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Getting community facilities from carbon reduction to net-zero

Municipalities are under pressure to lead wider-spread climate initiatives

July 25, 2023  By Jeff Christy and Patrick Armstrong

Source: Grafvision / Adobe Stock

July 25, 2023 – Like many countries, Canada is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, and net-zero buildings will play a big part in reaching this goal. Buildings account for 39% of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions and 13% of Canada’s GHG emissions.

To reduce GHG emissions by the target year, the federal government needs the support of municipal leaders. After all, municipalities own about 60% of all public infrastructure and play a critical role in driving climate change initiatives.

Communities look to their local leaders for assurances about the future. They want to know that decisions made now will ease environmental stresses and help ensure a positive climate legacy for future generations.

At the grassroots level, sustainability is more than just a buzzword. People are reducing their carbon footprints by decreasing plastic waste; homebuilders are incorporating more sustainable materials and methods into new home construction; and private organizations are investing in clean energy technologies or carbon offset credits.

Municipalities, however, are under pressure to lead wider-spread climate initiatives and find ways to support community greening efforts. One of the ways in which municipalities can do this is by making community buildings more resilient and sustainable.

Getting facilities to net-zero

Getting your community facilities to net-zero can be a challenge, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Taking small, intentional and strategic steps will help make net-zero objectives more manageable. For example, you can make a bigger impact by focusing on getting your existing portfolio 70% of the way to net-zero rather than trying to bring each building up to a 100% net-zero standard one by one.

Canada’s 2050 goal is possible to achieve. Developing a step-by-step plan to tackle net-zero goals now will help position your municipality for success. Some of the steps you can take to bring existing facilities up to a net-zero standard include:

1. Invest in asset management

Before you can dive into net-zero projects, it is important to know the current state of your facilities. Assess your existing portfolio or invest in an asset management framework to collect data.

• Which facilities are the easiest to convert?
• Which assets are aging and require more care?
• How well are your assets performing?
• Which are the most energy-efficient?

Answering these and other questions will give you a clear idea of where you stand and how you might best approach your municipality’s net-zero goals.

2. Set intermittent goals to achieve an end target

Approaching a net-zero standard in small, intermittent steps will make your goals more achievable. After taking stock of your existing assets and overall portfolio, you can develop a roadmap that sets intermittent goals for reducing carbon emissions and, ultimately, gets you closer to your net-zero end target.

Start by looking at new or upcoming projects, as it is typically more cost-effective to incorporate energy-reducing systems and materials in buildings before they are built. Additionally, portfolio reductions can be achieved by migrating away from aging assets.

Identify the buildings that will be in operation the longest, or those that currently release the most emissions. With this data you can put together a strategic plan that uniquely aligns your portfolio with the path you’ve chosen to achieve your net-zero goals.

3. Understand your portfolio parameters and plan accordingly

It is a common misconception that implementing net-zero standards will automatically reduce operating costs. This isn’t necessarily the case, as the road to net-zero varies from building to building, province to province.

In Ontario, for example, the primary path to decarbonization is through the electrification of heating systems. The end goal for many Ontario building owners is to completely sever the gas line at the street. However, this strategy is not applicable nationwide (and can also result in utility challenges for Ontario municipalities).

The way in which you transition existing facilities to meet your net-zero goals is paramount. You need to upgrade systems in the correct order, or you could end up paying more than necessary.

For example, when you tackle a building’s HVAC system first and then switch to upgrading the building envelope, you will probably discover that your HVAC equipment is no longer correctly sized. This will add to your operational and project costs, as well as the overall project scope.

You need to understand the state of your assets and what is achievable so that you can prepare a plan that suits your annual budget and overall goals.

Many asset owners will start their net-zero process by taking on simple, cost-effective changes, like replacing fluorescent lights with LED lighting (the proverbial low-hanging fruit). Once completed, this leaves owners with more complex tasks, such as replacing mechanical systems or updating the building envelope.

Again, it is paramount to have a strategy for implementing net-zero systems.

• Where are you going to get funding or grants?
• Are you going to build your business case through valuation, resiliency, or reducing insurance costs?

Once you’ve outlined your implementation plan and business case, look forward during your capital planning. Consider the life cycle of your building systems and find a balance between costly, complicated projects and those with a higher payoff.

4. Engage your stakeholders and project team

We’ve seen a massive technological revolution over the last 30 years. We now have tools available to us at a price-point that makes complex changes possible.

Up until the last decade or so, there was a push to connect building heating systems to natural gas, as it was the most efficient and cost-effective utility. This may explain why the current desire to move away from fossil fuels and toward electrification seems counterintuitive. But while electricity remains more expensive than gas, its environmental impact is far less hazardous.

This shift in thinking may baffle some people, and convincing stakeholders may take some work, but the best way to implement facility electrification is to get many different perspectives.

Take the time to listen to your stakeholders’ opinions on net-zero buildings and your plan for achieving your goals. Having their buy-in contributes significantly to the success of your project.

Share the data you’ve collected as part of your asset management program; work with your stakeholders and project teams to identify a mutual end goal; figure out the best approach for you and your team; and develop a plan that is measurable and supported by all parties.

Devote time to planning

Although 2050 is still decades away, balancing net-zero goals against standard asset management and maintenance programs requires time for planning… and municipalities have a lot to manage.

However, taking actionable steps to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 is also a leadership opportunity. Revisit your asset management plan to see how you can reduce carbon emissions, upgrade your portfolio, and build a more sustainable future for generations to come.

Jeff Christy has more than 20 years of experience in construction project management and is currently leading Colliers Project Leaders’ expansion into southwestern Ontario. His understanding of construction practices, coupled with his engineering expertise and technical knowledge, allow him to work across diverse projects.

Patrick Armstrong has represented Modern Niagara since 2011. He leads a national team of energy professionals dedicated to developing, financing and implementing energy efficiency projects. He works with clients to integrate advanced technologies into energy-saving and financing strategies in existing buildings.

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