On the grid 

The quest for sustainable energy in Whistler

click to flip through (4) STORY BY ERIC PLUMMER - On the grid: The quest for sustainable energy in Whistler
  • Story by Eric Plummer
  • On the grid: The quest for sustainable energy in Whistler
     
 

Like a cluster of stars that fall at the base of the mountains, the resort town of Whistler shines defiantly through the darkness of Canada's long winter nights. While the surrounding wilderness is frozen in silence, the resort continues to buzz with energy through the cold months with myriad events held long after the sun descends behind the peaks.

Amid all the excitement, it's no surprise that energy usage increases each winter to run the constant activity. But the environmental impacts of powering a growing mountain resort deserve keen consideration as the community endeavours to live sustainably.

A contradiction in terms

It would seem that developing an environmentally sustainable resort in B.C.'s mountains is a contradiction in terms. Whistler lures a constant influx of visitors from around the world, who travel aboard carbon-burning jets to reach the destination. Then there's the year-round traffic congestion, a painfully obvious reminder to locals of the trappings that come with the resort's continued growth. Ski trails, lifts and bike paths encroach upon the surrounding nature and, as the resort's outdoor recreation expands, wildlife recedes.

Yet amid its continued growth environmental sustainability has become an integral part of Whistler's identity. Other large mountain destinations have taken up this cause as well: in 2012 the resorts of Vail and Breckenridge aspired to cut energy use 10 per cent by 2020, while last year the local government in Park City, Utah, pledged to acquire all its electricity from renewable sources by 2032.

Depending on how one looks at the unfolding local situation, Whistler's use of energy and the management of greenhouse-gas emissions has brought a series of triumphs, failures and struggles as the community strives to realize what a mountain resort should be in the 21st century.

"Whistler is not sustainable," states the Whistler Energy Consumption and Greenhouse Gas Performance Trends report released in June 2015. The municipal document sets a historical perspective of how well the community has been managing its energy usage and carbon emissions. Total energy usage, including electricity, natural gas and vehicle fuel, peaked at 3.3 million gigajoules (GJ) during the hectic year of the 2010 Winter Olympics. This gradually declined to 3 million GJ in 2015 — an improvement, yet still almost twice the level of energy that Whistler consumed in 1990.

Meanwhile the volume of greenhouse gases emitted from the community has declined since 2001, falling from 152, 061 tonnes to 109,242 in 2009 — but then rising to just over 111,000 in 2015.

While traffic has dramatically thickened in Whistler, carbon pollution has not — thanks in part to better vehicle regulations for using renewable fuel, says Dan Wilson, a planner with the Centre for Sustainability. The community also benefitted from piping cleaner natural gas to buildings in 2009 and more efficient electricity generation in recent years, he says.

"Most drops in emissions in Whistler that have happened since that time have come from two major things: one has been hydro using less fossil fuels in their energy mix, and a shift from propane to natural gas," explains Wilson.

"Those were all one-time things that had a dramatic effect on reducing GHGs (greenhouse gases)," adds Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "Now we need to shift behaviour rather than those one-time, one-off technological changes, and so it's more challenging."

Unmet targets

Over the years the municipality has set goals to help push the energy usage and emission numbers down, but meeting such aspirations has proven to be unexpectedly complicated. In 1997, the same year that the Kyoto Protocol set emissions standards for counties around the world, Whistler stepped up with the goal of cutting the community's greenhouse gas emissions six per cent (based on 1990 numbers) by 2012. Municipal facilities and vehicles were also set for a 20-per-cent reduction, but both of these goals fell short when the deadline came five years ago.

"In order to achieve those kinds of targets you need a strong commitment from all three levels of government," explains Wilhelm-Morden. "There simply wasn't the same political and public will for innovative climate change back then that there is now."

"We're not going to meet them," admits Wilhelm-Morden of the GHG target. "It doesn't mean that we're giving up, not at all. We're going to do the best that we can, but meeting the targets will be pushed back."

Electricity accounts for 45 per cent of the energy used in Whistler, followed by vehicles fuels at 30 per cent and natural gas (25 per cent). But passenger vehicles contributed more than half of Whistler's greenhouse gases in 2014 with almost 62,000 tonnes. Natural gas used in homes and commercial buildings totalled less than 36,000 tonnes of emissions, while electricity consumption by all sectors was responsible for 3,664 tonnes.

As a major source of emissions that has remained relatively unchanged since 2000, cars will be an essential factor if Whistler is to aspire towards future targets, says Wilson.

"The main way is to reduce the amount of vehicle kilometres driven in Whistler," he says.

To help this cause the municipality has increased the Whistler Transit budget by 750 service hours, says Wilhelm-Morden. She saw ridership increase last summer when transit was free on Saturdays.

"Visitors don't need a vehicle in Whistler," she says. "They can take the shuttle from the airport. Once they get into the village it's pedestrian oriented."

When the alternative is preferred

A continued decline in greenhouse gas emissions won't be possible without an adjustment to the North American car-centric way of life, which makes the decisions of two Whistler men an interesting lesson in curbing one's environmental impact. Throughout the winter Dave Heighway and Cory Leis rely on electronic bicycles to get around — including their trips to the ski hill.

