Comments and observations on V5 Energy Evolution Strategy

Thank-You

While great to acknowledge partners and supporters, there is an absence of architects and engineers in the document; this speaks to a lack of engagement with the design professions who are responsible for much of the energy consumption (80% of GHG) in the built environment. Future engagement should consider reaching out to the Ontario Association of Architects, the Ottawa Regional Society of Architects, The Royal Architecture Institute of Canada, local chapters of the engineering chapters. The notion that developers are listed suggests that there is engagement with the builders of the built environment, but not the designers.

Executive Summary:

Good use of clear, short, simple graphics and charts helps make this readable.

Table 1 shows a critical summary that needs greater emphasis: 67% (in 2030) and 75% (by 2050) is to be achieved in buildings and transportation. This means massive investment in density and transit and is contradicted by the city’s own actions (lack thereof): expanding the urban boundary and working against intensification while widening highways and roads, making transit harder to use and more expensive in a profit-driven model sets the stage for failure. The best way to tackle buildings and transportation together is to make transportation safe by walking and biking so that driving is the least desirable, and public transit is used only to go beyond one’s own 15-minute hood.

Five top actions are counter to the above targets:

  1. Electrifying personal vehicles continues to foster car-dependent communities
  2. Diverting organics to create renewable natural gas is (at best) a small part of the overall target
  3. Retrofitting existing residential buildings means either massive public subsidy of privately owned buildings (which then questions the profit model for landlords – if they are making a profit, why should they not put their own money back into their buildings; there needs to be a compelling public interest case for public funding for private profit)
  4. Retrofitting existing commercial buildings is the same issue.
    1. In both cases, this assumes that this is directed at non-publicly owned buildings, as it’s assumed that the City owns (as a percentage) very few of the residential or commercial buildings in the city.
    2. This also ignores industrial buildings, including not just factories and production facilities but warehouses, garages, and other industrial occupancies
    3. This also ignores institutional buildings; many may be outside the City’s mandate, such as schools, hospitals, churches, but if the city chooses to target private residential buildings, why not these also?
  5. Transition to zero-emission commercial fleets is a great goal but is a major challenge: forcing province/nationwide (or international) commercial fleet owners to shift to zero-emission fleets may put Ottawa ahead of the pack in terms of leadership but how could the city imagine forcing these companies to compete? Would UPS, or Canada Post, be in a position to be forced to buy zero-emission fleets for Ottawa while running national fleets elsewhere? There are other models that could be considered, such as using cargo bikes within the core or anywhere within the “last mile”

The city currently makes a very poor investment in its own building stock (by far the biggest part of the targets). Achieving these targets would require a massive restructuring of the current approach to investment in buildings, managing assets, and design/procurement approaches to new and renovated buildings. The current culture of city staff towards buildings, architects and engineers, and contract conditions under which professionals operate, make this a laudable but ultimately unachievable goal.

Table 3 lists these projects:

  • Targets ignore several sectors (as noted above)
  • Current strategies work against targets (i.e., it takes a long to get a sustainable building approved as it does a regular one; city chooses to disincentivize sustainable investment by making planning more onerous, more difficult, and more expensive than it needs to be)
  • Some metrics are lumped in with other targets/programs; does the city take responsibility for making these programs available, accessible, and part of the process, or does the city “throw up hands and say it’s someone else’s problem”?
  • Target to have 27% of muni buildings net-zero by 2030 means the City 2021 budget needs to put aside massive investment in study and analytics to target which ones are a priority, get the process underway to reach this target: 2030 is (effectively) 9 years away and projects like this can be expected to require 1 year of study, 2 years of design, 6 months-1 year of bidding/tendering and 2-3 years of construction and 6 months-1 year of post-occupancy study and commissioning). If they all hit the construction market at the same time (say, 2026 or 2027 – allowing 3 years of construction to hit the 2030 goal), then the cost of construction will be higher because of a lack of competent contractors, so these projects should be rolled in over a number of years to build competence in the market and develop a sense of confidence on the part of the city.
  • Targeting new builds to be net-zero needs to start now; current RFPs for buildings are few and far between and when they are issued, target low standards (LEED Silver) that are counter to the goals stated.
  • There needs to be a culture shift as a whole: staff and political leaders may buy into these goals but then undercut (and undervalue) the work that is required to get there (forcing consultants to buy into illegal contracts, undercut their fees, do less than excellent work); take away sentence: if these are our goals, our procurement model isn’t going to get us there: low fee bid services, illegal contracts and “meet the minimum” attitude is counter to the objectives.
  • High-performance development standard is going to be hard to enforce: someone who comes forward with a minimum code-compliant building must be issued a permit and there is little that the city can do to force better; this means pushing better codes from the national level on down.

Table 4: IMHO, emphasis on vehicles is overly emphasized; not only is it a modest part of the overall strategy, but it is also limited in its value: we could make every vehicle electric and still have to shell out billions on roads, parking, bridges, etc…..; tackle the issue of walkable communities and transit and you (largely) eliminate the need for cars; create “last mile” delivery systems from regional or community depots with bike couriers and safe infrastructure, and you tackle much of the transportation section. That leaves large scale delivery, emergency services, garbage trucks, and construction vehicles

Table 5: Looking at eliminating organics and renewable natural gas is difficult and I question the ROI; massive investment in getting to a 7 or 12 percent reduction needs far more study. Better to invest in more efficient buildings that need less natural gas to begin with, IMHO.

Table 6: Electricity sector projects could be beneficial; making net-zero a goal means less reliance on the grid. The capital cost of PV (and the challenges of shadowing from other buildings, imbalance in capacity from one property to another), suggests that there needs to be a neighborhood scale approach: local storage batteries and a community grid with collective input and demand rather than one building at a time.

