Change Leader Full Interview: Humans Really Can Beat Climate Change
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Bruce Nagy is the author of The Clean Energy Age: A Guide to Beating Climate Change as well as more than 150 feature articles on clean technology, government programs and energy economics. He is a speaker for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and develops reports and communications for clean technology firms, professional and trade associations, environmental groups, and universities.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background on your new book.
Nagy: The book started about 17 years ago when I decided to do a career change. I was an ad agency creative director, chasing the American dream. I had a son, and, as many people do, he inspired me to think about my life a little. I started writing about clean energy. Now I’ve written about 150 articles, and the book is sort of an inevitable result of that.
One of the things I discovered was that by not focusing on the problems so much, but focusing more on the solutions, I was able to interview a lot of experts who really wanted to talk about the solutions. Pretty soon I discovered there are three key areas for carbon emissions: buildings, vehicles and power plants. Those three areas are creating about 70 or 75 percent of the emissions problem in most countries, including the United States and Canada. There’s actually a high level of consensus among experts on what the solutions are—not only a high level of consensus, they’re pretty well proven now. Furthermore, you can save a ton of money; companies can save money, individuals can save money, by doing clean energy systems. This doesn’t make front-page news, because you tend to hear about national scoops, scandals and bad news on the front page.
A lot of the good stuff that’s happening is at the state and municipal level in most countries, with regards to clean energy. Now the economics are on our side. I think environmentalists have to evolve our message a little bit. In the past, we’ve done a lot of shouting and screaming, trying to attract attention. Now things have changed. The economics are helping us. Wind and solar costs less than gas and coal to make power for electricity. Electric cars sold 300,000 in 2018 in the United States—a 100 percent increase from last year compared to 28 percent, 27 percent, in previous years. Americans are voting with their wallets. Why are they buying electric cars in huge numbers? Because you save $20,000 over the course of the life of the vehicle, just on fuel. The fleet managers I’ve interviewed say they’re saving about 50 percent on maintenance too, because there aren’t as many moving parts on electric vehicles.
Electric vehicles are just a better product. It’s like when the mobile phone took over from the landline, like when the digital camera took over from the film camera. It’s just a better product: it’s quieter, it’s just as fast or faster, electric cars are passing the safety tests with flying colors. It’s just a better way. Now they’re almost competitive price-wise in many districts, since there are some incentives to help with that. Every auto company in the world is introducing hundreds of models and making big pronouncements, so you can tell that it’s the future. That’s a good sign, too.
The third one is the buildings. I think every municipality in the world is considering building-code changes to go toward “zero energy” or “passive house.” Although I feel that it’s too slow, it’s actually happening. The big problems in the building area are not only that the building code cycle is 5 or 10 years, but also that the retrofit problem often isn’t being addressed. New builds are only 3 percent each year. We really have to look at buildings. The good news is there’s a lot of technology now. You don’t need a furnace if you live way up north, and you don’t need a huge cooling system if you live way down south; you just need a properly sealed building. If we can put a man on the moon, we can properly insulate our home with good windows, and then put in a heat pump, put in some geothermal, put in some heat recovery ventilators, and so on.
V1 Media: Can you define what you consider “clean energy” and a “zero energy building”?
Nagy: Clean energy would be non-fossil-fuel energy. I do not include oil, gas or coal in that, and I’m opposed to nuclear on numerous grounds, primarily because it’s just too expensive and more or less obsolete. It’s also incredibly unsafe, and it’s much dirtier than proponents will have you believe.
A “net-zero house” uses only as much energy as it produces. In other words, it might have solar panels on the roof, or it might have some energy coming from a ground source, which is geothermal.
I don’t want to get too complicated, but there’s something called the co-efficiency of performance. How many energy units do I put in; how many energy units do I get out? The famous example is ethanol: you put three in; you only get one out. With technologies such as heat pumps, you put one in, and you get three out. With geothermal, you put one in, you get three or four out. With certain types of geothermal, you put one in, you get four or five out. A zero-energy house has technology such as geothermal or solar panels that produces as much energy as it is using. Its net contribution to our problem, theoretically, if we’re talking about emissions, is zero.
There are buildings called “zero energy,” there are buildings called “net zero energy,” there are buildings called “energy positive.” They’re all close; the definitions aren’t much different. The passive house is the most restrictive. It’s a concept that really focuses on the building envelope, so your insulation and windows. With a passive house—and it’s a very well established building standard, not only in the U.S., but where it has been most popular in Germany and Europe—you save 80 to 90 percent on your cooling and heating load. You don’t need this furnace, you don’t need this big cooling system. You just need a little tiny heat pump. I keep talking about heat recovery ventilator or energy recovery ventilator. There’s now one that’s a Conditioned Energy Recovery Ventilator (CERV). They make sure that the air is fresh, and the indoor air has high quality. They do that by ventilating without losing energy when they expel the stale air.
