The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), Gord Miller, recently released a report summarizing the progress of Ontario’s energy conservation measures. In short, there is good news and there is bad news.

Everyone loves the good news first so here it is: conservation results in 2011 were “generally encouraging” meaning that consumed energy and peak demand decreased, with some pretty big caveats. Energy saved in this reporting period was the result of investment in the previous period, results were mixed at best in the residential sector, and so on. I encourage you to read the full report here.  605,000,000 kWh were saved at the cost of $0.03/kWh. Peak demand was reduced by 16% of the 4 year target. We seem to be on track for consumption, with work to do on demand reduction.

Now the bad news. We are focussed almost entirely on how the power we consume is generated and where its coming from. “Wind turbines are ugly” or “they’re not putting a power plant in MY neighborhood” comments drive me crazy. The Green Energy and Economy Act, political hot-potatoe that it is, has not been implemented with nearly enough focus on “the culture of conservation” as promised in its’ initial rollout.  More power plants wouldn’t be needed if we didn’t need more energy.

So what to do about this? Obviously, if you have read any of my other posts, my opinion is to invest more heavily in conservation, agreeing with the ECO. Simple conclusion, but how? Engage people. Make it easier, heaven forbid maybe even fun, to save energy. Collaborative apps and websites are coming along.  Apps like Powercents give plenty of tips on how to reduce home energy use, and how to manage time of day price differences to home owners financial benefit.  Gridwatch, another app from Energy Mobile, shows users the power sources required to supply consumed energy and the resulting CO2 emissions. I’m looking forward to an upcoming update that will show emissions per kWh in real time based on the province’s energy mix at that time.

Shifting clothes dryer use to off-peak

Shifting clothes dryer use to off-peak

I agree with the ECO that the price difference between on- and off-peak just isn’t big enough to encourage real changes in behaviour, and my house is the perfect example. My wife is home on mat leave with my 6 month old son, and does the majority of home tasks when she can, irrespective of what time of day it is. If I tell her that we can save $0.27 cents per load by doing it at night instead of during the day, she’d throw a quarter at me and tell me to be grateful its being done, and I don’t blame her. Make that a dollar per load, and she’d likely think twice, quickly equating that to $6 per week, almost $30 per month.

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Weekly, monthly consumption trends summarized in Quinzee

We have the tools in place to evaluate, learn and change our behaviours with resulting dollar savings and reduced environmental impact. I spoke with Faizal Karmali, one of Quinzee’s founders some months ago, and he envisioned neighbors competing against each other to reduce energy use. I would love to beat the pants off my neighbour at something that saves me money AND reduces all the environmental impacts that result from power generation.

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See what time the oven was turned on?

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I will admit that I am a gadget geek. Electronics companies love me, as I am always interested in trying the latest and greatest. That love of bigger, better, stronger, faster, has translated into my professional life as well, albeit now tinged with green – high performance buildings. Now it’s smaller, better, faster and more efficient that I am gunning for.

As you can see from my other posts, that extends into my personal life as well. For some time now, I’ve been looking for a way to reduce, if not eliminate, my gasoline purchases, and to green my commute. My gadget obsession extended to my previous car, and I tinkered with it as a bit of a project. A rally car converted from an econo-box, the Subaru Impreza WRX has served me faithfully since I purchased it new in October of 2005. The good: its a tank in snow thanks to snow tires and full-time all-wheel-drive, it has more than enough power to make your hair stand on end, and it’s sharp looking (the functional hood scoop ramming air into an intercooler to cool turbocharged air is a pretty distinct feature). The bad: 10 to 11 liters per 100 km, or 21-23 MPG for my American friends, means a pitiful 400km (250 miles) per tank of 91 octane fuel in mixed highway and city driving. I don’t baby the car, nor do I drive like a maniac, not with that quickly moving gas gauge staring me in the face. I new what I was getting into when I purchased it, and it has delivered on those expectations.

So, as per my previous post, I’ve been looking for an electric vehicle (EV), and have been smitten by the Leaf (even though that name is pretentious beyond belief). My goal is to sell the Subaru to a fellow enthusiast (still in progress), and use that to pay for the majority of the Leaf. The remaining finance payments will be covered by my not having to purchase any gas, or change any oil. Being able to charge at work definitely plays a major role in this decision. Insurance, unbelievably, is exactly the same as the Subaru.

EV-Chargers and Leaf

I have been looking at all the pros and cons for a year now. I’ve looked at the various Plug-in hybrids (Prius, Focus) and the Volt, I’ve driven the i-MiEV, and nothing seemed to really accomplish what I wanted like the Leaf, nor provide the bang for the buck in terms of gadgetry and performance.

