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Seeing Green

Eco-friendly decisions are paving profitable paths

By James Tennant Photography By Darren Whear

Wal-Mart Canada, Loblaws and Canadian Tire have publicized new policies on energy conservation and packaging minimization. New companies specializing in sustainable energy have grown in record numbers. Businesses from hair salons to funeral homes tout their environmentally conscious business practices. Everywhere you turn, the green trend has begun to sprout into business. Altruism, responsible citizenship and environmental stewardship are undoubtedly motivators, but business, as the saying goes, is business.

At the bottom line, there’s a question: Does the movement towards green result in more green? In other words, is environmental responsibility profitable?

For myriad different businesses in the Hamilton and Burlington area, the answer is an unequivocal yes. The most old-fashioned method of building a green business is to sell a green product. You can find dozens of companies peddling everything from low-wattage light bulbs to wind farm equipment. Innovation in this area is the future of green retail. Consider the Burlington-based Sun-Mar Corporation, which has found a way to provide an environmental answer to one of our most, shall we say, “basic” needs. Sun-Mar makes toilets. Not just any toilets—composting toilets. While they also sell leading-edge garden composters, it’s the composting of human waste that represents an unusual and interesting leap forward.

“We believe the best way to save the environment is by making composting easy,” says the company, and that’s something Sun-Mar has done with innovation and design for many years.

“When I first started 18 years ago, composting human waste was an alien concept,” says sales manager Fraser Snedden. “People thought it was gross.”

It might sound that way, but ultimately, Sun-Mar’s composting toilets are a lot less gross than our everyday alternative. All waste treatment involves bacteria breaking down the waste and converting it to soil. Anaerobic bacteria survive in the absence of oxygen and give off gases such as methane, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which creates an odour. Sun-Mar’s compositing toilets use an evaporation system as well as aerobic bacteria, which need oxygen and break down waste 100 times faster and without sewer gases.

The toilets are green-friendly in various ways. Many of the units, for example, use no water. “Look at how much water is wasted throughout North America just on plumbing,” says Snedden. “Even with low-flow toilets, vast amounts of water are going down the drain. We’re using up small lakes daily just to flush toilets.”

Likewise, our water system is contaminated by municipal sewer treatment systems, and raw sewage ends up going out into lakes and waterways when plants get overloaded, sometimes with storm run-off. The composting toilets, though, have no discharge, so they can even be used in places where you want to protect from groundwater contamination or where you cannot use a septic system.

“Twenty-five percent of North America is on alternative systems,” says Snedden. “That’s a huge market expansion right there.”

Taking the LEED
Dundurn Edge Developments Inc. took a different route to green profit. The company, co-founded in 2004 by Ray Pollard and Robert Manherz, is a leading developer and builder of environmentally friendly residential high rises. The student housing complex West Village Suites (on the old CNIB site in west Hamilton) has LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification, which is the highest level available through the Canadian Green Building Council.

The company began the shift to student housing when it recognized the need for improvement in students’ living conditions. Manherz was deeply interested in “green” technology—he owned a cottage that was entirely off the power grid—and together with Pollard they decided to shoot for the challenging Platinum Level on their first build.

While going green was a motivated by a desire to do the right thing, it also made the most business sense. “We all know what utility costs are doing,” says Pollard, “and with student rentals, there’s only so much cost you can pass along before students can’t afford it.”

Thanks to various technologies, West Village Suites was an example of green cost-cutting right out of the gate. The roof is outfitted with solar thermal panels, which take the heat from the sun to heat hot water in rooftop storage tanks. During the summer, this provides 100 percent of their hot water; in the winter it augments the boiler system so water can be heated with less fuel. Environmental features run throughout the design of the building, from recycling the previous building on the site to Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) construction of the building itself (which keeps the temperature inside steady regardless of outside temperatures). Lighting is on motion sensors, pumps are low-voltage and efficiency is omnipresent throughout the building.

“We decided that this is a model that can work in any university or college city,” Pollard says. “We’re building (a student apartment in) Oshawa, and it’s going to be the largest LEED Platinum building in Canada. When we meet with the city officials and building departments, they welcome our proposals with open arms. They’re making concessions and they want to see a green building like this in their communities. It’s really enabled us, without doing any marketing at all.”