V1 Media: Can we really beat climate change, and, if so, how much time do we have to create and implement effective plans?
Nagy: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a recent report saying we’ve got 12 years left. That’s very frightening, but I think we need not pay too much attention to the horror stories. We need to think about human history, and we need to realize that in human history, when we’ve had a crisis, we’ve been able to all rise up and beat the odds. We did it in the Second World War; we did it when OPEC in the 1970s started squeezing energy. We are now healing the ozone hole that was caused by refrigerants, using the Montreal Protocol. The human race can do amazing things if it has the political will.
Almost all the experts agree that in terms of climate change, the problem is not whether we have enough inventions. We have plenty of proven solutions. The problem is not whether we have scientific consensus or engineering consensus or architectural consensus on how to do it. The problem is political and public will. We need to focus on getting our own act together. It’s easy to blame the government or rely on the government or wait for the government; or blame the corporations or rely on the corporations; but we need to recognize that we are the corporations, we are the government, and we all should be environmentalists.
It’s time for us to take responsibility, including us environmentalists. We environmentalists sometimes have to evolve. It’s kind of silly to strap yourself to a pipeline when you’ve got a gas furnace in your basement and an SUV in your driveway. That just doesn’t make sense. You have to start voting with your wallet, and you have to start looking at priorities. I can recycle until “the cows come home,” but really, I need to fix my building, buy an electric car, and vote for people who are buying wind and solar power—not gas and coal.
V1 Media: In your book, you use a lot of Top 10 lists. Why is that?
Nagy: Because it’s simpler for people. I have a friend from Sierra Club, John Bennett, and he said, “climate change is one problem, but it has hundreds of solutions.” You have that book, Drawdown, which came out recently, and I think it has a hundred solutions. It’s a little hard; it’s confusing for people. I think we need to simplify. I think we need to make a list, and we need to put the most important things at the top of that list. So I decided to make a list.
I made a dozen lists. There’s one for a homeowner, there’s one for a business person, there’s one for a pastor, there’s one for an engineer, for an architect, there’s one for a teacher, a media person, there’s one for a medical practitioner. There are a dozen of them in there. You may not like the Top 10 list that I’ve made for your particular group; and if you don’t, that’s great. Buy the book, get the list and rewrite it. Rewrite it the way you like, but at least you’ll have a plan. That’s the thing most people need: they need to get started. They need to accept personal responsibility and just start. Start with the highest-impact items. All the lists are based on about 700 interviews I’ve done with people over the last 16 or 17 years. They’re based on the International Energy Agency data about how we use energy. Those top three categories that I keep referring to, that’s where we have to focus our efforts, and do it now.
V1 Media: Our audience is mostly engineers, particularly in civil and structural. Can you point out some of the top ways these civil and structural engineers can take action to make a difference?
Nagy: They need to look real closely at smart grid storage—the way we generate electricity. There are a lot of wonderful opportunities.
My own government here in Canada, in Ontario, a few years ago took the cap and trade money they had then—it’s been canceled since—and they gave it to some IT professionals who were rising out of the ashes of the old Blackberry company. They started working on smart grid, and they started developing a lot of products. I learned that these guys are selling to utilities all over the world—hundreds of utilities. They’re selling software for managing that grid, for cyber security of utilities. In the Russia-Ukraine war, some of the hackers hacked the power station and took down the power, and then they went in and attacked Ukraine.
With buildings, it’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). I think the world now is moving to the heat pump, which was very popular in Asia and Europe for a long time. As we all know, construction moves at a snail’s pace. I’m not talking about the engineers and architects—they’re very visionary—but the decision makers can be slow. The heat pump was in Asia and Europe for many years, and trying to penetrate the U.S. market. The construction industry, for whatever reason, said, “you have to make it better, you have to make it work in cold weather, etc.” Now they have, and now products coming out are really good for the North American economy. There’s case study after case study of homes that are working really well with a good building envelope and a heat pump or two.
Heat pumps are a big one. Heat recovery ventilators—energy recovery ventilators—help with fresh air. Every engineer should know what they are. They’re being put into condos in huge numbers now, because they’re just perfect for the smaller spaces. As we go to smaller homes and smaller spaces, which is a trend among millennials and retiring boomers, we’re seeing that a lot of these technologies are very useful in that way. Geothermal, there are a lot of water-saving technologies. What’s old is new now. In places like the West Coast, where they have lots of water problems, from California all the way up to Seattle, they’re using rainwater.
There are a few different types of solar. There’s solar thermal, which is kind of a direct, very high coefficiency of performance, where it preheats water for your heating and cooling system, your radiant heating and cooling system. Then there’s solar PV—obviously it makes electricity—and that helps electrify all the equipment in your house. That’s really what America needs to do; we need to electrify the equipment, we need to move away from the fossil fuels.
V1 Media: In your book, you encourage people to get involved in creating code and seeking financing for creating clean energy solutions. Can you describe that?