Heighway owns a camper van that runs on vegetable oil, but this vehicle has been saved for long summer trips since the two began an experiment four years ago in living without a car. Leis and Heighway ride chargeable electric bikes equipped with fat tires for the snow, $2,500 machines that can propel them up hills, saving the rider from breaking a sweat. At a cost of six cents for the few charges required each week, Heighway estimates the bike has saved him thousands in vehicle repair costs and gasoline. Whistler's traffic and limited parking have become less of a headache as well.

"You know exactly how long it's going to take you to get somewhere," says Heighway. "We're overlooking the easiest, cheapest, most efficient way ever to get around."

Now Heighway and Leis have started I Clean Commute, a business that encourages individuals and companies to invest in electronic bicycles with rebates of up to 25 per cent off the listed price.

"We're hoping that this will be successful with the business community. It allows them to take the lead with climate change," says Heighway.

Although Wilhelm-Morden believes that bicycling through the winter would be a tough adjustment for many people to make, the tactic appears to be growing.

"I have seen more people riding bicycles this winter than ever before, and we've had a fairly snowy winter — and cold," she says. "We see the drop off of single passenger vehicle use in the summer when biking is integral, as is walking on the Valley Trail."

Heighway was introduced to the utilitarian purpose of a bicycle during his graduate studies while he lived in Denmark, where many relied on bicycles as their main form of transportation.

"Every bike that's out there reinforces for people that riding a bike is the normal thing to do," he says. "It all depends on your lifestyle. For me, I've got no kids, and I've chosen to live in a central location that's well serviced. There's everything going for me to go car free."

A record-breaking winter for hydro

Energy use rises dramatically in the winter — typically 88 per cent, according to BC Hydro, with heating comprising half of this increase. But this winter has brought signs that even more power could be demanded from the system: Records for peak demand were broken Jan. 3, when 10,126 megawatts were drawn from 5 to 6 p.m.

According to Fortis BC, 16 per cent more natural gas was used across the province in December and January than the previous year, cutting into residents' utility budgets.

"Although the cold winter resulted in higher natural-gas consumption and therefore higher bills, residential gas customers pay one third less for gas than for the same electrical use," says Fortis communications adviser Diana Sorace.

The difference between heating with electricity and natural gas is expected to challenge Whistler in meeting its greenhouse gas targets. BC Hydro rates escalated from 2006 to 2014, translating into a $5-million increase in Whistler's residential electricity bills to a total cost of $16.3 million.

The resort municipality's performance summary report predicts a shift from electricity to natural gas.

"The net effect would likely be an increase in GHGs associated with this sector," it states.

Building a more passive future

Amid the rising heating bills an option is gaining ground using an energy-efficient building technique that began in Germany over 20 years ago. Durfeld Constructors built Canada's first passive house in Whistler for the 2010 Olympics. The airtight Austria House exhibited a new level of insulation with thick walls and strategically placed windows that optimize incoming solar heat. Since then a number of other homes have been built in Whistler based on the passive house model, saving homeowners up to 90 per cent in their heating costs.

The house components are prefabricated in the BC Passive House operation in Pemberton, where they're tested to maximize energy efficiency.

"The average house gets about 5.0 air exchanges per hour on a blower door test," explains Kyle Moen, an architectural technologist with Durfeld Construction. "With passive house you're trying to get that number down below 0.6. We're about 10 to 20 times as airtight as a regular built house."

The homes use heat pumps to maintain warmth through the winter, and fresh air is ventilated from the outside to prevent a stuffy atmosphere.

"Because you have a super airtight house, there's potential to have health issues," says Moen. "You're introducing fresh air to the house 24 hours a day. That needs to be 90-per-cent efficient in terms of recovering the heat from the air that's going out and putting that back into the supply air into the house."

With thicker walls and triple-paned windows, homes built under the passive house model bring more up-front costs. But with electricity rates continuing to increase, more homeowners are seeing the long-term savings.

Moen recalls that after Austria House was built in 2010 a market for passive homes didn't emerge, besides the occasional homeowner with a strong interest in energy efficiency. But now more people are approaching Durfeld, resulting in the company building four Whistler homes to the passive house standard in 2016.

"We're seeing that increase in demand over the province, but there's a good reason for that," says Moen. "Owners are actually saving money on their heating and cooling bills. And when it comes to carbon footprints and Whistler's goals for 2020, it's certainly a big benefit."

A vast and interconnected system

For those who can't afford a brand-new passive house, BC Hydro has a list of suggestions to help control the costs of heating. Expenses go up by five per cent for each degree a home is heated above 20C in the winter, making a programmable thermostat a money-saving feature while rooms are unoccupied. Regularly cleaning heaters helps to ensure they run efficiently, while checking for drafts can reduce heat loss by 10 per cent, says the provincial electricity provider.

During the winter the greatest demand on the electrical grid is between 4 and 8 p.m. on weekdays, when many British Columbians come home from work, turn up the heat, do their laundry and cook dinner. But the system is well equipped to handle such spikes in usage, according to BC Hydro spokesperson Kevin Aquino.

