A former rock and roll band frontman in his teenage years, Peter Mauro was kicked out of St. Francis High School in the 60s for being rebellious.
Years later, he applied his creative and outlier nature to the world of homebuilding, founding New Casa Company Ltd. in 1991 and finding enough success to give back over $230,000 to his former high school in the form of a scholarship.
“They kicked me out and I went back and did this for them! I made something out of myself with a Grade 10 and a half education,” Mauro said.
After spending over a decade in the industry, New Casa allowed Mauro to flex his creative muscles, focusing on eco-friendly constructions before energy efficiency was prioritized by the government or the consumer. He was an early adopter of geothermal heating, drilling holes in the ground to harness heat in both a multi-family complex and single-family home.
“The last 20 years have been the best because I went into the energy efficiency side of it and it was a lot of fun being creative,” Mauro said.
In 2002, Mauro unveiled the Villaggio in Kensington, a 12-unit condo complex and the first to utilize insulated concrete form (ICF) party walls in Canada. ICF is an energy efficient technology that conserves heat, reduces energy bills, blocks sound and offers greater fire resistance compared to standard wooden frames.
“At the end of the day we had a product that nobody else had,” Mauro said. “The first people that bought it were engineers that understood what we were doing because energy efficiency in those days was not what it is today — people did not understand.”
In 2008, Mauro’s Quattro Porte was a fourplex that combined the benefits of ICF with geothermal heating, heavily reducing the building’s monthly utility bill.
“Our average bill was $600 when we first opened up that building for heating, air conditioning and hot water for the whole building, which was unheard of,” Mauro said.
Energy efficiency is no longer niche commodity for green-bleeding individuals, as the government continues to incentivize the adoption of clean technology, but the change in culture has been slow.
Since the province is plentiful with fossil fuel resources and cheap electricity, Alberta is still in its infancy when it comes to the adoption of renewable energy and energy efficient technologies. However, the culture behind government, industry and consumer is starting to shift to a greener picture. The provincial government continues to support industries addressing climate change with $1.4 billion in recent investment, but the adoption of specific technologies like solar, wind, ICF and geothermal will depend on what areas the government focuses on and incentivizes.
An energy efficient future is certain, but different players in the game such as New Casa, SkyFire Energy, ENMAX and Thermal Creek have different ideas about how government subsidies should work.
Mauro started working with Pat Cymbala, territory manager for Alberta and British Columbia with Amvic Building Systems, around 1999 and the pair have shared many awards for their eco-friendly endeavors, including a SAM award for the Villaggio and 1st Runner Up in the MultiFamily division at the international 2017 ICF Builder Awards in Las Vegas for the Quattro Porte.
“[At the Las Vegas awards show] we noticed a lot of fire stations, hospitals, schools, they’re being built with ICFs,” Mauro said. “In the long run, it might cost you 10 to 15 per cent more, but you’re saving that with energy efficiency and it retains heat in the winter and keeps heat out in the summer.”
With building code changes trending towards energy efficiency, both Mauro and Cymbala have been in the industry long enough to witness the slow evolution of eco-friendly home building.
“It’s a lot like social media, there’s a buzz and the buzz is energy efficiency. We have to do what we can for the environment,” Cymbala said, adding that times were a lot different back when he and Mauro were growing up.
“Nobody cared, they smoked!” Mauro adds.
Energy Efficiency Alberta (EEA), a newly formed provincial agency, offers a number of incentives for energy efficient appliances and upgrades, but the rebates are geared towards retrofits.
“My biggest concern about their programs is that it’s all retrofit stuff. It’s not about the new home,” Cymbala said. “[The retrofits] should get some sort of payback, but the new home builder, there’s zero incentive to get him to go that way, to go to ICF, to go to continuous insulation.”
Mauro believes the benefits of ICF is two-fold, saving the homeowner money in energy bills while benefiting the health of a builder because ICF is extremely lightweight.
