NWEP Environmental Policy Forum

Tomorrow, the New Westminster Environmental Partners are trying a bold experiment in grassroots environmental policy development. I have been privy to some of the organizing, and have been asked to act as an MC and facilitator at the event. However, I have been amazed to watch other NWEP members put this thing together, and come up with, what I think, is a remarkable plan. 
The genesis of the idea is the upcoming (not yet officially begun!) election (even though it has not yet been called), and we already know who our local Candidates will be. The NWEP could get together in our group and come up with some policy ideas, raise holy hell about a specific issue or two, but how do we know we are representing how the Community really feels about an issue?
Was there some way we could poll the “environmentally engaged” populace and get ideas? Since our budget is too small to get Ipsos on the phone, one of our members had the idea for this forum.
The event is envisioned as an exercise in grassroots policy development, with the aim to encouraging lots of lively discussion and sharing of ideas. Fitting with the NWEP’s mission, the main theme will be “environmental sustainability”. However, the topics will be generated by the citizens who show up, not by the NWEP board.
Of course, we can anticipate what some if them will be (transportation, coal terminals, climate change?) but who knows what will come up in the early part of the event when we ask people to post their ideas and concerns?
After a short period or idea collection and a voting mechanism to choose the “hottest” topics, we will break the room up into several smaller groups. Each of the smaller groups will flesh out the idea at that station. Again, NWEP people will be there to help the conversation along, but it will be the participants doing the talking, and the NWEP will be doing the record keeping and note taking.
This will be the fun, dynamic part. I frankly have no idea where these conversations are going to go. I anticipate some topics (LNG comes to mind) will draw a wide breadth of opinions, and the goal will not be to argue and debate the merits of opposing positions, but to find the common ground – the essential underlying ideas or philosophies where agreement can be found (even if the details differ), or even where the real friction rests- the point where people cannot agree.
Either way, the discussion will no doubt create an interesting record of the community’s concerns, documentation of where the community conversation and the level of education that the community has on some of these (obviously controversial) topics.
The Candidates who have agreed to attend (listed in politically-neutral alphabetical order here: Hector Bremner, Judy Darcy, Paul Forseth and Terry Teather) will NOT be taking part in these discussions, but will instead be circulating around the room, eavesdropping, hearing the conversations, and no doubt taking notes. Because only after we do this community conversation and each group gives a very brief report out of the results of their conversation, will the Candidates be asked to comment on what they heard, what they know about the issue, what their feelings or their position is on that topic.
The hope here is that the candidates get to hear what the people are saying, then report back that they have heard the concerns of the citizens. In a perfect world, we would like to think that the candidate who is successful in May will take those ideas to Victoria, and be they in Government or Opposition, they can speak clearly with their community’s voice.
I was explaining this to a politico I ran into in town today, and he asked “why would candidates agree to show up just to listen? Can’t you give them more time to talk? ”
So to counter the cynicism of that mindset, I am glad to report we at the NWEP told the candidates what the format was, that their speaking part of the event was going to be relatively short and late in the event, but for the first hour, they were going to be listening, and all of the candidates agreed to attend. I think this speaks to the quality of local candidates we have.
So I am excited, if a little nervous. I honestly have no idea how this will turn out. If it goes great, we may have a new model that can be adopted for other policy areas (economic development? Education? Health Care?). If it goes less than great, we will at least create a written record of the conversation and have a better understanding of where the community stands on various environment and sustainability topics. As we all spend so much time in our own policy/political bubbles, staring inwards at our own ideas, we can all benefit from sharing ideas with the broader community, even if it means we have to hear ideas we don’t agree with. Actually, specifically because may hear ideas we don’t agree with.
Also, the event will be recorded by the good folks at NewWestTV, there may even be a webcast on the day of, (I have no idea if this is technically possible!). Also, the NWEP will collect the conversations and condense them into a document that will be published on our website before the election writ is dropped.
So , I hope to see you there! I’m a scientist by training, and some the funnest parts are when you don’t know what the results will be, but you just throw the switch and collect the data, and let the numbers fall where they will.What could possibly go wrong? 
Sapperton Pensioners Hall- 318 Kearey Street- Saturday, March 9, 1:00pm to 3:30 pm.

Digging Deeper

I love it when I agree with the people I am disagreeing with.

Chris Bryan, the Editor of the New West News Leader, is building a reputation for some compelling opinion pieces. This week, he definitely hit that mark with his column entitled “New Westminster’s traffic discussion must dig deeper” .  It is compelling because I can agree and disagree with almost every idea in the column.

The essential question (if Bryan will afford me the benefit of paraphrasing) is: “How long can New Westminster resist the paving over of our neighbourhoods to service the cities on our borders?”

My simple answer is as long as we are here. Because what is the alternative?

Yes, Surrey (pop 468,000) and Coquitlam (pop 126,000) would love it if New Westminster (pop 68,000) would get the hell out of the way and allow their residents to get from house to work or shops quicker. I would argue that is firmly in the category of “not our problem”.

Douglas Adams, in my second favorite piece of absurdist writing, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy discussed the idea of building freeways through people’s homes:

“Bypasses are devices that allow some people to dash from point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast. People living at point C, being a point directly in between, are often given to wonder what’s so great about point A that so many people from point B are so keen to get there, and what’s so great about point B that so many people from point A are so keen to get there. They often wish that people would just once and for all work out where the hell they wanted to be.”

This was just as relevant to Arthur Dent’s house and his planet, which were (spoiler alert) both destroyed to make way for bypasses, as it was to Jane Jacobs in Washington Square Park (spoiler alert) which she helped save along with the soul of Greenwich Village and New Westminster in 2013.

I’m not sure why we, in New Westminster, the first City in British Columbia, the former Capital of the Colony, and the original heart of the region, should give a rat’s ass what upstart suburbs like Coquitlam and Surrey need, now that they have built huge communities of sprawling auto-oriented neighbourhoods whose very economic survival relies on their expanding populace having an unfettered ability to drive through the New Westminster community – through our very neighbourhoods.