"B.C. is fortunate to have a large hydroelectric system that provides firm, flexible power," he explains. "This means the power will be there on the coldest, darkest days of the year — without brownouts or without having to import expensive power from other jurisdictions."

Most of this power is harnessed from flowing water — particularly large-scale hydroelectric dams. Now the provincial government is taking this form of electricity generation to the next level with the current construction of the Site C Dam on the Peace River in northeastern B.C. With an estimated cost of $9 billion and a peak capacity of 1,100 megawatts, Site C is the largest infrastructure project undertaken in the province's history.

Once it's operational, Site C will flood 2,775 hectares of farmland along the Peace River, yet the project's provincial and federal Joint Review Panel determined that this land is more useful for storing water than growing food.

"The highest and best use of the Peace River Valley would appear to be as a reservoir," states the panel's 2014 report.

BC Hydro argues that the province saves by generating its own electricity, as the average price from an independent producer is $100 per megawatt hour, while power from Site C is expected to cost $83.

Still, the project's development has met criticism throughout its development, including opposition for a lack of environmental assessment from the Royal Society of Canada, a national council of scholars, humanists, scientists and artists. Legal challenges have launched from a group of landowners in the region as well as the Treaty 8 First Nations, who filed a case with the Supreme Court of B.C.

A surprisingly powerful creek

In the Sea to Sky region, alternatives to such disruptive projects have arisen by harnessing flowing water from mountain creeks. Locally this began in 2010 with a small generating station on Fitzsimmons Creek, directly under the PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola. No water from the creek is stored in a dam; instead the project diverts some of the Fitzsimmon's flowing water into a pipe, which extends 3.6 kilometres to a generating station before the water returns to the creek.

Built on Whistler Blackcomb (WB) land, the Fitzsimmons project generates 33 Gigawatt hours annually — nearly enough to power all of WB's facilities. When WB was considering hosting the project a decade ago Arthur De Jong, the company's mountain planning and environmental resource manager, was impressed that 70 per cent of the generating system would be built on land that has already been affected by development.

"Our motivation for this project was to respond to climate change," he says. "We studied wind, we studied solar, we studied geothermal as well as micro-hydro. It became apparent that the only viable renewable energy option that we had was micro-hydro because we have lots of water and we have lots of mountain slope."

WB does not own the project. Instead the $32-million initiative was built by Ledcor Power and is operated by Innergex Renewable Energy, who own one and two-thirds of Fitzsimmons respectively. Colleen Giroux-Schmidt, Innergex's senior director of governmental and regulatory affairs, says a downstream study determined that the project has not compromised fish in the creek.

"There's an in-stream flow that's maintained in the creek at all times," she says. "The ecological needs of the creek get the water first, and then the power project gets the water second."

As part of a 40-year agreement with BC Hydro, Innergex sells electricity from Fitzsimmons to the province. Although the locally generated power is returned to the grid, De Jong believes this electricity is used close to its source.

"Typically electrons go the closest demand," he says. "It's unlikely that many electrons from the Fitzsimmons project ever leave the Whistler valley."

The Fitzsimmons project has brought WB closer to energy sustainability, but the company will be challenged to maintain this while undertaking the facility expansions of the $345-million Renaissance initiative. De Jong is optimistic WB can continue to improve energy efficiency while finding more ways to harness local resources for generation.

"We will continue to de-couple growth from energy consumption and solid waste generation," he says, noting a six-per-cent drop in electricity usage while solid waste declined by eight points over the last two years. "The Renaissance is going to demand more power, no question. But between behavioural change and a lot of technological change, potentially we're going to see more renewable energy generated on WB."

Redirecting Whistler's impact

In 1993 Arthur De Jong had an epiphany in the form of a large fuel spill on Blackcomb Mountain. The incident occurred mid-elevation at a grooming fleet's satellite station, when De Jong was in charge of the mountain's day-to-day operations.

"We had a fuel spill which changed my life," he recalls. "It was completely our fault. We had strong due diligence with respect to guest safety, staff safety...but this incident really spoke to not having due diligence to environmental safety. We were at a crossroads with it. We would either continue to be part of a growing problem, or take another path, drive for solutions, and that's the path that we've chosen."

As climate change is a global problem, De Jong admits that WB's efforts towards sustainability are "like taking a teaspoon to the Titanic," but the company's influence could make far-reaching impressions.

"When we can prove to the marketplace that you can become more profitable doing it, you get attention immediately," he says.

The unpredictability of climate change has a particularly pervasive effect on Whistler. If the region has a mild winter with little snowfall, the local economy suffers when fewer people come to ski.

"We know that climate change is already affecting both us and other communities like ours, so really it's no question that we have to be proactive in addressing this issue," says Wilhelm-Morden. "It impacts us in a very real way."

Heighway believes that global changes begin in a person's own little corner of the world.

"An affluent class — which is people that come to Whistler — how do you get them to change their habits?" he asks. "This is where it gets back to do what you can in your own community."

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