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Vancouver plans to go 100% renewable. I asked the city’s manager about the challenges it faces.

Downtown Vancouver, from the air.

In 2015, Vancouver, British Columbia, officially adopted the goal of powering itself entirely with clean energy by 2050.

That’s a bigger deal than it might sound. Plenty of North American cities have committed to getting all their electricity from clean sources within a few decades. But when it comes to decarbonization, electricity is the easy part. (Okay, maybe not easy, but easier.)

Vancouver has resolved to get all its energy, not just electricity, from renewable sources.

The city’s electricity is already 98 percent carbon-free anyway. It comes from hydroelectric dams, via the province’s primary utility, BC Hydro. So the big problems over the next 35 years will be eliminating natural gas for heating and gasoline for transportation, two of the thorniest decarbonization challenges.

sadhu johnston (CityStudio)

Sadhu Johnston.

Sadhu Johnston helped develop and implement Vancouver’s pathbreaking Greenest City Plan over seven years of work as deputy city manager (during which he also co-authored a book called The Guide to Greening Cities). He was deputy chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley — and Chicago’s chief environmental officer, the first such position created in city government in the US — when Vancouver recruited him in 2009. Now, as of earlier this year, he is city manager, overseeing the whole enchilada.

I spoke with him in 2016 on Cortes Island in BC, where our discussion ranged widely over Vancouver’s challenges. I’ve organized it into roughly five sections: heating and buildings, cars and trucks, density, bikes, and larger social challenges. (Definitely read the final section, even if you skip the rest.) I’ve also edited for length and clarity.

David Roberts: You’re aiming to power Vancouver with 100 percent clean energy by 2050. How are you doing so far?

Sadhu Johnston: We're about 37 to 38 percent renewably powered now in Vancouver, largely because of [clean electricity from] BC Hydro.

From 1990 to 2015, we've increased our population by about 30 percent and jobs by about 30 percent and decreased carbon [emissions] by about 15 percent. We're currently at about 4 tons per person [annual carbon emissions], which is the lowest that we know of in any city in North America.

[We achieved that with] a combination of hydro and being a small city that you can walk and bike around, where you can live in dense, urban, compact communities. We just achieved 10 percent bike commuting — first city in North America to do that.

The Vancouver skyline.
The Vancouver skyline.
(Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Challenge 1: heating buildings without natural gas

DR: What are you doing about natural gas?

SJ: A lot of the heating load right now is natural gas, so we're trying to focus on district energy systems that use renewable heating sources.

We built one system that we own and operate ourselves, which uses sewer heat. We’ve got a big sewer main that comes out of downtown. You run your dishwasher or you take a shower and there’s a lot of hot water in the sewer water. Just like you take the heat out of the earth with geothermal, you can take the heat out of the sewer water with heat exchangers. So we built a pretty massive set of heat exchangers that divert sewer water and take the heat out of it and convert it to hot water and run that through a series of pipes in the ground; that heats an entire neighborhood in the city.

DR: Did you retrofit that system to that neighborhood, or were those buildings built around it?

SJ: They’re new build. If you're building in that area, we require that you hydronically heat.

The developers don't have to have their own heat plant, so they save money on a boiler room — the square footage of that, the equipment. We run all of the heat exchangers, and they plug their building into it.

That was our first dabbling in district energy — doing it ourselves. We’ve mandated now that any larger development in the city must build a district energy system. Then they can tap out and others can plug into it.

The largest user of fossil fuels in our city is the central heat plant. They burn natural gas to produce steam, and they heat 200 buildings downtown on a loop. It's a steam-based system, and you can't really replace a steam-based system without burning something. So we put out an RFP, and we are now working with the new owners to convert their system to biomass.

DR: What kind of biomass do you use? Are you counting it as carbon-free?

SJ: We are, yeah. We created guidelines a number of years ago that stipulate the criteria by which we would consider something renewable. We consider wood to be [renewable] if it comes from urban wood waste; it can’t be from a virgin wood source. And it has to be from within the city. So we’ve banned all clean wood from entering the landfill, and that’s creating a supply of wood waste that can be used. That was our way of making sure you're not cutting down a forest to heat a neighborhood.

DR: What about building codes? Do you use LEED for new buildings?

SJ: We’ve relied pretty heavily over the years on LEED, but more recently we’ve been transitioning away. What we’ve realized is that we don’t really need LEED to get us most of the things we want.