Table 8: Return on investment: capital is cheap for govs to borrow; this is a key place where govs and lead and backstop funding for investment especially when gov benefits (backstopping capital investment in a PV system creates reliance in the community, reduces demand on the grid, making it more resilient to other demands in times of crisis).

Table 9: I think there is something wrong with table 9; There must be cost (and ROI) in land use and grown management. I suspect something is also wrong with the figures for buildings and would need to see the full data behind this.

  • Land use and growth management: was the cost of sprawl considered? This is huge and traditionally, sprawl costs 30% (or more) than urban growth.
  • Buildings seem to be understated for net return: were calculations inclusive of not just energy costs, but reduced cost of healthcare, improved social outcomes, the better quality of life? These are all impacts (and can be measured).

Council Direction:

It is good that the council supports this but this process is too slow; the council approved this direction in 2015; it took 3 years to get from phase 1 to now; a climate emergency was declared a year ago. Time is ticking, we need to move faster, be bolder, and take bigger steps because the longer it takes to decide what to do, the more expensive and difficult it will be. At this point, we have 9 years to get to our first target. If we look at buildings alone: We don’t even really know what buildings are a priority, or what needs to be done; it will take months to draw up RFPs, undertake studies, create options; we are likely at least a year away (today) from having a shortlist of buildings and knowing what needs to be done. At best, 3 years from now we might have some ready for construction, which has to be funded. Then you are looking at another 3 years before construction is done. So 6 years from now, we might, maybe, be finishing the first few buildings, if there are no funding delays and all the money is in place. Throw in an election or two (and possible wins by climate change apologists or deniers) and progress could be set back years.

To make this process work, these are the steps I would take:

  1. Depoliticize this process: make project choices based on evidence through an advisory panel or independent body; in the UK and AU this is through an “Infrastructure Secretariat” who advises the government.
  2. Reform procurement: fix the model for hiring and contracting architects and engineers so that the process is fair and in the public interest. That’s the only way we’re going to get any change, otherwise, the city will keep hiring low priced services from firms willing to risk everything. The good firms don’t compete because they don’t see the point.
  3. Hold competitions to come up with ideas, innovations, and creative solutions.

2.1 Benefits of Community Energy Transition

Many good points in this; investing in this sector creates jobs and lasting economic impact. For reference: there are 4500 architects in ON in 1600 businesses (yes, the average architecture practice in ON is 3 architects); 75% of those firms are within 100km of the CN tower; that means that there are roughly 400 practices outside the GTA; a little more than a quarter of them are here in the Ottawa region. ON architects impact 14% of the ON GDP, a sector that is not much smaller than the auto sector but delivered by a far smaller number of people.

2.1.1.4 Low Carbon Cities Canada

Interesting. This is a great idea but it feels like there are a lot of different organizations, including this, and C40 Cities, Architecture 2030, and other orgs compete in the same or similar space. it might be beneficial to try and bring order to the various orgs and work with ones that have the biggest impact and promote that relationship. I.e., as someone who is engaged in this conversation, this was the first time I’d heard of L3C.

2.1.2 Public Health

There are great reports from the Canadian Medical Association on the impact of the built environment on public health; there is also an excellent report from the conference board of Canada on the effect of community well being and the built environment.

2.1.5 Mitigating Future Risk

Interesting that this makes it in the report; would be interesting to know how this stacks up against the city, also then approving buildings in flood plains, allowing residents to rebuild after floods, and expand the urban boundary.

2.3 Jurisdictions

Ottawa is challenged in this:

  • Municipal planning and authority runs into the NCC
  • Municipal planning and authority runs into PWGSC and the Crown in general
  • Overlapping provincial regs
  • Cross border regs
  • Parks Canada

On top of this, some of the biggest players in the market will have no reason to engage with the city: NRC, Experimental Farm, Tunney’s Pasture, Hospitals, prisons and so on have no reason to engage, even if they buy utilities from the municipality. When you layer on this for-profit models (P3s like the LRT, hospital, Lansdowne) there is less incentive to change their business model.

Much of the rest of the document goes into greater detail than is covered in the exec summary noted above. For the purposes of brevity, I’ll stop here for now, so that you can start editing and adding comments, and will get back to more of these in the coming days with additional details in specific sections.

Key takeaways for me are:

  1. This is very aspirational and generally a good approach but…
    1. The funding isn’t there and I’m not convinced it will be under the current governments
    2. The approach is overly weighted to the transportation sector instead of looking at the key: more walkable communities, better transit options to remove the need to depend on an (electric) car
    3. New and retrofitted buildings are key; tackling this means tackling how we get them; current models of hiring the required professionals undermine our ability to anything of meaningful value. If we want better outcomes, we need better inputs. That means reforming procurement.
  2. The time scale is far too ambitious:
    1. It’s taken us 5 years to get this far. at this pace, we won’t be ready to start actually doing the work for several more; this means that the time frame for 2030 will be very tight and the cost to implement will be much higher.
    2. We are making decisions now that are counter to even the aspirations of this document, that will have a lasting impact, making this aspiration even harder to implement:
      1. Transit is increasingly expensive
      2. We are rebuilding roads and not including safe walk/bike infrastructure
      3. We are building new buildings today that barely meet building code for energy efficiency, let alone stretch for net-zero
      4. We have billions of dollars in assets that we could be studying now to get ready for implementation but refuse to even invest in modest repairs, let alone studies
      5. We are hiring the wrong people for this work: unregulated project management firms, linear problem solvers (instead of holistic problem solvers), and focusing on “meet the minimum” instead of innovation and creativity
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