“I don’t understand why cribbers haven’t gone to this or the builders haven’t gone to this because people after being a cribber all their life, their backs are screwed up and their knees too,” Mauro said. “I think the government should give an incentive to do at least an ICF basement. At the end of the day, an ICF basement is going to save them a considerable amount of money on heating their houses.”
Both Mauro and Cymbala are enthusiastic about the future of renewable energy in Alberta, but they believe it all starts with proper insulation. The more heat the house retains, the less a homeowner has to pay every month for electricity.
A well-insulated house and solar system combined with electric heaters or a geothermal heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system is one way to achieve net-zero, a state where a house doesn’t need any electricity from the grid.
“Insulating your house is the first step,” Cymbala said. “The less energy it takes to heat, the smaller the systems can be.”
Cymbala believes we need to be cautious when moving to a net-zero future because energy prices will spike for homes still relying on grid electricity.
“All of a sudden these poor guys that are living in anything but a net-zero house, they’re the guys that are going to get nailed,” he said. “There’s going to be way more people living in those houses than net-zero.”
As solar technology continues to advance and become more aesthetically pleasing, Cymbala believes solar is going to win the renewable energy race.
“The sun comes up everyday, it’s inevitable,” he said.
When David Kelly’s grandfather built a solar pool heater 40 years ago, it sparked an interest that eventually turned into a career.
“Back when gas was more expensive – at one point we were at $15 a gigajoule as opposed to three or four dollars today — at that point, solar electric modules were quite expensive and solar hot water systems were relatively inexpensive. With the expense of gas, they made more sense,” Kelly said.
He founded SkyFire Energy in Calgary in 2001, a solar contracting business that has evolved to be one of the largest in Western Canada. He’s also on the board of the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA) and the Solar Industry Society of Alberta (SESA).
Forty years ago, harnessing the power of the sun was less about climate change and more about a creative way to solve a specific problem. Now, solar and other renewable energy sources are paving the way to a brighter and greener future in Alberta.
“Alberta’s been blessed with coal, natural gas, oil, sunshine, wind — we’ve got it all. We’re pretty lucky that we have all these resources,” Kelly said. “We’ve got geothermal resources as well that we haven’t really tapped at all. We have huge hydro potential as well that hasn’t been tapped. As an energy province, we’re kind of blessed.”
Alberta has the third highest wind generation potential in Canada, 900 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity for hydroelectricity (Alberta uses an average of 10,000 MW of power on a summer day) and Calgary is the sunniest city in the country.
In terms of incentives for residential consumers and commercial businesses, solar receives a large amount of attention compared to other renewable energy sources in Alberta due to its massive potential. Furthermore, oil patches utilize solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to power off-grid patches.
“Prior to the Ontario Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program, the largest consumer of solar modules in Canada was the Alberta oil patch,” Kelly said. “What’s the cheapest way to get power to a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system? It was with a solar panel.”
Launched in 2009, Ontario’s FIT program stirred renewable energy investment by offering long term contracts to both small and large-scale customers alike, resulting in the creation of more than 20,000 jobs. However, the program ended because energy prices rose and there was no competition between energy producers. Alberta’s program is structured differently, amounting to lower prices all around.
In Alberta, the largest factors challenging renewable energy are cheap power prices and a lot of competition. As the Calgary Journal’s Laura Stewart previously investigated, the market and its history is a complex situation.
“It’s pretty cheap energy, unfortunately our pool price today is 1.82 cents. Nobody really makes money at those prices. We have this overabundance of generation capacity right now,” Kelly said. “You got wind turbines bidding into the power pool at zero dollars, so they’ll take whatever price they can get because their input costs are low — they have no fuel costs.”
“It’s a strange market because of that price point right now. We’ve got this oversupply. As we turn off some of the coal-fired power plants, we’re going to come more in line with supply and demand, hopefully.”
