release as the Prosperity Mine announcement, they approved the Mount Milligan Gold-Copper Mine, including the 52 million tonnes of potentially acid generating waste rock and tailings. Political cover? Of course, and from both sides. The Nak'azdli First Nation is concerned about the long term environmental damage and don't feel like they've been adequately consulted.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice is quoted wanting to "balance resource stewardship with economic development". Fair compromise? Devastation-lite? Only time will tell.

The more you have the harder you have to work to maintain it. In surplus, no-one thinks of shortage.

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