By going green, Dundurn Edge saved money while simultaneously increasing business volume. They’ve even found alternative sources of revenue—not in energy conservation, but in alternative energy creation. They also recently installed solar photovoltaic panels to generate electricity, which they then basically sell back to the grid.

Sunny days ahead
The entire business plan of Horizon Energy Solutions Inc. (a subsidiary of Horizon Holdings) involves such a plan. Launched formally in March 2010, Horizon Energy Solutions has set out to help business customers with energy needs. Currently this involves solar energy production, but according to VP Scott Knapman, the company plans to branch out into conservation and efficiency programs as well.

Basically, Horizon has found a way for businesses to generate revenue in new ways—by renting out their unused roof space back to Horizon itself. Horizon then installs a solar photovoltaic system for electrical generation. Horizon owns and operates the system for 20 years, while continuing to pay the client a rental fee over the term.

“I think there’s a number of wins,” says Knapman. “A lot of the customers we’re dealing with are looking for additional revenue streams; certainly the roof is an unused area that they can get that from.”

Horizon offers renewable energy creation as a no-risk revenue stream. “More and more companies are looking at reducing their impact on the environment and they see this as an avenue towards that,” says Knapman. “It’s something they can promote to their customers and their employees. Then from a Horizon perspective, we make some money in that we pay a dividend back to our shareholders in the cities of St. Catharines and Hamilton.

“The government has said they’re going to shut down all the coal generation or convert it by 2014,” Knapman continues, “so all that capacity needs to be made up somehow, and certainly renewables is one way of doing it.”

Horizon Energy Solutions is at the leading edge of energy development in the area. CanmetEnergy is another. Specializing in clean energy research and technology development, the company boasts over 450 scientists, engineers and technicians and more than 100 years of experience. They also have an understanding—and in some cases, a redefinition—of what it means to be “sustainable.”

Stephen Pope, from Sustainable Buildings & Communities (Natural Resources Canada), is excited about the Canmet lab on Longwood Road in Hamilton. The project, he explains, is circular; researchers will work in an environment that is a direct result of their own research. Part of that research concerns energy, but part of it is about the concept of a “green building” in which everything from air quality to reduced waste creates an environment that proves profitable in a different way.

Sustainable companies, Pope explains, are not fly-by-night operations. “They’re in it for the long haul and they support people through employment,” he says. “They also attract and retain employees through things such as the quality of their indoor environment—good quality of air, light, acoustic control—so your employees are as sharp as they can be while they’re at work.”

There is anecdotal but growing evidence that these elements deliver on the bottom line. One of the easiest things for businesses to add up in a concretely measurable way is absenteeism: If you have people on the job for longer at the same salary, you have an improvement in productivity and profitability.

“The really special story about this project,” says Pope, “was that by carrying through the research that our group has done on high-performance buildings, we’ve been able to deliver a building that’s currently on track for LEED Platinum certification.”

Canmet has done so within budget, showing that a little extra time and expense in the planning stages pays off in the long term. At the outset the goals were to cut energy and water use almost in half. But other issues, including human resource-related ones, were always at the fore.

“Let’s say energy costs $2 a square foot,” Pope explains. “Real estate costs $20 a square foot. Salary costs $200 a square foot. If you blow your brains out on the energy design of a building, you might save 50 cents a square foot. That’s why there’s been such a push to find the connection back to office productivity and employee health and attraction and retention and those things. Because then you’re working in the $200 a square foot side.”

That said, there are many impressive conservation elements built into the new laboratory. Canmet, too, is using solar thermal panels, but it is also pioneering other systems, such as directing summer heat into the ground, which warms the ground temperature on a year-round basis, while storing heat for winter use.

Breeding eco-consciousness
The energy researchers at Canmet, of course, are not representative of the average company employee. Not everyone understands how to save money on energy costs and create a greener, conservation-minded environment. Consequently, businesses like 360 Energy Inc. have found a niche by providing conservation expertise to those who need it. President and CEO David Arkell used to work for Ontario Hydro and is employing that experience to help “continuous-improvement customers” find ways to reduce both their carbon footprint and their energy costs. His Burlington company focuses on how to purchase energy more effectively, as well as how to reduce energy usage (unique in this business, as most companies do one or the other).