It isn’t our intractable resistance to plowing over our City that got them into this mess, it is their continued choice to develop on the assumption that we would eventually plow our City down to accommodate their needs.

Yes, The Strange Case of the Bailey Bridge is a great example of how New Westminster concerns itself with preserving its character and historic neighbourhoods instead of sacrificing everything we are to allow Coquitlam to build (to quote Chris Bryan) “a rapidly growing big-box retail area, and… the redevelopment of Fraser Mills into a residential community housing thousands of new drivers poorly served by transit.”

Perhaps a better example is the history of Braid Skytrain Station. Coquitlam was given the opportunity, back in the 1990s to have SkyTrain service to Maillardville. Fears of the “CrimeTrain” and density caused Coquitlam to resist rapid transit in their most historic neighbourhood, and the line and station were moved to more forward-thinking (and more historic) New Westminster.

By their own preference, Coquitlam instead got 8 lanes of Highway 1, and 6 horribly congested lanes of Lougheed Highway in Maillardville. They are now afraid that 7,500 people living in Fraser Mills will be the gigantic strawpile that breaks the back of their community. It may dump too many cars across their shiny new overpass into the traffic quagmire of their own (terrible) planning. A 4-lane Bailey Bridge and overpass looming over Sapperton will surely afford them some temporary relief, but only by pushing the traffic pinch point, idling pissed-off drivers and livability impacts a few hundred metres into New Westminster neighbourhoods.

These bad planning decisions were not made by New Westminster- in fact we were not even consulted on them. Why should we suddenly acquiesce to their unanticipated “needs”?

So Coquitlam is willing to finance the slow destruction of our 150-year-old City? Thanks, but no thanks. Their generous offer only makes us enablers.

Instead, New Westminster is taking the principled, responsible stand. We are leading the region in building a compact, transit-friendly, sustainable community. We are developing a Master Transportation Plan that builds on our current strength as the Municipality with the second-highest alternative transportation mode share in the Province (excuse the emphasis, but this is a pretty big point!). We are making it easier for people to live, work and shop in the same community. We are building mixed commercial-residential developments on SkyTrain lines. We are increasing density, and are taking risks building office space and investing in community amenities.

For those who must move across the region, we are making it easier to do so through transit, through cycling, through car-sharing. We are making genuine efforts to reduce our community’s load on Coquitlam and Surrey roads. The results are demonstrated in our region-leading alternative mode share, and we are aiming to do better!

So do we need to “dig deeper”? Hell yes. We all do. We are facing major growth, climate, and economic challenges. In New Westminster, that means we need to have cojones to say to our neighbours that their car-driving problems are a result of their poor planning, and we are terribly sorry, but you are not going to fill our community with pavement to solve them.

If Coquitlam wants to put 7,500 residents in Fraser Mills, they had better figure out a way to move them around that doesn’t include cars passing through Braid and Brunette.

If Surrey needs a billion dollars to expand rapid transit to serve their growing population, we will be the first to step up and advocate to senior governments on their behalf to get them the transit system of their dreams. But if they want to spend that billion dollars to expand a freeway bridge into the heart of our City, they will have a hell of a fight on their hands.

We are ready, Chris. We are ready to help the region move forward and fulfill its Regional Growth Strategy, its Regional Transportation Plans, its Sustainability Plans.

It may look to them like we are “dug in”, but we in New Westminster are actually leading. Maybe it is they who need to dig deeper.


With the Provincial election just around the corner… Oh, no wait, it is still months away despite an unofficial and unaccounted campaign that has been running for almost a year… the local candidates are lining up as expected. The four parties we can all name have New Westminster candidates that fit their party’s brands very well (depending on whether you agree with my rantings below, this is not necessarily a compliment), and then there’s the spectre of an independent candidate running.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I am a local candidate voter. I don’t belong to any Party. I have voted for candidates from pretty much every party, from the Reform Party of Canada to the Marijuana Party, but I don’t remember ever voting specifically for a Party in an election.

As a natural critic (some would say whiner), my political opinions have tended to veer to the political left when there is a more conservative government in office, and towards the political right when there are more progressive governments. Taking on-line opinion surveys meant to test “what party fits you best” tends to stick me right in he middle of the Green Party platform, but that is mostly because I think that shitting in our own nest is probably a bad idea.

When it comes to candidates, however, I want to meet the candidate. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the Westminster system of representative democracy is built on the idea that we, the constituents, select someone to represent our community’s interests at the Legislature, not a person to represent a Party in our community.

This is, of course, one of the bigger problems with the current Conservative Party of Canada, who have ramped up the Party-uber-alles philosophy of governance that so irritated Stephen Harper when the Liberals did it that he helped create a new Reform Party specifically to fight it. At this point, the most frustrating part is that Harper is so damn effective at being what he used to hate. Not a single Conservative MP can find even the slightest flaw in any piece of legislation the Party has created. So you end up with situations like local Conservative MPs explaining that closing a local Coast Guard base will make our coast safer instead of challenging their own party to make better choices for their constituents.

This situation has different effects during the election cycle. Last Federal Election, it was the curious case of the missing candidates. Why would a candidate in a riding where one Party has a significant majority bother to show up for all-candidates meetings? To hear the concerns of constituents? (pause for laughter). When the MPs role is to represent the Party to the riding, and the party platitudes platform is on the TeeVee, why bother showing up and risking saying something inappropriate? Why bother meeting your constituents? You might disappoint them!

I suggest the problem with Party Politics is the Party itself, and the power vested in the Party. The fact our current Federal Government refer to themselves (and force the Civil Service to refer to them) as “The Harper Government” more than the hopelessly old-school “Government of Canada”, shows that the Parties understand their Power, and are willing to put themselves, their name and brand, above that of the Country they are trusted to run.