For quite a long time, we’ve been building these aggressive energy requirements into our code, but they’re not actually performance-based for what we’re trying to achieve, which is low carbon. So now we’re transitioning to a performance-based thermal code, rather than being prescriptive. We’ll build into the code requirements, you know, X tons [of carbon emissions] per square foot per year. Then you achieve it the way you want to achieve it.

Challenge 2: cars and trucks

DR: Let’s talk vehicles. Is the idea to switch out all the cars for electric cars?

SJ: With light-duty vehicles, electric is a cleaner path. We have excess low-carbon electricity that could be used for them.

But we’ve got a port, so there’s a ton of heavy-duty [vehicles] that way. We’ve got garbage trucks … I mean, there’s a lot of demand for bigger vehicles that can’t go electric based on today’s technology. Heavy-duty vehicles are a huge mind bender for us.

So in our 100 percent renewable plan, we said, on heavy-duty vehicles: We just don’t know yet.

Vancouver’s port.
Vancouver’s port.

DR: Yeah, the whole world has put a big TBD on that. What are you doing to get people out of cars?

SJ: What we are finding is that people — particularly younger generations — just don’t want to be in a car. It’s not the mode they’re into. So bike numbers are skyrocketing for us. Every separated bike lane we build, it’s over capacity; every new transit line we add, it’s over capacity. We’re finding that people are pretty interested in alternatives.

There definitely are some interested in staying in their cars, and there’s this perception that there is a war on cars.

Since the 1990s, we’ve seen a 75 percent increase in the number of people living downtown. We’ve seen a 25 percent increase in the number of people coming into downtown on a daily basis, but a 15 percent decrease in the number of people driving into downtown daily. And still people complain about congestion.

What we’ve said is: Our population is growing quickly, and we want to accommodate all new growth in alternatives. We want to keep car numbers pretty much the same.

If you’re driving your car now, that’s fine. Keep driving. We’d like you to drive an electric car, but keep driving if that’s what you need to do. By us taking the measures that we’re taking, we’re reducing congestion.

Cyclists in downtown Vancouver, keeping cars off the road.
Cyclists in downtown Vancouver, keeping cars off the road.

Challenge 3: density

DR: In Seattle, where I live, I’ve always found a disconnect between the big talk on climate change and carbon on one hand, and actual attempts to densify and get people out of cars on the other. Many Seattle liberals enthusiastically support the former but balk at the latter. Is the density conversation seen as part of the carbon conversation in Vancouver?

SJ: Certainly by the city it is. But some of the most liberal parts of town fight hardest against density, as you’ve indicated.

The greatest challenge we face in becoming a 100 percent renewably powered city is not a technology, it’s not implementation — it’s our public being able to accept the change and being willing to put up with it.

To get there, you have to build around transit, you need to change the way we use our streets — there’s a lot of changes. The public is really struggling, at least in Vancouver and I think a lot of other places, to keep up with the pace of change that we need.

DR: Presumably you have some sort of communication strategy around all these changes. How big a piece of the puzzle is that?

SJ: I think it was Melbourne or Sydney, I saw some amazing images where they’re building a high-rise and on the fencing they talked about how many tons of carbon that building would be saving over the life of it, because it was a dense, urban community.

I think we’ve not succeeded yet in finding ways to communicate the steps that we’re taking and the carbon reasons to do it. We haven’t figured out how to do that in a way that resonates with people.

DR: I’m not sure anyone has.

SJ: When you look at what it’s going to take to get to our goals, I think that’s the single biggest challenge. We’re seeing that millennials get it more, but a lot of the older decision-makers in our community, even the ex-hippies, they just don’t want to see a change to the single-family lifestyle that they’ve had, with the yard and all of that.

DR: Well, if you own a single-family home with a yard on prime urban land, of course you don’t want that to change — you’re getting the best of all worlds.

SJ: It’s a challenge to think about the pace of change we’ve already seen — 30 percent population growth since 1990. People have seen their city completely transformed, and a lot of them don’t like that Hong Kong–like density. To them it’s antithetical to the sleepy town that they had. They just don’t want to see it change. They can’t get their kids to live in the city because it’s too expensive. They can’t get their grandkids into dance class — everything is so full.

And we’re saying, well, if it’s not here, then it’s out somewhere in the greenfield and people are driving back and forth. So we need to find ways to accommodate more people in the city.

We’ve done a lot of softer densification — secondary suites, laneway homes, those types of things — and they’ve been very popular. We allowed a hundred [accessory dwelling units, sometimes called backyard cottages or mother-in-law units] as a pilot. The agreement was, when we had 100, we’d report back to city council. The 100 went over so well, we now have 2,000 of them done.

