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Whistler council hears update on climate initiatives

RMOW teams up for heat pump pilot project
n-CECAP 28.45 by BD
emissions mission Whistler’s mayor and council watch a presentation on climate action at the Nov. 2 council meeting.

Edgar Dearden of local sustainable building company GNAR Inc. hit a milestone recently.

“I can report that as of today I have finally done it; I have been fired from a project for trying to encourage that homeowner to not use fossil gas in their project, “ Dearden said during the Q&A portion of the Nov. 2 council meeting.

“So I now have a concrete example of the struggles I’m having in trying to follow the [Resort Municipality of Whistler’s Big Moves Strategy] in my business.”

Dearden has been outspoken about the need for urgency on climate change as of late, urging council to do more to curb the use of fossil gas in Whistler homes and move faster to hit its stated emissions reduction targets.

He wasn’t alone in his efforts at the Nov. 2 meeting, as Brendan Ladner of local climate advocacy group SmartWhistler was also on hand to ask questions.

“As we’re approaching the budget for this year, I’m wondering what kind of climate accounting will be included in the project summaries that we can expect to see this year,” Ladner asked.

The full process isn’t worked out yet, but “we are looking at how everything we do connects back with the Big Moves Strategy, so you’ll start to see evidence of different internal methods and procedures coming out of that, aligning with that more,” said chief administrative officer Virginia Cullen.

“So I would say stay tuned,” she said.

Whistlerites will get their first look at the 2022 budget at an information session at the Maury Young Arts Centre on Thursday, Nov. 18.

“There is no doubt that we are in the middle of a climate emergency; the urgency has never been higher and we must be aggressive,” said Mayor Jack Crompton at the Nov. 2 council meeting. “I’m grateful to have a community that is pushing us in this direction, and pushing us hard, and we are lucky to have professional staff who share the urgency and who do such good work.”


Whistler’s climate-change-heavy council agenda on Nov. 2—with four out of five reports to council focused on environmental initiatives—was timely given the ongoing COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, and there are several initiatives underway at municipal hall, said climate action coordinator Luisa Burhenne.

Work is taking place to consolidate Whistler’s Community Energy and Climate Action Plan (CECAP) and Climate Action Big Moves Strategy into one comprehensive plan, with an eye to presenting it next spring and adopting it by the summer.

The consolidated document will allow for clearer reporting towards key performance indicators, “rather than going through an expansive list of 140 actions and deciphering when we did progress or not,” Burhene said.

Further to Ladner’s question, Burhenne said the RMOW is also working on a GHG impact tool that will allow for potential GHG emissions to be considered at the outset of each municipal project.

“How can we know how a project is aligned with our climate targets, and which of our projects brings us away from our climate targets?” she said.

“So we are working with consultants on that.”

Given the fact that passenger vehicles and natural gas use make up the bulk of emissions locally (at 40 and 39 per cent, respectively), several initiatives are underway on both fronts.

An E-mobility strategy in development in collaboration with the Community Energy Association aims to help residents, commuters, visitors and businesses shift to electric vehicles, while the municipality is also planning an assessment of its own vehicle fleet to find the best path to electrification.

On buildings, the RMOW is updating its green building policy, Burhenne said, adding that a stakeholder workshop is scheduled for Nov. 24 to gather feedback.

There’s also the Zero Waste Action Plan (endorsed by council on Aug. 17); ongoing work on wildfire mitigation, including an updated community protection and monitoring plan; a priority habitat management strategy; and an energy study of the Meadow Park Sports Centre, to name just a few of the RMOW’s current environmental initiatives.

In total, there are 86 CECAP initiatives currently underway, and eight completed, Burhenne said.


Council also heard a presentation on a new pilot project—launched in partnership with the District of Squamish, City of New Westminster and the Community Energy Association—at the Nov. 2 meeting.

The project aims to make it easy for homeowners to switch to electric heat pumps, which could reduce a home’s greenhouse gas emissions by about 72 per cent on average, Burhenne said.

The RMOW has seen little success with its current incentive and rebate programs, the main barriers being a lack of industry capacity and the complexity of the incentives themselves.

With that in mind, the Pump Up Savings in Heat (PUSH) pilot program, as it’s being called, hopes to change that by helping identify verified heat pump technologies and qualified installers, as well as streamline access to incentives and financing.

The program aims to support fuel switching to electric pumps in 20 Whistler homes next year (as well as 40 each in Squamish and New Westminster), before scaling up in 2023.

With 1,033 homes in Whistler currently using fossil-gas heating systems, and a target of switching 61 to electric heat pumps every year, the RMOW sees the PUSH program as a “viable pathway” to achieving its emissions reduction targets for existing buildings (20 per cent below 2020 levels by 2030).

But the program has its work cut out for it, pointed out Councillor Duane Jackson.

“A heat pump will do a lot, assuming they have enough electric power … but what’s the solution for domestic hot water?” he asked.

“Because if you have to add an electric hot water tank, that’s an additional cost.”

The PUSH program is only for heat pumps used for space heating, but “this is just a pilot, and the idea is that it can be expanded in scope in the future to include many other retrofits,” said Alison Jenkins of the Community Energy Association.

But for someone to completely remove their gas supply, the program needs to solve both, Jackson pointed out, adding that heat pumps are also “hard to get” at the moment, not to mention the technical expertise needed to install them.

“All of that said I think this is great, and I hope you get people that you can learn from and share that information,” he said.

“I think Mr. Dearden has probably got a whole bunch of people that you can probably use as a test case.”


Complementing the RMOW’s climate initiatives is the ongoing Small Steps for Big Moves campaign, launched in September with the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, which aims to motivate Whistlerites to do their part to support the RMOW’s Climate Action Big Moves Strategy.

The Small Steps campaign highlights a different area of focus each month, with November’s call to action encouraging Whistlerites to use public transit wherever possible.

And with Christmas shopping season upon us, December’s theme encourages the community to “green our gifting” by focusing on local products and experiences.

Further to Dearden’s message about moving away from natural gas, Crompton noted the campaign will focus on heat and energy sources in a future month.

“We have a year left in this term to move the Big Moves and CECAP harder, faster than we ever have before,” said Coun. Arthur De Jong, a longtime advocate for sustainability and overseer of council’s environment portfolio.

“I know certainly natural gas use is an Achilles heel of that, but this council is very committed.”

While Whistler becoming sustainable might be like “taking a teaspoon to the Titanic,” it can still make a difference, De Jong said.

“If we can set the bar for global tourism, global tourism is roughly 10 per cent of the economy, and that’s very powerful for us to inspire 10 per cent,” he said. “So I appreciate everyone here this evening, and staff’s deep efforts.”