So if the problem is the power of the Party, then maybe we should consider what the Party system gives us, and how we could do without it. Parties make voting “easier” for those not interested in learning who they are voting for. This is because they create a ready-built campaign machinery to keep the entrenched in power. Parties provide a central funding pool with which to purchase advertising to smear their opposition get their message out. They also make the first-past-the-post system so effective at giving a group with 37% of the popular vote an absolute majority to do what they like in Ottawa for 5 years.

Worse, the system results in too many people holding their noses while they vote for a person or a party they don’t necessarily like, because it is better than the alternative. This, more than anything else, is the reason so few people bother to vote anymore: there is increasingly little to vote for. In our hyper-cynical age, more people will show up to vote against something than will to vote for something. Parties leverage this cynicism and stoke it through negative advertising. (This is why I predict, even without the NDP investing in negative advertising, Premier McSparkles is her own negative ad, and there will be an increased turnout this Provincial election over the previous one).

So what is the alternative? Independents?

I would love to see a system where we only have independents – where the entire Party system and its funding mechanisms are abolished. Follow me for a bit here.

At election, we send 308 independent local representatives to Ottawa to sit in the House of Commons. Yes, many candidates will align on topics and form defacto parties around certain issues, but without the whip system and without the centralized funding mechanism, there will be no reason for an MP to not vote freely on a different issue. In the inevitable horse trading of votes in the House, the representative will only have to answer to their constituents. Not to a party, not to a leader, and certainly not to a mid-level political hack called a “whip”. The only thing that will influence their re-election chances is how well their community feels they were represented.

Many people smarter than me have mentioned how effective Elizabeth May is as an MP. There are several reasons for this: she is a student Parliamentary Democracy; she is damn smart; she works her ass off; and she is a true believer in Democracy as a Principle, and as a way to solve problems. However, much of her power is also a result of her unique position of being effectvely an independent who can still use the mechanisms built up to support the Party System.

So how to we break down the Party systems that separate us from representative democracy? We make Parties and their economic models illegal. At election time, everyone runs as an Independent, with only local funding and organization. When 308 independents are sent to Ottawa, their first job would be to select a Prime Minister, a deputy PM, and a Speaker. Those three then create a caucus, drawn from the MPs in the House and (this is not as shocking as you might think) unelected experts in various fields. Only elected MPs get a vote in the house, but every vote is a free vote, and the majority of the house can lose confidence in the Government Caucus only with a majority vote on a confidence motion.

Oh, there are problems with this idea. Some suggest lobbying and influence peddling would likely be more attractive, so strict controls would need to be introduced. However, with the current system in Ottawa, one needs only to lobby the PMO, and they will bring along 160 votes. A party-less system would make lobbying individual members a more daunting task, and can hardly make the lobbying situation worse than it is is today.

We would also have to do something about the current Parliamentary Retirement Castle and Party Fundraising Department we call the Senate. but that’s another blog post.

So I have a soft spot for independents. I am an engaged local voter, and like the idea that the person we send to Ottawa or Victoria represents our community there. I even agree with the premise that more Independents make for more effective governance.

Would I vote for an Independent for New Westminster in this upcoming Provincial election? Yes. Keeping in mind that that a candidate’s lack of Party affiliation is no more proof of their capability than their affiliation is. If that Independent was to convince me that they could effectively represent New Westminster, and would work their ass off to assure we are represented, them I could vote for them. But it is a tough job to be that effective in our current system – I’m not sure there are too many Elisabeth Mays to go around.

At this point, I am still a local candidate voter, regardless of whether they represent a Party or are independent. Either way, it should be a good election, as we have strongly motivated candidates.
Game on!

CEEPing along in New Westminster

It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him

I felt the same way the first time I read Catch-22.Yossarian is easily my favourite character in fiction. Part of a bomber crew in Europe during the dying days of WW2, he was surrounded by absurdity, and coped with it by trying to out-absurd his surroundings, and always failing. In contrast, his friend Milo Minderbinder fully embraced the absurdity around him, and found creative ways to profit from it. Milo was the mess officer who bought eggs for 7 cents each, sold them for 5 cents each, and made a clean profit of 1.5 cents per. It was quite the scheme.

That is the trick that Norm Connolly, the Community Energy Manager for the New Westminster, might need to pull off. His task, and this is typical of all CEMs in Municipalities across BC, is to find ways to reduce energy use in the community. Not the energy used by the City itself, but by the residents and businesses of the city.

The problem in New Westminster being that unlike most cities in BC, we have our own electrical utility. The Electrical Utility buys power from BC Hydro at wholesale rates, and sells it to residents and businesses at retail rates (which are the same as retail rates BC Hydro charges residents and businesses). The difference between the two pays for the hardware that runs the system, and (in recent history) makes a little extra money for City coffers. So if Connolly is successful and reduces the amount of energy used by the community, the Utility will sell less power, and make less money, transferring less to City coffers. So why is the City so interested in reducing energy use at all?

There was a report at Council last week on the City’s Community Energy and Emissions Plan (“CEEP”). The CEEP was passed in 2011, and set out the pathway to New Westminster in 2030: a City with 20,000 more residents, but using no more electricity than we do today, and producing 15% less greenhouse gases. I’m not sure the GHG goal is aggressive enough (see my recent tirade on coal), but it is an achievable goal without significant changes in our lifestyle. So it is an easy sell for those interested in re-election.

Last week’s Council report covered a few of the initiatives that are going to arrive in the City in the next few years, to head us on the path towards that goal:

I will talk about item #3, the development of District Energy Utilities, in a later post (short version: it is a great idea, and others are doing it well, but the there are devils in details!). The other two are subjects that came up in a recent NWEP Energy Group discussion. I am glad to see that the City is taking this approach, and might even sign my house up for the program!

