Editor’s note: Edmonton’s City Plan makes it clear. Our community will thrive, in part, to the extent that Edmonton grows a diverse economy by embracing services and technologies responsive to the impacts of climate change.
Christian Felske, the City of Edmonton’s Director of Renewable Energy Systems, picked up that theme in a recent TEDx talk at the University of Alberta’s Ripples of Action event. Felske talked about energy and community and Blatchford.
Listen here to Felske read his TEDx presentation for you.
Here’s the transcript.
If you could take one action to save energy around your house, what would you do?
Insulation is pretty good. So is upgrading your windows. Maybe it’s a smart thermometer. If you’re thinking big, you might even want solar panels.
My name is Christian Felske and I’m the Director of Renewable Energy Systems for the City of Edmonton. I have spent the past two decades working with governments and industry to address sustainability.
Needless to say, I spend a lot of time thinking about questions like this.
Thinking big about energy
Alberta has a history of thinking big about energy.
We innovated oil extraction right here. At the University of Alberta, a chemist named Karl Clark patented a process to separate oil sands. With government investment, a stranded asset became a global powerhouse.
And we’ve gotten better at extraction. We can mine oil sands now without even disturbing the surface—just by pumping steam and heat underground.
Climate change challenges future
But climate change is challenging our future.
Technologies have fine-tuned extraction, but we’ve also messed with the planet’s temperature.
And we can’t seem to turn back the dial.
More than half of all emissions since the Industrial Revolution have come since the 1992 Climate Summit in Rio. More than one-third of all the emissions came in the 12 years leading up to the pandemic.
A world that warms by an average of two or three degrees is a problem. As investors have begun to worry, Alberta’s oil resources are in danger of becoming stranded once again.
We have a problem
We have a problem, but it isn’t just oil. It isn’t just the economy.
It’s the way we build cities.
Cities account for almost half of Canada’s carbon emissions. Cheap energy has led to car dependency, more roads, longer commutes, and we’re locking in more emissions every day.
Things we build today last for decades—roads and neighborhoods and houses. Bad choices not only add infrastructure and energy costs, they make us less flexible.
And that is bad because climate change is forcing us to adapt to new realities: colder winters, hotter summers, heavier storms, more extremes. And these extremes jeopardize the built infrastructure we all need and rely on.
A city problem
Climate change is a city problem.
If cities are going to thrive, they need to be smarter.
They need to waste less and be strategic about growth. We have to rethink the energy equation in all aspects of our lives. This is why cities like Edmonton are talking about 15 minute districts—neighborhoods or hubs where you can walk, ride, or roll to all your daily needs.
City Council’s other problem
A few years ago, Edmonton City Council had another problem. They had two airports—an old one in the centre and a shiny new one 30 kilometres to the south.
For 50 years, there was back and forth debate about what to do. In 2009, City Council finally closed the one in the city centre. To their credit, they saw the opportunity in a 536-acres area, an opportunity to develop a sustainable new community built around people and public spaces that connects to public transport and challenges the status quo on energy.
Blowing Kenny Blatchford’s mind
Blatchford is named after Kenny Blatchford, a man who arrived in Edmonton in the 1890s on an oxcart. Three decades later, he was our mayor, the one who opened what became the first licensed airport in the country—right in Edmonton’s centre.
Blatchford is a fitting name for a community built on hard work and ambition.
In 2010, a public competition was announced to figure out what it would become next. Schemes were presented and Council picked a winning concept. The winner had stuff that would have blown Kenny Blatchford’s mind: underground garbage collection, a biomass plant, deep geothermal systems.
Not just technology
Climate change is a lot of things, but it’s not simply about technology.
It’s not something we can fix with consumer choices alone.
It’s about coming together to leverage resources, to find models that work right here, and right now, things that also account for issues like poverty and inequality.
It is almost always about removing barriers.
