Medicine Hat’s smart energy revolution (pilot episode)

Category: Buildings, Energy Efficiency, Energy Labelling, Geothermal, Renewable Energy, Solar, Wind

Published: August 11, 2011

By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney

Hat Smart Smart Car

Hat Smart Smart Car

Medicine Hat is known as the “Gas City” — it’s even on their signs.

About four years ago, a new crop of city Aldermen decided to look to the future and inject a little sustainable energy into their natural gas-fired electricity supply. They set $1 million aside and called the program “Hat Smart.” They even bought an efficient little Smart Car for their staff to drive around in. Hat Smart provides financial incentives for solar and other renewable energy and energyprojectsundertaken by residents, community groups and businesses.

Within the first few years, more than 2,700 utility customers came out to energy efficiency seminars put on by the City — that’s 10 per cent of the ratepayers of Medicine Hat.

Sure, it helped that they received $100 coupons for energy audits just for attending, but the turnout was strong and the seminars paid off.

Why invest in solar power and energy efficiency?

Medicine Hat owns its own natural gas and electric utilities, and gas prices were soaring in 2008.

Alderman Ted Clugston

Alderman Ted Clugston

“We needed to give back. We were making all of this money off a non-renewable resource and it wasn’t sustainable,” said Alderman Ted Clugston. The natural gas supply may last many years for Medicine Hat, but Clugston said, “we had to start thinking about the future.”

At the time, the City of Medicine Hat developed a roadmap to reduce residential energy use by 20 per cent by 2020 and to get 25 per cent of residential energy from renewable energy sources by 2025.

Medicine Hat hired Russ Smith, called him their environmental sustainability manager and gave him a mission: to bring back the best ideas he could find for a municipal energy program.

Smith came back with a range of opportunities to green Medicines Hat’s energy supply — and an understanding that putting those ideas into action would require getting citizens excited and engaged in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects.

“Putting insulation in your house, yes it’s the best bang for your buck, but it’s not sexy,” explains Clugston. If you start talking about your new insulation at a cocktail party, “it ends the conversation.”

To help get residents on board, Medicine Hat provided financial support for solar systems and energy efficiency projects.

The City provided half of the money residents and business would need to install solar energy systems. Residents could get up to $5,000 for three-kilowatt systems, and businesses could receive up to $50,000 for 10-kilowatt solar electric systems or solar thermal systems.

Sexy solar energy attracted interest in Hat Smart

Citizens and businesses alike seemed eager to install solar panels on their roofs.

Steve Moore, the owner of Stu Moore Clothiers, saw the City putting a small pilot solar system on the downtown library — and he wanted in. Before long, he had installed a 3-kilowatt solar system on his home and a 10-kilowatt systems on his business. learn more…

Dr. Keith King, a local orthidontist lined up two partners and installed an impressive 30 kilwatt solar system on his office building.Dr. Keith King watched closely as Steve Moore helped pioneer the Hat Smart program with the City. He and two partners wound up installing a 30-kilowatt solar-power system, the largest in Western Canada at the time, as part of the Hat Smart program. learn more…

Donald Cranston, a home builder, also took advantage of the opportunity Hat Smart presented to boost his own knowledge of energy efficient systems. Using a geothermal system and solar electric and solar thermal panels, he built an incredible green home that has an EnerGuide rating of 89 and requires very little outside energy. learn more…

The solar projects brought a lot of media coverage and profile to the Hat Smart program, but residents were also very interested in undertaking energy efficiency projects. In the first few years of Hat Smart more than 960 residents had new insulation installed, 816 households bought new energy-efficient furnaces, and 1,500 people bought new high efficiency, front-loading washing machines.

Why Hat Smart is so smart

Hat Smart, however, is more than a story of success by numbers. It also inspired a can-do attitude among city and utility staff. This led to the quick removal of red tape and barriers to the use of renewable energy. Wayne Perehudoff of the City boasts they created “the simplest bureaucratic application process in the country.”

Tina Regehr with hybrid Honda

Tina Regehr with hybrid Honda

Of course, the rebates didn’t hurt. Medicine Hat residents were keen to receive $75 for a new front-load washer or $200 to $400 for a new furnace.

A unique feature of Hat Smart is that residents who use more than 22 gigajoules of natural gas or 950 kilowatt hours of electricity per month pay more for their utilities—and those extra payments add up, contributing $300,000 to Hat Smart programs each year.

When residents called City Hall to complain about the extra charges, Wayne and the Hat Smart staff would call the heavy users back and offer to do energy audits on their homes to help them save money through energy efficiency and conservation.

This turned most complainers into supporters and is just one more reason Hat Smart is so smart.

Seeing the big picture

In addition to getting citizens involved in energy efficiency and renewable energy for their homes and businesses, Medicine Hat also initiated some utility-scale solutions.

The City is building a 1-megawatt solar-concentrating power plant that will produce steam and electricity alongside the City’s natural gas power plant. Medicince Hat also started purchasing three per cent of its electricity from wind power producers, and has a plan to put Smart meters in every home in the city, explains Kendall Woodacre, head of Medicine Hat’s electrical utility.

In addition to rebates and incentives offered by the city, also lists provincial and federal incentives,  which has helped residents get the maxim benefits from investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Those investments are already paying off. Hat Smart participants will save $63,623 in 2011 alone. As of March, residents have saved more than 35,200 gigajoules of natural gas, 609 mega watts of electricity and 2,677 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions since the program began.

The Hat Smart program is so successful it earned an Emerald Award for environmental excellence and a national award from the Federation of Urban Municipalities.

Medicine Hat has a ways to go to cut home energy use by 20 per cent and to get 25 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, but it’s definitely on the road to a greener energy future.

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Tina Regehr with solar electric and solar hotwater panels