A 630 sq. ft. laneway house in Vancouver, by Smallworks.
A 630-square-foot laneway house in Vancouver, by Smallworks.

It’s providing rental stock in the community. It’s enlivening the lanes or the alley. It’s extra income. It’s a way the elderly can live in the back and the younger family with the kids can live in the front — it’s creating a little enclave for a family unit. So that’s been pretty well-received.

ADUs are “accessory dwelling units,” sometimes called backyard cottages or mother-in-law units.
ADUs are "accessory dwelling units," sometimes called backyard cottages or mother-in-law units.

We’ve also found ways to bring big-box and retail into a multi-story form around transit. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a high-rise but greater density.

But the bike lanes, the density, the change in people’s immediate living have been a real struggle for them.

Challenge 4: bicycle infrastructure

[Vancouver has an increasingly seamless bicycle infrastructure, including separated lanes with their own signals and green paint on the road everywhere cars and bikes interact.]

DR: Presumably you’ve been doing bike infrastructure long enough to get some data on it.

SJ: We did one bike lane that became a major, major election issue. A hotel owner on the bike path gave the largest political donation in our city’s history to try to unseat the mayor on an anti–bike lane campaigning platform. They just went down in flames. People did not respond to it.

But because it was so much of a fight, the business association downtown did an in-depth study on vacancy rates on the bike path before and after. Vacancy went way down after the bike lane. It was very, very clear that the bike lane added value to the economy on that street.

So I think businesses are starting to acknowledge that bikers can stop more easily, can park more easily, and there’s more of them on a bike lane than you’re going to have with cars that are racing down there at eight times the speed.

A downtown Vancouver separated bike lane.
A downtown Vancouver separated bike lane.
(Flickr, via Jeff Arsenault)

We did a series of bike lanes downtown three years ago that were … you’d think we had opened a hog farm downtown. It was just a huge political shitstorm. And this summer we’ve been installing probably triple the amount of bike infrastructure and there’s been not a peep.

Well, there was one peep. The armory, which is where the military stores equipment, had a volunteer corps that came out and did a big press conference saying we were jeopardizing national security by putting a bike lane in front of their armory.

DR: Canada has remained safe since then?

SJ: We’re okay so far. So I think it kind of backfired on them.

I feel like we’ve really turned a corner with it. We have installed major bike infrastructure and are now doing public bike share. We have the infrastructure to support a bunch of newcomers that aren’t familiar with riding in the city.

DR: How is bike share performing?

SJ: We haven’t launched yet.

We’re doing the largest smart-bike system in North America [1,500 bikes]. The hardware is on the bike, so you can lock it to a tree or anything else. You just swipe and it unlocks, so you don’t always need those big stations.

Challenge 5: connecting green to social justice

DR: Where would you like to see this program when you hand it off to your successor?

SJ: In terms of the green city piece, I really want to see us on a path to a renewable energy future with district energy systems and building code systems and zero waste. We’ve got a lot of major components — pulling them together.

More broadly, I see the challenges with poverty and income disparity — the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer — impacting all the challenges we face with homelessness, drug addiction, and mental health. All that is getting exacerbated, and Vancouver is becoming more and more expensive. That’s jeopardizing the fabric of our community. I’m really concerned about that.

We can be this amazing green mecca that people want to live in from all over the world, but if we can’t find a way to make it accessible to all different types of people, not just wealthy people moving from Asia, not just wealthy techies coming from Silicon Valley … how do we not become a resort community?

The average — yes, average — home price in Vancouver has risen to $960,000 USD as of Jan. 2016.
The average — yes, average — home price in Vancouver has risen to $960,000 USD as of January 2016.

DR: Every West Coast city is facing that. It’s hard to know how to make something nicer without more people wanting it and bidding the price up.

SJ: All the discipline around metrics that we’ve done on green [city stuff], we need to do on these other social issues. We haven’t done that. We’ve put a lot of money into it, but we haven’t really looked strategically and systematically. We haven’t benchmarked; we don’t have dashboards to track them. We just haven’t used the infrastructure and the brain power we have for the green side on the other challenges we face as a community.

And I hate to say it, but I think we will fail as a community if we succeed in being a 100 percent renewably powered city but only rich people can afford to live there and it’s homogeneous.

There are a lot of ways that this whole [green] movement could be an amazing equalizer and help make [Vancouver] a more affordable and attractive place. How do we use all the stuff we’re doing on the green side to drive the other social agendas? That’s what I’m interested to explore in the next generation of our greening work.