The power of going green

A MACLEAN’S EXCLUSIVE: Employers are finding new purpose, and plenty of profit, in environmentalism

The power of going greenThe best view of Whistler-Blackcomb’s soon-to-be-complete micro hydro project belongs to the tourist 45 metres above it on a zip-line—a kind of horizontal bungee jump. But at 80 km/h—and screaming her lungs out—she seems to have missed it. In fairness, the pale blue pipe hugging Fitzsimmons Creek for about a quarter of its 15-km length doesn’t look like much, dwarfed as it is by stands of centuries-old Douglas firs, western hemlocks and red cedars. But when complete in November, three months ahead of the Olympics, the $32-million project will make Whistler better than carbon neutral, producing an annual 33.5 gigawatt hours of clean, renewable energy—more than enough to power its 38 lifts, 17 restaurants and 270 snowmakers.

The so-called “green hydro” project will divert part of the stream into a pipe, just over a metre in diameter. Speed and kinetic energy will be generated in its final 500-m descent, when the water comes crashing down a steep, 75-degree slope. At the base, a turbine will capture that energy before returning the water to the watercourse below.

“It’s not the W.A.C. Bennett dam,” says Arthur De Jong, environment resource manager for the resort, pointing sheepishly to piping no taller than a 10-year-old. But his reference to B.C.’s gigantic hydroelectric dam—one of the world’s biggest—is apt. The megalithic ’60s-era project required over 100 million tonnes of gravel, sand, rock and concrete, new roads, reservoirs, intake towers and transmission lines, and did irreparable damage to fish stocks and the First Nations communities it displaced through flooding. That’s the old way to generate energy. Whistler already has roads and transmission lines in place to begin transmitting energy from its micro hydro project at Fitzsimmons Creek. To link with B.C. Hydro, they’ll simply need to run a 300-m cable, and flip a switch. The project is considered a model for small-scale renewable energy production.

2009 Canada's Greenest EmployersBut it’s just one example of localized power generation and alternative energy sources that Canadian companies are exploring to control costs, reduce their ecological footprints, and generate environmental credibility. For the first year ever, Maclean’s has partnered with Toronto publisher Mediacorp to present a list of Canada’s 30 greenest employers. It provides an inside look at some of the initiatives Canada’s corporations are undertaking to improve their environmental footprint—“and their bottom line,” adds Mediacorp managing editor Richard Yerema.

In Quebec, for example, paper giant Cascades Inc. has cast its eye to garbage. For the past three years, it has been powering its mill at Saint-Jérôme with biogas generated from the decomposition of waste at the nearby Ste-Sophie municipal landfill. When burned, the biogas generates steam for the mill’s four paper machine dryers—the most energy-intensive task associated with paper-making, explains communications director Julie Loyer. In winter, Loyer adds, the steam is also used in heating, and now satisfies nearly 85 per cent of the mill’s thermal energy needs. That replaces an annual 36 million cubic metres of natural gas and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 540,000 tonnes per year—the equivalent of removing 15,000 cars from the road every year. The $10-million initial investment, meanwhile, has already paid for itself, and the low-cost biogas has reduced annual electrical and energy costs at the St-Jérôme facility by almost a third.

In Montreal, McGill University is also experimenting with alternate energy sources. Rather than venting out the substantial waste heat generated by the university’s IT and data centre—where it’s seen as a nuisance—the university will capture, pipe and re-use the waste heat in surrounding buildings, reducing overall heating costs, says associate vice-principal Jim Nicell. A planned retrofit of McGill’s Otto Maass Chemistry Building, meanwhile, is expected to cut its energy use by 60 per cent. And since 2006, McGill has also been generating heating and cooling savings of 40 per cent at Lady Meredith House, home to the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, where it has installed a geothermal exchange system. The historic red brick building on the corner of Peel and Pine streets is lined with liquid-filled pipes that run deep underground, explains Nicell. In winter, the warmth trapped in the earth is captured by that liquid and pumped into the building, warming the air; in summer, when the ground is cooler than the atmosphere, heat from the building is expelled underground.

