Think Energy

It Takes a Village with EnviroCentre

Oct 10, 2022

The next decade is crucial when it comes to fighting climate change. Each one of us has a part to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it can be overwhelming to try and pinpoint where to begin. Melanie Johnston is the Director of Energy Programs at EnviroCentre in Ottawa, an environmental non-profit offering real solutions for reducing the environmental impact of not just individuals, but also communities. She joins this episode to share some tangible ways we can all lower our carbon emissions.

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Fri, Oct 07, 2022 12:37PM • 24:35


home, ottawa, energy, businesses, pandemic, people, climate change, mel, climate, city, audit, starting, transportation, programs, greenhouse gas emissions, bike, homeowners, reduce, achieve, program


Dan Seguin, Melanie Johnston, Rebecca Schwartz

Dan Seguin  00:06

This is Think Energy, the podcast that helps you better understand the fast changing world of energy through conversations with game changers, industry leaders, and influencers. So join me, Dan Sagan, and my co-host, Rebecca Schwartz, as we explore both traditional and unconventional facets of the energy industry.

Dan Seguin  00:29

Hey, everyone, welcome back. I'm Dan Seguin. And I'm Rebecca Schwartz, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it's how interconnected we all are. Even though our world became smaller and more insular, the actions needed to combat a worldwide health crisis required a global approach, highlighting that we're all in this together.

Rebecca Schwartz  00:57

This definitely holds true with respect to climate change. We've all heard how pivotal the next decade is to get things under control, it will take all of us -actions big and small -to help achieve the results necessary to make a difference.

Dan Seguin  01:10

That's right. We all have a part to play to prevent the planet from warming 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels. For many residents, homeowners and businesses in the National Capital Region, who want to participate in this global call to action and do their part, it can be difficult to know where to begin and what steps to take to reduce our own carbon and environmental footprint.

Rebecca Schwartz  01:41

According to the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, about 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions or GHGs In Canada come from municipalities. That means that right here in Ottawa, we have the power to influence significant change over our individual and collective emissions.

Dan Seguin  01:58

The City of Ottawa has identified that approximately 90% of our city's GHG emissions are derived from buildings, and transportation, essentially, how we heat and cool our buildings, and how we move around the city.

Rebecca Schwartz  02:13

We know that being sustainable can seem a bit overwhelming, and maybe even a little bit abstract. We want practical solutions with real results that are also long lasting, and of course affordable.

Dan Seguin  02:25

In the case of climate change, it really will take a village, our village and every village. Luckily, we have a local organization in our very own village that is making a difference and leading the way by providing practical, actionable solutions from residents all the way to City Hall and the wider community here in Canada's capital city. So here's today's big question. What tangible actions can everyday citizens and businesses take the lower or eliminate their own carbon emissions?

Rebecca Schwartz  03:06

Today, we're going to talk to Melanie Johnston, Director of Energy Programs at Enviro Center, an Ottawa based environmental nonprofit that offers people organizations and communities real solutions to lighten their environmental impact. Hi, Melanie, welcome to the show. Perhaps you could start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself and the four key areas of focus at EnviroCenter.

Melanie Johnston  03:30

Absolutely. So I'm Melanie Johnston. I'm the director of energy programs at Envira. Center. I've been with the group since December of 2009, where I thought I was just going to take sort of a part time job to get me over the Christmas hump, but I fell in love with and EnviroCenter and have been there ever since. So add at Enviro Center, our mission is to provide practical solutions to climate change that create positive environmental impact at scale. So right now our biggest focus is on helping people, businesses and communities reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. And we work in four core areas: green homes, green businesses, green transportation, and our green future for our city.

Dan Seguin  04:12

Thanks, Mel. Now, how can your programs and services help people make a practical link between their daily activities and their environmental impact?

Melanie Johnston  04:23

That's a great question and something we think about a lot here at EnviroCenter. One of the key messages underpinning all of our initiatives is that everything we do, from how we heat and cool our homes to how we get around town to the spending choices we make, has an impact on our city's carbon emissions. And that far from being powerless in the face of climate change, we can make everyday choices that will have a better outcome for the planet. All of the 22 sustainability programs we run an Envirocenter are aimed at helping make those everyday choices easier for folks.