According to Christopher Barrington-Leigh’s academic paper, The Renewable Energy Landscape in Canada, the country could meet 150 per cent of its energy demand in 2015 through renewable sources, but we haven’t tapped into our full potential yet.
However, Alberta can’t meet its energy demand through renewable energy alone because the average resident consumes 60 per cent more power than the next leading province, which is Saskatchewan.
Alberta residents consume more energy on average than other provinces, averaging 360 kWh/person/day.
Wind and solar power account for more than 60 per cent of Canada’s total renewable energy potential.
“Calgary is better than Rio de Janeiro — people don’t get it. Solar works better when it’s cold, so solar electric modules work better when they’re cold and we have cold, clear, sunny days,” Kelly said.
Since Alberta’s energy prices have been so low, the province was one of the last jurisdictions in North America to create an agency like EEA last January. The organization enjoyed a successful 2017, claiming that 50,000 households utilized energy efficient rebates.
The government organization is designed to encourage and offer incentives for energy efficient technologies and practices. According to CBC, EEA will use $645 million of carbon tax revenue to operate for the next five years.
Their budget is $45 million this year and it will increase to $90 million next year. So far, the group has offered grants for energy efficient upgrades like insulation, thicker windows, LED light bulbs and rebates toward solar PV systems.
As part of the Renewable Electricity Program, Alberta wants 30 per cent of the province’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2030. The ultimate impact will result in $10.3-billion invested into the economy and the creation of 7,200 attached to renewable projects.
The Alberta Electric System Operator-headed program relies on competition between energy producers.
“That will be interesting to see how that program rolls out because it’s going to dictate price. Ontario set a price and said who can deliver at this with their FIT program,” Kelly said. “Whereas Alberta’s saying, ‘give us your best offer.’ Alberta is going to end up with much, much cheaper renewable energy than the Ontario program had because of this model that we’re using — basically a contract for differences.”
With solar, there’s no shortage of programs in Alberta designed to lower costs. The early adopters of solar PV were green-bleeding individuals who didn’t care about payback, but now it makes more sense for the average homeowner.
“People don’t realize how cheap it is. You can add it to a mortgage as a home improvement and it’s basically cost neutral on a good roof,” Kelly said. “It’s not going to work on every roof, but it’s certainly feasible.”
Kelly estimates 300 businesses have popped up to take advantage of the incentives.
“It’s kind of this gold rush mentality,” he said. “We’re here for the long term. We’ve been doing solar now for 16 years.”
Along with currently operating three wind farms, ENMAX is highly involved in the solar market in Alberta, accounting for more than 50 per cent of installed systems in the province.
“We’ve been supplying customers with electricity and gas for nearly two decades now after the market deregulated,” John Rilett, director of enhanced energy services and renewables for ENMAX, said. “We see distributed solar as an extension of that. It’s another energy product we can offer our customers.”
As part of the Alberta Municipal Solar Program, ENMAX recently added 2.3 megawatts of energy capacity through installing PV systems on six public buildings, including the Glenmore Treatment Plant and Mount Pleasant Fire Station. The energy will save $300,000 in utilities each year.
“Old legacy assets are coming to the end of their life,” Rilett said. “There’s this big question now, what do we build and how do we build it to move forward?”
According to information from the Alberta Government and Alberta Utilities Commission, the 2015 energy market consisted of 51 per cent generated by coal, 40 per cent natural gas and nine per cent came from renewables. In 2030, there will be zero per cent generated by coal, 70 per cent from natural gas and 30 per cent from renewables.
Currently, solar is making up for a small percentage in the renewable picture compared to wind. However, the electricity produced by wind comes in waves, making it economically challenging under the current open market system.
“When the wind blows, all of our wind tends to come online at the same time, which means that the price in the market drops because all that energy shows up,” Rilett said. “Because we have an open market, you depress the price, so it’s kind of a weird thing as a renewable producer whereby when it’s really windy, it’s great because we’re producing, but we’re getting less money for the energy we’re providing, just because we have an excess supply over the demand.”