Item #1, the Multi-unit residential retrofits, is challenging. The challenge will be in convincing Strata Councils that the gains over the long-term will be worth the short-term hassle and investment in building improvements. The ability for the City to offer incentives, backed by BC Hydro or Fortis, and finding the right test-bed building will be vital for making this work.

One of the systemic issues that we have in the Lower Mainland of BC is that we live in a mild climate- not too hot in the summer, not to cold in the winter, and we have a (somewhat unfair) reputation for lacking bright sunlight. As a result, we build buildings with less insulation and more windows than in other parts of the world. Then, because electricity is plentiful and cheap, we have lined the walls of these inefficient buildings with electrical baseboard heaters, usually on the outside walls under a bank of windows, where they have to overcome the inefficient wall system before they provide any useful heat to the rest of the unit. Because of this, there are many “quick wins” to be found in these buildings, especially many of our older multi-family building stock. In New Westminster, with more than 75% of our residential units being in low- or high-rise multi-family dwellings, this part of the program will be where most of our CEEP gains can be found.

This doesn’t speak of the future growth in the City, however. If we are going to put 20,000 more people in the City, we are going to be increasing the proportion of multi-family dwellings, so we are going to create a whole new stock of buildings. The full CEEP contains some steps in this direction, talking about LEED standards and such, but I wonder if simply banning electric baseboard heaters would be sufficient to reach efficiency goals? I’m not ever sure the City can ban them…

Item #2 is the one that excites me the most, as a detached-home owner. Providing municipal incentives for energy efficient home re-fits is not yet common (most programs have previously been run by major utilities or by senior governments), but is becoming more so (not coincidently as senior governments become front offices for energy companies and the larger programs dry up). There are several cities in BC that have implemented these type of incentive programs, not coincidently in historic cities like Rossland and Nelson, where there is a large stock of older homes with significant heritage value.

We have done a few energy fixes in our 1940 house (including replacing all of our windows a couple of years ago), but have been slow to introduce some other obvious energy-savers. It appears our roof insulation is good, but that in our walls may be upgradable. We have a relatively efficient (if slightly old) gas furnace and gas-fired water heater. Solar water heaters (we have an expansive south-facing roof) and/or an instant-heater for water (as a friend of mine recently installed) seem like great ideas, but the impetus to install is low, even with the potential savings on my gas bill.

However, for people with electrical heat and water systems, the City is still stuck in that same old bind: If we reduce energy use in the City, does the City really gain? Can BC Hydro provide incentives to the City that will offset the “profit” the City currently makes selling electricity? If we continue to peg our rates to BC Hydro retail rates, incentives from Hydro seem the only way we can still pad the City coffers while reducing overall use.

There are good reasons fro BC Hydro to provide those incentives. Wholesale purchasers in BC pay less for electricity than any other customers. The City pays way less for electricity than BC Hydro pays for IPP power from Darth Coleman’s Run-of-the-River contracts. We also pay less than Alberta and California customers, who need to choose between buying cheap power from us or burning hydrocarbons to make their own. Even in BC, we burn hydrocarbons (at Burrard Thermal) only when we have an “emergency” supply issue, thanks to the 2010 Clean Energy Act.

Reducing electricity energy use in BC reduces the need for BC Hydro and others to burn hydrocarbons for electricity, allows Hydro to sell more power to lucrative export markets, and ultimately reduces the need to major expansion of the Hydroelectric System, saving more valley bottoms for other uses… so BC Hydro has incentive to incentivize the City to incentivize the community to reduce energy. Hence the need for our CEEP, and the need for the community of New Westminster to sign up for these programs – at every step of the way, we will be saving money and reducing our impact. We can profit from making less money, like Milo the Mayor did with eggs.

In which Coal gets the best of me.

I have a sneaking suspicion I might be very bad at politics.

I just don’t see the issue with the coal terminal proposal in Surrey. Worse: I see a big issue with the coal terminal proposal in Surrey  but I don’t see that issue being meaningfully addressed in the current debate about the coal terminal proposal in Surrey, because I seem to care about the one issue few others seem to be concerned about.

For those who don’t leaf through the back pages of the Record or the NewsLeader, or don’t spend their evenings reading through reams of the reports attached to Council minutes (…which makes me curious about why such a person would be reading this… ehrm… Hi Mom!), the story thus far is thus:

Right across the river from New Westminster are Fraser Surrey Docks, you can see the ships and large blue cranes operating from the Quayside boardwalk. They move containers, logs, bulk agricultural products, steel, and assorted cargo on and off of boats and on and off of trucks and trains. Now they want to move coal off of trains onto barges. And apparently, some people are concerned about this for a variety of wrong reasons.

There is a lot of info about this proposed operation available here , including maps, diagrams, and the answers to most of the questions you might have. This will not be a situation like the Delta Port or Neptune Terminals in North Van, where there are large piles of coal being shuffled around. The plan is to move the coal directly from the trains to the barge, and ship it to a deep-sea transfer facility up on Texada Island, then to China. The on-site stockpile will (it appears) be small, and be under one of those big plastic Quonset hut style shelters.

From the looks of the Council Report and the newspaper stories, the local and regional concerns can be summed up as: the health effects of coal dust; increased diesel emissions from boats and trains; the risk related to coal spills into the river; and the general noise and view impacts for Quayside residents.

Most of these issues seem well addressed by the application. The plan is to do all the coal movement with covered conveyors and to use dust abatement measures that are industry practice in urbanized areas. These measures are notably more stringent than those currently used for the bulk agricultural products they move now- that yellow dust sometimes visible from the New West side of the river. Also, this new coal transfer activity will take place at the west end of the terminal, more across from the gi-normous Annacis Island Car Terminal where they unload thousands of cars from those gi-normous car carrier ships than across from the Quayside. The barges, during loading, will be more than 2 km downstream from the Quayside residents who have expressed the most vocal alarm about the project.

