environmental performance indicators

Industry inspired to lead low carbon revolution

Renewable energy is at the heart of economist's vision for a new digital economy
Thursday, February 4, 2016
By Rebecca Melnyk

Industry leaders in sustainability gathered together on the outskirts of Toronto in January to share stories about their various initiatives, services and products, and also to learn how to motivate the building sector and push Canada into an energy and infrastructure revolution.

At Brookfield Global Integrated Solutions’ fourth annual An Inspired Future event, Gord Hicks, president of Brookfield, pepped the crowd with his talk on leveraging innovative sustainable technologies to bring economies to a new level of productivity.

“We should be investing in infrastructure that’s new technology infrastructure, not old technology infrastructure, so we can, in fact, shift that platform for companies to be successful and for companies to create jobs,” he said.

Jeremy Rifkin, American economist, political advisor and writer, and keynote speaker for the day, spoke about how the building industry is at the heart of an emerging general-purpose technology platform he calls the internet of things. The convergence of renewable energy and transportation logistics with communications intersect in a smart, interoperable system that sets the stage for a third industrial revolution. He also pointed out some promising technologies that can be found in our own backyard.

For instance, Mississauga-based company Hydrogenics, a leading developer and manufacturer of hydrogen generation technology and hydrogen fuel cell power modules, was just awarded almost $2 million in orders for fuel cell power modules by a U.S.-based developer of hydrogen powered forklifts. This is the largest hydro fuel cell installation to date.

With such innovation in mind, opportunities abound for Canadian-made technologies on a global scale. However, the future depends upon priorities.

“It isn’t about the money,” added Rifkin. “It’s where it’s being spent. We have to prioritize our infrastructure investment in Ontario, Canada, the U.S. (we’re doing it in Europe now) so that every region can lay down this digital infrastructure-communications-transport-energy-internet of things.”

The building industry plays a pivotal role in Rifkin’s internet of things vision of the future: sensors attached to the electricity grid, natural resources, transportation logistics and production lines, while also connected to offices, retail assets, vehicles and homes. Big data feeds into this internet of things global network, allowing more than seven billion people with cheap mobile technologies to connect using analytics and algorithms. This allows people to reduce their ecological footprint, share various products and services at zero marginal cost and increase their productivity.

Glen Murray, Ontario Minister of Environment and Climate Change, who was also in attendance, added that a new digital low carbon economy cannot happen through regulation, and that Ontario has money in banks and refineries to drive higher levels of innovation; however, priorities are often askew.

“Carbon pricing has to drive productivity and the mechanism by which it drives productivity is innovation,” he said. “We’re about to go through a $6 trillion expansion of the western economy and everyone is looking for capital. We’re the world banking centre for mining—85 per cent of mining deals are here. Why can’t we be into the low carbon revolution? We have to be proactive.”

Buildings play crucial role in low carbon future

The construction and real estate industry are big players in Rifkins’ vision to build out, and create wealth. How?

“Infrastructure rollouts is where you create jobs and prosperity,” he said. “We have to convert Canada’s energy grid from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable energy. That is a huge amount of labour activity because we have to take every single building in Canada and retrofit it.”

This results in millions of jobs from semi-skilled to professional. At the same time, society has to better understand what these buildings become.

“We think of buildings as places where you work and play. They now have another function,” he said. “Buildings are the nodes of the internet of things in the next industrial revolution.”

All nodes will connect in a smart way. Each building that is retrofitted becomes more efficient, then turned into a big data centre, with a micro power plant to generate energy, an electric charging station, etc. Intelligence, management of economic activity and transport logistics is distributed, and everyone is involved.

Yet, looming among this vision is the question of how to finance it. Rifkin says a plan across Ontario and Canada, certifying thousands of energy service companies through the construction and real estate industry is key. Retrofitted buildings would get low interest loans from the bank because the resulting energy efficiencies would allow for loans to be paid back. The real problem involves scaling entire areas at the same time.

Commercial and residential areas, including social housing, need to be scaled, rather than one building at a time. Meanwhile, each region has to be responsible: the business community, civil society and local government have to come together.

“This is the only plan I know that can maybe give us enough time to reverse climate change,” he notes. “We may be too late. I know it’s hard to hear that, but this is the only plan I know.”

Pragmatists are also strategists

Such visions may seem lofty to some, but translate into strategy for forward thinkers like Lorri Rowlandson, senior vice-president of strategic solutions at Brookfield, who outlined seven steps her company is employing to make a difference, while incorporating Rifkin’s big concepts into their portfolio.

Solutions for issues related to occupancy, management, waste, water, energy, geofencing, asset tracking and janitorial are publicly available online or will be available by the end of 2016.

For Rowlandson, occupancy is the “hottest topic in commercial real estate,” which has led to finding sensor-based solutions to right-size real estate assets and understand the true utilization of such assets.

“You can actually identify the true cost of vacancy,” she said. “It informs the next generation of mobility programs in a fact-based way. A lot of people have been involved in the first generation of mobility programs. How do you get to the second, third, fourth, while continuing to optimize with real data?”

Right-sizing is also related to waste in the way garbage is picked up at buildings. U-Pak is one technology company that helps facilitate pick-up only when bins are full. Brookfield is also right-sizing irrigation, with water becoming a global commodity.

Yet, what Rowlandson sees as the best way to deliver sustainable benefits and reduce cost is through energy. The company is using three ITO-based solutions: intelligent thermostats; retail sensors that control and manage ambient and HVAC systems to optimize cost; and real optimization through sensors that ensure hundreds of corrective adjustments throughout the day. Other areas, such as geofencing, asset tracking and janitorial, are also related to rightsizing and optimization.

Partnerships with business communities that are willing to manage change and embrace opportunity play a vital role in liberating innovation and mobilizing capital, Murray noted during his speech. And the change isn’t just about adapting to climate change, but rather “seizing the biggest economic opportunity in human history.”

This massive change requires transformative leadership, fearlessness and productivity, while changing a “risk adverse culture.”

As Rifkin said earlier, “technology is just an enabler; it’s consciousness that is key.”


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