Rebecca Schwartz  04:51

This next question is related to your work and data, in terms of what it showed you thus far of Ottawa's willingness to make change. Are there some success stories that you could share with us?

Melanie Johnston  05:02

Absolutely. So we know that the majority of Canadians believe in climate change, and that most who do acknowledge that global warming is caused by humans. Here in Ottawa, the city declared a climate emergency in 2019. And we have a robust climate change master plan outlining targets and a roadmap on how the city intends to get there. So I'd say there's definitely willingness to make change. In terms of success stories. Yes, I'm happy to say that there are many of those. Over this summer we've been running a program to facilitate the adoption of electric vehicles through educational events, and free test drives. And the response from the community has been phenomenal. The vast majority of folks we interact with understand that electrification is coming. And he's okay with the change. And we've seen a similar acceptance of home energy retrofits to and programs like the federal Greener Homes Grant has helped thousands of Canadians access energy audits and other opportunities for energy efficiency.

Dan Seguin  05:58

Okay. Now, in your opinion, what are some of the biggest barriers and challenges to achieve the zero emission targets?

Melanie Johnston  06:07

Oh, well, I think the biggest challenge we face is the sheer pace and scale at which we need to do the work that will get us to zero emissions by 2050. What a lot of folks don't realize is that in order to achieve the zero emissions by 2050 target, which is a widely recognized by scientists and policymakers, as what is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, most of the work to reduce our carbon emissions needs to happen in the next eight years. The problem is that while we know what that work is, and how to do it, so things like renewable energy sources, making everything we do more energy efficient and electrify everything- the level of funding it requires isn't there yet. The good news is that the more conversations we have like this, the more people who understand what is needed there are, the closer to get to where we need to be.

Rebecca Schwartz  06:54

Okay, let's talk about emissions from buildings. What's the first step homeowners should take when looking to reduce their climate impact? And why?

Melanie Johnston  07:03

Definitely a home energy audits. That's basically a comprehensive visit with Natural Resources Canada registered energy advisor, and they can provide recommendations on how to improve the energy efficiency of your home.

Dan Seguin  07:15

This next one, Mel probably comes up a lot. What does an energy audit cost? And what does it involve? So the initial audit cost somewhere between four and $600, depending on which service organization you go with, and virus Hunter is one, but there are lots of other great ones here in Ottawa. The visit itself takes about two hours and the advisor is going to do a thorough inspection of your of your home, they're going to look at your mechanicals, your heating your cooling systems, your ventilation, they're going to look at your insulation levels and measure those insulation levels in your home, check the state of your windows and doors. And then most importantly, we run a blower door test which essentially depressurizes your home and really gives us an idea of where you're getting air leakage. It's also a really importantly, I would say, the opportunity to engage with the energy adviser and the homeowner together to talk about the concerns that you might have in your house questions you might have about the performance and really just talk about what it is that you're looking to get out of this energy audit. And if you don't know anything about it, the energy advisor is there to provide you with lots and lots of recommendations for energy efficiency upgrades in the home. Now, mill, what comes after the energy audit?

Melanie Johnston  08:33

Once you've done the audit, and I should mention that there's always the first step. So before you start doing anything in your home, just always get an energy audit, because you're going to miss the boat on some funding and financing opportunities. But after the audit, essentially, you'll get a report that outlines everything that the energy advisor is found in the home, the current state, and then there's going to be those recommendations. So if you've got an old furnace, for instance, that's end of life, there's going to be a recommendation to put a heat pump in. You know, if your insulation levels are low, there'll be recommendations to improve the insulation levels in the home, you're also get a get an energy label. And that is a comparison of how your house performs against all the other houses in Canada. And it's really in it's informative for you, it tells you basically how your home is performing. Once you've got all that information, then it's time to actually do the retrofits. So you know, do you do the work on your home, follow those recommendations. One- all of the recommendations really up to you as an individual. And once that's all said and done, then we recommend the follow up audit. So basically, you have somebody come back in, they're going to verify all the work that you did. And again, more importantly, they're going to run that blower door test and hopefully we're going to see that the home is performing better than it was before you did all that work. And you get a new label which again would show a better better score against the houses in across the country.