The risk of significant spill from the dock or the barges is small, but obviously not nil. That said, compared to moving many other cargoes (especially liquid fuels), coal is relatively stable and fairly easy to contain and clean up in the event of a spill. It would be a very bad day for the salmon in the river if that happened, no doubt, so there is some area to explore here for the local municipalities and agencies like FREMP, clearly an area for more discussion.

The elephant in the room, however, is hardly mentioned in these discussions. According to the Council Report, this coal facility is being planned to move up to 8 Million Tonnes of coal a year that (when burned) will generate about 48 Million Tonnes of CO2 annually. To put this in perspective the same Council meeting had a presentation on the City’s Community Energy and Emission Plan, which would see New Westminster’s 82,000 residents in the year 2030 producing less that 240,000 Tonnes of CO2 annually.

Not to put too fine a point on it: if both of these plans see the light of day this single port terminal will be directly responsible for 200 times the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire community of New Westminster!

So all of our energy conservation actions in the City, all of our appropriate, responsible, intelligent changes we are taking in the City – the sacrifices we are facing, investments we are making, even a few hard choices we may need to take, for all the right economic, ethical, and environmental reasons, will be meaningless in light of the impacts of that coal terminal.

This all arrived at the same time that this month’s Walrus Magazine arrived in my mailbox, with a remarkable piece written by New Westminster’s own Dr. Marc Jaccard that talks about his personal arc from academic to IPCC member to policy adviser to Stephen Harper’s minority government to Nobel Prize winner to being placed in the back of a paddy wagon by the RCMP for protesting the movement of coal through Canada’s ports. It is a great read, as Dr. Jaccard asks himself (and causes us to ask ourselves) what he was doing about the single most important environmental issue of our generation.  This from a guy who has dedicated his life to studying the problem, understanding the science and the economics, and bent the ear of some of the most powerful people in the world. Yet in the end, he felt he was not doing enough, and direct action was the only way he was going to be able to live with himself, or answer to his grandchildren for what we are doing now.

Yeah, I am contradicting myself again. I recently complained that unsustainable shark harvesting as not really being a City issue. This is not strictly a municipal issue, and the Port seems to think the “big issue” of Climate Change impacts is not even Port jurisdiction. This issue, I think, its too important for every single jurisdiction to not take it on. A 450ppm world will not be comfortable for those people living on the Quayside.

The Port is wrong. They are profiting in the trade of a commodity that is causing global catastrophe  It is killing people, and they are part of that supply chain that supports that. For them to say “Hey, we just move the stuff, not up to us to question what we move – none of our business!” is morally bankrupt. We don’t burn Coal in BC, for good reasons, but we are comfortable exporting it to places that do. How is this different than our unethical asbestos trade?

Much more than a few people concerned about how the noise of an operating port 2 km from their waterfront home will impact their property values, I think we need to be asking ourselves why we are supporting the rapid extraction and combustion of coal in the year 2012? And if burning that coal is OK with us, if folks profiting from its burning is OK with us, if the biggest concerns we have about this is the noise of distant conveyors or dust on the horizon, why the fuck are we even bothering with a Community Energy and Emission Plan!?

Sorry for the potty mouth, Mom, but it had to be said.

On the trash fires of our future.

The expansion of Waste-to-Energy plants is creeping back into the news again, and people in New Westminster had better pay attention. I almost forgot all about it, but yesterday I got a letter in the mail from MetroVancouver telling me about the ongoing selection process for new garbage burners:

This is probably because I was involved actively in the long drawn-out public engagement process for Metro Vancouver’s Integrated Solid Waste Resource Management Plan, where the public across the region were vocally opposed to increased trash incineration. MetroVancouver nonetheless barged ahead, and got the plan through the Minister of Environment with waste-to-energy a major component in the plan.

Notably, it took a change in Provincial Ministers of Environment to get it through. The folks in the Fraser Valley are strongly opposed to those of us upwind burning our trash and dumping the air pollution into their air quality index, and the ever-awesome Barry Penner couldn’t sign off on the plan for fear of pitchforks at his Chilliwack office. So when Terry Lake (who, as best I can tell, is a smart, well considered guy – one of the few very bright lights in the current BC Liberal caucus) took over the Environment file, he was far enough removed from the Valley to sign it off.

During the earlier consultations, and pretty much ever since whenever anyone is unwise enough to ask me, I have made my position on Trash Incinerators very clear: they are an unsustainable way to manage solid waste, and an unsustainable way to generate electricity. Importing hydrocarbons from China to burn for electricity is no different if those hydrocarbons are in the form of coal or in the form of plastic bits that happened to have travelled through a WalMart before we burn them. The atmosphere can’t see the difference: fossil carbon is fossil carbon. This shouldn’t be a NIMBY issue- I don’t want a trash incinerator in New Westminster, and I don’t want one in Surrey, or Langley or Gold River.

However, not all WTE plants are trash incinerators. There is one operation currently ramping up just across the river in Richmond that is a better example of how we can more sustainably manage a large portion of our waste stream. The system is just starting to come on-stream, but represents what is (in my opinion) a much more sustainable path for WTE.

Harvest Power takes the organic wastes that people across the Lower Mainland put into our curb-side “green bins”, plus a fair amount of commercial food waste, and turns it into electrical power. This is a multi-step process:

  • Organic wastes are ground up to reduce size of the stinky bits; 
  • The resultant muck is placed in percolator cells, where warm water is dripped through in a low-oxygen setting, drawing a hydrocarbon-rich “tea” out the bottom;
  • After about 10 days, the volume of solids in the percolator cells are significantly reduced and the decomposition slows right down, so these solids can be mixed with woody waste and sand to make a rich organic compost for farms, gardens, municipal lands;.
  • The “tea” is directed to digester vessels, where specialized bacteria is used to further decompose the tea of longer-chain hydrocarbons down to methane;
  • The methane can then be burned to spin a turbine and create electricity;
  • The resultant by-products are the biosolids in the compost, CO2 from the burnt methane, and water vapour.