Rilett said ENMAX is keeping an eye on storage technology, which will have a huge impact on the overall success of renewable energy in the future.
“The ability to store electricity in a cost-effective manner is really the Holy Grail in opening up markets for renewables. We can already get a high penetration of renewables in most markets,” he said. “It’s totally feasible to see 20 or 30 per cent of your energy come from renewables.”
“We’ve seen other markets around the world do that, but then you start to run into limits around stability and resource adequacy and costs and that sort of thing. Storage will push that level seriously higher.”
Furthermore, the success of renewables will largely depend on the energy market structure and conditions that they operate under. The AESO is currently looking at shifting to a capacity market, which could be implemented by 2021. A capacity market seeks to fix costs for customers while paying electricity generators through “competitively auctioned contracts.”
“[Renewable success] will also depend on some regulatory structures in Alberta. Right now, we’re looking at shifting to a capacity market from our energy-only market,” Rilett said. “The question becomes what is a role of a battery or storage facility in the capacity market. Depending on the rules, it could either advance storage and make it much more viable, or it could hinder it. All those discussions are currently underway, so we don’t really know the outcome.”
In terms of adopting renewable energy growth as a province, Rilett said Alberta has missed out on some opportunities because it was not a priority in the past.
“We could have been doing this earlier, we could have been fostering more of it, and the overall view would probably be better for the whole system,” he said. “But given the economy is moving fast and we got lots of development going on, it tends not to be a priority so when you lump that all together, it’s why we’re behind.”
Rilett said the best way to incentivize green technology is to not only keep the costs comparable with less efficient options, but also to shift priorities and put the money to better use as the market changes.
“Generally speaking, you should have programming that overcomes the market burden that you think is in the way of people adopting new technology, whether it be renewable or efficiency technology,” he said. “You should be looking at the cost of those mitigation efforts.”
While old assets will still be the backbone to the entire network, Rilett said finding a balance with different renewable sources will be the key to the future.
“It’s a matter of bringing it all together to work efficiently,” he said. “You can actually create a problem if you got too much on one end or the other.”
Energy efficient alternatives
Energy efficiency is going to be just as important as clean energy in the future.
MyHEAT is a Calgary-based startup that generates heat maps of entire cities, pinpointing exactly where a structure, commercial or residential, is losing heat. The company primarily generates revenue from utility companies outside of Alberta currently, but they are also planning to charge a one-time fee for homeowners to see more detailed information about where their home is losing heat
“Energy efficiency is the cheapest form of energy production,” MyHEAT CEO Jeff Taylor said. “It’s a weird thing to say.”
“Utilities spend $9 billion a year on energy efficiency programs and we feel like that’s a real good fit for the data we have.”
After flying an airplane over a city and taking pictures using advanced thermal cameras, MyHEAT then analyzes the data using algorithms. The final product will show what areas need to be improved through adding insulation.
“Once you see the problem, you’re much more liking to act on it,” Taylor said. “If you don’t know it exists, you can’t act on it.”
Common problem areas include windows, doors, attics and garages. Each home is given a HEAT score, which offers homeowners a glimpse of how they compare with other houses in their community.
“It seems counter-intuitive because they make money selling energy, but they are required and incentivised — often by their regulatory bodies — to do that,” Taylor said. “We’re seeing much more traction outside of Alberta, which I think is a common thing.”
However, Taylor said EEA has shown an interest in working with MyHEAT in the future.
So far, the company has generated heat maps for more than 1.3 million homes in 21 cities across Canada.
Irene Herremans is a University of Calgary professor that teaches courses in the sustainable energy development (SEDV) multi-disciplinary program.
“Because these are multi-dimensional problems, we’ve put together courses from business, engineering, environmental science and law,” she said.
The program seeks to blend theory with hands-on experience. Many graduates go on to work in the energy sector with the government, private companies, or not-for-profit organizations.
