Ottawa has one of the cleanest environments in Canada, but that is due to our lack of smokestacks – not because our behaviour is any different from that of other cities.
City council originally wanted to go “100 per cent renewable” but renamed its strategy “Energy Evolution” when it realized the Herculean effort that would be required to reach even a fraction of that original goal.
A city report estimates that five per cent of our energy is from locally produced renewables from the half-dozen hydro dams and thousands of rooftop solar panels; it does not include the contribution of biomass (wood stoves in rural homes) or the output of NetZeroPlus heat pumps.
To meet the other 95 per cent of energy needs, Ottawa imports natural gas, oil, propane, gasoline and grid power, which results in $3 billion a year leaving our community to pay for this.
These calculations are much lower than data from the Office of Energy Efficiency, which indicates the city’s annual consumption is the equivalent of 50 billion kWh for all end uses, for an outflow of $5 billion. Federal data indicate that four per cent of Ottawa’s energy is renewable.
Vancouver has a target to become 100-per-cent renewable, and it has a good chance of success because, like Ottawa, it has virtually no industry; it also has no airport or marine transport (the international airport is outside city limits and the port is federal property).
With a much warmer climate, its downtown consists of high-rise buildings that rely on green power from hydroelectric dams. If that city could just banish gas-guzzling cars, it could become 100-per-cent renewable.
Ottawa cannot. We’re a very large city, so transportation is a large end use of energy, but an equivalent amount is used to heat homes and offices. The fossil fuel industry has no intention of relinquishing this lucrative market, as evidenced by its widespread use of the greenwashing term “renewable natural gas” to stay relevant.
Confusion stems from terms such as “renewable,” “green,” “sustainable” and “low-carbon,” all of which mean very different things. Solar panels and wind turbines are the most commonly cited renewable energy technologies, but hydro generates two-thirds of Canada’s power.
Electricity supplies only 15 per cent of our energy locally and of this small, but growing portion of the pie, 60 per cent of our grid is from nuclear reactors, 10 per cent from gas, and only seven per cent from solar and wind (with not a single commercial wind turbine anywhere in Ottawa).
The recent debate at city hall has centred on how much of the budget should be spent on staff or to fund projects that showcase the benefits of renewables, avoiding discussion of the many “free” policies or regulations the city could enact to encourage climate action by individuals, such as requiring new homes to insulate above Code, or insisting that site plans face houses to the solar so owners can install solar panels in future if they want. Other options include district heating and cooling with a renewable source of energy, or favouring developers who promise metal roofs instead of asphalt shingles.
Politicians could have avoided the argument over how to allocate minimal resources, and gone with recommendations to reduce expenditures and increase revenues (as well as all the free policy stuff) which would move us closer to where we want to go.
But this is the same city that decided to ignore numerous options to avoid the energy crunch in a new development, so ratepayers now will pay $75 million for a high-voltage transmission line to carry more (predominantly nuclear) power into our city. Apparently it’s not easy to be green.
It’s a travesty that, 20 years after we signed the Kyoto Protocol, our city is still gazing at its navel about how to get more renewable/green/sustainable/low-carbon options into Ottawa.
If we are at only five per cent renewables after two decades, imagine how long it will take us to get a touchdown.