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Status report: What Canada's municipalities are doing to help fight climate change

Armed with a $550-million Green Municipal Fund courtesy of the federal government, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities has been doling out grants over the past seven years for pilot projects and capital spending designed to reduce energy use. Here are some of the more innovative initiatives. (Zoom in on the larger centres to see more detail.)

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Vancouver

Building standards
One of the world's most beautiful cities, Vancouver has also become a showcase for capturing methane, one of the world's smelliest and most pernicious greenhouse gases. It escapes into the atmosphere from rotting garbage and other natural decay.

Vancouver constructed a system of pipelines linking some of its larger landfill sites as well as more than 150 new wells to trap the methane and redirect it to more constructive uses, one of them being as a heat source for a large-scale commercial greenhouse.

Vancouver has also been a leader in encouraging new communities, like the False Creek development, and new industries to build to the highest environmental standards. One of its innovations is a program to educate builders and real estate agents on the concept that ultra-green buildings ultimately sell for more when the time comes to flip them.

The Greater Vancouver Regional District set the stage for building conservation by retro-fitting its own older buildings first. It is planning to install solar heating systems at 19 municipal swimming pools. A $95,000 Green Fund study said the retrofits would reduce energy requirements by 25 to 50 per cent and pay for themselves within 10 years.

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Prince George

Community energy
This northern B.C. community has dug up its streets to lay pipe for a community energy system that will reuse the wood waste from three pulp mills and five sawmills nearby.

This biomass, burned in large emissions-controlled boilers, will provide hot water and steam for homes and other businesses that will no longer need on-site boilers of their own.

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West Vancouver

Micro-hydro
Spurred by two Green Fund grants in 2001-02, the Eagle Lake micro-hydro facility, began commercial operation in May 2003 and generates approximately 1.2 gigawatt-hours of electricity each year.

The power comes from the water supply for the District of West Vancouver, which is gathered in Eagle Lake and flows downhill to an underground reservoir and purification system. A local resident wondered about generating some electricity from the pipe running down to the reservoir and after studying the idea, B.C. Hydro determined it was feasible.

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Port Coquitlam, B.C.

Traffic signals
Another mini-hydro project. Port Coquitlam, in the Fraser River delta, is studying whether it can generate enough electricity from city water mains to power traffic signals at major intersections.

Initial studies were promising, but the idea only works in municipalities with enough changes in elevation, and therefore water pressure, to justify the cost of a pressure reducing valve and retrofit.

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Hinton, Alta.

Eco-park
Benefiting from a $14-million loan and grant from the Green Fund, the town of Hinton, on the road from Edmonton to Jasper in the Rockies, now boasts one of the most innovative industrial parks in the country.

Businesses wishing to locate there must abide by strict building codes and environmental rules designed to optimize solar energy and recycling techniques. Compared to other industrial parks, Hinton's Eco-Industrial Park is projected to emit 15,547 fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide or its equivalent per year.

It has an on-site co-generating facility for steam and electricity that uses waste wood and other locally produced biomass. The stated goal is 100 per cent reuse of waste materials.

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Okotoks, Alta.

Solar suburbs
This Calgary bedroom community last year became North America's first solar suburb and uses a shared district heating and underground storage chamber to help heat and provide hot water for 74 homes.

See CBC.ca Living Green: Calgary's solar suburbs

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Calgary

Action plan
The City of Calgary has become the first large municipality in Canada to win the Partners for Climate Protection award for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

It was also one of the first municipalities to develop a comprehensive plan for combating climate change. Its current goal is to reduce GHG emissions to 50 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. (By contrast, the Kyoto target, which Canada as a whole won't meet, calls for reducing GHG emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.)

Calgary achieved its successes through a variety of measures including:

  • A 37-turbine wind farm on the outskirts of the city to increase alternate energy use to a target of 75 per cent of total consumption.
  • A tough vehicle idling bylaw and a commitment to use both biodiesel (77 vehicles) and hybrid cars and pickups (nine) in city fleets.
  • Retrofitting street lights and traffic signals, in the later case to use much more efficient LED lighting.
  • Establishing an internet-based program for car pooling.

One of its more interesting innovations is a traffic signalling system for its bus fleet and firefighters. Buses can send an infrared signal as they approach an intersection and this signal has the ability to extend the green or shorten the red light, thus cutting down on braking and fuel use. On just one route alone, the city estimates it has saved approximately $4,600 in annual fuel costs.

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Edmonton

Street sand
In one of the more basic and yet imaginative pilot projects, Edmonton has embarked on a 10-year, $2-million initiative to sweep up and clean the previous winter's street sand.

