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A new tool could open up the power of deep energy and emissions data to a range of British Columbia communities.

Annual total EUI graph
In the Neighborhood: 

This rendering presents the total annual energy use intensity (TEUI) of buildings in a simulated 1,600 square metre neighbourhood, using the archetypes-based modeling approach developed in the PICS-supported Community Solutions tool.

In a place like British Columbia, a one-size-fits-all approach to local-scale energy and emissions planning isn’t going to fly. For example, the City of Vancouver and other jurisdictions within the surrounding region have defined and developed local energy and emissions strategies. But not all communities have the resources, or capacity, to define the strategies that would be effective for local conditions.
 
Ron Kellett, a University of British Columbia Professor and Principal Investigator of the PICS Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment Project, wants to extend a hand to the 170 or so other local governments farther off the map—like the City of Campbell River, or the Town of Smithers, say, or the City of Prince George—where approaches developed in, and for, larger cities just don’t translate.
 

One Size Fits All

“We’ve really struggled with the scope of the energy and emissions agenda in the province,” says Kellett.

“There are so many different types of communities with different energy and emissions contexts—such as climate, growth rates, land-use mixes, and building stock. What may work in one community won’t work as well in another,” says Kellett.

Kellett directs elementslab, an applied research group at the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability at UBC. With support from PICS, the lab develops methods and tools of measured visualizations for public engagement in community planning and design. Their work could enable decision makers and residents to visualize the impacts of a given policy on a given neighborhood, or community, over time.

“A growing community has lots of opportunity to use growth to leverage technologies, while a community that isn’t growing has to depend on retrofits and incentives,” he says. “A small community in a cold climate will need different building energy demand strategies than one that is not. Communities with greater density and land use diversity have greater access to services, and therefore less travel energy demand, and so on.”

To grapple with all the variability, Kellett’s team developed Community Solutions, a flexible approach to energy and emissions simulation that will consider these local conditions in the modeling of energy and emissions impacts at a neighbourhood scale.

Their approach simulates the performance characteristics of different types and patterns of urban form, such as a neighborhood along a main road with three story buildings and single family detached homes behind, or a corridor shopping street, or a low density residential commercial area. “We create a digital visual three-dimensional model of a hypothetical place that serves as a proxy of a real place,” explains Kellett.

Unprecedented Insights

Community Solutions is not a “tool” in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, it describes an approach and a model that could offer municipal planners and other local-government stakeholders valuable insight into the long-range impact of various policies based on what actually exists on the ground in their community—what type of buildings, their age, neighborhood walkability, and so on.
 
The team can apply various economic and policy conditions—an Official Community Plan that seeks to concentrate growth downtown, for example, or a building-code change—to understand which buildings will likely be replaced, and where new growth will occur. And, based on those changes, the team can measure the associated change in energy and emissions intensity—and livability—across predetermined time increments, such as decades, or 20-year increments.

Kellett’s team is working on prototypes for a graphical dashboard, to help improve the model’s accessibility.  Which begs the question: What communities will use the tool, and how?

In Search of the Sweet Spot

Kellett is now working with Hannah Teicher, who recently joined PICS as the institute’s first Researcher in Residence dedicated to advancing climate solutions in the built environment. The two are looking for a town to pilot the tool.

“There are indeed diverse communities in British Columbia, but there are also many similarities among them,” says Kellett. “Our intent is to define meaningful categories—small, low-growth cities in cold climates, for example—and model different combinations of energy and emissions reduction strategies and then report findings and conclusions that would be instructive and relevant to other communities in that category.”