We saved whales (sort of) and got a thank you letter

I love whales, do you?

I own a small wind-powered boat (to be perfectly transparent, it is diesel-assisted) and enjoy spending time with my family exploring the waters of the Salish Sea. Last summer, we saw a surprising number of Humpback whales. What a majestic cetacean. I read about the spectacular return of the Humpback whales on the coast of BC and remembered reading a New York Times articles on whale oil used to provide light in our homes.

According to the NYT article:

“From the 1700s through the mid-1800s, oil extracted from the blubber of whales and boiled in giant pots gave light to America and much of the Western world. The United States whaling fleet peaked in 1846 with 735 ships out of 900 in the world. Whaling was the fifth-largest industry in the United States; in 1853 alone, 8,000 whales were slaughtered for whale oil shipped to light lamps around the world, plus sundry other parts used in hoop skirts, perfume, lubricants and candles.”

“Whales near North America were becoming scarce, and the birth of the American petroleum industry in 1859 in Titusville, Pa., allowed kerosene to supplant whale oil before the electric light replaced both of them and oil found other uses.”

I am not a biodiversity expert, but it seems legitimate to wonder what would have happened to whales if fossil fuels would not have been discovered.  I am somewhat grateful for the rising of fossil fuels, in the name of the whales’ survival, and for all the good things oil and gas did for you and me.

But with climate change, it’s time to start the next cycle, save the whales one more time (literally!). We moved away from whale oil; we now need to move away from fossil fuels.

Change is hard, did you notice?

I spent the Christmas holidays with my family near Montreal.  My 2 and 5-years-old were excited to see the grand-parents and of course, to “see” Santa Claus.

In order to assist Santa with the procurement of Christmas gifts for my kids, I have accepted almost 8 years ago a day-job that roughly consist of turning off lights and turning down heat in unoccupied rooms at BCIT.  So I was excited and proud when just before Christmas, BCIT President Kathy Kinloch received a congratulations letter from BC Hydro. Below is an extract from the letter:

“Over the past three years, as reported in your strategic energy management plan, BCIT has reduced its electricity use by approximately 2,000,000 kWh which is equivalent to providing power to approximately 200 homes in B.C. Your commitment to leading by example is also an important factor in demonstrating energy management leadership to your students in the Sustainable Energy Management Advanced Certificate (SEMAC) Program to train professionals for an exciting career in helping organizations undertake the same type of initiatives. We applaud your commitment to using BCIT as a living lab to provide students with an experiential learning opportunity about the importance of being smart with power.”

I mentioned the above letter to my parents during the Christmas break.  They were obviously very proud.  I think they understand my job. They are smart and educated, but even more important, they are altruistic people who care about others, especially the next generation (my kids’ generation). They think they are doing a good job; but, in the last 8 years I made very little progress at impacting my parents’ behaviors when it comes to reducing their energy consumption.  At their place lights are not LEDs yet and are always left on in rooms that are unoccupied, shower heads are not low-flow, and no programmable thermostat has been installed.

At BCIT, as stated in the BC Hydro letter, we have been making progress. We have achieved a 10% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) in the last 8 years. The international scientific community calls for GHG reductions of 80 to 100%.  At BCIT, we have done well so far and should be proud—proud, but not overexcited. We need to do so much more, and like my parents, we are doing less than we think we are.

So again, it’s time for change. Both Santa and I flew across North America for Christmas; I managed it thanks to fossil fuels. Dear fossil fuels, thanks for all you did for us, but we will need to let you go soon. It will be hard (change is always hard) but not that hard (we currently know how to reduce GHGs at BCIT by 50%). So let`s talk about succession planning…

The facts—important right?

Globally, energy consumption will grow by 30% by 2040, and greenhouse gas emissions are intrinsically linked to energy consumption (95% of BCIT’s in-scope GHG emissions are from energy). If you have 2 minutes, watch this video from the very serious International Energy Agency.  It offers a good overview of the situation.  Make sure to watch to the end.

When we teach energy and GHG management at BCIT, we tell our students to reduce first (with energy efficiency and conservation measures) and then produce (with installation of on-site clean and renewable energy systems).

BCIT’s honorary doctorate Dominic Barton‘s organization, McKinsey and Company, says the same thing. They believe that “energy efficiency represents about 40 percent of the global greenhouse gas reduction potential that can be realized.”  Even more important, they believe “it is an extremely attractive upfront investment that pays for itself over time.”

At BCIT, we have completed 18 energy studies working with 8 different engineering firms. The studies show we could get to 50% GHGs reduction with energy efficiency measures. On Smith Street (Factor Four) we are at 50% GHG reduction today.  In other words, we know what to do, and have done (on part of campus) what the world leaders say we should be doing! Not bad!

I have a GHG dream, let’s all have a GHG dream

Being an energy manager at an institute of technology is way more fun than doing it for a bank. BCIT might not have access to much capital, but we have an obligation to be technologically advanced, in the name of education.  And that’s where the fun is: to do a lot with not much! If you have another 2 minutes, I would suggest reading my 1-page dream for BCIT`s energy and GHG future.  I would also read the BCIT energy team’s recommendations on how to reduce GHG emissions. They consist of four short term interventions and four long-term interventions.  As simple as that!  Yes, change can be both hard and simple!

And remember, when society went from whale oil lamp to kerosene lamp to LED lamps, things got better, not worse. Congratulations to all of us for reducing GHGs at BCIT by our first 10%.  My kids, the whales and I are looking forward to the next 40% reduction.


Alex Hebert is BCIT`s Sustainability and Energy Manager (which is BC Hydro funded)

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