So far, the street-sand recycling project has recovered nearly 70 per cent of the material for use the following year. The recycling has also led to a reduction in other products that might have ended up in landfill, including larger aggregates that are used in paving and filling potholes.

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Cynthia, Alta

Solar sewage
In tiny Cynthia, in the rolling hill country west of Edmonton, researchers experimented with a new wastewater treatment for small communities that uses the sun and certain plants and aquatic species to purify human waste.

A new technique to replace sewage lagoons that often require electrically generated aeration, this was to be the first test of a Solar Aquatics System in a northern climate and it appears to have worked: A few months ago, the Alberta government gave Cynthia a $860,000 grant to overhaul its aging lagoon with the new system.

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Saskatoon

Biodigesters
One of Saskatchewan's two largest cities, Saskatoon is carrying out a pilot project to determine whether it can redirect up to two-thirds of its organic waste into a biodigester, which is essentially a giant composting bin that would generate tonnes of nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer as well as methane-powered electricity.

There are a handful of commercial-size biodigesters on the Prairies, mostly in conjunction with large hog farms or other similar operations. This would be the first city-scale approach, though federal officials suggest there will be as many as 25 in the country in the near future, particularly in those centres that are near large farming communities.

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Colonsay, Sask.

Geo-thermal rink
With the equipment in its aging curling and skating rink failing, the small town of Colonsay decided to try a different way to save energy and extend its sports season: It investigated and then installed a geo-thermal heat pump to take advantage of the cooler temperatures, and relative heat in winter, deep in the earth's core.

The new system's energy costs are much lower than traditional methods of making ice and heating arenas. An added advantage is that it has extended the curling and hockey seasons and made the town money from other communities wishing to take advantage of the facility.

With only 500 permanent residents, Colonsay nevertheless raised more than two-thirds of the total $360,000 cost of the new system and has been noted for its community spirit.

Morris, Man., was awarded a similar Green Fund grant to look into a related system.

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Craik, Sask.

Ultra-insulation
In 2001, the small town of Craik in south-central Saskatchewan decided to turn itself into a model of sustainable living. One of its first projects was an Eco-Centre, a community building constructed with recycled materials, heated by mostly solar energy and insulated by bales of hay and other locally grown fibres.

The building was so successful that communities the world over have come to take notes and marvel at its efficiency. What's more, a B.C. company also bought land in the region to build a new hemp fibreglass product that it is planning to name Crailar, after the town.

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Winnipeg

Electric buses
Winnipeg's North End Water Pollution Control Centre had two unpleasant side effects: stinky odours from the sewage treatment plant and methane gas that was escaping into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming.

City officials had tested a small natural gas-powered turbine at one of the plants to try to suck in the odours and eliminate them and while this worked, it was an added expense and greenhouse gas contributor.

Now, with a $100,000 Green Fund grant, Winnipeg is using the unwanted methane to heat biodigesters in the winter months as well as supply space heating to some of the facilities. In the summer, this gas is being used to power the mini-turbines and draw some of the stinky air into combustion chamber.

Winnipeg is also being a national guinea pig for electric hybrid buses. It is acquiring 20 diesel-electric buses to replace the standard diesel types and expects to save more than $500,000 in fuel costs and 2,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions as a result.

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Sudbury, Ont.

Community plan
In terms of planning, Sudbury's Earthcare program is one of the most advanced by far of any Canadian municipality. The goal is to cut Sudbury's energy use by half in a variety of small, user-friendly ways such as through better land use and automobile use and conservation.

A partnership with more than 90 local agencies and businesses, the Sudbury program offers businesses and homeowners clickable access to the latest energy saving options. One of its more innovative measures is a meter-lending service at local libraries where borrowers can take home an electricity reading meter for a few days at a time to measure the energy use of specific appliances.

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Mississauga, Ont.

Computer junk
The Regional Municipality of Peel has two Green Fund projects underway to try to reduce the amount of discarded electronic equipment that makes its way into landfills and the region's waste-run incinerator, which must then get rid of the heavy metal residue in an expensive hazardous waste landfill.

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Waterloo, Ont.

Green roofs
With a Green Fund grant in 2002, Waterloo became one of the first Canadian cities to explore the notion of "green roofs" for commercial and public buildings.

Green roofs, with specially designed plants and small trees, help reduce storm runoff and keep roof temperatures more temperate, thereby reducing energy needs. They also help absorb noise and air pollution.

Montreal and Toronto have also, more recently, been encouraging green roofs on public buildings. For a short period last year, Toronto was offering incentives to builders.