Nagy: Building codes are a process. It’s also a career opportunity. In most jurisdictions, the building code is developed by people in the industry themselves. Get on that committee, put it on your resume, make some friends, get a new job or whatever, get promoted, get new contacts, network a little, and help develop the code toward a greener code for a future world. That’s pretty simple. Most of these codes, you can almost volunteer and get on, just like that. They probably aren’t going to pay you, but they might pay you some travel, whatever. It’s all part of making yourself an expert in your industry. We have a responsibility, if we have some expertise, to get on those building codes and help make the future brighter.
There are a lot of great new financing instruments coming out. I’ll give you an example from Hawaii: it’s a hospital there called the Kuakini Medical Center. After 15 or 20 years, they realized all their chillers and coolers were dying, and they needed a whole new HVAC plant. They didn’t have any money; they were a cash-strapped medical facility. They found a third-party company where there was a financier involved, and also an engineering firm that designed systems and did maintenance. Those two came together, and they bought the hospital’s heating and cooling facility. They rebuilt it, they paid for it, they own it; and then the hospital had to pay it back as a loan, but the payments were equal to the utility savings of the new, cleaner, greener technology, which was about $1.1 million each year. The hospital was in the black from day one, because they didn’t have to build it or pay for it upfront. They were in the black every month, because their payments were equal to their utility savings. They had no risk of failure or maintenance, because they didn’t own it. They could buy it at the end of 25 years if they wanted to, but they’re more likely to strike a new agreement and put in new technology.
A similar example comes from my own town, Toronto. There’s a guy here, Tim, with an engineering geothermal company who has been trying to sell geothermal condominiums for 13 years on both sides of the border: New York, Boston and Toronto. He said developers don’t want someone to walk into their office and say, “hey, you should put in a new geothermal heating and cooling system, it’ll create less emissions, and it’ll save you some money on heating and cooling.” Their answer is, “that’s just going to increase my capital costs. I spend all day trying to find ways to reduce my capital budget, and you’re coming in here and you want me to increase my capital budget. Why would I do this?” He said he finally figured it out: “We partnered with a financial company, and they started to buy the heating and cooling systems for these condominiums.”
It actually reduces the developer’s capital budget right at the beginning, so the developer likes that. Second, the developer doesn’t have to ask: “what is this geothermal? I don’t know how it works. Will it work?” It’s not his problem. Developers like to build something, sell it to condo owners and move on. That’s what they like to do. In this case, they can do that, and they can do it with a smaller capital budget. Tim’s company acts like a utility—he calls it the utility model. He bills the condominium owners every month, just like you would with a gas bill or whatever, electricity bill, and they run the geothermal for 20, 25 years. The owners of the condo can buy that at the end if they want, or not.
These are the types of financing arrangements that are happening. In the United States, they also now have property assessed clean energy (PACE). Most of them are state- or municipal-level governments who have financed for geothermal and solar—big projects for homeowners—and then they just put it on the property bill. Again, the payments are about equal to the utility savings—the homeowner doesn’t have to suffer that big upfront cost to do the change. The government helps fund that, or in some cases like in Michigan, a bank does it, and the government just rubber stamps it—they just brand it.
There’s another thing called the Investor Confidence Project (ICP) for big projects like the one I described in Hawaii, where, in the U.S., there are hundreds of projects coming across banks’ desks every day. Banks don’t know how to assess engineering projects. They don’t want to know. So the industry created the ICP, which hires a third-party engineering firm to assess all these green projects coming in, and then they put a stamp on it—an approval from the ICP. Once that’s approved, the bank just has to look at what the bank always looks at: can this person make the payments? They don’t have to look at whether or not it’s a legitimate green project that will get its money back.
These are all advancements that are happening. There are a lot of very good things happening in the world of clean energy, and I discourage anyone from watching the national news too much, because you’re not really getting an accurate picture. Having said that, I think that although I’ve described a lot of good directions, the problem we have is not enough momentum. We have a lot of good directions, but we need a lot more momentum behind all of these different initiatives.
V1 Media: Considering we’re talking to engineers who know quite a bit, can you describe something that might surprise them as a current reality?
Nagy: I think the CERV is something they need to look at: it’s a new product from a company called Build Equinox. It’s a heat pump and ventilator all in one. There’s no external unit. It handles humidity, it does double duty on heat pump and heat recovery ventilator. I think that’s something that they should know about.
There’s also something called an Earth Tube that’s an interesting concept. There’s something called Solar Air—a Canadian company. That’s an interesting concept that’s becoming more popular. There’s a guy in Vancouver who’s trying to combine solar PV with refrigeration up on the roof; he’s having some success. The size of the panels are smaller, and there are fewer needed. That’s called the Sun Pump, as it’s combined with a heat pump.
I think the most surprising thing is that zero-energy buildings are being built all over North America, all over the United States. If your boss says, “we can’t do that,” that’s a lot of propaganda and wrong—absolutely wrong.