Herremans own research interests include how companies present sustainability reports to stakeholders.
“For years we’ve had this culture of oil and gas,” she said. “Now we have to develop a culture of expanding that and not excluding oil and gas — every place you look there’s some sort of petroleum.”
Herremans believes energy efficiency technology is relatively untapped and underutilized.
“The more energy efficient we are, the less we need to invest in renewable energies,” she said. “We really need to focus on capturing emissions. When you’re losing raw material, you’re losing profit.”
The U of C has its own cogeneration facility, which generates electricity and uses the exhaust to heat the campus. The facility produces approximately 12 megawatts while cutting CO2 emissions by 80,000 tonnes each year.
“All you’re doing is capturing heat and using it,” Herremans said. “We’re saving about $3 million on our utilities each year.”
Herremans believes Alberta needs to get creative when it comes to renewable energy, exploring alternatives other than wind and solar. Cogeneration technology is a feasible route, but biodigesters are extremely efficient, turning methane from waste into energy.
“They make so much sense because they are a complete system. You’re taking waste that would normally — well hopefully it would be composted, but it might be going into the landfill at huge cost — and instead you’re using it and changing it for energy,” Herremans said. “Then you’re supplying clean energy to the local community and any residual is used in agriculture as fertilizer. There’s no waste, it’s a complete system and it’s so sustainable.”
Herremans said her students are always telling her about new forms of renewable energy such as mini nuclear reactors.
“One of things they’re doing here at the university is they’re growing algae for fuel,” she said. “I think that holds a lot of a potential.”
While Herremans hasn’t heard much about what EEA is doing to incentivize energy efficiency, she said their message has to be constant if they want to be successful. Personally, she thinks grants should be geared towards those who actually need the money.
“It kind of irritates me a bit when people who can well afford and buy lights are getting discounts and being subsidized by the government, but there needs to be some incentive,” she said.
By drilling pumps into the ground, geothermal systems use the consistent temperature of the earth to heat and cool homes without burning natural gas.
Koen van der Maaten started Thermal Creek in 2006, moving from the Netherlands to pursue a passion that utilized both his business and engineering degrees.
“You could see that the technology was rapidly being adopted in other parts of the world, countries like Sweden, Switzerland, Germany — it’s huge there and even in the U.S.,” Maaten said. “It was starting to coming in Canada, in particular I should say, Alberta.”
With geothermal successfully being implemented in other parts of the world, Maaten thought his business would find success early on, but he’s faced years of challenges due to the upfront cost hurdle.
“I didn’t anticipate it to be this slow to be honest. I don’t get frustrated easily, but if you talk frustration, Alberta … doesn’t surprise me too much,” Maaten said. “People like to do things the way they know, but if I can see the builder community here is much slower in adopting these types of technologies than they are in other parts of the country.”
The upfront cost of installing a geothermal system is the biggest hurdle a homeowner faces, averaging approximately $45,000 more than a conventional HVAC system.
“Our very first project was in Airdrie actually. It was obviously exciting the first time the drilling, the loops went into the ground,” Maaten said. “The biggest part that I remember was convincing the customer, which was a tough one.”
“As much as you don’t say, ‘This is my first installation,’ he wasn’t stupid either.”
Since then, Thermal Creek has worked on a variety of residential homes in Calgary, Rocky View County and as far as Costa Rica. Although the early years were challenging, the business is starting to see an increase in demand.
“The prices have come down to a certain degree because companies like Thermal Creek have done it for so long, we’re optimized the process of installation and that ultimately brings down the prices,” Maaten said. “You’re still dealing with drilling costs.”
Geothermal is extremely reliable because the earth’s underground temperature never changes.
“The field, which is really your source of renewable energy, that is infrastructure that lasts our lifetime,” Maaten said. “The pipe that goes into the ground, technical term, it’s technically good for 700 years.”
One of the biggest challenges Maaten has faced is spreading the word about how efficient geothermal systems are.
