Community Facilities from Carbon Reduction to Net Zero Medium

Getting Community Facilities from Carbon Reduction to Net Zero

By Jeff Christy and Patrick Armstrong

Like many countries, Canada is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Net zero buildings will play a big part in reaching this goal. Buildings account for 39 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon emissions and 13 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the target year, the federal government needs municipal leaders’ support. Municipalities own approximately 60 percent of all public infrastructure and play a critical role in driving climate change initiatives. Communities look to their local leaders for assurance about the future. They want to know that the decisions made now will ease environmental stressors and help ensure there is a positive climate legacy left for future generations.

At a grassroots level, sustainability is more than just a buzzword. People are reducing their carbon footprints by decreasing plastic waste, home builders are incorporating more sustainable materials and methods into new home construction, and private organizations are investing in clean energy technologies or carbon offset credits. However, municipalities are under pressure to lead wider-spread climate change initiatives and find ways to support community greening efforts. One of the ways municipalities can do this is by making community buildings more resilient, sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Getting community facilities to net zero

Getting your community facilities to net zero can be a challenge, but you don’t have to do it all at once. Taking small, intentional and strategic steps can help make net zero objectives more manageable. For example, you can make a bigger impact focusing on getting your existing portfolio 70 percent of the way to net zero compared to trying to bring each building up to a 100 percent net zero standard one at a time.

Canada’s 2050 goal is possible to achieve. Developing a step-by-step plan to tackle net zero goals now will help position your municipality for success. Some of the steps you can take to bring existing facilities up to a net zero standard include:

1) Investing in asset management

Before you can dive into net zero projects, it’s important to know the current state of your facilities. Assess your existing portfolio or invest in an asset management framework to collect data. Which facilities are the easiest to convert? Which assets are aging and require more care? How well are your assets performing? Which are the most energy efficient? Answering these questions and others will give you a clear idea of where you stand and how you might best approach your net zero goals.

2) Setting intermittent goals to achieve an end target

Approaching the net zero standard in smaller intermittent steps will make your greening goals more achievable. After taking stock of your existing assets and overall portfolio, you can develop a road map that sets intermittent goals to help reduce carbon emissions and ultimately get you to your net zero end target.

Start by looking at new or upcoming projects, as it’s typically more cost effective to incorporate energy reducing systems and materials in buildings before they are built. Additionally, portfolio reductions can be achieved by migration from aging assets. Identify the buildings that will be in operation the longest or those that currently release the most emissions. With this data you can put together a strategic plan that uniquely aligns your portfolio with the path you’ve chosen to achieve your net zero goals.

3) Understanding your portfolio parameters and planning accordingly

It's a common misconception that implementing net zero standards will automatically reduce operating costs. This isn’t necessarily the case. The road to net zero varies from building to building and province to province. In Ontario, the primary path to decarbonization is through the electrification of heating systems. The end goal for many Ontario building owners is to completely cut the gas line at the street. However, this isn’t a strategy that is applicable nationwide, and can also result in utility challenges for Ontario municipalities.

The way you transition existing facilities to meet your net zero goals is paramount. You need to upgrade systems in the correct order, or you could end up paying more than is necessary. For example, if you target a building’s HVAC system first and then proceed with envelope upgrades, the HVAC equipment will no longer be correctly sized, which can add to your operational and project costs, as well as the overall project scope. You’ll want to understand the state of your assets and what’s achievable so you can prepare a plan that suits your annual budget and overall goals.

Many asset owners will start their net zero process by taking on simple, cost-effective changes, like replacing fluorescent lights with LEDs. However, this leaves them with more complex tasks – such as replacing mechanical systems or updating the building envelope. Make sure you have a strategy for how you’re going to implement net zero systems. Where are you going to get funding or grants? Are you going to build your business case through valuation, resiliency, or reducing insurance costs? Once you’ve outlined your implementation plan and business case, look forward in your capital planning. Consider the lifecycle of your building systems and find a balance between more costly, complicated projects and those with a higher payoff.

4) Engaging your stakeholders and project team

Over the last 30 years, there’s been a technological revolution. We now have tools available at a price-point that makes complex changes possible. Up until the last decade or so, there was a push to connect building heating systems to natural gas, as it was the most efficient and cost-effective utility. The current desire to move away from fossil fuels and toward electrification might appear counter intuitive. While electricity remains more expensive, its environmental impact is far less hazardous – much like the shift to electric cars. This shift in thinking may baffle some and convincing stakeholders may take time; it will require many different perspectives or ideas on how to properly implement facility electrification.

Take the time to listen to your stakeholders’ opinions around net zero buildings and how you plan to achieve your goals. Having the support and buy-in of your stakeholders and project team will contribute significantly to the success of your project or program. Share the data you’ve collected as part of your asset management program, work with your stakeholders and project teams to identify a mutual end goal, figure out what the best approach is for you and your team, and develop a plan that is measurable and supported by all parties.

Although 2050 is decades away, balancing net zero goals with standard asset management and maintenance programs requires time for planning. In addition, natural disasters are increasing in frequency and severity, making it more important than ever to prioritize climate change and infrastructure resiliency initiatives.

Municipalities have a lot to manage, however taking actionable steps to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 is also a leadership opportunity. Revisit your asset management plan to see how you can reduce carbon emissions, upgrade your portfolio and build a more sustainable future for generations to come.

Need help developing your net zero action plan? E-mail to connect with one of our project experts.