There are several ways this differs from the Burnaby Trash Incinerator. The most significant difference is that the carbon going into the system is biospheric carbon- that is carbon that has been very recently removed from the atmosphere and trapped in organic compounds by plants, and not fossil carbon. So no plastics or fossil carbon are going through this process. The CO2 emissions are 100% non-fossil fuel.

A second bonus of this process is that it relies on the separation of plastics from organics. This should be the first goal of any modern Solid Waste plan, because plastics are generally recyclable unless they are too contaminated with organics. Even for the plastics we cannot recycle, landfilling is much more sustainable and safe if the putrescible wastes and liquids are removed before burying the wastes. Dry, clean plastic going into a landfill will remain stable for centuries- it won’t leach metals, it won’t generate methane or nasty volatiles, it actually represents the only proven, demonstrable, and practical form of long-term carbon sequestration that engineering has yet provided to us.

However, to make landfills effective carbon sinks, we need to get the greasy, wet, “stinky” organics out of the landfill. They make the landfill less sustainable, and cause otherwise stable plastics to break down into less inert materials. That there are better things to be done with organics that do not involve the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels is really just a bonus.

Unfortunately, much of the discussion of waste-to-energy that Metro is running these days is less public than the Integrated Solid Waste Resource Management Plan was (despite the letter I got in the mail). The media reports are also unclear, as demonstrated in these two quotes came from the same story I linked to above:

“Ross said a key question is whether a new incinerator is built in Metro Vancouver or at an out-of-region site.”


“Meanwhile, Metro is currently calling for prospective partners to table their credentials and what type of waste-to-energy technology they’d use.”

So is the debate currently only “location of an incinerator”, or are other technologies aside from incinerators being considered?

I sure hope it is the latter, because that will make the difference whether many of us will support WTE in our community, or even the idea of shipping our waste to other communities to be made into energy.

Smart Meters & dumb stuff…

As a student of science, I am familiar with the Observer Effect in physics. It says that one cannot measure a phenomenon without affecting it, since measurement alone relies on interacting with what you try to measure. In most physical process this is not really a very big problem, as the impact of interaction with the measured phenomenon is usually orders of magnitude smaller than the precision of the measuring tool. So the energy drawn from a swimming pool by the mercury thermometer used to measure it is not zero, but it is so small that it does not have a meaningful effect on the reading. However, at the nano-scale (or in the quantum realm), this can end up being very important: to measure the location of an electron, it must interact with a photon, an interaction that fundamentally changes the properties of the electron being measured.

Apparently, it is also important when it comes to measuring household energy use in BC. Not even the monumental Site C Dam project or the never-ending IPP/Run-of-the-River fiasco have caused as many headaches to BC Hydro as the Smart Meter Program. But what does it mean for New Westminster?

A non-smart meter in the middle of the woods, a hassle to read that
I’m sure BC Hydro would rather avoid (Courtesy Lac Tigre Broom Farms)

BC Hydro had to replace their old analogue mechanical meters, and so does New Westminster at some point in the next year or two. This all goes back (believe it or not) to changes at the federal government level. The electrical meter on the side of your house is a measuring instrument used for trade, and therefore is its subject to federal laws regarding their accuracy. Just like the tag at the gas pump that indicates the last time the pump was calibrated, the meter on your house must be demonstrably accurate.

Now, an electrical meter is a pretty high-precision instrument, and is generally operated by a government agency, so the standards for assuring accuracy are not quite as onerous as the gas pump at Ed’s Gas or the weight scale at Thrifty Foods. Instead of testing every single meter on every single house, the Federal Agency “Measurement Canada” has a randomized verification system. Every so often Measurement Canada requests that some number (around 2 dozen) of the New Westminster Electrical Utility’s meters be sent to Ottawa to assure they are accurate and precise. To assure the selection is random, the agency request specific meters from the long list of serial numbers that they have on file for New Westminster Electrical Utility. The Utility then goes to those houses or businesses, pulls the meter off the wall (replacing it with a spare), and ships it to Ottawa. If those all pass the precision tests, the City gets a pass. If one or more are outside of acceptable limits, then a larger cohort is sent to Ottawa to see if the issue is systematic or a one-off. In theory, if enough are off, the Feds will come and test all of the meters or force the Utility to replace them all.

The problem arising right now is that Measurement Canada will no longer be supporting the older mechanical meters. They are getting out of the business of testing old technology, and will only test the newer digital devices in the future. So if New Westminster still wants to sell electricity, they may be forced to update their meters.

A typical old-school New Westminster meter

Note –the old meters still work! Yes, some wear out, and some need occasional repair, but the current meters have a very long service life (being well-built mechanical devices dealing with very light loads), and it has been suggested that with regular maintenance they could easily service us for another 50 years. However, the federal regulations are changing, forcing the utility to replace them. So they are going to the junk pile, operational or not.

The City’s Electrical utility and City Council have stated several times that the much-maligned Corix-installed Wireless Smart Meter chosen by BC Hydro is only one of several options available to them. The new meter will no doubt be digital, but pretty much everything else about it is up in the air. Will it continue to be read by humans going door-to-door? Will it wirelessly transmit data via some sort of SCADA setup? Will it transmit data automatically over attached wires?

These will no doubt be part of a complicated cost/benefit discussion in the City, and it appears there is going to be a public component to this discussion. At a recent NWEP Energy Group meeting, some of these issues came up, and if that small group is any sign- this will be a spirited discussion. Here are some of the points from my viewpoint (and, I hasten to add, many of these opinions were not shared by some other NWEP members – some even hold almost-opposite opinions, which makes me think the larger public discussion with be a compelling one!)