Rebecca Schwartz  10:02

All right, we know that you're involved with the City of Ottawa as Better Home Loan Program. Could you tell us a little bit about that and what your role is?

Melanie Johnston  10:09

Sure. So, the city basically received some funding from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to develop this loan program. Lots of municipalities across the country are starting these, it's basically a low interest loan that is tied to your property, its value is basically 10% of your property value, up to $125,000, to go towards improving the efficiency of your home. So again, similar to what I was saying about the energy audit, you know, improving your mechanicals moving to electrification in your systems, improving the insulation, you're building envelope, and then it's got some other really cool things that it will cover, as well. So things like adding a secondary suite to your unit. There's some health and safety things that that it'll cover. And it's really interesting program that I think will benefit a ton of folks in Ottawa, our role is really just the administration of the program. So we're there to help homeowners with their application process, we provide energy coaching services. So if you're stuck in your journey, and you're not sure what to do next, we're there to provide that information. We also provide additional reports that are the aim of getting homes to net zero. So just a little bit more information on going above and beyond maybe what the energy audit would show you. The other thing is that we run the Better Homes audible website, which is designed to be a one stop shop for people who are starting their retrofit journey or even if they're already in the journey, tons of resources at Better Homes Ottawa on how to choose a contractor. Lots of technical information, if you're really curious about how a heat pump works. And then really, I think where a lot of people are looking at to get information on that website is access to rebates and incentives, like the loan program.

Dan Seguin  12:03

Okay, so hoping we can shift our focus now to your work with businesses.  What services doesn't EnviroCenter provide to businesses?

Melanie Johnston  12:13

So we have a variety of services for businesses. We've got an online option that provides access to self guided worksheets and general information for businesses that want to start to take action towards reducing their carbon footprint, and becoming more sustainable. We have a membership based program called the Ottawa Green Business Hub, of which Hydro Ottawa is a member. And that service provides businesses with the tools and customized support to measure and manage their carbon footprint. And it also augments the business's capacity to set and achieve their sustainability goals. And then we also offer some consulting services that are really based on a business's individual needs, we've we've got four or five consulting contracts right now looking at a variety of things from waste to travel. And a good example is work that we've actually done with the city of the program called Travel Wise, where we're able to help businesses assess how employees get to work and make suggestions for sustainable options, basically trying to get you know, those single single occupancy vehicles off the road. And so yeah, there's a variety of things that we can do for businesses. I encourage folks just to reach out to us to see how we can get you started.

Dan Seguin  13:24

Proof points are always important. Are business cases or success stories shared among Ottawa businesses for greater learning, and adoption?

Melanie Johnston  13:35

Absolutely. Sharing success is a really important piece of our business program. And in fact, we organize an annual celebration of their achievements called the evening of recognition. And there we hand out awards to businesses that we've seen had the greatest progress in achieving their goals. We also talked to them in our annual green business report and share success stories throughout the year on our blog.

Rebecca Schwartz  13:57

Okay, we read in your report that there's approximately 20,000 businesses here in Ottawa. What programs do you offer? And what are some of the benefits that these businesses can see when they do set targets to reduce their environmental impact?

Melanie Johnston  14:11

Sure. So you know, sort of like I was saying before, we've got the variety of those business services, the suite of services, the online version being very affordable, and again, just a gateway to starting the conversation. And then the the further you are along in your sustainability journey is when you would start to get more involved in say our hub program, where you are accessing a little bit of a higher level of technical expertise in target setting, and helping folks choose what they want to do in their businesses to make them more sustainable. I would say that probably the the biggest outcome that businesses are interested in and actually see results in is saving money for their business.

Rebecca Schwartz  15:00

Okay, so how does the sustainable green economy benefit all of us?

