May 29, 2006

Climate Change Technology Conference: Climate Change - Don't Ignore It, Deal With It

Canada's engineering profession has a valuable role to play in virtually every aspect of climate change, from policy development through mitigation and adaptation. The 2006 Climate Change Technology Conference, presented in Ottawa earlier this month by the Engineering Institute of Canada (EIC), provided a showcase for engineering achievements in areas such as renewable energy, standards for emerging technologies and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measurement and the design and construction of infrastructure capable of withstanding the impacts of climate change.

In a thought-provoking presentation on climate change policy, McGill University economics professor Christopher Green observed that the Kyoto Protocol-the dominant influence on climate change policy-represents a commitment by its signatories to results (i.e. specific GHG emission reductions by a target date), not action.

One of the most important outcomes of last December's 11th Conference of Parties (COP 11), he said, was the agreement to begin a parallel dialogue to consider alternative approaches to GHG reduction. This could arguably include discussion of alternative targets and commitments.

The recent Asia Pacific partnership, involving the U.S. and Australia along with China, Japan, India and South Korea, by contrast is oriented toward technology actions for GHG reduction. The critical issue, said Dr Green, is that the choice of a target is meaningless without consideration of the credibility of commitments. Even if such commitments are backed by a legally binding document, they carry little weight if fulfilling them is unfeasible or too costly.

Consequently, a commitment to actions makes more sense than a commitment to results (i.e. targets) in the context of international co-operative agreements, and a successful climate change agreement should reflect this, said Dr Green. Actions (e.g. programs, instruments, policies) are more observable, controllable and accountable.

This, however, raises the question of what sort of policy action should be taken. Responding to this question involves determining the overall policy objective, in this case climate stabilization, he continued.

Since stabilization will require a fundamental transformation of energy technology and infrastructure, action should focus on facilitating such a transformation. Choosing specific actions could be done using a method known as "backward induction," a tool of game theory, in which decision-makers work backward from the stated goal.

Commitments, if made, should be to researching, developing and deploying carbon-free energy systems. And if major advances in technology are required, financing such advances will be necessary as well. Dr Green suggested that a small carbon tax could provide the required funds, implemented as a slowly rising tax over time, which would induce deployment.

The link between sustainable development and GHG management was illustrated in a presentation on MOSAIC (Manufacturers of Sustainability, Aerospace Industry Catalyst), an initiative of the air transport industry. Steven Davis-Mendelow, an environmental specialist with Bombardier Aerospace in Toronto, said the purpose of this project is to make the aviation industry a model for sustainability, addressing all phases and stages of the individual manufacturing processes. To a significant extent, this is in anticipation of a new GHG emissions reduction directive from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which will come into effect in February 2007.

Transportation is a major source of GHG emissions, with aviation accounting for 12% of the total and 80% of that originating from flights of more than 1,500 km in distance, Davis-Mendelow noted. Air transport poses environmental challenges at literally every level, he added: local air quality at ground level, global warming and climate change at the 3,000-foot level, and ozone layer depletion at the 33,000- to 58,000-foot range.

The aviation industry's response to date has focused largely on increasing fuel efficiency and reducing consumption, with notable success: fuel efficiency has improved by 20% in the last ten years alone, Davis-Mendelow noted, giving modern aircraft a level of efficiency (in litres per passenger-kilometre) equivalent to a small car. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the industry is certainly not perceived as being a sustainable one.

Accordingly, in anticipation of growing public pressure in this direction, the Ontario Aerospace Council (OAC) has opted to move the industry toward a broader vision of sustainability, focusing on the full range of aerospace manufacturers and their suppliers. Its MOSAIC project is designed to take the initiative in addressing environmental issues, beginning with a survey of aerospace firms in Ontario to determine how they are being affected by GHG emission issues and how they are responding.

Davis-Mendelow reported that the state-of-the-industry survey has pinpointed environment, health and safety (EHS) training as the industry's number one concern, followed by management and disposal of hazardous wastes. Other issues of concern include energy efficiency, environmental regulations and the three R's, he added. Lack of expertise, information and time, along with costs and availability of capital were cited as barriers to resolving these issues.

The project's next step is to establish environmental benchmarks for the industry and to create a blueprint for small-to-medium-size enterprises (SMEs) in the air transport sector. This will facilitate participation in sustainability initiatives by these companies, which vary considerably in their availability of resources to pursue environmental programs.

Finally, MOSAIC will determine the top ten sustainability objectives for the OAC, backed up by a detailed plan for meeting those objectives.

Renewable energy technologies are rapidly gaining ground as an option for reducing GHG emissions, with their economic feasibility increasing in direct proportion to rising fossil fuel prices. In a review of emerging renewable sources in Canada, Morel Oprisan of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) noted that wind and small hydro, followed by biomass, are the fastest-growing renewable energy sources for electricity generation in Canada.

Installed wind power capacity is approaching 700 megawatts (MW), with another 3,000 MW in the planning stages. Estimates suggest this could rise to between 7,000 and 8,000 MW by 2012 and to 20,000 MW by 2025. Much of the current installed capacity is in western Canada, where it is displacing coal as the main fuel for electricity generation, thus contributing significantly to GHG reduction. The Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWEA) has estimated that wind energy in Canada could displace as much as 15 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

Oprisan noted that small hydro projects account for about 2,500 MW and the potential exists to increase this capacity by another 8,000 MW using existing technologies. Moreover, run-of-river projects have an additional 20,000 MW of technically feasible potential, of which 30% could be developed by 2020.