The end result? There is now a 2012 Leaf SL in my garage (with quick charger and cool little PV cell on the spoiler to trickle charge the 12V battery). Now we will see how this thing performs when I have to use it on a daily basis instead of just borrowing someone else’s. I just put 45 liters of gas into the Subaru, and I am hoping that is the last tank of gasoline that I will ever purchase for my personal vehicle.


Is that a proboscis?

I am sure that I have some surprises in store. Will I run out of charge? How much will my home energy consumption increase as a result of charging at home? How does it handle in a Canadian winter? How the hell do you use the navigation system?

After just a couple of hours, I have managed to connect my garage door openers to the homelink system, enter my house as my home charging station on the GPS system (just in case I forget how to get home – do people actually use these features?) and top up the charge with the supplied trickle charger. The carwings app now has a home on my iPhone – just because I really needed a new app – and I’m remotely connected to be able to pre-condition the car while plugged in, check the charge status or start/stop charging.

Carwings App

Carwings App

I will admit that I am stumped as to how I am going to get 220V power to the garage without tearing out drywall to access the top of the breaker panel. It looks like I will be taking advantage of Ontario’s EV Charging installation rebate that starts January 1. I have a feeling this will be a bit of an adventure as I currently renting my home (and content for a future post!).

We still have our family minivan for longer drives like camping trips and visits to the grandparents. My wife can now use the Leaf around town for her errands, whereas she could not drive the manual gearbox WRX (I tried to teach her and I think the smell of burning clutch was just too much to bear). I think that the sky-blue leaf now occupying my garage will make an excellent addition to the fleet.

Let’s say you are going to renovate your house, home or apartment.  Maybe take out some walls, refinish some rooms, or maybe you’re planning something bigger, and you are building addition or even a new home.  Have you thought about where that wood, concrete, granite or other building material came from?

More and more, consumers, builders, architects and engineers are asking these questions.  As a result of my day job, I have had the opportunity to see some of the inner workings and more progressive companies in the aggregate industry. I wrote a piece on this experience and some of the operational benefits that a thermal mass building can realize as a result of making this material choice here.

However, I’ve never really had the opportunity to experience the wood industry’s best practices.  Sure, I knew that the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and its certification of forests and products existed, and that it was a good thing to support because of my understanding of the LEED green building rating system.  I had even made sure that the three 2×4’s that I purchased at Home Depot to hang my bikes in the garage were FSC certified.  To be honest, that certification didn’t really have any tangible meaning for me, because I am a mechanical engineer, and it was simply outside my usual field of expertise.  I can’t keep a cactus alive in my house, let alone appreciate how to sustainably harvest lumber on a large scale (besides being naturally offended by images of clear-cut forests).

That has changed for me. I had the good fortune of attending the US Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild Expo, held in San Francisco this year. I signed up for one of the full-day tours, in order to see an FSC Certified redwood forest first hand.

Nice view of the coastal highway from the lumber office

The trip started with a clean diesel powered bus ride  along the coast south of San Francisco to Big Creek Lumber in Santa Clara County.  There were not nearly enough guardrails along the coast road for my liking. Each one of the buses had a tour guide from SCS Global Services, including the certifier of Big Creek’s forest, Robert Hrubes. The view from the forestry office was incredible, even if mostly obscured by fog and rain when we arrived.

Our visit started with a history of the family business, including the forestry practices that led them to certify their property for sustainable forestry.  The President, Janet McCrary Webb, along with Bob Berlage (Director of Communications) discussed how the property had been almost clear-cut to rebuild the city of San Francisco after the fire of 1906. The McCrary’s took possession of a site that had some young, rapidly growing redwoods in 1946. In order to maintain an economic future for the property, they selectively harvested redwoods, leaving many rapidly growing redwoods to continue to mature.  They do not harvest trees at a certain age, but selectively, and typically on a 14 year cycle, depending on many factors. Amazingly, redwoods can grow up to 8 feet per year if they have access to enough light and water, so this selective harvesting can actually increase growth rates of those trees not harvested.

Fast growing 2nd and 3rd growth redwood

The result is an impressive forest, dotted here and there with stumps from previous harvests, with 2nd, 3rd and 4th growth interspersed, and up to 300’ tall. I have heard that biodiversity suffers in forest plantations, and that may be the case, but not in this forest. Slugs, salamanders, raptors, and other evident signs of a relatively healthy ecosystem were all around us.

Blurry image of a salamander running away from an iPhone

Bob mentioned that a botanist that was hired to study the forest noted a 45% increase in biodiversity after a section of the forest had been selectively harvested (I would assume that it was because there was access to more sunlight resulting in room for other species to get a foothold).

