Welcome news: Toronto Star to hire environmental reporter and science/technology reporter

Just heard from my colleagues at the Toronto Star that the newspaper is hiring four new beat reporters, including a person to cover international, national and local environmental issues and another to cover the world of science and technology. Both are great ideas, and there will be overlap when it comes to environmental and climate change and green technology. Bravo to The Star for hiring where no other paper these days seems willing to make the investment. Hopefully this will dramatically improve the The Star’s coverage and reader understanding of climate issues and wider environmental concerns.

Car-sharing in Toronto more ubiquitous than Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Second Cup and Timothy’s combined!

My latest Clean Break column:

Two years ago I made a decision to ditch my car and start navigating the growing universe of transportation offerings available in the city.

One of my first decisions was to join the car-share service Zipcar, which has about 470 cars in its fleet spread across roughly 200 locations. Zipcar, along with public transit, cycling, the occasional cab ride, and a bit of day-before planning, has made it quite simple to move around the city without worrying about the hassle of car ownership: insurance, repairs, fuel costs, and parking.

There are currently three major car-share options in Toronto. In addition to Zipcar, there is Toronto-founded AutoShare, which has about 300 cars across 150 locations, and the Daimler-owned Car2Go, which launched this summer with 250 Smart Fortwo cars scattered across 200 city-owned Green P parking lots.

In all, Torontonians now have access to more than 1,000 vehicles at 550 different city spots, making car-sharing more ubiquitous in this city than all Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Second Cup and Timothy’s coffee shop locations combined.

It’s tempting to view the three as competing services; to labour over choosing one over the other the same way you might weigh the pros and cons of different cellphone service. The companies surely view themselves as competitors.

But for the consumer it’s not necessarily a choice of this “or” that. I decided this month to also join AutoShare and Car2Go because for an extra $45 a year, beyond what I would pay per hour or minute to sign out a car, doing so has dramatically expanded my travel options. (Pay-per-use fees range from about $10 to $12 an hour).

AutoShare and Zipcar may be quite similar, but having extra locations and cars to choose from is comforting. Just being with Zipcar, for example, I occasionally found it difficult to book a car nearby at the time it was needed. AutoShare now serves as a backup for Zipcar, and vice versa.

The vehicles in each company’s fleets are also different, offering the chance to try out different types of cars, such as the hybrid-electrics (Chevy Volts and Toyota Priuses) and all-electric vehicles (Nissan Leafs and Mitsubishi i-MiEVs) in AutoShare’s growing fleet.

Car2Go is quite different from both AutoShare and Zipcar in that you don’t have to return the vehicle to its original location. Instead, you can take one-way trips and only pay by the minute, not the hour.

The catch is you can only reserve a car up to 24 hours in advance, or just take your chances. If there’s one parked in a city Green P lot, you just swipe your member card against a device attached to the car’s windshield and you’re off.

This came in handy last week when, having rode my bicycle to work, I didn’t feel well enough at the end of the day to cycle home. I found a Green P lot a block from the office, grabbed a Smart car, and drove it to a lot near my home in the Beaches. A ride in a cab would have been twice as expensive.

Kevin McLaughlin, founder and president of AutoShare, prefers to think of Car2Go as a “self-driving taxi” service and not true car-sharing. “By far their (Car2Go’s) biggest impact, at least at the beginning, will be on taxis, Bixi (bike sharing), walking and even transit.”

Even with three services now operating in Toronto, the market continues to grow “very well,” says McLaughlin. “We are having our biggest growth this year by far.”

Christian Demers, general manager of Zipcar’s Toronto office, says he doesn’t expect that growth to slow down. “If you look at the development going on downtown it simply can’t slow down,” he says. “It will drive more people to join car-share programs because parking spots are less and less available.”

Innovation will also continue to grow the pie. The Zipcar, AutoShare and Cars2Go business models aren’t economical in areas with low population densities, such as the suburbs. This has created opportunity for peer-to-peer car sharing – services that allow car owners to rent out their own vehicles hourly, right out of their own driveways, when they’re not using them.

Earlier this month, General Motors’ announced that any GM vehicle equipped with the OnStar service could be rented out by the owner through a partnership with the peer-to-peer car-share service RelayRides, which started out in Boston and San Francisco and has since expanded its offering throughout the United States. It’s only a matter of time before it comes to Canada.

Ontario law currently disallows peer-to-peer car sharing, so legislative changes would be required, but both established players such as Zipcar and AutoShare and new players are kicking the tires and keen to experiment.

“People are still trying to figure it out,” says Demers, adding that wireless connectivity, GPS, the Web and the management of all three through increasingly advanced software has brought concepts like vehicle sharing to a new level.

“The technology in all these vehicles, like OnStar, changes the landscape of what you can do versus where we were 10 years ago,” he says.

The big caveat is that there will continue to be a big percentage of the population that, because of where they live or the nature of their work, simply can’t benefit from car-sharing.

