The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

In the Labour Day Monday edition of the Globe and Mail, reporter Konrad Yakabuski wrote about the growing realization that the de-industrialization of our economy and that of most major economically advanced countries did not result in the service industry prosperity promised.  Indeed, the opposite has resulted as living-wage industrial jobs – the kinds our dads had – gave way to McJobs.  President Obama and a growing rank of economists and policy makers realize it is time to rethink this model. 

As we transition to the efficiency economy and consider ways to re-industrialize, what do some opportunities look like?   Consider the following:  

1) Geothermal heat pumps:  

It is impossible to buy Canadian manufactured geothermal heat pumps in any kind of quantity and backed by any kind of standardized, rigorous  manufacturing process.  The Canadian geothermal manufacturers that exist are largely owner-operated shops, one step removed from tinkerers in garages.  The geothermal units we buy are largely private label American products.  

But as recently as 20 years ago, we made appliances in Toronto – the stoves and refrigerators found in the catalogues of Eaton’s and Simpson’s, the kinds our parents and grandparents bought.  Why is this relevant?  It’s relevant because a geothermal heat pump is really nothing more than a large refrigerator - it takes heat out of the ground and puts it in your house in winter.  In summer, it does the reverse, just as a fridge keeps your food cool by sucking out the heat and dumping it out the back of the fridge.  This is why the back of your fridge is warm.  A heat pump moves heat; pumps and compressors, that’s it.

As we rebuild our buildings, homes and neighbourhoods we will eventually convert most of them to geothermal heating and cooling systems.  It’s simply the most efficient way to heat and cool a building.  We will need millions of them.  The systems we use could once again be built in the shuttered up Inglis appliance factory on the edge of town.  

2) Solar heating 

According to figures interpolated from Statistics Canada reports, half of the water heaters in Ontario homes are past their useful economic life and need to be replaced right now.  That’s hundreds of thousands of water heaters.  Actually, it’s roughly a million.  With the solar resource available in Southern Ontario, half of the hot water used in homes can be generated throughout the year using solar water heating systems.  

Solar water heating systems are dead simple to make:  they’re sheet metal boxes, painted black on the inside and covered with tempered glass.  Inside is a series of copper pipes where the water flows and heats up.  They’re simple but they’re bulky and heavy which means the shipping costs from China will become increasingly onerous as oil prices rise.  

With their related support systems and industries – pumps, controls, installation companies, maintenance, financing – we should be making these units here and designing them specifically for cold climates.  We can export this expertise and technology around the world.   Tens of thousands of jobs could be created right now.  

3) Next generation cladding 

When the two halves of Germany re-unified in the early 1990’s the West Germans found themselves with a big problem.  The Soviet designed housing stock in the east was solid – the stereotypical brick, umm, outhouse – but massively decrepit and energy inefficient.  They couldn’t tear them all down.  So what to do?  

With typical German efficiency and utilitarianism, they came up with a beautifully elegant solution.  They literally invented an entire industry around next-generation cladding where, lego-block style, new insulated cladding could be bolted onto the outside of the building.  Plumbing configurations, wiring and fibre optics were run in conduits prefabricated in the cladding system.  The result?  Pretty much a new building.  

As we dissemble our auto manufacturing industry piece by piece, consider the core processes of making a car – metal parts wrapped around sophisticated electronics.  

Anyone from Magna reading this?  

4) Building automation and smart houses 

This past summer Canadians were treated to the final chapter of Nortel, a company so badly run its story could be a French farce or a classic tragedy or some combination of both.  Instead, it was, just another chapter in the selling out of this country by our elite.  

One of the biggest business opportunities in the 21st century will be found in integrating new intelligence in our old retrofitted buildings, all with the goal of using and eking out every last joule of energy.  This will require countless kilometers of fibre optic cable, control systems, micro-computers, sensors and software, much of it run through wireless networks and with wireless devices.  

Google and Cisco recognize this and are placing major strategic bets.  Does anyone in Canadian industry realize similarly?  It would seem not.  

Conclusion 

Manufacturing matters.  Making things matters.  We can’t run an economy on financial abstractions.  Anything else creates a Potemkin economy.  

All of the above ideas are predicated on a “negawatt” strategy as opposed to a strategy of megawatts.  That is, a watt – or a unit of energy - not used will be inherently more valuable in the age of scarcity than a watt (or a unit of energy) used efficiently.  Our industrial strategy in the 21st century must be predicated on scarcity as opposed to assuming limitless abundance.  It is only by making things for this new reality that we can ensure our continued prosperity and even our sovereignty. 

September 2009

Gabriel Draven