Blatchford includes a lot of smart planning ideas. Laneway housing increases neighborhood density. High efficiency buildings—better than Code. Narrower streets and spaces for walking. Separate bike lanes. Trees on every street to provide shade.
A simpler answer
The Blatchford team also did its homework about energy.
The answer was not burning biomass or drilling down several kilometres. For Blatchford, there was a simpler answer.
If you grab a shovel and dig until you’re 150 metres deep, you might notice a few things. For one, you’d be tired. You’d also find that the temperature is around 8 degrees Celsius. That’s 47 degrees Fahrenheit, summer or winter, no matter the weather. Always 8 degrees.
That’s because the ground is a giant solar battery that absorbs and stores heat.
No lost energy
Alberta pumps steam underground to pull energy out. In Blatchford, we just pump cool water and glycol for renewable energy, and none of that energy is lost.
Underneath this storm water pond is what is called a geo-exchange field—570 boreholes go 150 metres deep.
A high efficiency heat pump extracts and deposits thermal energy in the water, and then puts that energy into a network of pipes underneath the roads into the community.
Every building here has an individual heat pump to tap into that water, into that energy.
Efficiency numbers for efficiency number people
People brag about high efficiency furnaces.
Our essential heat pump has a coefficient of performance of 10. That means for every unit of electricity, we get 10 times the energy for heating or cooling. That’s not 95 percent efficient like your furnace. It’s a massive 1000 percent efficiency.
And, did I mention it also works like an air conditioner?
No gas furnace, no hot water heater, no air conditioner
District energy systems have been around for a century.
The first systems used boilers and steam, not ambient water. We’ve taken a proven technology, added efficient equipment and renewable energy. And thanks to our heat pumps and boreholes, district energy pipes are filled with water that will never freeze.
Every building in Blatchford is connected. In a winter city, in the heart of oil country, you do not need a gas furnace.
No hot water heater and no air conditioner.
More than 90 per cent of all heating and cooling will be met through this renewable system.
Beauty of Blatchford
The beauty of Blatchford systems isn’t just efficiency.
Our system can take the needs of one building to meet the needs of another. Commercial buildings need cooling even in winter. And the average residential home needs heat. And because buildings in Blatchford are connected, the heat shed from cooling a commercial building can be used to heat homes next door.
That alone improves efficiency by up to 20 per cent, so no new energy needs to be supplied.
Where the world is going
Much like your home, efficiencies in utilities require upfront investment, but, over time, renewables typically outperform conventional technology.
This is absolutely the case here in Blatchford.
And as energy and Canada’s carbon prices rise, Blatchford’s system will beat its competitors without emissions and without energy loss.
Plus there’s an added community benefit. Builders, HVAC installers and residents experience a different way of heating and cooling.
Blatchford can be a catalyst for these net zero technologies right here in Edmonton.
You can find renewable energy in many places. It’s in the sun, the wind and the water. It’s also hidden underground. Maybe that’s less sexy, sometimes forgotten, but it’s very efficient.
In Blatchford, we’re getting ready to tap into an even unsexier source of waste heat: a sewer line running through the heart of the neighborhood, carrying warm water and sewage.
If we’re going to make headway on the climate challenge, we will need to connect. And it’s already happening around us. Connection is creating solar mini-grids in Africa and Latin America. Connection is also an opportunity for struggling resource towns here in Canada.
University of Alberta sociologist John Parkins has mapped community energy projects throughout the country. Parkins argues that community-scale energy projects could be transformational everywhere.
Because connected energy creates opportunity.
Felske’s question, revisited
So, if you could take one action to improve your home, what would you do?
The answer might be even simpler than you first thought. Something as simple as a community league could be a starting point for a bigger project or conversation.
And as we’ve learned from Blatchford, one of the best things you can do is connect. You might still insulate or change your windows, but maybe you can also come together and find new energy.
Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows Energy Centre One at Blatchford. Learn more about living at Blatchford. Watch video of Christian Felske’s TEDx talk.