There is considerable public interest in expanding small hydro resources as they, unlike large hydropower projects, create minimal environmental impacts. These facilities are also considered compatible with sustainability principles in view of their small size and simplicity of operation, Oprisan added. The emission reduction benefit associated with adding small hydro projects is in the order of ten Mt per year of CO2e.

Bioenergy, derived from wood and other residues as well as landfill gas, could add another 1,500 MW of generation capacity and between 6,000 and 8,000 gigawatt-hours per year of additional electrical energy, displacing five or six MT of CO2e.

Solar energy is rapidly becoming more economically feasible as equipment and other related costs decline, and Canada has significant potential for power generation from ocean power, noted Oprisan. The near-shore wave energy potential for Vancouver Island, for example, has been calculated tat 9,400 MW, adn several potential tidal power sites have been located on the east coast.

Overall, there is no shortage of sustainable energy resources in Canada, and several renewable energy options could be economically competitive with conventional power over the next 20 years with minimal environmental impact. Wind, emerging hydro and biomass sources could supply over 13,000 MW at costs of seven cents or less per kilowatt-hour (kWh). Over the next two decades, these sources could add well over 30,000 MW of capacity at costs of less than ten cents per kWh.

There are, however, other issues to be addressed, said Oprisan. Resource assessment, for example, is common to all renewable energy technologies and is a prerequisite for the best possible information on the local, regional and national potential. Improved assessment tools would help determine where the most cost-effective and efficient projects should be located.

Intermittency is another important issue that urgently needs to be addressed, as this is a frequent shortcoming associated with renewables. The goal should be to develop tools and strategies to reduce the cost of integrating renewable energy systems and linking them to the established infrastructure.

Continued technological advances remain important for further reducing the cost of generation per unit of delivered energy, particularly for wind and solar power. Moreover, improved standards and installation guidelines, and alignment of these with their international counterparts, would help speed market penetration.

A relatively small, but significant, niche for renewable energy development is the micro-hydropower sector, consisting of systems (often run-of-river) with a generating capacity of 100 kWh or less. Ghanashyam Ranjitkar, of NRCan's CANMET Energy Technology Centre (CETC), noted that some 200,000 Canadians currently live in more than 300 remote communities not connected to the national grid. Power for these communities is typically provided by a local utility with its own distribution grid; these utilities commonly use diesel fuel for electricity generation, which contributes to high power costs and high GHG emissions.

There is a very large, still-untapped potential for micro-hydropower development in Canada, Ranjitkar noted: more than 1,600 potential sites have been located and there could be thousands more smaller sites capable of producing a reasonable amount of power and displacing a large portion of diesel-generated electricity. Micro-hydropower potential exists almost everywhere in Canada, although the greatest potential is in BC, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.

At this point, he said, there are currently between 300 and 400 micro-hydropower systems installed in Canada, most of them off-grid. Given that a single 100-kW system could displace about 700 tonnes of CO2 annually, displacing about 25% of current diesel generation with micro-hydropower could reduce GHG emissions by 0.3 Mt.

Development of this resource is a complex process, however, and technical expertise is essential in the design and construction stages, said Ranjitkar. Micro-hydropower systems must be custom-designed for each site, adding to the up-front capital costs, and the approval process can be lengthy.

Canadian expertise has developed a number of new technologies and materials designed to make microhydropower a more cost-effective option. Ranjitkar described several of these, such as the electronic load governor, the pump-as-turbiner,induction generator, water current turbines and modular systems, including battery-based systems.

The devastation wrought by severe weather events in recent years has heightened awareness of the vulnerability of public infrastructure to the impacts of climate change. This has important implications for the engineering sector, which must begin to take climate variability and extremes into account in designing roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, dams, pipelines, buildings and other infrastructure components.

The engineering profession has begun to address this issue with the establishment in mid-2005 of a national Public Infrastructure Engineering Vulnerability Committee, working under the auspices of the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE). David Lapp of the CCPE said the committee's purpose is to bring together relevant stakeholders to assess the vulnerability of Canada's infrastructure to climate change and facilitate the development of best engineering practices to adapt to its impacts.

As a first step, the committee is embarking on a two-year national study in this area. At this point, Lapp noted, terms of reference for the study have been approved in principle. A first scoping study will be carried out, focusing on stormwater and drainage infrastructure, with the goal of developing a general set of engineering assessment protocols.

At the same time, three new expert working groups are being set up to guide further infrastructure engineering assessments on buildings, water resource systems and roads and related structures. The ultimate aim, said Lapp, is to design Canadian public infrastructure in such a way as to minimize disruption or destruction resulting from changing climatic conditions.

A concluding conference statement issued a call for action on the part of engineers and their associations, national and international, to adopt actions aimed at resolving the challenges posed by climate change. It expressed commitment to partnerships with other stakeholders for the purpose of ensuring environmental sustainability.

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