Melanie Johnston  15:03

Um, well, I would say that the only economy going forward will be a green economy. And indeed, we are working to help build the workforce of tomorrow. One program we run is a training opportunity especially focused on upskilling folks from underrepresented communities to become registered energy advisors. As we scale the number of homes being retrofitted. We need more of those registered energy advisors, not just at Envira center, but in our city, in our province and in our country.

Dan Seguin  15:31

Okay, Mel. It seems that transportation causes more than 40% of autos, greenhouse gas emissions, what are some of the programs or initiatives that Envirocenter runs that residents should know about?

Melanie Johnston  15:47

Yes, that's right. Transportation is one of the biggest challenges we face here in Ottawa. Our most popular sustainable transportation program is less bike which runs every June. So of course, we encourage cycling all year round where possible. We also raise awareness of electric vehicles with our website, And we work with the Ottawa Student Transportation Authority to promote active transportation to and from school. So that's actually one of my, my favorite programs. We've got a really cool app called the Hop App that kids can actually like, log their trips to and from school and it makes it super fun.

Dan Seguin  16:21

In terms of transportation, what are some initiatives that Ottawa is doing? That's exciting you?

Melanie Johnston  16:29

Whoo, I probably say the electrification efforts from evey vehicle charging stations to the fleet of 450 buses that will become part of OC transpose fleet by 2027.

Rebecca Schwartz  16:40

Okay, so Ottawa is a city of 1 million people. What would you like to see in terms of residents advocating for systematic change and greener lifestyles in our city?

Melanie Johnston  16:50

Um well, pushing for change is one of the most impactful ways we have of making a difference. Right now, the best way we can do it in Ottawa is by voting in the upcoming municipal elections. Not just voting, in fact, but also engaging with the candidates to learn more about their climate platforms and to push them to be more ambitious. I learned recently, that here in Canada, our local governments have influence over 50% of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. And that gives you an idea of how important it is that we elect local leaders who care about climate. There are other ways to push for change to you know, have conversations with your friends, family and co workers about climate, right to your MPs and MPs. Tell the businesses you shop at they expect them to do better.

Dan Seguin  17:34

Mel, what would you say to someone who asks, how can one person out of a million make a differenc when it comes to environmental change?

Melanie Johnston  17:44

It's really important to recognize that while our individual impact when it comes to something as big as climate change may seem small, our collective impact is massive. So to give you an example, our annual let's bike campaign in June is all about encouraging folks to bike. When they join last bike, they have access to an online app where they can log their bike trips and see how much greenhouse gas they've averted by choosing not to drive, each individual bike trip might not seem like much. But at the end of June, you see not just your personal tally, but also the collective tally of the 1500 participants. And those numbers can be quite impactful. This year, the results came in at 65,000 kilograms of greenhouse gas averted, which is the equivalent of burning 151 barrels of oil, or the energy use of nine homes for a year just by choosing the bike.

Dan Seguin  18:35

Big question here. Do you feel that we've entered a new level of consciousness with respect to the environment and climate change since a pandemic? What are some of the biggest examples of this lifestyle shift at a local level and globally?

Melanie Johnston  18:50

Well, I mean, certainly people being at home has made a big difference sort of, you know, in reductions in transportation. You know, we've we've seen a dramatic decrease in the number of daily commuters going to work. There's some research to suggest that the pandemic has affected people's attitude Toots towards the environment, making them more aware of the fragility of the environment and increasing their support of green policies. But of course, the truth is like climate change is happening regardless of what other crisis we are facing. I think it's fair to say that over the past few years, be it from the pandemic or other events like this summer's heat waves in the US and the Europe and forest fires out west of the storm right here in Ottawa a few months ago. There's just a wide, widespread sense of urgency and that many people are willing to make changes. They just don't always know which are the changes that are going to make the biggest difference.

Dan Seguin  19:46

Mel, are you seeing this translates into real policy change and green funding at levels of government?