They’re even tinkering with locally generated power in Alberta. Enmax, Calgary’s city-owned utility, has announced the construction of the $30-million Downtown District Heating project, which could help to delay or even eliminate the need for a controversial transmission line to be built to Calgary from northern Alberta. The downtown plant will also provide waste heat to 10 million sq. feet of core-area office space, through a network of underground insulated pipes instead of separate boiler systems.

The “old idea,” of having a centralized coal plant and transmission lines, which requires enormous outlays of steel, copper and land, is “fundamentally uneconomic,” says Gary Holden, the Calgary-born CEO. “Building power generation near cities, where you can take advantage of waste heat, is really the future of the generation market,” he says, adding that several European cities, spurred by high costs, have been re-using heat for decades.

Holden, who’s been a staunch supporter of alternative and renewable energy sources since taking the helm of Enmax in 2005, admits that, in Alberta, where the provincial government remains “strongly committed” to coal development if it can be made clean, he’s “really pushing against tradition.” Enmax, which last month announced $2.6 billion in revenues for 2008, and net earnings of $181.1 million, runs into “lots of opposition” when tabling plans for cleaner energy, he adds.

Still, Holden sees a future, 50 to 100 years from now, in which micro hydro stations, wind farms, solar panels and co-generation plants will gradually diminish the need for coal and nuclear power. “If you can conceptualize such a future in your mind, then it’s just a question of how to create policy to drive to that endgame.” Change, he says, “absolutely” has to be driven by utilities and power corporations.

“To say the electricity sector is changing dramatically is an understatement,” says Toronto Hydro president and CEO David O’Brien. The publicly owned utility will soon begin allowing consumers to sell locally generated power—such as wind, solar, photovoltaic (PV), renewable biomass, bio-gas, bio-fuel or landfill gas—“back into the grid.” By subsidizing solar panels and solar hot water heaters, he says, Ontario’s Green Energy Act is providing consumers with incentives to begin doing just that, he adds.

“The whole system of providing electricity is being re-thought,” says O’Brien, noting that the utility has now completed the installations of so-called “smart meters” in 88 per cent of Toronto homes. (The advanced meters, which detail consumption on an hourly basis, allow the utility to vary pricing according to hourly demand; it is believed that consumers will adjust their consumption habits accordingly, which may delay the need for new energy projects.)

“A major paradigm shift is under way,” says O’Brien. “Just don’t call it a greenhouse gas issue—even if you get greenhouse gas benefits,” says Holden. “Make sure it’s a conversation about conservation and efficiency.” De Jong agrees. The best environmental arguments he’s ever made in the Whistler boardroom he did without using the word “environment” at all. “We’re losing money,” he said. “Our brand is being diminished. We’re missing a great recruitment opportunity.” That’s how you sell it, he says. Avoid alarmism and “the motherhood pitches.”

However, De Jong admits that urgency may be more acutely felt at Whistler. The resort is already seeing the effects of climate change and glacial retreat, and has had to make adaptive changes: increasing its snow-making capacity and placing lifts on higher ground, he says. The resort is also doing summer grooming—flattening ski trails, removing boulders and other obstructions—so that, come winter, “it takes less snow to open runs.” In the worst case scenario, he says, the resort may have to look at land exchanges with the provincial government, trading lower acreage for higher, alpine glacier zones. “But we don’t want to go there.”

That’s what is motivating the resort-wide goal of achieving a net zero footprint within its operating area, he says. This year, the resort, which has an extensive recycling program in place, began composting in all restaurants and cafés, bringing down the amount of waste they send to the landfill by 60 per cent, with the ultimate goal of zero waste and zero carbon emission within 10 years.

That’s the kind of spirit that’s animating the 30 members of this year’s Greenest Employers list, and if it keeps up, the list will only get bigger in the years ahead.