It’s not for all people—but it is for a lot of people, such as the growing number of folks who work from home or have flexibility with their job. For this reason, car-sharing isn’t just here to stay, it will – has? – become an increasingly visible reality of city life, and a welcome one.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Costs, changing attitudes means the time for building-integrated solar PV has come… maybe

My recent Clean Break column:

If you have a chance to visit the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre this summer, be sure to check out striking new work by local glass artist Sarah Hall.

Hall is the creator of Waterglass, part of a new water-inspired envelope constructed around the theatre that combines air-brushed art and solar cells with insulating glass, which wraps bright waves of blue around the building’s north, east and west façades.

Only the west façade includes the solar cells – 540 cells on 10 panels, in total – but it’s a first for Toronto, and an example of the potential of what the solar industry calls building-integrated photovoltaics, or BIPV.

In Ontario we currently slap solar panels on the ground and existing residential and commercial rooftops. BIPV, on the other hand, isn’t added on after the fact. Right from the start solar cells are embedded into a building’s envelope, be it roof shingles, skylights, windows or siding.

Since you have to pay for the shingles or windows or other materials anyway – as well as their installation—the argument is that you can generate clean electricity from those materials by paying a bit of a premium.

“Solar moves from being just an energy source to also being a building component,” says Rob McMonagle, a senior advisor in Toronto’s economic development department who specializes in green technology.

The problem is that BIPV, while quite visible throughout Europe and growing in popularity in Japan and China, has gained little traction in Canada. This includes Ontario, despite the province’s stature as one of the leading solar markets in North America.

The main reason is that the feed-in-tariff (FIT) program designed and administered by the Ontario Power Authority never took the potential of BIPV into account. The generous rates paid out for solar electricity are for projects built on existing infrastructure. There’s nothing in the program that encourages solar technology to be built directly into new infrastructure.

But McMonagle, former head of the Canadian Solar Industries Association and a big believer in the potential of BIPV, is more optimistic these days. Energy Minister Chris Bentley, in a letter last month directing the power authority to restart the feed-in-tariff program, also asked the agency to design a sub-category within the program that is geared to solar projects on “unconstructed buildings.”

The new category needs to be implemented by the end of this year, and 15 megawatts of capacity on the grid is supposed to be earmarked for such projects in 2013.

“This is a big opportunity,” says McMonagle, who along with the Canada Green Building Council and Ontario Sustainable Energy Association had been pushing the power authority to move in this direction. “We’re now trying to engage with them to develop the rules.”

The sooner the better. Toronto has more high-rise construction going on than any other city in North America – more than seven times more construction than Chicago. With so much new building infrastructure in the works, it’s a perfect time to consider integrating solar technologies into architectural designs.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from the architect and developer communities,” says McMonagle. “They’re all saying give me more information. For them it’s also about where they can get the product locally.”

And this is where Ontario, potentially, can shine – and without the need for mandatory local content rules. A good part of the BIPV market is about custom installations that make buildings distinctive. Like the Sarah Hall project, many could be considered art.

This requires flexibility on the part of the supply chain. China excels at producing cheap items in high volumes, but when trying to meet unique architectural specifications, the Chinese edge begins to dull.

It’s generally true that the more customized a product, the more local it becomes. In this sense, BIPV – as public art, as part of private infrastructure, and as a source of clean energy in a jurisdictions experiencing a feverish pace of construction – is a good fit for Ontario.

It deserves to have its own feed-in-tariff rate. “If we can get this right for unconstructed buildings,” says McMonagle, “it has tremendous long-term potential beyond the FIT program.”

Indeed, Ontario could do well to tap a global BIPV market expected by one estimate to reach $6 billion by 2016, at which point we’ll see more roofing and window manufacturers integrating solar into their product lines.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Are green office towers becoming the norm, not the niche?

Tyler Hamilton
Yes, all of those new office towers being built around downtown Toronto are messing up traffic, and the construction cranes jutting out of the skyline like garden weeds are a temporary eyesore.

The good news is these buildings are becoming greener and smarter – both in the way they are constructed and how they operate.

Not to suggest tower developers suddenly have environmental religion. Profit still drives their activities. But there is change happening in the world of commercial building construction, and while for some it could move faster and stretch deeper, the fact that efficiency, environmental footprint and tenant well-being are being factored into design is a good thing.

Last month, Oxford Properties, the real-estate arm of the Ontario Municipal Employment Retirement System, revealed that it and its partners will spend an additional $500,000 to achieve “LEED Platinum” certification for the RBC WaterPark Place tower they are building on Queens Quay, between Bay and York Streets.

The building will be cooled using cold water pumped in from Lake Ontario. Special glazings will be put on windows to allow for more natural light while improving insulation. Pumps that drive ventilation, heating and cooling will be more efficient, and tenants will have more control over lighting and climate within specific rooms or “zones.”