“If you look at where the energy consumption of a home goes, it goes primarily … towards heating, hot water and a little bit of air conditioning,” he said. “That’s where the biggest bang for your buck is going to be.”
“If you’re really true about changing and not just trying to do a political or media campaign, that’s where geothermal heating or geo-exchange heating comes into play because we can heat a home using 80 per cent less fossil fuels than that same home with even a high-efficiency furnace.”
Compared to geothermal where the pumps are hidden in the ground, solar panels are easily visible and marketable. Maaten believes the government isn’t doing enough to incentivize geothermal despite its huge benefits.
“I can show you, even at today’s solar prices — which have come down quite a bit, which is great — that still per dollar of investment, a geosystem will give you more reduction of fossil fuels than a solar system,” he said. “Why not give a much bigger grant to an appliance that actually gets 80 per cent of its energy from the ground? Our systems run around 450 per cent efficient and they don’t burn any gas. It’s all water-based and they run on electricity.”
Maaten said long-term financing options are the best way to incentivize geothermal systems, eliminating the upfront cost hurdle that’s the main challenge for homeowners. One promising initiative is Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), which would help finance costly energy efficient home upgrades like geothermal.
“I don’t think grant programs are the best way to improve the adoption of this technology,” he said. “I believe in a more sustainable building of this industry, which I think is more justified with programs like long-term financing.”
“I think it should be better balanced. I could say put it all towards geo — I’m not like that. Again, I think they’re a great marriage and a great fit, but it’s really ridiculous there’s no budget set aside for this technology.”
While the renewable energy market is competitive with different groups seeking the same government support, Maaten said a combination of geothermal heating and solar PV is the best way to achieve net-zero.
Maaten said both the Pembina Institute, a non-profit think tank, and the government of Alberta believe that geothermal is dirty because it uses electricity, fusing two separate processes together.
“They say, ‘Well, the way we heat our house, it’s better to stick with a gas furnace because ultimately, the gas is relatively clean so when you look at the numbers, the geothermal doesn’t have that big of a positive impact,’” he said. “But the problem becomes what if we start to clean up this [electricity] end, because we are, but we don’t address this end, which is how we heat our home.
“In 2030, we phase out our coal-fired power generation, so now our grid is much cleaner, but we haven’t addressed how we heat our homes. It creates a sub-optimal solution.”
In 2018, EEA’s budget will increase from $45 million to $90 million, but it hasn’t announced new programming yet. However, players in the energy efficiency game have ideas of what the increased budget and other government initiatives should go towards.
“Generally speaking, you should have programming that overcomes the market burden that you think is in the way of people adopting new technology, whether it be renewable or efficiency technology. You should be looking at the cost of those mitigation efforts.” – John Rilett, ENMAX.
“I think building code changes would be really important, where either commercial or residential buildings where you’ve either got to be solar-ready or have solar on the house. It was mandated in Hawaii, a place where they’ve got barged-in diesel fuel to run the electricity grid. And building better homes at well, so looking on the energy efficiency side: better insulation, better windows, better design would really be important going forward.” – David Kelly, SkyFire Energy.
“I can show you, even at today’s solar prices — which have come down quite a bit, which is great — that still per dollar of investment, a geosystem will give you more reduction of fossil fuels than a solar system . . . “I think it should be better balanced. I could say put it all towards geo — I’m not like that. Again, I think [solar and geothermal are] a great marriage and a great fit, but it’s really ridiculous there’s no budget set aside for this technology.” – Koen van der Maaten, Thermal Creek.
“[EEA] needs to come up with constant messages and not infrequent messages.” – Irene Herremans.
“My biggest concern about their programs is that it’s all retrofit stuff. It’s not about the new home. [The retrofits] should get some sort of payback, but the new home builder, there’s zero incentive to get him to go that way, to go to ICF, to go to continuous insulation.” – Pat Cymbala, AMVIC.
Editor: Sarah Allen | firstname.lastname@example.org