Melanie Johnston  19:54

Yes and no. On paper here in Canada, we have sound policies and plans but when it comes to implementing them and actually getting a drop in the emissions reductions, we're still falling short. There is funding available but the kind of change and action that is needed right now requires a lot more funding than what we're seeing. Overall though, I am hopeful and positive that we will get there. The work that I do at EnviroCenter shows that change is possible. We just need to keep working together to achieve it.

Rebecca Schwartz  20:21

Okay, Melanie, we always end our interviews with some rapid fire questions, and we've got some for you ready?

Melanie Johnston  20:27

I am ready.

Rebecca Schwartz  20:28

What are you reading right now?

Melanie Johnston  20:30

I'm actually rereading The Handmaid's Tale, read it in high school and just got the bug to reread it and so little frightening actually.

Rebecca Schwartz  20:39

What would you name your boat if you had one?

Melanie Johnston  20:41

That's so funny. I actually just got a cute little electric fishing boat from a friend and we named it after him. His name is already vote. So we call it the SS or the boat.

Rebecca Schwartz  20:51

Who is someone that you admire?

Melanie Johnston  20:53

So I thought a lot. You know, I think about this a lot. It's nobody that you would know. But it's a former colleague of mine, Greg furlong, who unfortunately passed away this March. He was honestly just such a leader in the world of sustainability. He was an expert in building science taught me everything I know. He was a cycling advocate, and just an all around cool guy. And really, you know, somebody who lived and breathed sustainability, I learned so much from Greg and he literally has changed my life and how I approach you know, my day to day lifestyle.

Rebecca Schwartz  21:31

What's the closest thing to real magic that you may have witnessed?

Melanie Johnston  21:35

I'm gonna go ahead and say making a human having a baby. That's pretty magical.

Rebecca Schwartz  21:39

What's been the biggest challenge to you personally, since the pandemic began?

Melanie Johnston  21:44

Well, I broke my leg pretty seriously in February right before the lockdown. So you know, it's really tough. I had already been in lockdown before my whole family joined me. And I have to admit re entry back into the world was just surreal, because I didn't sort of see it happening in little pieces. It was just like, all of a sudden, I didn't know how the grocery stores worked anymore. I didn't understand, you know, different aisles and arrows. And so, yeah, I found it really challenging to sort of re enter the world. After after the lockdowns ended.

Rebecca Schwartz  22:16

Okay, so since we've all been watching a lot more TV and Netflix, we want to know what's your favorite show or movie?

Melanie Johnston  22:23

Well, I've gotten into all the new Star Wars series on Disney. So I'd have to say right now I'm just in the middle of the Obi Wan series, and I'm loving it.

Dan Seguin  22:33

Lastly, what's exciting you about your industry right now.

Melanie Johnston  22:37

So I guess specific to the world that I work in, which is a lot on the residential retrofitting side is people are starting to look at embodied carbon in building materials, which I think is really cool, and really starting to understand sort of, you know, where our products are coming from and making smart choices about actually what we're putting in the buildings, as well as the idea of unbuilding. So instead of demolishing buildings, really taking them apart and and reducing the amount of construction waste that's out there. So those are two kind of cool things that are happening right now that people are starting to pay a little bit more attention to.

Dan Seguin  23:13

Well, Melanie, we've reached the end of another episode of the think energy podcast. If our listeners wanted to learn more about you and your organization, how can they connect?

Melanie Johnston  23:26 best place to go. You can follow us on Twitter, you can follow us on Facebook, we've got Instagram, we're all over the social media. And so that's a good place to get to know all about and Envirocenter. And then we've got some other websites that are sort of linked to us. The one including the EV experience, which is a really cool spot, and our Better Homes Ottawa website as well.

Dan Seguin  23:50

Again, Melanie, thank you so much for joining us today. I hope you had a lot of fun. Cheers.

Melanie Johnston  23:56

I sure did. Thank you.

Dan Seguin  23:58

Thanks for tuning in for another episode of The think energy podcast. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a review where ever you're listening. And to find out more about today's guests or previous episodes, visit think energy I hope you will join us again next time as we spark even more conversations about the energy of tomorrow.