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Alberta’s Economic Edge Is All Natural

Solar panels at EIA.

Alberta is an economic powerhouse when it comes to Canadian industry—but is its true advantage simply a matter of “nature”?

The forest industry is a primary example of the impact natural resources have on sculpting Edmonton’s economy. One of Canada’s oldest industries, the forest sector supports approximately 211,075 direct jobs and 95,000 indirect jobs across Canada. It also accounted for 7 per cent of Canada’s total exports and brought $23 billion into Canada’s economy in 2016. In Alberta, the forest industry contributes approximately $5.5 billion to the provincial economy.

Marty Luckert, professor, Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology (REES) at the University of Alberta, explains that for Edmonton, the forest industry is, “Potentially more important than the forest products it produces (i.e. pulp, lumber, OSB). The forest industry offers a means of looking after a large percentage of Alberta’s land base since over half of Alberta’s land base—approximately 80 million acres—is forested.”

Those forests have an important role to play.

“A few things happening now seem to point in new directions,” Luckert describes of the industry. “With electronic substitutes for paper, pulp has been relatively flat and will probably not be increasing. The biggest growth sectors are likely to come from products and production processes that are still being developed. There is potential for a host of products, including cellulosic biofuel, nanocrystalline cellulose, and many others. Nobody can predict all of the uses that we will put our forest resources to in the future, but it is reasonable to assume that technology will seek out and find new valuable uses for such a large renewable resource that will have ongoing, and potentially increasing, value in the economy.”

Edmonton’s forests aren’t the only natural resource that are accelerating in economic momentum right now. Solar, geothermal, and other renewable resources are also gaining impact—and affordability.

As Karl Andriuk, president, Threshold Renewable Energies, explains, “In Edmonton and Alberta, leading the charge is solar photovoltaic, but geothermal exchange is close on its heels.”

“There has been fairly focused attention on solar technology with the Alberta government providing incentives, and also a lot of media coverage,” Andriuk continues. “Solar PV will reduce your electric bill and, depending on the size of system you build, allow you to contribute back into the grid and eliminate your power bill completely. While Andriuk admits that it’s great that Solar PV is getting its recognition, he’s surprised that other technologies—like geothermal and solar hot water—are not getting the attention they deserve.

“Geothermal exchange offers a heating and cooling solution that is four- to five-times more efficient than your conventional systems; you can eliminate an entire utility bill, the payback is as competitive as any other solution, and it is an electric-based heat source, therefore reducing the carbon footprint. Interestingly, the asset of the bore field will not depreciate for generations. Once in place, the bore field will continue to provide a source of energy from the earth for hundreds of years. It has been estimated that the life span of the high-density pipe is at around 700 years.” Threshold has already installed 110 functioning and efficient systems in the Edmonton area.

“Solar hot water, as of yet, is still relatively unknown,” Andriuk adds. “It offers an opportunity to contribute to the domestic hot water needs of a house or business with an exceptionally low amount of maintenance and cost. Once a system is in place, users can see a reduction of 60 to 70 per cent of their domestic hot water costs.”

Alexander Polkovsky, CEO, President of NuEnergy, agrees that renewable energies have a lot to offer. “The largest benefit to end users we are seeing today is in intelligent adoption of on-site renewable energy in combination with high building envelope strategies. Striving for buildings that are more resilient from the energy side and target goals, such as PassivHaus, NetZero, or Energy+, are proving to have a better business case today than conventional buildings applying conventional energy strategies, such as furnaces, air conditioners, and grid-purchased power.

“From a technology perspective, we are seeing a larger uptake in solutions, such as solar PV and cogeneration for on-site power production; GeoExchange (geothermal) and air source heating and cooling systems; enthalpy and heat recovery ventilation strategies (ERVs/HRVs); shared and district-type energy systems (SES/DES); intelligent automation and data logging; and a wider use of 3D, BIM, and virtual modeling, among many other arrays of technological combinations. Commercial, institutional, and residential sectors are all receiving benefits, in both new construction and retrofit applications.

“When compared on a life-cycle cost (LCC) basis over the life of the building, the combination of these technologies with appropriate building envelope and energy efficiency strategies will yield a better overall return on your investment than code-compliant conventional systems, more often than not. After taking applicable grants into account, any building owner and operator that intends to own the building for more than 10 years should seriously consider adoption of on-site renewables and energy efficiency.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Edmonton is already starting to see so many of the advantages renewable resources have to offer. “Edmonton has developed a unique leadership position as net-zero capital of Canada,” Polkovsky explains. “There has been more innovation and for a much longer period of time in our region in production of high-performance, cold-climate buildings and building systems than anywhere else in Canada. Projects such as the zero-carbon laneway home in Westmount (Edmonton’s first zero-carbon residential laneway building), Mosaic Center (Canada’s first net-zero commercial building) and Westmount Presbyterian Church and North Glenora net-zero townhouses (Canada’s first net-zero affordable community housing complex, church, and district energy system) have led the way in innovation.

“We have literally pioneered an industry that is shaping the new code, reducing our carbon footprint, and reducing overall costs of living for everyone,” says Polkovsky. “[Edmonton] has a great convergent ecosystem of top-notch academic institutions, a very entrepreneurial private business sector, and an open-minded government. Properly focused and supported, this ecosystem can greatly flourish and set the path forward.”

The Edmonton International Airport is already on that path and ready for take-off. Steve Rumley, VP, infrastructure & energy, Edmonton International Airport, explains that, “Over the last 20 years, we have progressively improved the energy efficiency of our terminal, and you can see the difference among a LEED building and our older buildings.”

“When we expanded,” he continues, “we knew that we wanted to make use of best practices and knowledge on sustainable industry. We were the first Canadian airport with a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification for our terminal and tower, and that is because of our investment in things like efficient HVAC systems, water faucets, natural lighting, low VOC emitting paints and floors, a recycling program, and a green cleaning and recycling program. As well as the LEED Gold awards,” Rumley points out, “we also have Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Best Level 2, BOMA Building of Excellence and Outstanding Building of the Year, Corporate Knights Future 40, Airports Council International (ACI) Green Concessions, and other awards.

“Green energy and sustainability make good business sense because they will provide our business with energy independence, lower emissions, and will offer long term cost savings,” he notes, adding that “Sustainability is of growing importance to our stakeholders, business partners, our passengers, and our employees. It is crucial to stay in line with what is important so we can collaboratively invest in projects that are mutually beneficial. However, we don’t just want to stay aligned. We also want to lead and innovate.”