Carbon tax chronicles: How six Alberta communities spent green money

via Edmonton Journal
Emma Graney and Janet French

Updated: March 5, 2019
 

 

After getting a list with hundreds of projects funded by the carbon tax in the last two years, Postmedia dug into line items from six communities to get a better understanding of where some of the money has gone:

Black Diamond

Total received: $141,947

Projects

  • Oilfields Regional Arena and Scott Seaman rink, energy audits and solar: $25,333
  • Town office energy audits and energy efficient lights: $640
  • Park ‘n’ Ride: $110,000
  • Greenhouse natural gas rebates: $5,974

Les Quinton was an early convert to energy efficiency. The parks and recreation manager for the Town of Black Diamond has been cutting emissions and costs for years at the town’s Oilfields Regional Arena by replacing mechanical, light and heating systems with energy efficient components. He added its first solar panels back in 2007.

Quinton is also a numbers guy. He can rattle off exactly how much money the town located about 65 kilometres southwest of Calgary has spent and how much energy town facilities have used each year.

Climate Leadership Plan initiatives covered about half the cost of a piece of equipment for the arena that removes oxygen from the water used to resurface the ice. It allows him to use warm water (instead of hot) on the rink to save natural gas.

To measure its impact, Quinton counts how many hours the rink’s energy-intensive refrigeration unit operates in a year. In 2016, it ran for 2,001 hours during the eight-month rink season. The equipment was installed in 2017, and in 2018, refrigeration hours dropped to 1,637, he said.

Grants funded by the carbon tax also paid more than half the cost of new energy-efficient LED lights inside and outside the town office, and about one-quarter of the cost of a solar array built atop the town’s covered outdoor arena. In 2018, power use dropped from the previous year for both arenas. New lights at the town office helped offset the higher costs of electrical transmission and a colder winter, he said.

Other funding for retrofitting comes from the town’s green reserve, started a decade ago by the town council in the community of 2,700. Money saved on energy costs is re-invested in more emissions-reductions projects.

The provincial climate leadership grants have been “very helpful,” and allow the town to keep ice rental costs affordable, he said, which benefits residents.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand it at all,” he said of the carbon tax. “I think a lot of people (think), it’s an extra bill.”

The money is being channelled into programs that give citizens payback, he said.

“The benefit is there if you want to use it.”

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Mayerthorpe

Total received: $36,342

Projects

  • Energy audits on town office, Diamond Centre community hall, public works shop and community services building: $25,092
  • Retrofits to building exteriors of Pleasant View Lodge and Highview Haven: $11,250

Mayerthorpe completed energy audits on various town buildings with the goal of applying for further grants to retrofit those facilities for energy and financial savings.

Karen St. Martin is the chief administrative officer of the town, located about 140 kilometres northwest of Edmonton. She says with the audits now done, the community of about 1,300 people is pursuing cash for more efficiency measures.

“It’s about reducing our footprint and reducing our energy consumption, and implementing technology that requires less operator maintenance over a long period of time,” she said.

“We knew there would be savings over a long period of time. Council has been very supportive of these initiatives.”

The town is also considering solar panels, St. Martin said, and looking into whether or not they would benefit the town’s larger facilities.

 

Cardston

Total received in town and county: $693,153

Projects

  • On-farm energy management program: $416,008
  • Solar panels for town ice rink and civic centre: $100,750
  • Irrigation efficiency program: $173,895
  • Retrofits to building exteriors of Temple City Villa: $2,500

Cardston, a town of around 3,600, lies 25 kilometres from the Montana border, almost directly south of Calgary.

In 2017-18, it accessed provincial carbon tax grants to cover about 25 per cent of the cost of installing solar panels on its civic centre and ice rink.

Fiscal and political reasons factored into the council’s decision to pursue solar energy, said town chief administrative officer Jeff Shaw.

The financial return is “reasonably compelling,” he said, though nobody is arguing it’s great with a payback expected in 12 to 15 years. Thanks to recent technology and warranty improvements in solar over the past few years, Shaw expects the panels to have a lifespan of 15 to 20 years.

“The return was reasonable similar to what we get on other investments, so there really wasn’t much of a pushback,” he said.

But the council also wanted to show some leadership in the green arena, Shaw said, and going solar was a natural progression from earlier efficiency retrofits at town facilities.

 

Saddle Lake

Total received: $3.03 million

Projects

  • Saddle Lake administration building retrofit: $2.44 million
  • Energy assessment audits: $258,809
  • Solar panel installation: $200,000
  • District energy pre-feasibility assessment: $59,760
  • Alberta Indigenous Community Energy Program: $66,000

On particularly scorching days, the bosses at the Saddle Lake Cree Nation‘s administrative offices would send some workers home when the heat became unbearable. In winter, it was freezing.

“It was very horrid, in the building we’re in,” director of economic development Winston Lapatak said last month.

It was little surprise, then, when the band used money distributed through the carbon levy program to audit its buildings for energy efficiency, that the office and an ice arena were at the top of the list.