• Wireless Smart Meters don’t cause cancer, lupus, chronic fatigue, scabies, Alzheimer ’s disease, ADHD, autism, or any of the other thousands of afflictions allegedly linked to them. Magda Havas is a terrible scientist, and should be held accountable for stoking irrational public fears. The non-effect of daily exposure to low levels of non-ionizing radiation is not controversial in science community, nor are the alleged links to a myriad of conditions novel or untested to science. There is a significant body of science going back more than 100 years assessing the impacts of human exposure to non-ionizing radiation, including ubiquitous man-made radio waves, and even more ubiquitous solar radiation in the same frequency bands.

• There are significant advantages to developing a “smarter grid” for electrical distribution. Leakages from the system and electricity theft become much easier to detect and eliminate, disaster response and emergency planning are improved. Whether these advantages rely on real-time monitoring through wired or wireless systems should be a determinant if we adopt those technologies;

• The ability to track electricity use in real time provides the ability for people to be more conservative with electricity use in their everyday life. Arming consumers with more information about their purchases should be a good thing! Consumers generally do not want to waste their money, and when given the tools to easily make changes to save electricity, they will usually adopt them. So let’s give them the tools.I would love a meter smart enough that I can collect analytic info off of it to tell me how I use my power. This should be an option available to users, as it will incentivize conservation;

• Any new meter system should accommodate homeowner co-generation. We have a City full of south-facing roofs that may someday include photovoltaic systems, we may have district energy systems or backyard turbine systems. In the next generation, we may find some of our businesses (especially in light industrial areas) may be producing surplus energy they would like to sell back to the grid. If time-of-day pricing is adopted by BC Hydro, then there will be a market for decentralized energy storage and re-distribution. We need to start preparing for this future now.

It has been noted that New Westminster is lucky. In having our own utility, we have the ability to make our own decisions about this, and it seems the Utility and Council are happy to include the public in that discussion. We don’t have to deal with Darth Coleman, and his seemingly random and disjointed decision making about a project that is being administered by a Crown Corporation that is (in theory) supposed to be operated at arms-length from Government.

It is no-where as much as the Smart Meter program where Darth Coleman’s ability to muck about in things that would just be better if he stayed out of the story. At one point not three days ago, he was insisting that BC Hydro will force everyone to install a Smart Meter once their re-education is complete. As of yesterday, Darth seems to have changed his stance, saying that they will not force Smart Meters on those customers that hold out, or they will wait until after the election, or something- it is pretty unclear right now. At least this is a place where the BC NDP have been clear: they will turn the mess over to the BC Utilities Commission, who is should be in a better position to make a decision for the long term good of the Utility than a soon-to-be-in-opposition bully from Langley.

As it stands, we can throw the final implementation of the Smart Grid across BC onto the growing pile of landmines that the current government has laid in the path of the poor bastards who win the May Election, along with BC Hydro deferred debt, unsustainable BC Hydro Rates, the Falcon Gate fiasco, unrealistic traffic projections for Port Mann tolls, the ongoing TransLink budget crisis, the potential shuttering of AirCare, ongoing structural deficits, the long-delayed update of the Water Act, the collapse of the BC timber supply, etc., etc.

If there is a single piece of evidence that even the BC Liberals know they are headed for the political wilderness, it is the path they are laying for the province in the year to come. They would be crazy to want to win the election…

We also have to remember that we in New Westminster are not immune to the effects of BC Hydro mis-overlording. We buy all of our electricity from BC Hydro, so just as Hydro rates are sure to skyrocket over the next 5 years when the offset debt, smart meter bills, Ministerial interference in the Utility Commission’s work, IPP contracts, and Site C shit all hit their collective fans, New Westminster rates will surely follow. I hope I have a meter smart enough to help me find the savings in my household electricity bill by then.

The Return of Green Drinks

Sorry I haven’t rapped at ya recently, but I have been busy. Work is crazy, a few volunteer things are coming to a head right now, spent a few days trapped outside of New Westminster, attended a massively fun Pecha Kucha event, and am generally enjoying the hell out of life.

I do want to make a quick point, though: GreenDrinks is coming back to New Westminster!

For those out of the loop, GreenDrinks is an international local event. The idea is that people interested in Environmental and Sustainability issues get together once a month or so, and have a casual social and networking event. There isn’t an agenda, there isn’t a formal meeting, or any real formal structure: the idea is to just bring people together and see what arises!

Although lacking that formal structure, this isn’t completely anarchy. GreenDrinks is part of a great international tradition. There are GreenDrinks events everywhere from Argentina to Vietnam, from Perth to Vancouver. All are related in name, spirit, and “The Code”.

It is sometimes amazing what arises. Many of the things the NWEP have done in the past have grown from tossed-around ideas at GreenDrinks, and new friendships and partnerships have grown from these events. For a variety of reasons, monthly GreenDrinks stopped in New West a little more than a year ago, but a crew of people have stepped up to get the event operating again, and the first draft (so to speak) is next week!

There is no charge, no stress, all we ask is that you are willing to get into a conversation, meet someone new, bring your ideas and opinions, and bring a sense of humour. We’ll put name tags on you to make introductions easy, and we will have a conversation starter around the break any ice that might develop. People will start arriving around 6:30, and it will continue until the last person leaves (but hey, it’s a school night – so don’t wait until midnight, you might miss the best stuff!)

New West has the perfect location: the Back Room at The Heritage Grill allows semi-privacy, a great menu, drinks for those who would like them, while being open and inviting to people who don’t want to drink (or are not yet 19 – it is a Restaurant, not a Pub!). Oh, and cool tunes out front later in the night.

So if you need an excuse to be social, are interested in environment and sustainability issues, or think you might have an idea that people should hear about, come by GreenDrinks. Who knows what will develop?

What about the Utilities?

I started posting about municipal taxes a few weeks ago. An astute #newwest hashtagger on Twitter, apparently finding me inadequately critical of local tax rates, suggested that once utilities were included, I would find New Westminsterites pay way more than nearly anyone.