“There’s so much customers are doing that they could do more effectively,” says Arkell, “because they keep on doing the same things that they’ve been told to do.”

360 Energy believes effective energy management can only be realized when it is spread throughout the entire company, not based on a single person or department. If the company brass is on board, Arkell explains, it is easy to make energy consciousness trickle down to the rest of the employees. Most often, it doesn’t start with a huge financial outlay; it starts with education.

“Most customers don’t know how much money they spend annually, let alone what they spend per day,” Arkell says. “They don’t even understand how they’re billed. We educate them, and once they have a better understanding of how they’re billed we look at very simple methods where they can reduce their costs.”

Arkell says the project-based energy conservation tactic is not necessarily the most effective one. Similarly, while new technologies are often part of the plan, they’re also only part of the solution.

One enormous area of potential conservation is the reduction of energy waste. 360 has a “Stoplight Program” to deal with such waste. Working in conjunction with the customer, they identify where their energy is being used and then put a process in place on how to turn off equipment, or when to turn it off, and who has that responsibility.

Implementing such a plan requires no capital output whatsoever; simply a few words added to a job description. A full 50 percent of savings achieved by 360’s clients were achieved at no cost.

“Most companies don’t treat energy as a controllable input cost,” Arkell notes. “They treat it as a fixed overhead. We go through a process to make them aware that actually it’s completely controllable, and it’s not just your engineer or purchasing person who should be involved in the process. From the C-Suite to the people on the floor, there’s a role that they can play every day.”

Bright lights, big savings
Steve Burns figured it was too good to be true. When his Burlington small business, Burns’ Fishing, was offered free high-tech lighting, he phoned Burlington Hydro just to make sure it was a legitimate offer.

Indeed it was—and still is. Funded by the Ontario Power Authority, the Power Savings Blitz program is offering qualifying small businesses up to $1,000 of energy-efficient lighting. That includes the installation.

“I’ve been telling other retailers that they have to jump on this bandwagon,” says Burns, who had recently installed his own upgrades to his Plains Road store—albeit not with eco-friendly equipment. “I replaced these eight-foot bulbs that used to cost $15 apiece with $60 bulbs, which were a lot brighter, but since it was so expensive, I did it gradually through the whole store. But then these three guys—real professionals—came in and took down my lights and replaced everything for free. The new lights are just as bright as the ones I bought, but these ones are really energy-saving!”

It’s a no-brainer for Ontario small businesses seeking ways to cut costs. Power Savings Blitz representatives from local participating electric utilities contact stores and businesses with an electricity demand of less than 50kW. When you accept the offer to perform a free energy assessment of your lighting and water heating, your cost and savings opportunities will be determined. While the primary focus is on lighting upgrades, other measures are also assessed.

While funding of up to $1,000 is provided for the retrofit (including the cost of the material and labour), the minimum amount for a free retrofit is $300. Once the work order and customer agreements are signed, an appointment is made for a licensed electrical contractor to complete the retrofit.

There are also rebate opportunities for various-sized companies on a much larger scale thanks to the Ontario Power Authority’s Electricity Retrofit Incentive Program, an incentive program designed to encourage companies to adopt energy-efficient technologies and increase energy efficiency. There are two incentive options for projects: prescriptive and custom. Prescriptive projects are predefined technologies on a per-unit basis after buying and installing eligible equipment (you can also request pre-approval before purchase and installation). With Custom projects, which must be pre-approved, financial incentives are available for retrofits of other than the prescribed technologies, provided that they measurably reduce the electrical peak demand. Custom projects are eligible for an incentive of $250 per kW of demand reduction.

Hydro One will reimburse companies a portion of the cost to purchase energy-efficient technology, up to a maximum of $500,000. In addition, you will reduce your cost per unit of production or cost per square metre; lower your maintenance costs; and contribute to a cleaner and healthier Ontario.

For information, visit HydroOne.com/MyBusiness/SaveEnergy/Pages/ERIP.aspx.