Do you see a raptor?

Another anecode shared was what about Bob referred to as “granary” trees, where woodpeckers would fill pecked holes in the redwoods with acorns, and then feed on the bugs that would then arrive to eat the acorns. These trees would be bypassed by Big Creek, and not selected for harvesting.

Many of the forestry practices in use by Big Creek are very specific to redwood, and understandably so, as it is their primary product (along with some firs), and what grows naturally in these fog shrouded coastal rain forests.  This forest, and business, exists in an extensively regulated environment (called the most regulated in the world by Bob), and so Big Creek is used to taking many months to perform the necessary environmental assessments, permits and community outreach required to harvest in the area. As an example, a raptor survey is performed before harvesting can start, to ensure that a raptor species is not present to be displaced.

This sensitivity and regulation leads to some pretty incredible practices, exemplified by helicopter yarding, where felled lumber would be moved to a central point to be removed by vehicle. This dramatically reduces the requirement for roads into more sensitive areas, but not without cost. A helicopter for this purpose costs about $5,000 per hour – $83 per minute – to perform this task. On steep grades where tractors would irreparably rut and damage soils, cable extraction reduces intrusion.  Extraction near water courses must respect setbacks, to reduce, if not eliminate, sedimentation of waterways that could affect salmon other fish species.

I think you get the point that selectively harvesting timber like this is a complex task, to say nothing of getting approvals to even start.

One of the largest benefits to Big Creek of the FSC certification is a third party verification of their harvesting practices, ensuring that they have a social license to operate.  I can see this same principle applying to the aggregate, mining, and other resource industries.  We are not going to stop using raw materials in our buildings, businesses and society any time soon, so we should be using those resources in a manner that makes those assets as productive as possible for as long as possible, with a little collateral damage as possible. It makes good business, environmental, and social sense to do so, as Big Creek is proving. I appreciate that this forest has been conscientiously managed for generations, and I am sure there are a depressing number of forests that are not managed this way.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a mechanical engineer, not a biologist or forester, so I may not have seen the entire picture. The tour only went through a very small area, and I am sure it was not selected accidentally. I have no reason to believe that the owner had anything to hide, but nor am I naive enough to blindly accept what I see at face value all the time. That is the benefit of the third party certification. Someone else who knows what to look for has verified that the site meets sustainability criteria.

Back to my garage 2×4, I now understand that I can take the FSC chain of custody number, and see who has handled the wood, and where it came from.  This 2×4 holding my bikes against the wall looks like it came from near the northern Ontario and Quebec border. You can check any FSC number here.

My 2×4

I hope that this sneak peak into a forest that is better managed will lead you to look for that FSC logo the next time you need a piece of lumber, redwood or not, and that it makes you ask the question of where your building materials are coming from, and to see if there is a better choice you could make.

I have a love hate relationship with my Mother-in-Law. I love her cooking, and she hates that I married her daughter. We understand each other.

She is retired, and loves to take care of her family, which includes her grandkids – my two boys. I readily admit that I am spoiled, and that she makes us dinner quite often. Like many European families, she has a kitchen in the basement where she spends the majority of her time, and another kitchen upstairs which is used for big family events when a second oven or stove is needed. She is my family’s Paula Deen.

About two years ago, my in-laws renovated the basement kitchen. Custom cabinets, slate floor, stainless fridge (I had no say in the matter, so I’m sure its not Energy Star), gas range, fume hood, the works. Lighting was also taken care of, with fourteen 50W Par 20 halogen flood lamps. For those of you counting at home, thats 700 watts of lighting for an area thats about 300 square feet.  Each of these $6 lamps is rated to last 3,000 hours with a 25 degree beam angle.  Remember these numbers.

One complaint the chef had from day one was that the kitchen was always hot. Even in winter. Remember that this is a basement in Toronto, and that usually means you need to wear slippers for 75% of the year.  She would open the window and run a fan, sometimes in January.  When you think about that 700 watts on, eight hours a day, and then add the gas range, the refrigerator, and sometimes the toaster oven (I’m a sucker for garlic bread) as additional loads in the room, you start to understand why it was borderline tropical in this room.

Being an energy nut, I decided to crunch some numbers and see if I could convince her to replace the par 20s with their screw-in LED counterparts. I found the Philips EnduraLED at Home Depot for $25 each. Sadly, no bulk purchase option was available. These LEDs use 7W each, and according to Philips, compare in light output to their par 20 incandescent equivalent. Lumens are lower, but rated life is 25,000 hours, or about ten times the bulb it’s replacing.