“@NWimby Do a comparison with fees for sewer, water and garbage added to property tax and you’ll get a different answer.”

To which I suggested:

“@redacted go for it! Love to see you do that!”

To which the commenter retorted:

“@NWimby It has already been done. NW is 2nd highest behind Maple Ridge but NW is 6squ. Miles and Maple Ridge is 103squ. Mile”

Since no actual data was proffered, I decided to do the analysis myself. Luckily, I had a few hours in an airport with WiFi to do the digging through City websites. The results were interesting, for me at least. For the rest of you, come back next week, I’ll rant about skateboards or bridges or something.

Much like Mil rates, it is sometimes tough to compare between municipalities, as different jurisdictions handle their utility accounts differently. I did my best to compare apple to apples.

Water utility rates are difficult to compare because some cities have water meters for residential users, some don’t, and for some meters are optional. Even the metered cities usually have a flat service charge with a metered rate on top. So to compare the typical annual water bill, I assumed that the house used the average amount of water for metered Canadian households, which is 25 cubic metres per month.

Sewer rates are also sometimes tied to metered water use, and in that case I made the same assumption about typical water use volume. Some cities have extra “drainage” levies or charges to deal with storm water costs, some include it in their sewer bill. I have added all sewer and storm drainage charges, metered or not, into the singe sewerage charge.

Garbage and recycling was the hardest to compare, as every city offers different services. Some have organics collection, some blue box, some co-mingled recycling. Some charge a lot less for “small” containers and really ding the big container users, others have less difference. So for the purposes of comparison, I assumed everyone used a 120L trash, green waste (if available) and blue bin.

I did the best I could collecting all of this data together (and if you find a flaw, please let me know!) I found nothing on-line for Pitt Meadows, and didn’t care to dig too much further. I am suspicious of Burnaby numbers, but that doesn’t affect my analysis too much. This table shows the “typical” household utility bill, per year, for each municipality:

Click to enlarge

Again, we see New Westminster is somewhere in the middle, 6th of the 14 municipalities for which I could find data. Our water rates are lower than most, our sewer rates higher than most, and our trash/recycling about typical.

So what happens when we add this to the annual tax bill for the typical detached home? This is what happens:

click to enlarge

New Westminster ends up right in the middle, 7th of 14 municipalities with utility data available.Maple Ridge isn’t the only Municipality more expensive than New West, as suggested by my Twitter friend – it is actually a relative bargain (except, of course, you are stuck in Maple Ridge).


At a party this weekend, I was chatting up a striking lady (no worry, Ms.NWimby was right beside me), and I mentioned my interest in local transportation issues. She then started to complain about trains. This is not unusual in mixed company in New Westminster: she was sick and tired of the long whistles, the loud whistles, the middle of the night whistles. Why didn’t New Westminster do something about it?

At this point, I usually repart that there is an issue with jurisdictions: in Canada we have Local Government, who are below the Provincial Government, who are under the Federal Government, who are superseded by the Jedi Council. The Jedis answer to the Railways.

But this post isn’t about the railways, it’s about jurisdictions.

There has been a bit of chatter recently around homeless shelters, and the point that New Westminster has them, Burnaby doesn’t. Chris Bryan at the NewsLeaders (Burnaby and New Westminster) has called Burnaby out on the issue several times.

However, Burnaby’s Mayor Corrigan is resolute: homelessness is not the municipality’s jurisdiction, it is up to Senior Governments to provide these services. If the Province and Feds don’t deal with the issue, that is no business of his, and certainly not something he wants impacting his Property Tax rates! New Westminster’s Mayor Wright is just as resolute: it is the Senior Government’s responsibility, but if they drop the ball, the City cannot just sit and watch people die on the streets. So for both of them it is a matter of principle.

For me, it is pretty easy to see who is on the higher moral ground, and where the leadership is.

I gave New Westminster Council the gears a little more than a month ago over the Shark Fin Soup Ban. It was, in some ways, a similar issue (and no, I am not comparing homeless people to fish). The subject is well outside of Municipal jurisdiction, and contains a moral question that might compel action, real or symbolic, regardless of that jurisdictional nuance. However, unlike the Shark Fin Soup issue, the action taken by New Westminster on homelessness is not a symbolic one, but directly helps people living right here in our community, and comes with a real cost to New Westminster taxpayers. It might even be unpopular with some of the more, um, “frugal” taxpayers in the City. There is a potential political cost to making that decision, and it therefore requires some leadership.

There is a recent parallel issue where Mayors Corrigan and Wright apparently agreed: the supplemental funding of TransLink. Here they both agreed that no more municipal money was going to be used to maintain and grow the regional transportation system, and that new funding had to come from some Senior Government master plan. This despite the fact that they represent two of the Cities that benefit the most from TransLink operations and will be impacted the most bythrough-traffic increases that will undoubtedly results as TransLink is choked off from being able to provide better service to peripheral areas. So here the choice to not do what the senior governments should (in your opinion) be doing saves money for local taxpayers money, but costs your citizens and the region in livability. Tough choice.

I don’t want to live in a community where people freeze to death on the street for need of a safe place to sleep, and I am not the least bit concerned that some small portion of my property taxes go to providing basic emergency shelter needs. I wish we had a Provincial strategy to deal with homelessness and our social services were funded adequately by both senior levels of government so we don’t have homeless. I would even offer that my portion of the F-35 money would be better spent on this. But all the wishes I make are not going to help if no government shows leadership and steps in to deal with the problems. I could be talking homelessness or TransLink right now.

What I can’t countenance is Mayor Corrigan sitting on his hands and refusing to invest even a small portion of City land or any local resources to help homeless people in his City, and hiding behind jurisdictional issues. He may feel like he is on high moral ground on this issue, but I don’t see any leadership coming from up there.