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Toronto

Lake cooling
Toronto has an ambitious green plan to recycle more than 80 per cent of all waste, reduce greenhouse gases by 20 per cent and procure at least 25 per cent of its power from renewable sources.

Its biggest step in this direction is the $176-million Deep Lake Water Cooling project in which the energy utility Enwave pumps chilled (4 C) water from deep in Lake Ontario into dozens of large commercial buildings in the downtown core, thus reducing air conditioning demands in the summer.

Toronto also has a large fleet of biodiesel as well as reduced-idling vehicles, and the Toronto Zoo is experimenting with the notion of turning its wealth of animal dung into methane-generated electricity and fertilizer for its horticultural pavilions.

The city provides a full list of its environmental plans and initiatives on a website.

RED MINI
Montreal

Electric vehicles
Montreal has become one of the first Canadian cities to buy (14) hybrid buses, which, like the Toyota Prius, run mostly on their electrical engines and stored electricity, unless they have to switch to so-called clean diesel should the electricity run out.

Many cities are going the biodiesel route, but electric buses that don't operate on antiquated trolley lines are still rare.

Montreal is like several Quebec municipalities — Quebec City is another — that are replacing their municipal fleets with electric and biodiesel vehicles. (Electricity is relatively cheap and clean in Quebec; almost all of it comes from hydroelectric sources.) St. Jerome, north of Montreal, is offering free municipal parking to anyone who drives an electric vehicle.

Montreal also has one neighbourhood, the Milton-Park community, that is part of a three-year international experiment to transform an older downtown neighbourhood into a model of environmental sustainability by using alternative energy sources, green roof technology and other techniques.

Vancouver is the only other Canadian city that is part of the project, sponsored by a Quebec-based group called the Urban Ecology Centre.

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Iles-de-la-Madeleine, Que.

Alternative energy
A rugged, wind-swept farming and fishing community in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, this group of islands can now boast one of the largest alternative energy projects — mostly by necessity — in eastern Canada.

Five years ago, the community began experimenting with heat pumps to recycle underground geothermal heat into many of its buildings. Since then, it has also developed more than 740 megawatts of wind power, the largest installation in Quebec.

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Cape Breton, N.S.

Wind turbines
With the same fuel-oil dependency as nearby Iles-de-la-Madeleine, the Cape Breton regional authority has also gone big into wind power. Indeed, Nova Scotia now has one of the biggest wind farms in the country, with 41 large wind turbines built or under construction.

Considering that more than 90 per cent of Nova Scotia's power comes from greenhouse gas-inducing coal or oil, the wind turbines in Cape Breton alone, even operating at 50 per cent efficiency, have the potential to eliminate 2,000 tonnes of GHG emissions per year.

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Halifax

Creative financing
Long an environmental bad boy for dumping its untreated sewage into Halifax Harbour, the city has now embarked on a massive $330-million treatment plan, supported by all three levels of government.

One of the benefits of being hooked into the Federation of Canadian Muncipalities' Green Fund, though, is the cheap loans that are made available through it. Halifax officials took advantage of this and, by borrowing the maximum allowed, were able to save themselves between $300,000 and $400,000 a year in interest.

Those savings are being reinvested in a district energy plant, an anti-idling program, catalytic converters on older buses to reduce emissions and dedicated bike lanes on city bridges, all of which should contribute to fewer overall greenhouse gas emissions.

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St. John's, Nfld.

Topsoil
St. John's has been slowly upgrading its commercial buildings and municipal lighting since the mid-1990s to take advantage of more efficient options. Now it is getting down to the nitty-gritty.

The city's action plan mandates a minimum 15 centimetres of topsoil on any new development to allow for good lawn cover and minimize runoff and pesticide use.

The city is also mandating "No Mow Zones" in certain city parks and natural lands to minimize mowers and other engine use. Plus it is requiring the city's commercial taxi drivers to take a climate change awareness course called STEER so that they will learn how to maintain and drive their vehicles the most efficient way.

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Haines Junction, Yukon

Hot springs
A study by Natural Resources Canada back in 1976 found 13 geothermal springs in the Yukon and another eight in northern B.C. A handful of communities are now trying to tap into these, none more aggressively than Haines Junction.

Drillers found the warm artesian well (16 C) while drilling for something else and now the village is using the spring water to help warm its new convention centre, saving it the equivalent of 30,806 litres of fuel oil a year and reducing greenhouse gases accordingly.

The town of Mayo in the Yukon is also using the geothermal heat from an underground spring to heat some of its buildings and so is Yukon Energy, to help heat a fish hatchery near Whitehorse that it's been operating since the 1980s.