LEED (Leader in Energy and Environmental Design) is a standard that at its simplest certifies the greenness of a building. The highest certification is platinum, and RBC WaterPark Place – to be the new headquarters for Royal Bank of Canada, which is taking up two-thirds of the 930,000 square foot tower—will be the first in Toronto to achieve that status.

Projected total cost: $400 million.

It won’t be alone for long. The reality is that few new office towers in Toronto and other major urban centres don’t have some level of LEED certification, whether silver, gold or platinum.

It’s become a bit boring really. Reminds me of when retailers started launching e-commerce sites on the Web during the dot-com boom. The first few were interesting. After that, it became more newsworthy if someone (a laggard such as Hudson’s Bay Co., for example) wasn’t selling online.

Commercial developers are realizing two things: tenants are taking corporate social responsibility more seriously and increasingly demanding more sustainable, healthier office spaces; and the cost premium for meeting that demand can typically be recovered in a few years.

“It’s becoming very much part of our industry,” said Blake Hutcheson, president and chief executive of Oxford. “This whole movement by Oxford and others to make our buildings greener, smarter, more efficient, I would characterize as an unequivocal win, win, win.

“Tenants win because they want it and are the net beneficiary of being in a much better building in terms of the environment, quality of work, and usability. Your investors win because, unless you get really leading-edge with your approach, there are arguably pretty good paybacks and it does make your building more valuable.”

More valuable because operating costs related to water and energy use are much lower, and in urban centres like downtown Toronto building owners can lease out spaces at a premium.

Hutcheson said Oxford benefits internally as well. “We hear more and more that our people want to be with a company that’s branded for doing good things, not doing yesterday’s stuff. As a result, we’re attracting really bright, really capable people who are inspired by some of the things that we’re doing.”

Empowering tenants to adjust their own behaviours is also a growing trend. Cadillac Fairview recently launched a new “green portal” for the six towers that make up its Toronto-Dominion Centre. It’s basically a website dashboard that lets tenants track and compare their respective energy use.

David Hoffman, the centre’s general manager, said it’s an effective application of the “manage what you measure” principle.

In many ways it’s about taking a more holistic view of building design and construction, one that takes into account the availability of technology to digitally connect together building components or systems that previously existed in silos.

With that big-picture view, combined with building automation and greater tenant and building manager control, these new commercial towers rising above Toronto are truly becoming smarter.

Earlier this month, Cisco Canada held an industry roundtable to discuss this very issue. The executives who spoke, representing construction, engineering and commercial property management companies, all agreed that the trend is real.

“The fact we’re here in a meeting with Cisco would be unheard of 10 years ago,” said Armin von Eppinghoven, executive vice-president of MMM Group, one of the largest engineering and consulting firms in the country. “We’re in the middle of a transition that in the next little while should become clear.”

Mind you, that doesn’t address what we do with all the older, less efficient buildings that represent the bulk of the city’s inventory. As Hutcheson pointed out, new buildings are only a tiny – “quite novel” – percentage of the whole.

Julian Brandon, senior vice-president at commercial real-estate consultant DTZ Barnicke, said more tenants want the LEED-type standard, convenient amenities and closeness to public transit.

There is a “musical chairs” of real estate going on, he added. “The older buildings are being left behind. What are those old buildings going to do?”

A good question we should be trying our best to answer.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

Canada near bottom of heap when it comes to energy efficiency: report

My colleague David Olive at the Toronto Star has an excellent column today about how Canada, despite boastful talk out of the Harper government, has eight reasons to curb its enthusiasm when it comes to how well it’s doing relative to the rest of the world. Business spending on R&D and venture capital investment as a percentage of GDP are ridiculously low. We have a pathetic labour productivity growth rate. The income inequality gap is growing while it shrinks in Europe. Our infrastructure deficit is widening. That’s just a taste of what Olive highlights.

Now today, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy is reporting a new detailed study that ranks Canada 11th out of 12 of the world’s largest economies. Seems when it comes to energy efficiency, the only country Canada is capable of beating is Russia.  (You need to register to access details of the full report).

The council analyzed more than 25 different energy efficiency indicators or “metrics” to determine a total country score out of a possible 100. In addition to an overall ranking, it also ranked countries under specific categories: buildings, transportation, industry and “national effort.” Our best ranking came with national effort, but even then, all we could do is achieve 8th place. On industry we ranked 10th, and with both buildings and transportation we ranked 11th.

When you dig into the report there are some interesting statistics. Canada ranks dead last when it comes to oil consumption per person, and we come third last when oil consumption is measured as a percentage of GDP. We also rank second last for our energy-efficiency policies. The report makes for some very insightful reading, but what it shows overall is that the Great North Strong and Free is a big laggard when it comes to energy efficiency, and that is ultimately going to affect our productivity and competitiveness on the world stage. It also reinforces our growing reputation as a major roadblock to serious action on climate change.

Corporate Knights is currently working on a G20 Clean Capitalism Country ranking that will appear in our summer (September) issue. It will be interesting to learn how we rank when all environmental, social and governance criteria are lumped together. Stay tuned…