If Denmark can go green, Canada can too

VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - In a recent column in The New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes about a stay at the Hotel Arctic in Ilulissat, Greenland. He was floored by the experience.

It wasn't the service that impressed Mr. Friedman, although by all accounts it was terrific, but rather some of the energy-saving technologies the hotel featured. Dimly lit hallways brightened when guests walked down them. Toilets had highly advanced and efficient flushing systems. Measures being taken by the hotel allow it to use 20 per cent less electricity, 25 per cent less energy for heating and 27 per cent less water per guest than most hotels in North America.

This at a place located 250 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

What Mr. Friedman found at the Hotel Arctic was representative of what he would discover throughout Denmark, which has become one of the most energy-smart countries in the world. But Denmark didn't become green in response to growing concerns over climate change or the soaring price of crude oil. No, it began its energy transformation more than 30 years ago, when the Arab oil embargo badly battered the Danish economy.

Never again, the Danes vowed. And off the country went to explore ways of solving its oil-dependency problem.

I mention this because I believe a similar transformation can occur here in Canada. In fact, if you look closely, it's already under way.

Away from the loud and often sad and petty debate that surrounds green-inspired measures such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems, local governments are quietly considering and implementing innovative approaches to meet their energy needs in the most environmentally friendly and cost-effective way possible.

In the municipality of Delta, where I live, council is considering producing its own electricity by installing solar panels atop many of its facilities. (Delta gets up to 25-per-cent more sunshine than other parts of Greater Vancouver.) The collected energy would be sent to a new power station, converted to electricity, and then sent back to light up many of the facilities and buildings within the district, including city hall.

It's an idea whose time has come.

Other municipalities in Greater Vancouver have been thinking along these lines for a while. A few years ago, the City of North Vancouver established Lonsdale Energy Corp., which provides power through a network of boiler mini-plants that circulate hot water through underground pipes to heat buildings connected to the system. It is an idea that is not only cost-effective but self-sustaining.

The City of Vancouver is doing its bit.

A new neighbourhood that is going up on the south side of False Creek - where the Olympic village will be for the 2010 Winter Games - will have an energy system that will be so efficient it will produce 50- to 65-per-cent fewer heating-related greenhouse gas emissions than it would if built using conventional methods.

Methane captured at the Vancouver landfill is being used to generate heat and electricity. The city's initiatives to promote alternatives to driving have resulted in a 180-per-cent increase in the number of bike trips since the late 1990s and a 20-per-cent increase in transit use, according to the city.

It may not seem like a lot in the grand scheme of things, but it is.

To break our dependence on oil, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to bring some sanity and reliability to energy costs, we need to think small, not big. By that I mean that thinking about how we're going to solve the world's energy problems can seem overwhelming and hopeless. But if we focus on solving problems in and around our own little patch of earth first, it will be a more satisfying, and ultimately more practical, way to go.

Call me an optimist - it wouldn't be the first time - but I think we in North America are going to find ways to beat our dependency on foreign oil once and for all. Brain power will ultimately produce new forms of electrical power that will fuel our cars and light our cities.

It won't be easy and it won't be without some pain along the way. (And it will certainly take some courageous political leadership.) But I believe it can and will be done.

Look at Demark. In 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo that sent the Danish economy into a historic tailspin, the tiny country got 99 per cent of its energy from the Middle East.

Today that is zero.



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