I can vouch for the terrible life of the incandescents, as I have personally changed the original par20’s multiple times just because it drove me nuts that one was out, not because my mother-in-law was really bothered by it being out. More technical details on these lamps here or here.

For the 8 hours per day that these lamps are usually on (I know that sounds like a lot, but its not far off), this equates to $180 per year in energy savings. Give or take 10% in terms of the cost of electricity or the number of hours actually on. So, the $350 spent on new lamps is paid for in about 2 years (up to 4 if you assume only 4 hours per day), and the kitchen is not nearly as hot.  I have ignored any A/C savings that result in the summer months, but they might only add up to another couple percent saving.

Importantly, they look almost exactly the same. The light output is less, but the space was lit like a burger under a heat lamp before this.

The 14 removed par20’s now have a home at my house, in outdoor recessed pot lamp fixtures that are probably on for 10 minutes per week. I will use them until they die, and then replace them with CFLs.

Sadly, I couldn’t convince her to undertake this LED retrofit herself (I’m an engineer, not a salesman!), so I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and I purchased and changed the lamps for her.  Now I don’t feel nearly as guilty for enjoying that home cooking!

I have spent my few spare minutes this past week (when not dealing with family life) investigating electric cars in earnest.

The driving force behind this is the need that my current car has for (expensive) maintenance – a timing belt and clutch in the near future. I don’t want to spend the money on it.  I’d rather use that money for a down payment on something that not only doesn’t need to have any oil change – ever – but that will not need to filled up with gas – ever.

I’m not a fan of the plug-in hybrid (Prius plug-in, Chevy Volt, Fusion Energi, etc.), as I think it’s just too much of a compromise. Over the last 6 months, I can count on one hand the number of times that I would have had an issue with the range of a Leaf or similar electric vehicle (EV), and the dramatic decrease in range as a result of carrying around the weight of a second powertrain just defeats the purpose in my mind.

I have also had the luck to use a Leaf for two weeks through my day job, which I wrote about here, so range anxiety is not as large a concern for me as it might be for other commuters.

The biggest hurdle for me to overcome, not surprisingly, is cost. A Leaf is $38,500+ the usual taxes, levies and new car fees. An $8,500 rebate from the Province of Ontario surely takes the edge of this price, but it’s still a barrier to entry for all but the early adopter. For more people to adopt EVs as a real alternative to the internal combustion engine, prices needs to come down, and that likely means that the cars need to be simpler.

Thats why my drive today really had me thinking. I had a Mitsubishi i-MiEV for a trip to work, some photo opportunities during the day while charging, and then a trip home.

i-MiEV Charging

Now, after my time with the Leaf, I was underwhelmed. The 120km range was still acceptable, but for $33,000, you’d think you would get a bit more car.   I understand the economics, and that the battery cost is anywhere from 30-40% of the cost of manufacturing an EV.

The Leaf has a lot of electronic whiz bang gadgets (really called telematics) that make me happy, but that completely baffle most people who are not tech-obsessed.  Even putting the Leaf in gear takes some thinking, or training. The i-MiEV (I have trouble even typing that, let alone trying to say it), is easy to understand. You sit in the seat, put your belt on, put the key in, and turn it. A beep signifies that you are ready to shift into gear, which is not a joystick, but a true P-R-N-D labelled shifter. It does have an eco-mode and a more aggressive regenerative mode, but really, how often does the average driver ever use anything but “d” anyway?

i-MiEV Dash

Even the dash is easy to understand. Speed, charge status, estimated range, whether you are discharging or regenerating the battery, and thats it. No LCD displays telling you things that are neat, but really unnecessary.

I think Mitsubishi is onto something – although not with the looks, as this is a face that only a mother could love – with the i-MiEV’s simplicity. Really, this simplicity is how EVs will go mainstream. IF prices come down. The built quality, driveability and general fit and finish of the i-MiEV feel like a $20,000 car.  Its a shame, because it will turn a lot of people off an otherwise fine subcompact commuter car. I could see this car as perfect for a new grad – complete with $1,000 discount if you bring your diploma.

Simpler electric vehicles will take some of the fear of the unknown away from new buyers. Many new car owners might not want to consider an alternative from what they consider to be a “normal” car.   Nissan, GM, Ford and other EV manufacturers could learn a lesson or two from the i-MiEV’s simplicity.

As for my car search, the Leaf is still my preferred EV. The Volt is too expensive and its performance is a compromise, and the i-MiEV just doesn’t provide enough value for me.  I have to see what I can sell my Subaru for, and deal with payments (that will be offset in whole or in part by gas/maintenance savings).  Stay tuned to see what’s next in my EV saga.