The band installed solar panels on the building roof in the summer of 2017, and in spring 2018, began an overhaul by installing triple-pane windows, new doors and seals, adding new insulation and siding and replacing the arena’s inefficient 40-year-old ice maker.

“The ice rink speaks for itself. We have a full minor hockey program, right from your tykes all the way up,” Lapatak said. “We’ve seen a very positive outcome in terms of financial and the social returns from that project.”

Having received approval for a second provincial grant for more energy audits, Lapatak would like to see whether 20 band-owned houses could be upgraded. With seven-to-10 people living in a house, electricity and heating bills are higher than an average Alberta home, he said. Improvements could lead to substantial cost savings.

The band, located about 160 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, is also studying the possibility of creating a “district energy” system, which could use solar, wind, biomass and natural gas, then distribute power and heat to locations across the reserve.

He doesn’t see the downside of putting a price on carbon and using the money to invest in Saddle Lake’s people and infrastructure.

“From where I’m sitting and from what I’ve seen, it happened because of the carbon tax, and the revenues made available to create the Indigenous relations climate program.”

The band also received $483,000 in 2016-17 from the federal government to install solar panels on a water treatment plant.

 

Barrhead

Total received: $248,196

Projects
— On-farm energy management: $125,651
— Solar panel installation on town aquatic centre: $94,080
— Agricultural societies energy efficiency program: $23,875
— On-farm solar: $4,590

The Town of Barrhead hadn’t really considered throwing solar panels atop its new aquatic centreuntil the contractors proposed it and said grants were available to help cover the cost.

It fit with a local push toward more green initiatives, so the council decided to roll with the idea.

“We wanted to throw solar on the ice arena, the aquatic centre and the curling rink, but both of the other two buildings are older so, when they did the structural analysis, they determined it wasn’t feasible. That’s why currently only the aquatic centre has them,” explained Shallon Touet, the town’s parks and recreation director.

“Electricity bills will continue to rise, and this is one way to offset that.”

Although the panels’ productivity plunges in winter, they produce enough heat to melt the snow until around -10 C.

Although aquatic centre maintenance manager Mike Bryant says it’s too early to say whether the investment was worth it — installing the panels was a large expense — he says the seniors’ drop-in centre has contacted him for more information on perhaps pursuing the idea.

 

Alexander First Nation

Total received: $263,084 

Projects

  • Community energy plan: $89,000
  • Energy audits of community buildings: $87,042
  • Indigenous community energy program: $87,042

Alexander First Nation wants to be recognized as a green community. To help, it secured carbon tax funds to complete energy audits and develop a community energy plan. That plan takes into account population growth and looks at opportunities in energy efficiency.

The nation of around 1,000, located about 50 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, is now moving towards retrofits to install LED lights and more energy-efficient doors and windows. The local school received federal green funds to complete a solar project, too.

“We’ve implemented a lot of new changes and things are vastly improving,” said Marcel Arcand, Alexander’s community development officer.

Arcand said the community energy plan is essential to his community becoming green and saving money on its utility bills, but adds “there has to be something behind it.”

“If it’s just going to be a plan that will sit on a shelf, it’s just a paper. There’s got to be implementation funds as well.”


 

 

 

 

Crunching the carbon tax data: How we did it

 

The carbon tax will, without question, be one of the biggest political footballs in the 2019 election.

With the election drawing near and two full years of the tax now collected, we wanted to know where the money went. Who’s getting the extra cash we pay on our heating bills each month? Where’s the 6.73 cents per litre on my gas fill-up going?

Postmedia asked the provincial government for a list of all projects funded by the tax since it came into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.

What we received weeks later from Alberta Environment and Parks was a 2,000-line data set comprising thousands of projects across more than 300 communities in every corner of the province. It also included a slew of programs spanning municipalities or counties, and Alberta-wide programs like rebates and the small business tax cut.

Another batch of data was devoted to large-scale emitter programs overseen by Emissions Reduction Alberta — an arm’s-length body created years ago by the former Progressive Conservative government that largely flies under the radar as it funds carbon technology and research. It relies strictly on cash from big emitters and some of that revenue shows up in government data with the carbon tax.

Carbon tax revenue for the current 2018-19 fiscal year is projected to hit $1.3 billion, according to third-quarter financials released last week, but the funded project list provided to us ends as of December 2018. Officials tell us carbon tax revenue expected between January and March has been earmarked for projects but not yet handed out. Those projects, and full-year line items such as rebates, are not included in 2018-19 information.

It is also important to note the data provided by the government arrived with issues.

Carbon tax programs are run by more than a dozen ministries and aren’t centrally recorded in detail, so our request was cobbled together by many bureaucratic bodies. As we reported on some of the projects, we discovered problems in the government numbers including projects listed multiple times in error, mistakes in amounts and cancelled projects. In the end, the data was revised four times.

Our goal was to answer the question: where has the carbon tax money been spent? This data starts to paint that picture.